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Making Ramona A Cultural Destination

A designers rendering of downtown Ramona after "Project Ramona".
A designers rendering of downtown Ramona after "Project Ramona".
Making Ramona A Cultural Destination
Many people in San Diego think of the town of Ramona as a stop on the way to Julian. Town leaders want to change that and turn Ramona into a cultural destination. We'll hear about plans to revitalize downtown Ramona.

Many people in San Diego think of the town of Ramona as a stop on the way to Julian. People who live in Ramona often love its countrified atmosphere and small town feel. But one thing a lot of them don't like is having to drive miles in order to find a modern place to shop. So, several years ago, Ramona leaders began a plan to revitalize their downtown. It's taken a long time, but now they're about ready to put that plan in motion.


Rob Luwallen is chair of the Ramona Village Design Group.


Howard Blackson is the director of planning for PlaceMakers, the design consulting firm hired to oversee the Ramona revitalization project.

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This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. Many people in San Diego think of the town of Ramona as a stop on the way to Julian. Now, people who live in Ramona often love its countrified atmosphere and small town feel. But one thing a lot of them don't like is having to drive miles in order to find a modern place to shop. So several years ago, Ramona leaders began a plan to revitalize their downtown. It's taken a long time, but now they're about ready to put that plan in motion. Joining me to talk about the big changes for the town of Ramona are Rob Luwallen is chair of the Ramona design group. Welcome to the show.

LUWALLEN: Good afternoon, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Howard Blackson is also here. Here's the director of planning for pacemakers, the design consulting firm to oversee the Ramona revitalization project. Thank you for coming in.

BLACKSON: Thank you, Maureen.


CAVANAUGH: Now, if anyone would like to talk about a change in Ramona and what they'd like to see, if you live in the town of Ramona, give us a call. 1-888-895-5727 why does Ramona need to be revitalized, Rob?

LUWALLEN: Well, there is a lot of things that have gone on through the years. And the revitalization is going to make it one of the big things we're trying to do is make it much easier for the proper types of development to occur within our commercial area, which is the purview of what this is all about as opposed to the entire Ramona community planning area, which is 100 and 36 square miles. This is about 2 or 3% area wise of that total area.

CAVANAUGH: How long has it been since there's been any sort of plan development in downtown Ramona?

LUWALLEN: There's been a few things. You can almost count them on one hand. Some of the real heavy duty county regulatory stuff that's been happening for the last few years, especially the transportation impact fee has kept a lot of things from happening. Along with most recently, the downturn in the economy. So I would say we haven't seen much going on for a good 5 or 6 years.

CAVANAUGH: And Howard?

BLACKSON: Well, I would just say that it's not really the idea of a revitalization and coming in and redevelopment. It's actually just leveraging the value that Ramona has in stasis just in place because it could be such a great character place like a Julian.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I've heard that you are hearing from the community of Ramona about this as we speak, basically. You're having these meetings. But Rob, what have you been hearing all while this plan has developed from people in the community about a need to change the way Ramona looks?

LUWALLEN: Well, I think the main thing is everyone would really like a more walkable community. We unfortunately have I main Caltrans highway going through the center of our town. And that proposes quite a bit of a challenge. We would like to see more outside dine, we'd like to slow the traffic down, we'd like to have -- to make our town much more pedestrian friendly. And Howard has really been working to help us along with those kind of ideas.

CAVANAUGH: Rob, where's the funding for this project coming in from?

LUWALLEN: We haven't gotten that far. But we have had the funding starting in 02 with a group of consults, and again in 05 with the phase one design group, and in 09 Howard came on board with another series of some funding from the county. And this most recent funding was from Caltrans for a workshop that we did last week, and the work that Howard is doing fine. As far as the funding for the actual implementation of the plan, Howard is probably a little better suited to answer that than I am.

CAVANAUGH: Where's the funding coming from, Howard?

BLACKSON: The funding would come from just private development that would make a proposal for development. But the actual lessening of the traffic impact fees, the mitigation plan for the vernal pools, and the contact sensitive design guidelines for main street that Caltrans has in place will unlock the current incumbrance on the property for trying to develop anything with these additional fees and issues. It's not so much -- the implementation will come from the zoning that we're working on to allow for the community plan, policies, and general plan policies that were just passed last week.

