By Nick Diamantides
During the past 30 years, Signal Hill has gone from being an oil town with many blighted areas to a community of million-dollar homes, nicely kept middle-class residences and thriving retail centers where eye-pleasing architecture and attractive landscaping are the norm. Along with a very small number of civic and community leaders, Gary Jones was very instrumental in the town’s transformation.
Jones recently retired from his position as director of community development for the City of Signal Hill, and last week he spoke to the Signal Tribune about his many years of public service.
After earning his master’s degree in geography with a Certificate in Urban Studies from CSULB, he worked for a private consulting firm and then for the City of Irvine before Signal Hill hired him as a junction planner in 1979. From there, he advanced through the ranks to become the director of community development in 1987.
Jones is appreciative of his career, but he acknowledges that at first he had no intention of staying in Signal Hill very long. “In 1979, Signal Hill was rusty and dusty,” he said. “It was an oil field, and oil companies used to spray poison to kill any vegetation near their wells.” He added that many junkyards, welding shops, and many other very unattractive businesses pockmarked the city.
“There were places of prostitution, liquor stores, and seedy motels up and down Coast Highway,” he said. He added that the blatantly corrupt practices of some of the council members three decades ago disgusted him, and the infamous Ron Settles incident made him want to get far away from the city. “The first two years I was pretty much looking for another job so I could get out of Signal Hill,” he said.
His attitude began to change in the 1980s, as new council members got elected and the City hired a new police chief and began adopting ordinances and codes that led to orderly, high-quality development. According to Jones, he and other city officials clashed with various retailers, and even the automobile dealerships, over whether their new developments should have architecturally enhanced buildings with landscaping. “Over time, one fight at a time paid off,” he said.
He added that the most difficult struggle and the crowning achievement of his career was the hilltop development. “Even at the beginning of my career, people were trying to develop the hilltop,” he said. “But it was not until 2000 that it was finally developed.”
He explained that in the early 1990s, the City had a long, expensive legal battle over density with Southwest Diversified (SWD), the would-be developer of the hilltop. After the City won, SWD pulled out of the project, and almost a decade passed before the new developer, Comstock, began constructing homes on the hilltop. “By then, the City had its new zoning in place,” he said. “We had also built our two water reservoirs by then, which we had to do before the hilltop could be developed.”
Jones said he was involved in the planning process for the reservoirs but City Attorney Dave Aleshire deserves a lot of credit for the development of the city. “He was vitally involved in the acquisition of land for the hilltop reservoir and helping the city issue the bonds necessary for the development of both of the city reservoirs, which were built in the late 1990s,” Jones said.
He explained that after the reservoirs were in place, Comstock, in partnership with Signal Hill Petroleum, finally began developing the hilltop. “Comstock was able to purchase the very topmost portion of the hill from the Denny family, who were the early property owners on the hill,” Jones said. “The construction was finally completed in 2004.”
During the first year of construction, Jones and his staff were also very involved in consolidating about 12 different antenna structures into one site on the hilltop to free up land necessary for the hilltop development.
Jones said that looking back over the last 23 years, he feels that all the struggles and battles were worth the effort. “I get a lot of satisfaction and feel very fortunate to have had a career where I have had the opportunity to see the fruit of my efforts,” he said, noting that during his tenure the city has adopted ordinances and codes and used the authority of the Redevelopment Agency to eliminate blight and beautify the city in ways no one could have imagined 30 years ago.
Jones said he also gets satisfaction from looking at the transformation of PCH. “I wrote the Pacific Coast Highway Specific Plan that created three opportunity areas, he said. He explained that if a developer can put together a reasonably sized piece of land by purchasing and combining two or three properties in an opportunity area, the city will entertain virtually any project the developer wants to initiate. “As a result, we have removed a lot of the seedy motels and liquor stores on Coast Highway,” he said.
Jones said that since becoming director of community development, he has always had good relationships with the various council members and city managers, but he has not always agreed with them. He added that the present day council and city manager are the best with which he has ever worked. “They are guiding the city through a great recession that has impacted federal, state and local governments, and they are doing a very good job,” he said.
Jones lives in Cypress with his wife Jan who works as a school counselor at Long Beach Poly High School. Jones also has two grown children, Lisa, 28, and Michael, 26.
Jones said that, even though he has retired, he is still very interested in his profession and will probably do some consulting and special planning projects for various cities. “I am also planning on playing a lot of golf, riding my bike more, getting involved more in my church, and I am looking forward to some new adventures,” he said.
He said he will miss the people at Signal Hill City Hall. “I am really close to many people there,” he said.