The SOCO Story

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Some time in 2002, Jack Franklin, owner of Heroes Bar and Grill in the Villa Del Sol, became unhappy with the rising rent for these premises. He was also acquainted with Walt Johnson, owner of four properties in a downtown block which had yet to receive attention from the city redevelopment agency. That block is bounded by Santa Fe, Commonwealth and Malden Avenues, and Harbor Boulevard, and now prominently labeled SOCO with signage that cost taxpayers $429,600. Across Malden Avenue is the Fullerton Community (now Opus) Bank, which became the enabler for a four million dollar scheme.

Walt at that time had been a member of the Redevelopment Advisory Committee for 20 years. During his tenure on the committee, he had sold a warehouse building, one of those four properties, to the redevelopment agency, and then bought it back two years later. These transactions were arranged and facilitated by his fellow RDA committee member, Scott Dowds of Farmers and Merchants Bank. Walt was again appointed for yet another term on the advisory committee, this time by Councilmember Sharon Quirk.

One of the first comments Councilmember Quirk made from the council dais was that she had an event at Roscoes, one of Jack Franklin’s enterprises in a Walt Johnson building on Commonwealth Avenue, within the SOCO project. When Pam Keller was a city council member, she advocated for Florentine’s martini sign, and voted against any alcohol-related signage rules. What’s with these supposedly liberal women and the bar trade?

Meantime, Paul Dudley and others in the city said they were concerned about bringing more business activity to downtown. Some, including Mayor Don Bankhead, Sgt. Fred Casas of the police department, assigned to downtown, and Jack Franklin traveled to consult in Pasadena to see how that downtown was developed. They discovered a Restaurant Overlay District, ROD.

In June 2002, the council unanimously resolved to hold a hearing and adopt such ordinance. In October 2002, the planning commission approved this proposal, Dudley’s staff telling them it had “negative declaration.” Apparently the commissioners believed that releasing restaurants from parking requirements and rules for conditions of operation would have no impact upon this city.

In December 2002 the city council–Don Bankhead, Michael Clesceri, Richard Jones, and Jan Flory –unanimously approved this ROD. (Chris Norby had just resigned from the council.) Apparently city attorney Richard Jones did not caution his clients that there would be consequences if there were no conditional use permits for downtown restaurants that served alcohol. Nightclubs were born and thrived. Crowds of revelers filled the streets, blocking emergency vehicles on Commonwealth Avenue at times, FPD Capt. Greg Mayes told the city council.

Bookstores, antique shops, dress shops were driven out. The only businesses activities accommodated in downtown Fullerton were “restaurants” which had become nightclubs because there were no restrictions, that is, no conditional use permits, to control alcohol-fueled activities. And landlords could get so much more in rent from a restaurant/bar than from a book store.

The Franklin and Johnson plan to redevelop the 100 block of west Commonwealth and Santa Fe Avenues could not get approved without some parking nearby. They coveted the lot on Santa Fe and Malden owned by Fullerton Community Bank. They asked CEO Carl Gregory for permission to use the lot for night time bar parking. He said no.

They returned again and again, according to a former bank employee, until they wore him down and he gave permission to use bank property for bar patrons. SOCO was born, midwifed by Jack Franklin. Walt Johnson and Mike Ritto, Downtown Merchants (later, Business) Association president and AllMedia Advertising, according to a former city employee. Ritto denies he was one of the people who nagged Carl Gregory, but a former bank employee said he was.

City Manager Chris Meyers, at a meeting in 2008, said that Paul Dudley drew up the ROD ordinance which stated that no restaurant had to provide parking nor to have a conditional use permit. “Paul Dudley meant it for parking,” said Meyers. “But it says, ‘no conditional use permit,’” I pointed out after all other questions had been answered. Answer came there none.

Incidently, I had received no notice of this meeting, I had been writing regularly for the Fullerton Observer. I and the reporter for The Register, each received anonymous telephone calls telling us of the time, place and subject matter of this meeting.

The downtown boys had also asked the redevelopment agency in 2004 for a pedestrian bridge across Harbor “to connect the two SOCO’s,” but the agency staff representative Terry Galvin told them at the time Redevelopment didn’t have the money. That pedestrian bridge has now been built across Harbor Boulevard. Ostensibly, it was build in order for commuters to make the long hike from the parking structure on the west side to the station on the east side of Harbor .

That parking structure could have been built on property already owned by the city right at the train station. Instead, an extra $10,000,000 of taxpayers’ money was spent in acquiring property for train station parking on the west side of Harbor Boulevard, and, voilá, now a pedestrian bridge connects the two bar/restaurant concentrations.

That new parking structure is right across the street from SOCO and Jack Franklin’s “Heroes” establishment.

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