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COLUMN ONE : Wealthy Enclaves Turn Gray : Surging real estate prices and other economic factors in exclusive communities have caused their populations to dwindle and grow older.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

During the two decades that Jim Brodsky has been doling out prescription drugs at Villa Park Pharmacy, he has seen the populace of the well-to-do community shift gradually like the seasons.

Time was, Brodsky would mostly dish up pills and remedies for ailing toddlers and their panicky parents. The children grew up, and most moved out of town. Left behind is a slightly smaller and decidedly different clientele.

“It’s beginning to become the Geritol generation,” Brodsky mused one recent afternoon between customers. “We’re into the high blood pressure set, the insulin, arthritis medicine, things that come with the older population.”

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Brodsky may not know it, but the demographic trend he is observing from behind his pharmacy counter in Orange County is sweeping many exclusive communities up and down the state. Surging real estate prices and other economic factors during the 1980s have blocked the turnstiles into wealthy enclaves like never before, causing their populations to age and shrink in number.

As the state was growing by 26%, Villa Park’s population dropped nearly 12%. San Marino, Rolling Hills, Carmel, Sausalito and Beverly Hills also experienced declines during the decade. Of the 38 cities in California that lost population, nearly half have an average household income of more than $80,000--double the state average.

Although the population shifts in California’s priciest cities have been neither universal nor dramatic, they have produced ripples of change.

Businessmen such as Brodsky have seen the makeup of their customers--and their needs and desires--swing in new directions. School districts in some wealthy communities have shut down campuses as the number of students dwindled. Most of those same students have found it nearly impossible to buy back into the cities where they were raised.

Meanwhile, wealthy communities such as Palos Verdes Estates have experienced what one city official called “mansionization,” as empty nesters and wealthy newcomers remodel and add on to their million-dollar homes to create a more comfortable retreat from the urban swirl beyond the city limits.

“These cities of the hyper-wealthy have basically become inaccessible places,” said Edward Soja, professor of urban and regional planning at UCLA. “They have almost by default been able to control growth by being extraordinarily wealthy. Entry has become incredibly difficult.”

Exclusive enclaves for the rich are certainly nothing new. For centuries, the wealthy have been establishing havens for their families away from the teeming masses. The rich of London began retiring to suburban retreats during the 18th Century. In the United States, communities such as Scarsdale, N.Y., and Greenwich, Conn., grew and prospered over the past century.

Those same cities have experienced population losses in recent decades. Since 1970, the number of people living in Scarsdale dropped nearly 12%, while Greenwich witnessed a 2% decline during the past decade.

“I think it’s fairly new in California to see cities lose population, but it happens all over the nation,” said David Heer, associate director of the USC population research laboratory. “I guess we always find it surprising in California because most of our towns are growing so rapidly.”

The decline in population among California’s exclusive enclaves can be tied to a few basic factors, researchers say.

Most of those communities blossomed during the 1950s and ‘60s. With little land left for housing construction, their populations withered as children moved out and families shrank.

Some parents also have moved, reaping the equity windfall in their homes from the state’s real estate boom. Others have remained, content that they have found a safe and comfortable way station for their golden years.

“It seems to me most people aren’t selling their homes and moving to places like Sun City. They’re staying here,” said Bobbie Pine, a longtime resident of the Palos Verdes Peninsula. “Sure, if you bought your home for $40,000 or $50,000 and can get $800,000 for it today, it sounds nice. But there is nowhere on Earth you can find a place like this.”

Moreover, the newcomers moving into California’s richest cities are a far different breed. More often than not, they are families with fewer children or career-consumed couples with no youngsters.

“The people who can buy a house here are generally very much into their businesses and jobs,” said Ed San Diego, city manager of Belvedere, an exclusive colony of 2,100 residents on a picturesque spit of land in San Francisco Bay. “Families are pretty much put on a back burner or forgotten altogether.”

Another factor cited by experts is Proposition 13, the 1978 state ballot measure that froze property taxes. Faced with a relatively small annual tax, some aging homeowners have found it economically advantageous to stay rooted in their roomy houses.

“All these empty nesters have a very reduced property tax if they’ve stayed in their homes since the late ‘70s,” Heer said. “If Prop. 13 wasn’t there, they’d be paying very high taxes and might move out in favor of younger families with younger children.”

While various communities share the distinction of being extremely wealthy and declining in population, each has its own character.

