Sylmar Reaching the End of Happy Trails : Development: L.A.'s one-time rural enclave struggles with results from a decade of urban growth. New and old residents agree: Is this any way to build a community?


Equestrian Jeannine Roman recalls the day five horseback riders broke into a leisurely trot along Foothill Boulevard in Sylmar, headed toward a bountiful network of trails in the rolling slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains.

A reminder of city life abruptly ended the ride.

With lights flashing and siren blaring, a Los Angeles police car sped by. Horses spooked and scattered. Some bucked their riders. One animal jumped onto the hood of a parked car.

Roman, who learned of the mishap in her role as president of the Sylmar Trails Committee, blames neither the police officer nor the riders. Instead, she cites the incident as a stark example of the conflicts created by boom-town growth in her community.


“The onward press of population growth just caught up with Sylmar,” sighed Roman, 32, who recently sold her Sylmar horse ranch to a developer and is looking for a bigger, more remote patch of land.

Long a rural enclave at the northeastern edge of the San Fernando Valley, Sylmar expanded by nearly a third during the last decade--from 41,922 people in 1980 to 54,779 last year. During the same period the number of housing units grew from 13,120 to 17,284.

The city Planning Department recently declared Sylmar, a 23-square-mile part of Los Angeles, the city’s fastest-growing area in the last decade. Because Sylmar is only 29 miles from downtown Los Angeles and a short drive to job centers in the Valley, the more cynical observers of urban sprawl might ask what took so long.

Real estate experts and planners say that, during the 1970s, land values never really recovered from the 6.6-magnitude earthquake that hit Sylmar in 1971. The subsequently low land prices and easier access to the community after the Foothill Freeway opened in 1981 combined to fuel growth during the 1980s, they say.


“It’s the last steppingstone to the Valley,” said real estate agent Mike Anderson. “You can still get condos in the $130,000 range. If you moved them down in the Valley a little bit farther, you’d tack on $30,000 to $40,000.”

Much of the new housing has been condominiums and tract houses, which have drawn a mixture of young blue- and white-collar workers up from the Valley floor. These days, hay truck drivers share the roads with more and more commuters. And Cyclone fences surround horse pastures that abut the tall cinder-block walls of townhome complexes.

A glance toward the near future suggests residents should brace themselves for more of the same.

Although a small-town flavor remains, a decade of growth has given Sylmar many of the attributes of its metropolitan neighbors. Schools are crowded, views are blocked, traffic is denser and graffiti more common.

And in October, local and federal law enforcement officials discovered 20 tons of cocaine in a Sylmar warehouse--the largest cocaine seizure in history.

Some old-timers are angry about the growth and its effects. They blame politicians for being negligent, developers for being insensitive and their neighbors for being greedy.

But most are just sad. They describe Sylmar of the past as if they have lost an old friend.

Rita and Howard Hudson moved to 1 1/4-acres on Polk Street in 1961 because there was room for their children to raise farm animals and the views of the San Gabriel Mountains were spectacular.


When the Foothill Freeway extended to Sylmar 20 years later, Polk Street became an off-ramp. In 1986, the 61-unit Brooktree Townhomes opened next door and the next year another complex wrapped around the back of the Hudsons’ property.

These days Rita Hudson, 60, talks a lot about selling out to a developer, about taking the money and running. Land access to horse trails is now blocked by houses and she is afraid to ride on the busy street. Her windows look out on a 30-foot-high wall.

“Now if I want to see the mountains I have to go out to the street,” she said. “I really miss that.”

The newcomers were wooed by many of the same attributes that brought the old-timers to Sylmar earlier in the century--chiefly, the chance to own a home in a quiet neighborhood. In addition, the new commuters are attracted by the freeways that ring the community.

A survey of some of the most recent arrivals completed by Hamdan Project Development--a company breaking ground this month on a 109-unit condo project on Foothill Boulevard--found the average newcomer is 30 to 36 years old, married but still childless, with some college education and a job in the San Fernando Valley.