CAVANAUGH: Anybody listening to you, Howard, knows that I've been at this for a long time, okay? You got the jargon down.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And we're going to be talking about the long road that you guys have travelled to get this far. But right now, if you could, can you describe to us a little bit about how you'd like to see the town change? The kinds of ideas that are out there? Kind of describe that for us, and I do want our listeners to know they can see some of the images from the Ramona project on our website right now, What's it going to look like?

BLACKSON: That's what we're working on, that character. What is the character quality that Ramona exhibits or lives? And it's really interesting. It's not a one size fits all approach, which is part of the issue with the -- having the zoning specific for Ramona as opposed to zoning that would go from Fallbrook to Tecate is very important. Because RAM's been around a long time. And on the east end is the old town of Ramona that's been around since the late 1800s. Then on the west end is the colonnade, which is closer to Poway, and what we've been doing this week is talking about how to gauge the character of Ramona that is somewhere between the suburban sprawl and large big box and big arterial roads of Poway to that quaint, quiet country turn of the century Julian. And so Ramona itself has both of those qualities within its own main street. And we want to be able to say, well, this area has these certain qualities that are more historic, this area has these certain qualities, WHICH is more contemporary, and all of them will have some sort of rural character to them.

CAVANAUGH: I see what you're saying. So you haven't really determined what that blend is going to be yet, but you want that blend.

BLACKSON: Yes. We have determined that the colonnade where the eucalyptus trees are on both sides of the road is very important in saying welcome to Ramona. We know that that country rural character which is sort of all over the place. It could be residential, it could be a bar, it could be a commercial building. It could be a lot of different things, and it should maintain that character for at least the next 10 to 20 years, which is all we're really planning for.

LUWALLEN: If I can interject.

CAVANAUGH: Please, Rob.

LUWALLEN: One of the ideas that we have had for a long time is as you're coming in from the Poway or San Diego side, you travel through then we have a center section called the paseo into old town, and as Howard was saying, on the east side you're spit out toward Julian. And the concept is as you're coming through the more contemporary end on the west side, by the time you get out to the east side, you feel like you've gone back maybe 100 years in time.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And that's what you're talking about, that countrified Ramona character that you're trying to -- because when you go through Ramona now, it's basically sort of this wide highway, and it's pretty, there are antique stores. I'm not trying to run it down. But there's also gas stations. There's not really that much to look at in comparison to what you guys are trying to do; is that right?

BLACKSON: That's right. We'd just like to slow down in certain segments of that highway so that you could stop and see the shops, you could pull out and get onto the road. And then speed on your way to the next area, slow down, see it for what it is, and then move onto Julian or Poway, whichever way you're going.

CAVANAUGH: Rob, I want to you can that a little bit about the history of this project because I know it's been under way and sort of fits in starts for main years. Why has it taken so long to get to this point?

LUWALLEN: I think just the nature of it is quite a long process. And it's kind of developed hand in hand with the county's 2020 general plan update, which began in the late 90s, and that didn't get implemented until last week. It's just beginning to get implemented. In fact our project here in Ramona will be the first community in the incorporated area of the county that will begin the implementation of the 2020 plan. But it took a while to get everybody on the same page, frankly. We had people, community members, that felt differently about different aspects of it. And it's really amazing to me now that so many of the groups, the chamber, the Ramona community planning group, the committee for a better Ramona, the design review board is all kind of coming together in this vision of our new town center master plan. It's a long process. It's not something that can happen over night.

CAVANAUGH: I think it's really interesting, Howard, how the county's master plan and the new zoning requirements kind of work into the idea of finally realizing this project. You have had to stumble along with a really very -- with your hands tied in all of the previous rules and regulations, that you encountered. Tell us a little bit about that.

BLACKSON: The general plan update and the community plan update that came with it for Ramona is very important to realizing that who they want to be. And I want to say this: This is anion process. It actually will never stop. That's the nature of human habitats. We're trying to improve our quality of life every step of the way. So having a new plan and policy direction that says exactly what Rob said, walkable places, sittable places where you can sit outside and eat, are very important. And being able to coordinate all the moving parts of infrastructure, of densities, of land uses is important. And we're finally at that point. If we had done any of this work before this point, we would have been waiting till now.

LUWALLEN: The timing has been perfect.

CAVANAUGH: And Howard and Rob -- Howard, is it true that before this change in the county that if they change the zoning to allow Ramona to do something, they'd have to change the zoning for every other unincorporated area of the county?

