For residents of Palmdale, the distinction of being the fastest-growing major city in California is great for municipal bragging rights--but it has also been a decidedly mixed blessing at home.
Once a dusty little town at the northern edge of Los Angeles County bordering the Mojave Desert, Palmdale--along with the surrounding Antelope Valley--was transformed during the 1980s by the construction of subdivision after subdivision of affordable housing. The area has gradually become a distant suburb of the San Fernando Valley.
Government and business leaders in Palmdale, about 35 miles northeast of the Valley, say growth means progress and opportunities: the area’s first regional mall set to open next month, a long-awaited regional airport that finally is attracting substantial jetliner traffic, and other amenities.
But the development also has brought vastly increased problems with crime and traffic, concerns about future water availability and loss of the natural desert habitat. And, for the first time, some in the traditionally pro-growth area are saying the expansion has been too large, and too fast.
New U.S. Bureau of the Census figures show that Palmdale’s population grew from 12,297 in 1980 to 65,357 this year, a whopping 432% increase--the largest growth rate recorded for any city of more than 50,000.
“It’s somewhat of a dubious honor,” said Jim McAvoy, a Palmdale slow-growth activist. “There’s pain that goes with that kind of growth. All the people who moved up here to get away from the gridlock and the long lines down below are finding that those have followed them up here. It definitely has its down sides.”
Palmdale Mayor Pro Tem Joe Davies, a 28-year resident, agreed that the changes have been dramatic. But he said the city has done a good job of coping with the impact, noting, “If you don’t grow, you tend to go backwards.”
The census figures were released, ironically, just as the growth has slowed. The area’s housing market hit a slump this spring because of overbuilding, leaving the Antelope Valley with a year’s inventory of unsold new homes. And the area’s aerospace industries are suffering from a nationwide downturn.
As a result, Antelope Valley schools that have had double-digit enrollment increases in recent years are now worrying about funding shortages if enrollment is static this fall.
Nevertheless, business and government officials predict the area will thrive in the coming years because it has most of the undeveloped land in the county.
“Slump, my foot,” said Howard Brooks, executive director of the Antelope Valley Board of Trade. “We’re still growing faster than anyone else, but not as fast as we were.”
Just how much the area has grown seems to be in question. Whereas the census’ preliminary 1990 population figure for Palmdale is 65,357, both the state and a private research group earlier this year estimated the city’s current population at 56,500.
Even under those calculations, Palmdale was the fastest-growing major city in the state.
“We’ve heard it before, but it’s always refreshing to hear again,” Mayor Pro Tem Davies said of the distinction. “We’re pleased to be in the forefront.”