We dine al fresco at the Brew Kitchen Ale House, a relatively new establishment that city officials hope sets the stage for a new Los Alamitos. Police Capt. Bruce McAlpine and Recreation and Community Services Director Corey Lakin order today’s special, a rib-eye hamburger topped with brisket slathered in cheese with a healthy side of bar fries.
After a bite of Jammin’ Jerk Chicken Sandwich topped with roasted roma tomatoes and remoulade slaw, Community Development and Public Works Director Steven Mendoza gazes over Los Alamitos Boulevard and paints a word picture.
His vision includes a median with drought-resistant plants down the middle of the five-lane road, decorative lighting, safe pedestrian and bicycle access and a host of new shops and restaurants.
Understand, this is no dream. City Council already has approved the design stage.
Yes, the future of Los Alamitos is now.
The first thing to know about Los Alamitos is that while it’s one of Orange County’s smallest cities, its schools – especially its high school – have one of the biggest and best reputations of any district in the county.
Paradoxically, this city of nearly 12,000 people also has a surprisingly compact population. The city barely covers 4 square miles. But half of that is the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base. And that base, in part, is why there are so many apartments.
As we cruise the streets in a white minivan, Plumlee explains that after the start of World War II, the county zoned much of the land for apartments to house military personnel for what was then a new Naval training base.
Today, the base serves Army, Navy, National Guard, Marines and more than 50 additional tenants including California’s Offices of Emergency Services. But the best thing about the base for most civilians is its legendary swimming pool.
Built during World War II to train aviators to survive in water, the pool is 5 to 9 feet deep and 50 meters long.
It’s home to a variety of water classes and major events, including Race on the Base, which calls itself the country’s largest reverse triathlon. That means instead of the normal swim-bike-run, Race on the Base has the swim last.
But that’s not the coolest thing about this ginormous pool, which sees some 250,000 visitors a year.
As we walk up to the pool, some of the finest athletes in the world are wrapping up a training session. Along with being a water home for children, teens, adults and seniors, the pool serves as the USA Water Polo National Training Center and on this day several Olympic veterans as well as future hopefuls for the women’s team are here.
That fits the city’s motto: “A great place to be.”
Consider that this Saturday night the pool will host a “Dive-in Movie,” the second in an annual series of music and movie events in which parents and children watch while floating on rafts. The band is called Vibe Trive. And the film?
What else? “Dolphin Tale.”
‘SENSE OF MAYBERRY’
One of the coolest things about Los Alamitos is that it is one of the most inclusive cities in Orange County. It partners with neighboring agencies, including nearby Seal Beach, Cypress and unincorprated Rossmoor, to meet the needs of residents.
“There’s a real sense of Mayberry here,” police Chief Todd Mattern tells me. “There are about 12,000 people. But it’s still a very small town. It seems like everybody knows everybody.”
His point about the mythical TV town, Mayberry, is one that many small cities claim. Yet in Los Al the moniker rings true.
When my children were in elementary school, they attended St. Hedwig Catholic in Los Alamitos. Little League was at St. Hedwig; softball was in Rossmoor. Soccer was in Rossmoor; Boy and Girl Scouts were in Los Alamitos.
Consider that on the Fourth of July – with the help of Cypress, Seal Beach and Rossmoor – Los Al hosted an estimated 10,000 people for a fireworks spectacular that included food booths and music.
Lakin points out that the Independence Day festival funds itself. It’s the same with the city’s “Trunk or Treat” Halloween, which sees up to 2,000 people in the parking lot of Little Cottonwood Park.
That spirit of self-funding trickles through other programs. Cypress, Seal Beach and Los Alamitos share the same public safety dispatch system and assist one another in emergency calls.
Of course, along with respecting taxpayer money, there’s another reason for saving dollars: need.
When I first sat down with Plumlee, I congratulated him on the what I thought was was a commercial renaissance along Los Alamitos Boulevard.
But it turns out that the area stuffed with relatively new shops and restaurants just south of St. Hedwig Church is neither Rossmoor nor Los Al. It’s Seal Beach. Oops.
Identity and boundaries, which include a crazy quilt of triangles and cutouts, is part of Los Alamitos’ struggle. But sometimes the confusion works in the city’s favor. Los Alamitos Race Course, for example, is in Cypress.
Still, the hope to create its own retail and restaurant row remains strong.
As we drive past sound walls that could use fresh paint and buildings in need of repair, I mention that Los Al could use some sprucing up. Plumlee doesn’t disagree. But he also is quick to point out areas that have recently seen a makeover.
The largest employer in the city is the Los Alamitos Medical Center, with some 1,100 employees. Up until last year, parking was a major problem. There was enough room for patients or employees, but not both. Today, the medical center has a new six-story garage.
Nearby, there are a series of freshly painted nonprofits. One helps wayward teens. Another offers assistance to young unwed mothers. Its sign: “Pick up and deliveries of newborn babies only. Precious Life Shelter.”
I point out there’s little money to be made with nonprofits. Plumlee agrees and elaborates, “We have more nonprofits per capita than any city in Southern California.”
But the city manager also is quick to note that giving back is more important than getting back. “We love having them here,” he says. “It’s a notch in our pride belts.”
As I take a bite out of my Jammin’ Jerk Chicken Sandwich and look over Los Alamitos Boulevard, it’s easy to imagine even more pride – sidewalk dining all along the thoroughfare.
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