BLACKSON: That's not exactly true. Fallbrook is the first to have done it. This is a Fallbrook section of the existing zoning ordinance. They had to use the same rules to make it happen, therefore you can't have mixed use, walkable streets. Now we have new tools and the ability to make a Ramona section of a new zoning ordinance.

LUWALLEN: It's like a pilot program for the county where our community will have custom tailored Ramona specific zoning all dialed in for our specific community character, which is different from every other area in the county.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Now both of you have talked about the character of Ramona. What types of things, Rob, do you hope this project will highlight about the town's character? What is it about Ramona that makes it special and that you want to highlight?

LUWALLEN: RAM's a pretty amazing place. There's a lot of the historic aspects of it. We have farms, we have ranches that used to be -- -- it used to be the Turkey capital of the world. We have also I 99 San Diego County there are more horses than any other county in the U.S., and there's more horses in Ramona than any other community in San Diego County. So equestrian is a very huge aspect of it. We have a lot of up and coming wineries, and many vineyards, some of them really small, but there are lots and lots of vineyards in the area. We have a huge music thrust in Ramona. There are musicians tucked all over the place. We have several music festivals in Ramona. We have amazing artists in Ramona. And they are also tucked back in the hill. And so I would say four of the big parts are the horses, and the wine, and the music, and the art. And pulling this all together through this new process is really exciting.

CAVANAUGH: And as you were saying, Howard, the final plan isn't exactly made yet. And there is the possibility that there are going to be some major shopping stores on this route as well. If indeed you get a big store, Howard, how will a Ramona target look different from a San Diego target? Do you want to keep a certain look for the whole community? Is that important?

BLACKSON: Yes, it is. Important also where it is along main street. If it's in the colonnade, the paseo or the old town sections of main street. And we understand where the large lots are available. And that's the paseo. The and the reason we call it the paseo is because there are connections east, west, north, and south to the Santa Maria creek, to the horse trails, to the roads and the neighborhoods. And therefore any Target or large big box type of retail would have to fit within that idea of making connections. It's not necessarily about the architectural detail, although you would have stone base and wood materials and roofs that actually look like a roof. But the scale of the building would be able to still address the pedestrian or the walkability of that area -- or even the equestrian access of that area, as well as the car.

LUWALLEN: One of the things that I'm excited about is, for, well, ever since 1989, we have had a design review board and a set of design review guidelines in place. But it's somewhat restrictive, because it's advisory, and it's not a regulatory thing. And along with the work that Howard's doing, we'll be changing those guidelines into standards. And we will have -- the community will have decided what they want their buildings to look like long before a developer comes in. So it takes a lot of that worry about having someone build something that really doesn't fit.

CAVANAUGH: One of the things you think about when you think of Ramona in that area of San Diego County is you think about wildfire. And how will the plan address protecting new structures from fire?

LUWALLEN: I'd say the main thing with that issue is the new San Diego County and the California state codes. They're very restrictive after these two large wildfires we have had, but especially after the '07. I'm not sure within the planning that we're doing we -- I don't know that we're addressing fires Howard.

BLACKSON: Not specifically with this town center plan. But the county is addressing fire through using the agriculture, the wineries, as a belt -- shelter belt for the existing town center, for the existing neighborhoods, which is something we want to reinforce. You can't have an edge without a center. So our center will reinforce the idea of an edge.

CAVANAUGH: And finally, gentlemen, when does this building begin? What are the next steps toward this?

LUWALLEN: I think the economy is going to regulate that quite a lot. Although we have vacancies, like everybody does, in our existing commercial district and industrial. And I think we'll be seeing some of that happen along with some infield probably before we see a lot of new projects coming in.

BLACKSON: Then for this project, we'll have an out-- outreach meetings with the design review board to show us design details, and we're also going to have a public meeting with the planning group the first of September at 7:00 o'clock in Ramona. Then we have to go through all the boards, the village committee, the design review, and the planning group before our final vote on is this what you expect to see in the next two months.

CAVANAUGH: That's your target date to get the plans finalized.

BLACKSON: That's right.

LUWALLEN: And the thing I'm excited about, I don't think I've ever seen these various groups in town come together over something the way they're doing it right now.

CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with Rob Luwallen, and again, if you'd like to see some of the images from the Ramona project, you can go to our website, Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

LUWALLEN: Thank you, Maureen.

BLACKSON: Thank you.