A Brief History of Downtown Oxnard
Like so many California towns – from San Francisco to San Diego – Oxnard began as a railhead for the export of agricultural produce to markets in the East. Recruited to Ventura County in 1898 by Albert Maullhardt, the Oxnard Brothers of Chino-based American Beet Sugar Company built a refinery just south of Rancho Colonia.
Promising large shipments of sugar and lima beans, they successfully lobbied the Southern Pacific Railroad to divert the planned alignment across the Oxnard Plain, detouring southward to their plant adjacent to the future Downtown Oxnard rather than taking a shorter route from Ventura to
Camarillo and eastward to the Santa Susana Pass tunnels to the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles. Oxnard Station was established in 1897, opening the door to the rapid growth of the Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods.
The City of Oxnard was officially incorporated in 1903, with a vision of being a European town site centered on a public square – today’s Plaza Park. In 1907, the City’s regional location and economic potential compelled steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie to fund the construction of the Carnegie Art Museum (formerly the Oxnard Public Library) – it was followed by the construction of Plaza Park Pagoda in 1910. Together, the Plaza Park and Museum became cornerstones of Downtown Oxnard’s civic and commercial activity.
During the 1940s, Oxnard experienced significant expansion and economic growth in areas outside of its Downtown to accommodate growing demands in housing, retail and trade following World War II. From 1940 to 1950, the City’s population increased from approximately 8,500 to over 21,500 residents; by 1960, the population nearly doubled to more than 40,000 residents. Attracting a wide range of professions, new industries included financial services, petroleum production via the Oxnard Oil Fields, communications, aerospace and defense technology.
While Downtown Oxnard remained the commercial center into the 1960s, continued development and population increases gradually shifted housing and commercial activity to northern suburbs along the 101 Freeway and westward towards the coast. Much of the City’s development during
this time was initiated by developer and philanthropist Martin V. Smith who got his start developing the Wagon Wheel Junction (1947), serving as a major stopover along the 101 Freeway between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara with offices, shopping, dining and a motel. Over the next several decades Smith and others continued to develop commercial, retail and entertainment centers such as the Financial Plaza Tower, the Channel Islands Harbor, Casa Sirena Resort,
the Esplanade Shopping Mall, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Carriage Square Shopping Center and the Maritime Museum. Slowly, the prominence of Downtown Oxnard faded as newer suburban communities, industries, and employment centers developed.
Beginning in the 1980s, with the development of Heritage Square and adjacent new housing,
the Oxnard Redevelopment Agency invested heavily in attracting new investment, residents and businesses to the Downtown. While those projects did bring a measure of much-needed activity back to the southerly area of the Downtown, the design of those projects was shaped by the pervasive suburban development standards and practices of that time, with much of the new
activity focused toward the interiors of those development sites, generating very little pedestrian
activity or life on the streets.
In 1991 the City commissioned a master plan for Plaza Park, and a public design Charrette
was held in a large tent pitched in the park. That Master Plan provided specific recommendations
for the redesign of the park and surrounding streets, as well as a vision plan for the revitalization of the Downtown as a whole. A draft form-based development code – including streetscape design recommendations – was prepared for the entire Downtown, as mapped on the previous page. In 1993 the consultant team that had prepared the Plaza Park master plan was retained to refine that
form-based code and prepare implementation and economic development recommendations. That document was the Downtown District Master Plan, completed in draft form in 1996 but not adopted.
As a result of that work, a first phase of Plaza Park improvements were constructed, with simplified traffic movements along Fifth Street and the removal of the 1960 public rest rooms, fountains and pools. The recommended plaza to the south of the Carnegie Library Museum, the Fifth Street Colonnade, and semi-circular South Plaza were not constructed at that time. Additionally, A Street was reconstructed as a simple main street, removing the remaining 1960s fountains and pergolas and restoring parking for the struggling businesses. Implementing another recommendation of the Master Plan, the City pursued development of restaurants adjacent to Plaza Park, as well as the recently built movie theater and parking structure. Like the earlier redevelopment efforts around Heritage Square, these redevelopment era project reflected many of the trends in suburban “lifestyle shopping center” design, bringing new tenants and customers to the area without generating any strong Downtown design character or street life.
The challenge now facing Oxnard is to build upon the existing assets of the Downtown and make sure that each new increment of investment is aimed at generating a lively, safe, comfortable, valuable, mixed-use city center district.