Mission to Vista


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In our search for distinctive neighborhoods in San Diego County, it’s hard to say why we chose Vista. Probably because few of us knew much of anything about it.

“What do we know about Vista?” we asked each other in our regular editorial meeting.

“It’s off 78,” offered one editor.

“They had that trouble with fundamentalists on their school board,” remembered another.

“Didn’t some TV show name it the city with the perfect climate?”

“And it was chosen among the 50 best places to raise a family.”

“But where is Vista?” said another. “I’ve been out 78, and I’ve never seen it.”

“Oh, sure you have. There’s a big planned development out there—Shadowridge. In south Vista.”

“There’s a south Vista?” I ventured.

“Sure, south of 78. But north Vista is where you’ll want to go.”

Everybody was looking at me, a downtown resident with only a hazy knowledge of anything north of Interstate 8.

That’s when I knew it was my story.

“What’s the exit?” I asked, resignedly.

It turns out there are five exits off Highway 78 to Vista, but the Vista Chamber of Commerce (yes, there is one) told me to take the middle one, marked Escondido.

Now, for those of you who want to make the same journey, or who think that by taking this exit you will end up in Escondido, be advised that Escondido Avenue does not go to Escondido but dead-ends in the middle of Vista. The middle, that is, of what you assume to be the center of Vista, though there are no telltale signs. No Main Street. No elaborate civic buildings. No church steeples, no village square, no bandstand.

Just streets intersecting—and in the most perplexing way. Like spaghetti thrown at a wall, as one resident phrases it. A Thomas Brothers map, unless enlarged many times, is of almost no use in finding any address in Vista. We’re told 15,000 cars each day go past where Escondido Avenue meets East Vista Way—most on their way to Fallbrook or Bonsall—so we assume this is the center of something. A goodly number of the cars must break down. Otherwise, why would there be so many auto repair shops in Vista?

“The streets just followed the old irrigation pipes—and Indian paths,” explains Bob Campbell, Vista’s director of economic development. Campbell has met me at City Hall, a sprawling one-story complex that used to be a high school and still looks like one. “It’s not the most efficient layout for transacting city business,” comments Campbell as we search in several buildings for the city manager. “But it gets you out in the air a lot.”

“Out in the air” is important to Vista residents, who love the rural aspects of their town. But they’re aware there’s no downtown as such—no place to shop, dine or gather; no recognizable city center. And they’re hellbent on creating one. Rita Geldert, an energetic young woman who was hired by the city council a few years ago to straighten out some financial problems within the city coffers—and stayed to fill the office of city manager—shows me a design for an extensive redevelopment project in the works.

On a 50-acre parcel of land bounded by East Vista Way, Escondido Avenue and Broadway, a new downtown will rise. It will include a creek walk lined with shops and restaurants (Vista is blessed with many creeks), a water park (The Wave, already in operation, with its Flow Rider), a movie multiplex and the old Avo Theater, which has been converted from film to live performances. A four-lane street in this new downtown will be narrowed to two lanes and the sidewalks widened, and trees will line a meandering path designed for foot traffic. A three-block portion of Vista Way will be renamed Main Street. So they’ll get a Main Street after all.

Pedestrian paths will connect this area with Vista’s famous Rancho Buena Vista Adobe, now a historical museum and park. This restored hacienda and Guajome Adobe on North Santa Fe Avenue are well worth exploring. Aside from the water park, which swooshes you into an oncoming wave or catapults you down watery tubes, they are the most compelling attractions in Vista at present—with the possible exception of the Moonlight Amphitheatre (see Theater Spotlight, page 38, for this season’s lively schedule).

The two adobes—Rancho Buena Vista and Guajome —mark the location of two Mexican land grants established in 1845. Guajome was owned at one time by San Diego’s Cave Couts and presented to Old Town’s Isadora Bandini as a wedding gift. It is now owned by the county.

Rancho Buena Vista passed through the hands of 13 owners before being purchased by the city of Vista in 1989. The price was $2 million—and many Vista residents thought that was far too much to pay for such an old ranch property, even though the lovely old home had been renovated by the last two families who occupied it.

The walls of the Rancho Buena Vista Adobe are 30 inches thick, making the interior cool in summer and warm in winter. Built in a U shape around a central patio, it is now furnished with treasures gleaned from the attics of Vista, assembled there with loving care under the direction of Clarence and Clare Schwab.

“We happened on it by accident,” says Clare, curator emeritus of the Adobe Museum. “We read a newspaper article about a town forum on what to do with the property, which was in danger of becoming a business park. We couldn’t see adobe and asphalt together,” says this adobe fan, who sees the 15-inch dried-mud blocks as being made of “earth, air and sunshine.”

For the next nine years, the Schwabs volunteered their services to help make the ranch a historically correct museum. Clare collected artifacts through newspaper ads, asking Vistans to search their attics and contribute whatever of historical value they found there. Clarence, who died two years ago, was a master woodcarver and conservator of the Norton Simon Museum in Los Angeles. He restored the donated pieces to their original luster. The two most valuable items in the adobe are a grand piano (kept tuned for Thursday afternoon performances) and a chandelier from the Summer Palace in Mexico City.