The new couples tend to earn a combined salary of $40,000 to $60,000 a year, said Charissa Lee, a Hamdan analyst. The increasing affluence helped pull Sylmar’s median household income up from $22,372 at the time of the 1980 U.S. Census to an estimated $36,589 in 1989.

The community was predominantly white in 1980, but Lee said that also seems to be changing, with Latino, Asian and black couples among those responding to her survey. “The ethnic diversity seems much broader,” Lee said.

Susan Volpe, 33, is studying design at Mission College and her husband Tom, 38, is a painter on Los Angeles’ Westside. Five years ago they bought a three-bedroom house near El Cariso Regional Park for less than $100,000.


“We looked everywhere, at hundreds of homes,” Susan Volpe said. “This was one of the few places that had any atmosphere for the price.”

Like most of the newcomers interviewed for this article, Volpe enjoys the vestiges of country life--horses clopping by her house, mountain walks just minutes from her home--and she worries that more development will take all that away from her.

The official community plan, which calls for Sylmar to grow an additional 36% in the next 10 to 20 years, is being reviewed by a citizens’ group appointed by Councilman Ernani Bernardi. That study is scheduled to be presented to the city Planning Commission in mid-1991.

Also, about 500 residents have formed the Sylmar Land Owners Assn., which has drawn up its own plan with an eye toward working with potential developers, instead of against them.

Most residents interviewed seemed optimistic that they will have some say in the future of their community. But a few were more skeptical.

“I don’t have the heart to tell them they’re going to spend hundreds of hours of their time and the Planning Commission might just say no,” Roman said of the city-appointed citizens’ group. “I’d say there’s a 50% chance that their plan will just get put in a trash can.”

Regardless of either community group’s efforts, large projects already approved for the area include Sunset Farms, a 260-acre Warner Center-style commercial, industrial and residential development in the foothills.

Despite a 1989 Los Angeles City Council moratorium on the densest type of condominium projects, developers already have city approval to extend the crop of condominiums that sprouted along Foothill Boulevard during the last decade, said city planner David Silverman. An 800-lot mobile home park and several large housing developments are also in progress. Mission College, a two-year community college, will move to its new Sylmar campus this spring and anticipates a student body up to 8,000 strong.

County supervisors are discussing selling 535 acres of hilly land the county owns next to Olive View Medical Center. Developers have their eye on Wilson Canyon, private ranch land near the Angeles National Forest.

As open land is gobbled up, real estate experts anticipate a gradual slowing in Sylmar’s expansion. Still, Charlotte Creager, a Sylmar real estate broker since 1945, envisions another spurt of growth as longtime residents sell out.

Five months ago, Bob Martinez moved his eight horses to Palmdale, where he hopes to start a stud farm. He could get more land for his money there, he said, and he likes the wide open spaces.

“It’s peaceful here. You don’t hear any screeching tires or anything,” Martinez said. “We hear a fire engine about once a month. Up there in Sylmar, you’ve got guys going by with their radios blasting and everything.”

Up there in Sylmar, residents are keenly aware of their big-city problems and struggle to keep a handle on them.

A second police patrol recently was added to the area and Bernardi this week proposed using developer fees to pay for a bigger library and better fire protection. A third post office was added in 1987 to accommodate the mail load, which had doubled in the previous five years.

Still, Sylmar Elementary School already has more temporary bungalows than permanent classrooms to cope with a 24% increase in elementary school age children since 1984, according to the Los Angeles Unified School District demographics unit.

New and old residents alike complain that Sylmar is sparsely served by amenities common in other Valley communities: There is only one department store, no movie theater and few restaurants beyond the fast-food joints that serve the I-5 travelers.

“The kind of growth we had expected to see has not happened,” said Margaret Whittington, who rents a small house in southern Sylmar. “We have the same kind of services that we had when I moved here in 1978, but we have more people using those services. . . . There’s not even a parking place at the grocery store.”