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Neighborhood Spotlight: Arcadia's historic, scenic racetrack gives it a leg up

In a state whose history boasts many outsized characters, Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin still stands out as one of the most colorful Californians of all time.

Baldwin came out west during the Gold Rush and quickly earned the nickname “Lucky” by making a fortune in San Francisco real estate and surviving at least two attempts on his life by jilted lovers and their immediate family members.

He also founded the city of Arcadia, on land formerly belonging to Rancho Santa Anita in the San Gabriel Valley. Baldwin had become smitten with the rancho, which was lush and green due to the artesian wells that ran beneath its rolling pastures.

He re-dubbed the 8,000-acre spread Baldwin Ranch and built a Queen Anne-style cottage that survives today — along with the descendants of the peafowl he imported from India — on the grounds of the Los Angeles County Arboretum.

Though he originally intended to keep the ranch as a family retreat, the canny real estate speculator saw his chance to maximize his investment when the railroad was built across his land.

He promptly began subdividing and selling lots in Arcadia, which he worked to make a desirable destination by building the luxurious Oakwood hotel, founding the Santa Anita racetrack and, crucially, providing legal booze in the otherwise dry San Gabriel Valley.

To make sure that his vision of Arcadia would be implemented to his satisfaction, he incorporated the town and was promptly installed as its first mayor.

After his death in in 1909, more puritanical members of the town would close the racetrack and ban alcohol, ending Arcadia’s lucrative monopoly on vice.

Development sagged, and Arcadia become more well-known for its poultry farms than for round-the-clock debauchery.

With the legalization of horse racing in California, investors quickly capitalized on Arcadia’s equestrian legacy by building a new Santa Anita racetrack, a development that Baldwin would have surely celebrated had he been alive to see it.

In recent years, Arcadia has become a wealthy enclave that is particularly appealing to Chinese buyers looking for multigenerational homes in the San Gabriel Valley. Concerns over mansionization led the city to adopt laws to deter the practice of tearing down existing homes to build bigger structures, and new Chinese laws designed to stem the exodus of capital from the mainland have also cooled the formerly red-hot Arcadia market.

Neighborhood highlights

Place your bets: Santa Anita Park is one of the country’s most scenic racetracks, a treat for horse racing enthusiasts and history lovers alike.

Retail therapy: Forget your losses at the track with a day of shopping, followed by dinner and a movie, at the giant mall and entertainment complex right next door.

L.A.’s garden spot: the Los Angeles County Arboretum, where Lucky Baldwin and family once lived, is a beautifully landscaped park that has been featured in countless TV shows and movies.

Neighborhood challenge

Sticker shock: Arcadia has become one of the priciest neighborhoods in the country, with median home prices topping $1.5 million.

Expert insight

Reni Rose, an agent with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices, has been operating in Arcadia for 29 years. She said the neighborhood’s location gives it a unique advantage.

“Arcadia is set up right against the mountains, so you rarely have people driving through to get to another city,” Rose said.

She said Arcadia has traditionally consisted of mostly midcentury-style homes, but now developers are tearing many down, which has brought in a new demographic.

“We’ve seen an influx of Chinese residents moving in over the years,” Rose said. “They’re attracted to the new constructions, which Arcadia has plenty of, and also the great school systems.”

Market snapshot

Arcadia is split into two ZIP Codes. On the east side, 91006, the median sales price in September for single-family homes was $942,000 based on 27 sales, according to CoreLogic. That’s a 16.6% decrease year over year.

The west side, 91007, saw a median sales price of $1.53 million based on 15 sales, which was a 26.4% increase year over year.

Report card

Eleven public schools sit within the Arcadia boundaries. Foothills Middle scored 977 in the 2013 Academic Performance Index, and Baldwin Elementary scored 971. First Avenue Middle and Highland Oaks Elementary scored 965 and 964, respectively.

The only public high school within the boundaries, Arcadia High, scored 893.

Times staff writer Jack Flemming contributed to this report.

hotproperty@latimes.com

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