Clare takes pride in the fact that her only outright purchase for the museum was a dining set; everything else was contributed. She responded to an ad in the Pennysaver for an antique table and eight-chair set and found it was $2,400; she had only $1,700 for the purchase. “So I went and sat in the car and tried to think of how I could make up the difference. After a while the owner came out and pounded on my window. ‘Oh, well,’ she said, ‘if you’re just going to sit there, take it for $1,700.’”

Clare is proudest now of her school program, in which kids tour the adobe and see what it’s like to spin wool and dip candles. “They each get a hand-dipped candle to take home with them,” she says.

“COME TO VISTA, WE’VE GOT WATER,” read the posters after the Vista Irrigation District was formed in 1923. Until then, most acreage was given over to dry farming. In 1946, Vista annexed Warner Ranch and acquired Lake Henshaw, including its dams and flumes. The impact on Vista was immediate: Its population doubled.

A large portion of the city of Vista forms a shallow bowl with what seems an undue proportion of Jiffy Lubes, body-part shops and fast-food restaurants. But it is to the surrounding hills that residents went for beauty and livability. Take Alta Vista, for example. A road winding up behind City Hall leads to view homes with gardens gently landscaped to conform to the mountainside. Purple iceplant covers steep banks, and established greenery hugs one-story frame houses built before the ’80s and not yet replaced with the pretentious faux-mission stuccos that are so popular in modern renovations. Many artists are attracted to these neighborhoods, where privacy is paramount and modest bungalows sit next to upscale mansions.

Home prices are lower in Vista than in the neighboring cities of Oceanside and Carlsbad, with $186,000 the median price for a three-bedroom, two-bath house with a two-car garage. Across Highway 78, in south Vista, 17,000 people occupy new, carefully tended homes in the planned community of Shadowridge, where prices range from the mid-$200,000s to the multimillions. Shadowridge was built on the land originally owned by the Thibodo family. Members of this family, who have contributed heavily to community resources, are still around to watch the growth.

The land around Vista was originally inhabited by Indians of the Diegueño and Luiseno tribes. It was a beautiful, unspoiled spot of rolling hills with an abundance of water and wild game. The Indian children were taught to respect their elders, heed their advice and to help support the aged, if need be. If they did all this, they were told they would prosper, live a long life in good health and have many children; if not, it was likely they would be bitten by a rattlesnake or a spider.

Something of this same tradition endures in Vista today, which takes great care to protect the interests of the aged (and thus protect councilmembers from rattlesnakes). A nutrition center provides 1,200 meals a day, and the city has been supportive of senior mobile-home parks and many forms of low-income housing.

The seniors, in turn, give back to the community. Many neighborhood watches are manned by retirees. One group of 40-50 seniors, wearing uniforms, monitors neighborhoods, taking in mail and newspapers when requested and keeping an eye out, in general, for homeowners’ interests.

For a city its size (83,000), Vista has a fairly low crime rate. Bob Campbell says the biggest problem is car theft. And graffiti. Credit is given to the Sheriff’s Department for active vigilance. In some cases, the department has even encouraged deputies to move into certain houses to keep a better eye on troublesome neighborhoods.

Vista has a mayor/city-manager form of government with a city council of five. All are part-time; councilmembers’ salaries are a mere $600 a month. They put in far more hours, however, than “part-time” would suggest. In the past, councilmembers took turns each year being mayor, but in recent years, the mayor has been elected.

The current mayor, Gloria McClellan, is facing election this year to a third term. Blonde and bustling, her presence immediately sparks any gathering. A popular mayor, she garners praise from all directions. Her talent, say her colleagues, is in managing diverse opinions and in getting things done. McClellan has been active in city government for the last 25 years.

The latest news in Vista is the building of a huge county courthouse, now half-finished and almost the only structure visible from the highway. It’s a $49 million building, the only one in Vista allowed to exceed the height limit of 35 feet. At five stories, it’s Vista’s skyscraper. Officials made a strong pitch that won the courthouse away from Escondido. “There was much righteous indignation,” remembers Campbell. “After all, why should they saddle us with the jailhouse [in 1989] and not give us the courthouse?”

In 1971, David Brinkley named Vista one of the 10 best places to live in the nation, and on the same NBC Nightly News program, a spokesman for the U.S. Weather Bureau said it had the best climate in the country. Near the ocean but just over the fog line, Vista has a perfect microclimate for growing certain tropical fruits and vegetables. Strict zoning laws have kept her rolling hills and pleasant surroundings intact. Vista also has been listed twice—most recently in 1997—among the 50 Fabulous Places To Raise Your Family by researcher/ publisher Melissa Giovagnoli. Among the criteria: low taxes, low crime, affordable living, scenic beauty, abundance of community programs, exceptional public schools and strong economic outlook.

