For many people, the gateway to Costa Mesa is at Harbor Boulevard from the San Diego (405) Freeway. What impression do we create for a passing or exiting motorist?

Within one half-mile south of the freeway offramp there is In-N-Out Burger, Chick fil-A, Del Taco, Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market, McDonald's, Five Guys Burgers and Fries and a Sonic. And these are only the projects that have been developed within the last two years or are under construction.

Is this really what the major entrance to our community should look like?

Sure, at the city's insistence, In-N-Out (of which I am a longtime fan) put up a nice stacked stone and iron fence along its northern perimeter. But often the design cannot overcome the nature of the land use itself.

A fast food phalanx like this is not particularly inviting. It sends the message that we'd love for you to grab a quick bite here, but there's not much else for you.

We want you, literally, in and out.

At one of the city's other major gateways, the terminus of Costa Mesa (55) Freeway near 19th Street, the City Council wisely rejected a poor and dated design for a recently proposed entry monument.

Funded by a $500,000 California Department of Transportation grant, the 16-by-12 structure containing the obligatory "Welcome to Costa Mesa" sign would occupy a newly landscaped median. For beachgoers stuck in southbound traffic, they would have enjoyed a close-up view of a banal, red tile-topped white stucco and stone arch that could double as a 1980s Taco Bell drive-thru.

Both contexts call into question what we value aesthetically in our community. Costa Mesa's motto — the City of the Arts — is supposed to reflect our respect for and cultivation of the cultural arts.

This is not limited to the visual and performing arts, but also should apply to our public realm — our streetscapes, signs, public buildings and parks. Our gateway signage and streetscapes, unfortunately, have not lived up to the standard espoused by our motto.

Costa Mesa, however, is home to several excellent examples of quality design and development. The Lab and The Camp, the iPod and iPad of independent retail design, respectively, illustrate a unique and well-executed vision.

Both of these successful developments by Shaheen Sadeghi are environmentally and context-conscious designs that make bold aesthetic statements. Most importantly, they are well-loved by the community.

South Coast Plaza succeeds in large part because of Henry Segerstrom's careful attention to detail, from choices of materials to the landscaping palette to the parking plan. Mr. Segerstrom understood long ago that good design significantly contributes to the customer's shopping experience.

The 611-foot pedestrian bridge over Bear Street, for example, is an elegant and effective solution to not only moving people between buildings, but also enhancing the overall shopping environment. Customers are happy to walk long distances here for a leisurely shopping experience, when they are generally unwilling to walk shorter distances from their homes to a nearby grocery store or restaurant.

Design matters.

These are examples of private investment that, thankfully, yield significant public benefits.

But what about our public realm? What kind of standard have we set so that a resident, a visitor or even a prospective business would take notice of how we value our built environment?

The city can take a few steps toward living up to its declaration as the City of the Arts and make urban design a priority.

First, the city should articulate goals and policies in the General Plan that establish the community's expectations for quality design and clearly guide the implementers (e.g., developers and city staff). Memorializing these expectations and an aesthetic vision in writing is critical if we want to see changes on the ground.

Second, design should be an integral component of our citywide economic development strategy. Hiring an urban designer, as other cities have done (e.g., West Hollywood, Glendale, Los Angeles), with the authority to review public projects, advise on private development plans, and guide a citywide wayfinding program, would be a prudent investment.

Third, for all improvements within the public realm, the city's Cultural Arts Committee should be an active participant and consulted early in the development process. The committee's recommendation would be advisory, but at least it would provide the council and the community with some added perspective from citizens who have expertise and experience in this area.

A committee hearing also would give the public a meaningful opportunity to comment on proposed projects. Perhaps it should be a commission, on par with the planning, and recreation and parks commissions.

With world-class cultural arts facilities and a wealth of creative and design-oriented businesses, Costa Mesa really can be the City of the Arts if we devote some attention and resources to making public design a priority.

JEFFREY HARLAN is an urban planner who lives on the Eastside of Costa Mesa.