Schools Give Community a High Score : Arcadia: Desirability of area rises during transition from conservative small town to multicultural city.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Klein is a Monrovia free-lance writer.

With top-scoring schools, a tight-knit community and ranch-style homes laid out below the San Gabriel foothills, Arcadia has been a highly sought-after address since the 1950s.

Once the center of Elias Jackson (Lucky) Baldwin's mammoth agricultural holdings, Arcadia is home to the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum and the Santa Anita Park racetrack.

Arcadia is also a community in the midst of change, making the transition from a conservative small town to a multicultural city.

In the mid-1980s, an influx of Asian buyers from nearby San Gabriel, Alhambra and Monterey Park discovered Arcadia's prized school system and Asians now make up nearly one-quarter of the city's residents. Just this year, minority enrollment in the schools hit 53%.

Arcadia, which has a population of 48,290, is located west of the San Gabriel River (605) Freeway, east of Rosemead Boulevard (Highway 19) and north of the San Bernardino (10) Freeway. The northern part of the city is bisected by the Foothill (210) Freeway.

On the weekends and during midday, when traffic is typically light, Arcadia residents can drive to downtown Los Angeles in 20 minutes. During peak traffic times, the drive is closer to one hour.

The Arcadia Unified School District was established in 1950. It comprises six elementary schools, three junior high schools and one high school. Last school year, the district's eighth graders scored in the 90th percentile on statewide reading, math, history and science tests.

Statistics like those are what drew Ichen Ho, 36, and his wife, Patty, from Monterey Park to Arcadia last July.

"I called up my friends and they say schools are very good," said Ho, a native of Taiwan who immigrated to the United States nine years ago. His daughter, Finny, attends first grade at Baldwin Stocker Elementary School.

Ho purchased a 2,350-square-foot, two-story home with three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, a family room, fireplace and huge back yard for $470,000. The house was built 13 years ago in a neighborhood that now houses mostly Asian residents, Ho said.

Although more and more neighborhoods are becoming Asian- dominated, Arcadia has not had the tension and political turmoil that engulfed cities like Monterey Park when Asians bought there in large numbers a decade ago.

"They have done a good job of blending in with the established community," said Sandy Simpson, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent who grew up in Arcadia.

Gian Wardell, a 69-year-old community volunteer who has lived in Arcadia 33 years, said the new ethnic ratio in town makes life more interesting. "I like it because the communities are concerned with getting to know each other. I think we will come even closer together in the end," Wardell said.

She moved to her 2,300-square-foot home two blocks above Foothill Boulevard near Santa Anita Avenue after her late husband's employer transferred him to Southern California from Connecticut, she said. They paid $38,000 for a four-bedroom home on a large lot.

Back in those days, Arcadia was a different place, Wardell and other old-timers said. "The town was much smaller in feel. You felt very safe here. I would walk out and not bother to lock the back door," Wardell said.

Arcadia began as a town site laid out in 1887 with the completion of the Santa Fe Railroad. The area was owned by Lucky Baldwin, a rancher and speculator who held 46,000 acres of the San Gabriel Valley.

He incorporated the town in 1903, despite a protest raised by the residents, one of whom wrote in the local newspaper that Baldwin intended to turn Arcadia into "a gambling hell and booze pleasure park."

Although Baldwin assured the townsfolk that he had no such plans, shortly after he became the city's first mayor there were 13 saloons and hotels thriving within the city limits and the original Santa Anita racetrack had been established on the grounds of what is now the Arcadia County Park.

Sin City survived only as long as Baldwin himself, however. When he died in 1909, a reform movement began that led to the outlawing of liquor licenses in 1912. Horse racing was prohibited throughout California in 1909 and did not return until 1932.

Baldwin's daughter, Anita, opened the second Santa Anita Park on its current site at 285 W. Huntington Drive in 1934.

Currently, the racetrack draws 2.6 million visitors each year who bet more than $470 million on the horses that run from the day after Christmas to April and in October and November.

Close proximity to the racetrack is one amenity that drew Dick and Jean Thomas to Arcadia almost 40 years ago from Chicago.

The other plus for them was the city's family atmosphere.

"In this neighborhood, there must've been at least 10 families with three or four kids each," Dick said. "We would meet for every holiday and play volleyball together every weekend. It was very unsophisticated. We had parties for Halloween or we'd go to the beach. Everybody knew everybody."

Their 1,400-square-foot home, with three bedrooms and two baths, has drawn offers of up to $350,000 in recent years although it is not for sale. They purchased it in the early 1950s for $14,000.

In the past five years, many of the houses in their neighborhood have been torn down and replaced with condominium units.

"The house next door they tore down and put up six condos on it. There's no land there anymore," Jean Thomas said.

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Many of the city's post-World War II tract homes--built on half-acre lots--are being torn down and replaced with 5,000-square-foot mansions, complete with circular driveways, stone facades, fountains and leaded glass windows.

The practice, called "rebuilding," started in the late 1980s, said Simpson. "They eat up the entire lot and they don't blend in at all" with the surrounding neighborhood, she said, adding that many residents have complained the new homes are gaudy.

The "mansionized" houses, typically including four to five bedrooms, a family room and three bathrooms, are on the market for $1.7 million to $2.8 million, Simpson said.

Currently, an average ranch-style home with two or three bedrooms and 1 3/4-quarter baths built in the late 1940s or early 1950s sells for between $300,000 and $400,000, she said.

Homes in the city's Upper Rancho area, above Foothill Boulevard between Baldwin and Santa Anita avenues, sell for $1 million and up, Simpson said. Built in the 1950s and '60s, those homes often sit on an acre of land and have three to five bedrooms and three or more bathrooms.

A development called Whispering Pines Summit, constructed in the early 1980s on a foothill bluff overlooking the San Gabriel Valley, offers 14,000-square-foot homes set on 5-acre parcels that sell for between $2 million and $6 million, Simpson said.

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On the other end of the scale is the area south of Live Oak Avenue, where starter homes are listed under $200,000. The reason for the lower price, Simpson explained, is that residents of that area are not included in the Arcadia school district. The homes in those neighborhoods are typically 700-square-foot, two-bedroom houses with one bathroom on a 50-by-150-square-foot lot.

Steve and Martha Amparan moved into one of those neighborhoods last January. They had owned a home in Pomona but wanted to live closer to Martha's work as a nurse in Pasadena and Steve's job as financial services supervisor at Los Angeles County Medical Center in East Los Angeles.

"We looked in Glendora, Duarte, Alhambra and San Gabriel but we never thought we would be able to find something in Arcadia," Martha said. "For the money we got a lot in cleanliness and the neighborhood is well-maintained. The neighbors are really friendly and reliable."

The Amparans bought their 1,100-square-foot, three-bedroom, one-bath home for $205,000. Their two young children will eventually go to El Monte schools. Built in 1945, the house has a large, private back yard, detached garage and covered patio.

There are a wide range of condominium complexes in Arcadia, ranging from apartment house conversions built in the 1970s, where asking prices can be as low as $119,000, to townhomes with attached walls, pools, spas and association fees that sell for as much as $355,000.

At a Glance

1992 estimate: 48,661

1980-90 change: +5.5%

Median age: 39.7 years

Annual Income

Per capita: 29,359

Median household: 50,435

Household distribution

Less that $25,000: 20.5%

$25,000 -- $40,000: 18.6%

$40,000 -- $60,000: 19.0%

$60,000 -- $100,000: 22.6%

$100,000+: 19.3%

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