Grounded in the arts -- and the wild things

Special to The Times

The San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park may be the first thing that comes to mind when some people hear "Escondido." But there is far more to this northern San Diego County city: A newly vibrant downtown, upscale homes, horse properties, lake view estates and an arts center that draws big-name entertainers.

Escondido went from mining gold to harvesting grapes and later growing citrus. With construction of Interstate 15 in the 1980s came housing developments and shopping centers, replacing most of Escondido's agribusiness. Today, the population is 140,000 and growing.

Drawing card

Escondido neighborhoods run the gamut from older, run-down areas in the urban core to custom homes tucked away in forests in the surrounding hills.

The city's 36 square miles contain a host of parks, lakes, wineries, golf courses and shops.

Folks flock to the Wild Animal Park, a 1,800-acre wildlife preserve where elephants, warthogs, lions and giraffes roam freely in settings similar to their native habitats and visitors cruise past on the park's monorail, the Wgasa Bush Line Railway, or by foot.

Perhaps tamer, but no less exciting, is the decade-old California Center for the Arts, the cultural hub of North County. The arts and theater complex is both anchor and spur for downtown's dramatic redevelopment with art galleries, restaurants and antique stores; there also are 1,000 housing units planned, including condos and row homes.

The business of the arts is on the front burner: San Diego's Mingei International Museum has opened a satellite branch in downtown Escondido.

A few miles away in Kit Carson Park is Queen Califia's Magical Circle, a whimsical sculpture garden and the last major project from the late artist Niki de Saint Phalle.

Insider's viewpoint Judith A. Descalso, an attorney, lives in what locals call Dead Horse Canyon, a custom home development. Hers is a ranch on almost three acres with a stream running through the front yard.

"We have a pool, fruit trees, coyotes, bobcats, raccoons, owls, opossums, rabbits, squirrels and assorted rodents that come with the landscape," she said. "A pair of ducks visit the pond each spring, and about a thousand little frogs serenade us every night from spring through summer. Every time people come over for the first time, they are amazed that there is such a place."

Good news, bad news

Escondido's recreation options include nearby casinos, a weekly farmer's market and a classic car jam on Friday nights.

Descalso likes that the city is "family-oriented." But she also cites the "difficult commute to San Diego during rush hour" and the fact that "some older neighborhoods and commercial areas are in need of revitalization."

Housing stock

As of early July, there were 522 single-family homes for sale. At the low end, $325,000 to $374,876 ("value range" pricing is a common practice) gets you a two-bedroom, one-bath, 672-square-foot house. At the top, $7.7 million will buy a 3,500-square-foot home with a view on 80 acres.

Historical values Residential resales:

Year...Median Price 1990...$171,000





*Year to date

Report card The 2004 Academic Performance Index scores for the Escondido Union School District ranged from a 583 at Lincoln Intermediate to 857 at Green Elementary on a scale of 1,000. The middle schools started at 619 for Grant and reached 710 for Rincon. Orange Glen High School scored 666, Escondido 685, San Pasqual 729. (The charter schools were tops, with Heritage K-8 scoring 858 and Escondido Charter High, 756.)

Sources: DataQuick Information Systems; San Diego Assn. of Governments; ;; the California Department of Education, ; the city of Escondido, .

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