Thursday, February 24, 2011

Strangling Carmel to death

The February 11 Carmel Pine Cone reported that the Pilgrim's Way bookshop on Dolores Street had attempted to brighten up their storefront only to bring the aesthetics police to their door. This skinny little independent bookshop felt that their business was difficult to notice and needed a little boost to catch people's eyes. They decided to repaint with a “tan-ish orange” hue, topped with a nice textured topcoat of a somewhat brighter color to catch the eyes of passers by.

But the planning commission came along and said “No” to the faux finish and pointed out that city regulations require storefronts to have “muted” colors that “blend with the natural surroundings.” In other words, don't stand out from the crowd.

This incident reminds me of another one a few years back when a motel owner made a simple little fence out of posts with a rope strung between them. The city decreed that it looked too “industrial” and ordered the rope replaced with common wooden rails.

I know these regulations are intended to protect Carmel's image, keep the commercial district from looking too urban, discourage tasteless designs, and prevent the invasion of formulaic corporate architecture. In short, to keep Carmel Carmelish. There's nothing wrong with that in theory, but Carmel's rules have become so rigid, so locked into its own design formulas, that they have stifled the very sort of creativity that made Carmel a unique village in the first place.

Starting in the 1980s, when pricey galleries and tacky T-shirt shops began crowding out mom and pop stores, stricter regulations were enacted to preserve Carmel's way of life. In reality, however, those rules have changed Carmel so radically that today's regulators would throw hissy fits if anyone tried to bring back the things that once made Carmel a real town.

Back in the '60s Dolores Street had a movie theater, a hardware store, and a sleazy tavern. On the SE corner of 7th there was a modern bank with bright yellow tile covering the facade from sidewalk to roof. Speaking of bright facades, Kips grocery on the NW corner of Ocean and San Carlos was painted bright green on both street-facing sides. That building is now plain vanilla.

Ocean Avenue had a fabric shop, a hobby shop, and a barber shop in a block that was anchored by Sprouse-Reitz, a chain variety store. Believe it or not, the townsfolk begged the corporate owners to keep the “dime store” open when the company left town in the mid 1980s. Across the street was an ice cream parlor with purple and white striped awnings over arched windows. Next door, on the corner of the block, was a Chevron station, one of seven service stations (as they were then called) up and down San Carlos. The only one that survives is the Shell station at 5th, but at 6th there was a 76 station (NW corner) and a Phillips 66 (NE). At 7th there was a Texaco station (NE), a Mobil station (NW) and a Ritchfield – later called ARCO - station (SW) where my dad bought tires once. Full-color corporate logos adorned every one of them, mostly on metal or wooden signs, scaled down to Carmel-appropriate proportions.

On Mission and 6th, where the library annex stands today, there was a small supermarket of the Purity chain, complete with automatic electric doors. On the opposite side of Devendorf Park, at the entrance to Carmel Plaza, Sambo's pancake house, a popular chain restaurant, served their famous tiger butter with every meal. And down across from the Pine Inn, my dad had a candy store with the name “Toy's Candyland” emblazoned in red and white striped letters on the storefront advertising his hand-made candies, popcorn and Cecil's ice cream. While it caused a stir among the town's more conservative residents, the law saw no need to intervene. Years after the store was gone, people were still coming up to us telling us how much they missed it. 

Friends Lois and Chris Robinson outside my dad's store at
Ocean and Monte Verde in the early 1960s
That was the real Carmel. Few of those businesses would be allowed now, much less their facades. Today's Carmel is so locked into its formulas that visitors often come away with the impression that it's an artificial town, manufactured to look cute just for them – and their money – like Disneyland without the rides.

I have tremendous love for Carmel's quirky and sacred traditions, and I have spoken out from time to time to protect them. But this notion that Carmel must look picture postcard perfect from every conceivable angle is a relatively recent phenomenon. It is just as disruptive to Carmel's character as standardized corporate chain store architecture would be, precisely because it is itself a form of standardization.

There's a fine line between protection and overprotection and it was crossed sometime in the last twenty years. Architectural review and historic preservation are important, but it's time to put some slack in the reins. Just as you have to let children at some point define their lives on their own terms, Carmel needs to let its community members express their creativity in their own way. Business owners need to respect their surroundings, but they also need the freedom to run their businesses and maintain the appearance of their shops as they, not the bureaucrats, think best.

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