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The Future and the Urban Village

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Times Staff Writer

Christopher Leinberger loves getting stuck in traffic jams. Sitting motionless on a freeway, watching the sun eat at a thousand paint jobs can be instructive, he says.

“Traffic jams tell you a lot about employment patterns,” contends Leinberger, the head of a national, Beverly Hills-based consulting firm that specializes in urban problems.

Employment patterns are just his starting point, of course. Leinberger, who has an MBA in strategic planning from Harvard, throws in some observations about evolving residential neighborhoods, adds a dollop of information about new freeway construction and a dash of data on office occupancy and, voila , he pulls out some provocative conclusions about the broad sweep of the American megalopolis.

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Changing Shape of American Cities

That, he says, is his real interest: the changing shape of the American city.

“The cities,” says Leinberger, 36, a trim, brawny man with squeaky-clean good looks and the durable-looking jaw of a middleweight contender, “are literally turning themselves inside out these days.”

For the past year or so, Leinberger has been spreading his ideas about the new “urban villages” in publications such as Atlantic and the Wall Street Journal. He often uses his home town of Pasadena, which he calls a textbook urban village, as a model of the phenomenon.

In a nutshell, Leinberger thinks that the big, brawling cities of the past are losing their clout to suburban competitors. An alliance of white-collar workers and major central-city employers, both of whom are in search of more tranquil work surroundings and less grueling commutes, is guiding the American workplace out of the cities and into the suburbs, and people, money and power are following behind, he said.

The result, from New York to Los Angeles, has been the growth of a series of mutually interdependent “urban villages”--suburban concentrations of office buildings, retailing outlets and cultural institutions.

Cutting Edge of Trend

Los Angeles, with its freeway life style, has been on the cutting edge of the urban village trend, Leinberger said. “It’s the classic example--the most evolved of all the cities,” he said. Leinberger counts 16 separate urban-village cores, including Pasadena and, sometime down the road, West Covina.

Other fully developed urban villages, Leinberger said, are Burbank, Westwood, Glendale, Costa Mesa/Irvine/Newport Beach and Beverly Hills.

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What’s the driving force behind the phenomenon? A shifting economy, new technology a dream of civilized living, Leinberger said.

“People have an ideal image of suburban living and urban conveniences,” he said, sitting in a conference room in his office, with maps and charts spread before him on a table.

‘We Tell Them Where to Build’

His firm, Robert Charles Lesser & Co., serves clients like James Rouse, the developer of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and New York’s South Street Seaport, and Wayne Ratkovich, developer of the Wiltern Center, and the City of Pasadena. (“Basically, we tell them where to build,” says Leinberger, the firm’s president.)

“Everybody wants to live on a five-acre lot, five minutes from the regional shopping mall and within walking distance of both the job and the symphony,” he said. A combination of circumstances have placed the dream within reach of many.

Back to the traffic jams. In recent years, Leinberger has been watching the Foothill Freeway.

“In the morning, during the rush hour, it’s pretty much backed up to the 605,” he said. “That’s about seven miles. But,

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if you’re going west, the dividing line seems to be Lake Avenue. After that, the traffic opens up.”

The point is that Pasadena, once almost exclusively a bedroom community, has now become a major destination for commuters, Leinberger said. The city’s planning office, in fact, estimates that the daily commuters include about 25,000 workers leaving Pasadena every morning, while 60,000 arrive from outside the city.

“Ten or 15 years ago, Pasadena was a hick town with no business base and an image closely associated with the ‘little old lady from Pasadena,’ ” Leinberger said. Now, he said, the city is a major concentration of employment for companies providing financial and insurance services, the focus of cultural and business life for the western San Gabriel Valley and even a prestigious address for corporate headquarters.

Among the major companies whose principal addresses are now in Pasadena are Avery International, Ralph M. Parsons Co. and Beverly Enterprises.

The city apparently represented the ideal solution for some relocation-minded companies, Leinberger said.

Thousands of workers down the Foothill Freeway, from Arcadia to Glendora, were there to fill the jobs while the presidents and chairmen of the boards found executive-class housing west of the Arroyo Seco and in the upscale communities nearby.

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The turning point for Pasadena came with the opening of the Foothill Freeway in 1976.

Pasadena’s Savior

“Some people fought it tooth and nail,” said Leinberger, “but it saved Pasadena. Without it, downtown Pasadena would be like San Bernardino, with bums and boarded up buildings--depressing as hell.”

A series of dramatic post-World War II technological advances also came into play, in Pasadena and elsewhere, Leinberger said.

For example, with development of the modern freeway system American workers no longer were bound by fixed-rail transportation or by the proximity to central terminals. Freeways and cars freed the jobs and markets from their urban locations.

And telecommunications--that is, the technology that permits the exchange of masses of information through low-cost telephone hook-ups--allowed big corporations to decentralize.

The changes have been “as radical as the early 19th Century, when the Industrial Revolution changed Philadelphia, New York and Boston from trading centers to centers of production,” said Leinberger.

