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Corona Basks in Boom Times : Influx of Former Orange County Residents Spurs Furious Growth of Housing Tracts

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

A few years ago, Corona was a Riverside County agricultural hamlet--little more than a freeway turnoff for gasoline stations on the California 91 freeway between Anaheim and Riverside.

Today Corona is a boom town, and one with a significant superlative: California’s fastest growing city of more than 50,000 people. Corona’s population last year jumped to 61,000, a 16.8% growth spurt--higher than any other big city in the state, according to the state Finance Department.

“And the population clock is still ticking, so we figure we have about 63,000 residents right now,” Corona Mayor Dick Deininger said.

Corona is 4.1 freeway miles from the Orange County line. Therein lies the explanation for the city’s explosive growth.

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“The No. 1 reason for our growth is our geographic location, being right on the border of Orange County,” said Jim Bradley, executive vice president of the Corona Chamber of Commerce.

Mark Baldassare, a UC Irvine social ecology professor and an expert on suburban growth, said Corona has, in fact, become a bedroom community for Orange County.

“I think the Corona phenomenon is indicative of a trend we’ve been seeing for some time,” Baldassare said. “Orange County has become a downtown. It has become a work destination, and we’re drawing residents more and more from border towns in the Inland Empire (Riverside and San Bernardino counties). What we’re seeing is people moving from Orange County to affordable inland housing, plus people coming out from that region to take jobs in Orange County. They buy or rent in an affordable border town, and they commute to work in Orange County. It’s a trend we’re likely to see for some time.”

“It’s ironic that Orange County has become a work destination because for so long the county was a bedroom community itself,” Baldassare said.

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In the 1950s, thousands of former Los Angeles County residents moved south into then-sleepy, agricultural Orange County. The magnet was affordable housing.

Today, in a reversal of that process, thousands of former Orange County residents have moved, and are still moving, into Riverside County. The magnet, again, is affordable housing.

New homes in Corona are about $100,000 cheaper than their equivalent models in Orange County. Older homes in Corona are even a bigger bargain. “You can still find some older homes for around or under $100,000,” Deininger said.

Corona is 103 years old, and some of its turn-of-the-century homes have been lovingly restored. Other stately old homes are being purchased for renovation, but no longer at low prices, according to Deininger. “Some of those beautiful old homes are selling for $300,000 or more,” he said.

However, it is the new homes being built within the sprawling, 28-square-mile city limits of Corona that account for most of the new residents. On the perimeters of old Corona, the sound of hammers resonate as workers convert former agricultural land into acres and acres of housing tracts.

Mike McClung, project sales manager at one such new development, Corona Hills Today, smiled and said: “Our prices start at $170,000 and go up to $240,000. People definitely are being drawn here by affordable prices. We sell to a lot of people from Orange County who have been renting and who now want their own detached house, a place with their own yard. I’d say the average couple is in their early 30s, maybe a few in their late 20s.”

Corona is drawing many young men and women who grew up in Orange County but cannot afford to buy homes of their own there, according to Deininger. “I don’t want to see that happen to Corona,” he added. “We want to keep affordable housing.”

But housing prices are already beginning to spiral. Keith Clarke, head of the city of Corona’s Building Division, said the price escalation has come as somewhat of a shock. He said that as recently as 1985, new homes in Corona could be purchased for less than $100,000.

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“I remember in 1985 when the city employees kind of had a celebration that the first tract house in Corona sold for over $150,000,” he said. “We thought that was really something, that we were really big-time then. But today, I don’t think you can buy any new house in Corona for under $160,000.”

Clarke noted, however, that Corona home prices are still considerably cheaper than in Orange County, where the average cost, as of last month, was $238,353. According to the Meyers Group, a real estate research firm based in San Diego, the current median price for a single-family home in Corona is $177,000. Elsewhere in Riverside County, the median price is cheaper--in the $110,000-$122,000 range. Corona homes are more expensive because of the city’s proximity to Orange County, according to the Meyers Group.