Civic leaders in Villa Park talk about the city’s bucolic past, its history of 4-H clubs, community involvement and half-acre lots studded with orange trees. In La Canada Flintridge or Palos Verdes Estates, they take pains to distance themselves from any connection to the Gucci set.

“The distinction from a place like Beverly Hills is that there you have the ostentatious, glitzy wealth, while Palos Verdes is much more subdued, subtle,” said Jim Hendrickson, city manager of the peninsula city. “We don’t have Spago, we don’t have those places where people go to be seen and see.”

Some of the communities are not convinced that they are losing population. The Marin County town of Ross was shocked when the U.S. Census Bureau announced this year that the hamlet of 2,100 had lost nearly a quarter of its population.

“We think the numbers are terribly inaccurate,” Ross Mayor Peter Barry said. “The only time in history that a place has lost a quarter of its population was during the Black Plague, and we haven’t had any plague in Ross.”

Such disputes notwithstanding, many of the communities acknowledge that they have experienced subtle changes.

Joe Conway notices it every Halloween in Villa Park. In years past, he would stock up on candy for the hordes of kids who would descend on the neighborhood. Now, he and his wife, Marge, sit and wait, but nobody stops by.

“It used to be everybody had a houseful of kids,” said Conway, the owner of a stock brokerage firm and father of seven. “Now we’re all beyond the kids stage. You go over to a friend’s house and it’s quiet.”

In wealthy Atherton on the San Francisco Peninsula, the elderly population has swelled so much that the city set up a computerized system that automatically telephones seniors each day to check on their welfare. If they do not answer, the machine signals the Police Department to send officers.

With the slump in population, many communities have seen the number of schoolchildren dwindle, but none more so than Palos Verdes. In 1973, the Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District had 17,000 students. Today, there are 9,000. The district closed five elementary schools and two intermediate schools during the 1980s. In December, the school board voted to close two of the three high schools.

A drop in the size of the average family seems to be the prime culprit. “Instead of four and five children per family, we have families with two children today,” said Nancy Mahr, a district spokeswoman.

The area has fewer youth baseball teams and Scout troops, Mahr said. But a peninsula senior citizens group has grown from only a handful of members a decade ago to more than 600 today.

Soja of UCLA suggested that there is a connection between the population shifts in wealthy communities and the larger issues of poverty and homelessness.

“These pockets of the wealthy are able to control things because they have the money and power and autonomy to take out land from its most beneficial social use and control access,” Soja said. “It’s symbolic that in the midst of a booming metropolis you’ve got places that don’t grow at all.”

For their part, many residents of such rich communities lament that their children cannot afford a house in their hometown. Pine, for instance, has a son in Moreno Valley, one of the fastest-growing cities in the state, and a daughter in booming Mission Viejo.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Pine said. “If the kids want to have a place of their own, then they just have to leave their nesting area and go further away because they just can’t touch it here. . . . Lots and lots of people living here right now wouldn’t be here if they had to pay today’s prices. They just got in at the right time.”

RICH AND DISAPPEARING

The 1980s saw a steady decline in population among the state’s richest and most exclusive cities and towns. California’s population swelled by 26%, but 38 of the state’s more than 450 cities actually lost people. Of those communities, 15 are upscale enclaves with an average household income double the state average.

1980-'90 1990 Avg. Population Household Median Age Area Change Income (1980/1990) STATEWIDE +26% $41,053 29.9/32.4 Ross -24.2% $120,970 34.4/35.7 Villa Park -11.7% $102,742 30.7/32.1 Belvedere -10.6% $141,092 43.9/46.6 Rolling Hills -8.7% $251,885 38.6/38.2 Atherton -8.1% $148,348 39.1/38.7 Palos Verdes Estates -6.0% $123,469 38.8/42.0 Woodside -4.8% $119,270 36.6/40.3 Monte Sereno -4.3% $90,503 37.1/38.5 Saratoga -4.1% $103,728 37.0/36.6 La Canada Flintridge -3.8% $100,135 36.6/38.0 San Marino -2.6% $127,104 39.3/40.5 Orinda -2.3% $95,158 38.1/40.9 Bradbury -2.0% $97,061 45.3/41.4 Hidden Hills -1.8% $108,012 34.8/36.8 Beverly Hills -1.2% $81,243 43.9/44.0

Source: U.S. Census Bureau and National Planning Data Corp.


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