Fading Big Cities

Fading fast now is the archetypal Big City, a once-powerful knot of power and population, with decreasing concentrations of people and influence as you got farther away from the center.

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Now, instead of the monolithic city, there’s what Leinberger calls a “metroplex of urban villages,” with “nodes” of population and jobs spread through the general metropolis. Most important to the urban village citizens, these new focuses of employment are of human scale, with cultural amenities, restaurants and homes often a stone’s throw away from the workplace.

The litmus test of his theory is change in the distribution of office space. “The office is the factory of the future,” he said. Despite the surge in high-rise construction in downtown Los Angeles, statistics indicate that the future lies in the urban villages, Leinberger insisted.

“In 1960, 96% of the office space in Southern California was shared between downtown and Mid-Wilshire,” he said. “Today, those two areas have only about a third of the total.”

Pasadena, which had virtually none of the office space in 1960, now has a modest 4% of Southern California’s office footage. But Pasadena is leasing out about 6% of the area’s new office space, indicating that it is a growing employment center, he said.

‘Bedazzled by Skylines’

“People are bedazzled by skylines,” Leinberger said. “Shows like ‘LA Law’ even use the skyline as a statement. What’s happening, of course, is that downtown is stabilizing, not growing.”

Moving to Pasadena can make a lot of sense for an employer in a labor-intensive field, he said.

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“Many of the companies moving there have these large, open bullpen spaces, filled with a lot of clerical workers sitting behind CRTs (cathode-ray tubes), processing information,” Leinberger said. “Mid-Wilshire used to be where they’d locate, until that area changed from housing for good clerical workers to a Hispanic and Korean entry point.”

The San Gabriel Valley has an ample supply of women re-entering the work force, who constitute most of the workers for Pasadena’s new businesses, he added.

Leinberger’s ideas are getting increasing respect from both city planners and academicians.

‘Powerful Description’

Talking about Leinberger’s cover story in the October issue of the Atlantic (co-written with author and urban affairs specialist Charles Lockwood), Richard Weinstein, dean of the UCLA School of Architecture and Urban Planning, said, “I think it’s a powerful description of something that we all know is going on. You don’t have to be an academician to look out the window of your car and make the judgment that the description is accurate. He (Leinberger) has put his finger on the very serious forces that are shaping a major part of our physical environment.”

“He’s describing the facts of urban society,” said Pasadena Mayor John Crowley. “His ideas are not a statement of theory but a description of circumstances, which haven’t been given much emphasis before.”

But George Sternlieb, director of the prestigious Rutgers University Center for Urban Policy Research, contended that Leinberger overemphasizes the “nodes” of development. Population is concentrating instead along “ring highways,” 40 or 50 miles away from the central cities, Sternlieb contended.

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“He thinks development congeals in nodes,” he said. “We see it just spreading along the highways. When it gets too clogged, they don’t clean up the transit game. They move further out. People are orienting themselves more to a highway now than to a central town.”

Radical Solutions

Because of the radical changes in the shape of the metropolises, radical new solutions may be required for regional problems, Leinberger said. Municipal boundaries, for example, are often obstructive.

“There are 120 cities in Southern California,” he said. “Many of them were formed in the 1880s or the 1920s out of the imaginations of single developers. Their boundaries have no relevance to the post-industrial information-related economy.”

Transportation, air quality, education--all of these have become regional problems, he added. “But the people responsible for solving the problems now have to spend half or more of their time coordinating with other people.”

The big obstruction to realizing the dream of urban amenities in a suburban setting, Leinberger said, is traffic. “If you want all of that, you’re going to get traffic,” he said. Already, many homeowners in Pasadena look at any new development plan as a nothing but possible source of congestion, he said.

The answer may be to attack the problem with the kind of regional foresight and planning that was used before the 1984 Summer Olympics.

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Fear Into Opportunity

“There was great fear that the city would turn to gridlock,” he said. “Instead, there was the best traffic situation in decades.”

Pasadena is preeminent now in the San Gabriel Valley, Leinberger said. It has such cultural amenities as legitimate theater and art museums; it has a centralized locale and it has a strong identity.

“Because of the Tournament of Roses, it’s probably the best known city of under 250,000 people in the United States,” Leinberger said. “That’s the problem Glendale has in competing with Pasadena. People say, ‘Glendale where?’ ”

But a peculiarity of the urban village is its dynamic nature, Leinberger said. Ultimately, the urban village reaches a “critical mass,” and population and jobs spill over into other newly formed urban villages, he said.

Already, there are beginnings of urban villages in West Covina, where city planners have big plans for offices and apartment buildings along the five-mile San Bernadino Freeway corridor, and in Ontario, whose airport will be “second only to LAX by the end of the century,” according to Leinberger.

The new urban villages sometimes just seem to emerge from empty fields, he said. The first signs seem to provide lightning glimpses into the future.

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“I was driving around out near the Ontario Airport recently, just poking around,” said Leinberger. “It was all undeveloped dairy land out there. Suddenly I came around a bend, and there, in the midst of acres of flat pasture, was a huge 747 just sitting there on the runway.”

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