Construction of new homes began to soar in Corona in the early 1980s, Clarke said. “I would say the boom started back around 1983-84, as the recession was ending. Interest rates were becoming affordable again.

“Construction has generally been about 50% multi-unit and 50% single-family. To give you an idea how things have grown, back in 1981, we only had three housing tracts under construction in this city, and this year we have 47 tracts under construction. We’re projecting 53 tracts next year.”

City officials said Corona’s booming growth has generally been accepted by old-time residents. Said Deininger: “At first there were some sentiments like, ‘Welcome to Corona; now go home,’ but that’s pretty well ended. People know their businesses have grown because of all the new people. And as for any bad feelings about the Orange County people who have moved in here, well, I’d say that not much is said because there are probably more former Orange County people in this city now than native Coronans.”

Clarke, who grew up in Huntington Beach and Garden Grove, said the vast majority of new residents in Corona are from Orange County.

Bradley, the Corona Chamber of Commerce executive, said the city sometimes “is accused of being more like Orange County than Riverside County.” He added, “We benefit from that outfall because Orange County has its own mystique.”

Motorists who whiz by Corona on the freeway get no clue to the character of the city. But if one drives into the older part of Corona, a slow-paced, small-town atmosphere is noticeable. Sixth Street, the main drag, passes by the Spanish-colonial Civic Center building and eventually to Grand Boulevard. The boulevard, still studded with many graceful, Victorian-era homes, is a circular, mile-diameter thoroughfare that once was a race track for early automobiles in 1914. The Grand Boulevard circle originally was the outer limits of the old city of Corona.

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“I sort of worry about the growth in Corona because I don’t want the small-town atmosphere to disappear,” said Gloria Scott, the Heritage Room librarian in the Corona Public Library. Scott said she knows of no “slow-growth” organizations now active in Corona, and she said she herself doesn’t oppose growth “as long as it’s planned.”

The city has cultural amenities, Scott said. “We have theater productions and art shows in the auditorium at the Civic Center from time to time,’ she said. “The Parks and Recreation Department also puts on many functions, and we have a very active Preservation Society that works to preserve the old homes and history of the city.”

Despite the rapid population growth, the overall crime rate has not changed significantly, according to police. “Property crime has gone up, and that includes auto theft, thefts from construction areas and burglary,” Police Capt. Phil Russo said. “But crimes against persons have not gone up very much.”

As young families pour into Corona, the school system has been working to build enough classrooms to house all the children.

Sherry Dobbins, facilities planner for the Corona-Norco Unified School District, said the system will open a new high school--its third--in September. She said the school system additionally has applied to the state for funds to build 12 new elementary schools, one intermediate school and a fourth new high school.

“This year our enrollment topped the 20,000 mark, and in the next 5 years, we expect the enrollment to reach 30,000 students,” she said.

The population boom is not without its problems, and virtually all city officials say traffic congestion is the biggest. The Riverside Freeway, which is the artery that links many new Corona residents to their jobs in Orange or Los Angeles counties, is bogging down with traffic.

“I get the impression from many old-time residents that they’re concerned about the traffic,” said Clarke of the city’s Building Department. “The congestion on the westbound 91 Freeway is an absolute zoo from about 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. every workday.”

Deininger said traffic improvements will come. He noted that Riverside County voters last November approved a half-cent sales tax increase to be used solely for traffic improvement.

The mayor also said the city is having success in attracting new businesses and industries “so that our children can have jobs right here in town.”

Deininger said no community likes to lose its young--an indirect comment on the migrations of young families from Los Angeles to Orange County 30 years ago and the migration of Orange County young families into Corona today. Deininger said the keys to a community’s retention of its young are keeping home prices affordable and jobs available. “I have grandchildren, and I want them to be able to live here,” the mayor said. CORONA STATISTICS

Founded: July 13, 1896.

City area: 28 square miles.

1960 population: 13,336.

1981 population: 34,000.

1988 population: 61,000.

Projected 1990 population: 75,000.

1981 building permits: 3,660.

1988 building permits: 17,784.

Median house cost: $177,000.

Source: city of Corona Building Division


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