EXCEPTIONAL PUBLIC SCHOOLS? What was that brouhaha about fundamentalists five years ago? Yes, in a carefully executed campaign, three far-right candidates won election to the school board.

“It was very controversial,” says AnneMarie Cox, director of the Vista Historical Museum and a strong member of the PTA. “Their comments on sex education were not appropriate—‘Pet your dog, not your date.’ But their major directives never came to pass. There was no implementation; it all stayed at the board level.” By 1994, all three members had been either recalled or dropped out.

Campbell is diplomatic on the subject: “It involved diverse personalities,” he says of the controversy. “People in Vista aren’t rancorous, but they are outspoken.”

And Campbell says Vistans are proud of their schools, even though there are shortages. “There are 25,000 students, and this is a primary growth area. We need one or two more middle schools and one more high school. But we have a charter school, and we were one of the first cities to offer International Baccalaureate programs” (very advanced placement).

Vista schools were the first in California to start a multiple-track, year-round program in which K-8 students are in school two months and out one month. About 70 percent of the city’s high school students go on to higher education.

“The schools aren’t so much crowded, in a physical sense,” says Cox, “as lacking in services when it comes to libraries, or size of bathrooms, or cafeterias. But they are trying so hard to educate everybody. I have to give them kudos for that. What’s worse than [money needs] is our inability to secure a superintendent. We’ve had four superintendents in the past four years.”

The new superintendent is Dave Cowles, returning to this region after a stint in Northern California. Cox hopes he’ll work out. “We want someone to stay, to love us,” she pleads.

It wasn’t so much a case of keeping a superintendent. When Jack Gyves left, two interim superintendents in succession stepped in while the board conducted an elaborate search for a new superintendent. They hoped to find someone outside the field of education—perhaps a CEO of a company. But out of the many applications that inundated the board, they chose an educator after all. Cowles’ mother was formerly a teacher in Vista, and his brother is the principal at Casita, Vista’s magnet school.

Cowles sees his challenge as being “to refocus the public image of the district, to take the headlines back from some issues and focus instead on care and support for students in the classroom.”

As for future jobs for those students, Vista is a light-industry city. A large industrial park, south of Highway 78, houses 600 businesses and provides about 15,000 jobs. And since these businesses are nonpolluting, Vista is not faced with major concerns about water contamination or toxic waste. The industrial park, built with much encouragement from the city council, hopes to attract small computer industries, like those in Sorrento Valley.

Heavily agricultural in its origins, Vista now finds only 5 percent of its industry dedicated to farming. But that 5 percent brings it a certain national—even international—cachet. It is home to the largest bromeliad farm in the United States, Kent’s Bromeliad Nursery, with 650,000 square feet of greenhouses. Kent’s is a family-run business, started in 1976 by Leonard Kent and managed now by the founder and his three sons. It sells hardy bromeliads to chains, markets and malls across the nation. Elsewhere in the hills you’ll find orchid farms; the North County Orchid Society counts half a dozen in the area.

A large Japanese community planted strawberries in Vista before World War II, and the region is still famous for its strawberries. Other farm products include avocados, cherimoyas, macadamias, cacti, palms and herbs (Taylor’s Herb Gardens). Greenhouses, tucked away on the outskirts of the city, lend it a rural ambience.

Back at City Hall, the latest political flap is about garbage. Not Vista’s, but the trash from six cities that would be brought to Vista and then sent on to a landfill in Orange County. At Melrose Drive and Bobier Drive, it’s ironic to see a sign welcoming you to Vista right on the same corner as the potential trash site.

“Yes, we know about that,” says Campbell. “It’s not a good introduction, is it?” But the trash transfer station is not a definite thing as yet. It’s still being debated. The city’s lawyers don’t want to discuss it just yet.

The other big political buzz centers on a proposed train from Oceanside to Escondido. “The city of Vista is a little at odds with itself about the train,” says Rocco Valluzzi, mayor pro tem and a member of the city council. It would mean “72 trains a day, from 6 a.m. till 11 p.m. We need a people-mover, but some think it’s not the right project.”

“The city council’s hoping to block it through litigation,” says Campbell. “They claim it will have an insoluble impact on at least 50 homeowners.” Valluzzi feels it will cause blockages at all five of Vista’s access roads from Highway 78. Vista has spent more than $70 million during the past five years to improve all the major access points to Vista, and now they’d have trains stopping every 15 minutes and holding up traffic.

Besides, what about the noise?

Residents of Vista are exceedingly sensitive to the effect of outsiders on their community. They’re proud of their quiet, rural city that still manages to educate and employ its citizens without fanfare and with an emphasis on sports, the outdoors and homegrown entertainment.

Added attractions of this surprising city: a steam engine museum; more parks than any other city in the county; an open-air market selling certified organic products; a bonsai festival; 72 churches (including one Buddhist temple); and a skateboard park on the drawing board. For a tucked-away little city, hidden from the highway, Vista is turning into a thriving community.

So if you haven’t been to Vista lately, you’re in for a big surprise. But don’t try calling anybody at City Hall on a Friday afternoon. Every second week, they close at noon.

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