Builder's Plan Mixes Homes, Public Transit : Real estate: Breaking with Southern California tradition, the planned Porta Bella project boasts a 750-foot escalator for easy access to Metrolink.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At first blush, plans for the 996-acre Porta Bella development here don't look much different from dozens of other projects that have leaped from designers' drawing boards into the jagged hills of this burgeoning Southern California suburb over the past few decades.

But among the expected assortment of houses, businesses and roads outlined in this plan is something strange: a 750-foot escalator connecting the bluff-top community to the Santa Clarita Metrolink train station in the adjacent valley below.

City officials hope residents of this community will leave their cars behind and glide down that escalator every day to board commuter trains for Burbank, Los Angeles and other work destinations. The developer of the project, Marina del Rey-based Northholme Partners, hopes that easy access to public transportation will entice legions of gridlock-weary commuters to line up to buy houses.

Such hopes are mundane in other regions of the country, including Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area, where millions ride mass transit every day, and proximity to a train station drives property values up. But in the car-crazy culture of Southern California, the project marks an ambitious departure from decades of stretching the urban landscape simply by adding another freeway.

"I'm sure it's been 80 years since somebody has done something like this in Southern California," said William Fulton, editor of the California Planning and Development Report, a monthly industry newsletter.

Building a residential community here around a public transportation station may be an innovative idea, but it's still only an idea. The project was approved by the city's Planning Commission in June, however, and the City Council could vote on it this spring. Even if developers get quick approval, it will be several years before construction starts and at least 20 years before the project is completed, said Sam Veltri, a consultant hired by Northholme to manage the project.

Plans call for as many as 1,244 single-family houses, 1,667 condominiums and apartments, and 1.5 million square feet of commercial space. The project is located in the center of Santa Clarita, a city of 120,000 formed six years ago when the communities of Valencia, Newhall, Canyon Country and Saugus banded together.

Northholme was formed specifically to build the Porta Bella project and is owned by Banyan Management Corp., a real estate development company based in Chicago, and by Eugene Rosenfeld, a developer based in El Segundo. The property is owned by Whittaker Corp., a Los Angeles defense contractor, which vacated a manufacturing plant here in 1987. The developers and Whittaker have agreed to share the profits of the venture, Veltri said.

If the entire Porta Bella project is built, it will cost "hundreds of millions of dollars" to complete, Veltri said, including at least $2 million for the escalator--actually a series of escalators, all under a plexiglass roof, that will snake along a narrow ridgeline to the Metrolink station. Veltri said some of the financing for the project will come from the partners in Northholme, but much of it will have to be obtained from outside investors or commercial banks.

Veltri stressed that the whole project is designed to encourage pedestrian travel, with dozens of walking trails connecting neighborhoods and with clusters of apartments and condominiums located within walking distance of markets and movie theaters. Still, he acknowledged that many prospective buyers will see the escalator as the key attraction. "People will identify the project with the escalator and the connection to the Metrolink," Veltri said. "It makes the whole project."

Metrolink is a 3-year-old public rail system that connects Union Station in Los Angeles with cities in Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. About 1,500 Santa Clarita residents currently use Metrolink every weekday, city officials said. A one-way trip from Santa Clarita to Los Angeles takes about 50 minutes and costs $5.50.

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The Porta Bella project, tied so closely to public transportation, hearkens back to the turn of the century, Fulton said, when Southern California real estate barons including Henry Huntington built electric rail lines to entice people to move from Downtown Los Angeles to developments in Santa Monica, San Bernardino and other then-remote outposts.

But from the dawn of the automobile age until recently, Fulton said, freeways had pushed commuter railways to near-extinction in Southern California. Many hope the Porta Bella project will spark a renewed commitment to incorporating public transportation in the design of urban communities.

"This is the kind of development Southern California needs," said Jan Heidt, a Santa Clarita city councilwoman who also serves on the Metrolink board of directors. Building along a rail line will reduce congestion on local roads and freeways, Heidt said, pointing out that the average freeway speed during rush hour is expected to tumble to 9 m.p.h. within 20 years.

Nevertheless, city officials aren't ready to declare the automobile era over. Kevin Michel, a city planner tracking the project, said Santa Clarita officials forecast only an additional 320 Metrolink passengers will depart and arrive each day when the project is complete, even though Porta Bella may be home to 9,000 residents and dozens of businesses.

Veltri called the city's public transportation forecasts "ridiculously low," and Michel agreed that the city's estimates are probably too conservative. But for now, he said, city officials don't want to be too optimistic about Southern California commuters' willingness to give up their cars and walk considerable distances to a Metrolink station.

Public opposition to the project has been mild, officials said, but some area residents would like to see the density of the project reduced. "We're 100% in support of anything to increase the use of public transit," said Carl Kanowsky, who lives in a neighborhood on the west side of the project. "But the escalator won't be built until the final phase of the project, which could be around 2020. What we're concerned about is using that as an excuse to overdevelop the land."

Local residents also want to be sure that the site, which was home to a giant munitions factory from 1906 to 1987, is cleaned of any heavy metals and other contaminants left after decades of manufacturing and testing explosives. Thirteen contaminated areas on the site have already been identified and cleaned in recent years, but developers acknowledged that further tests and cleanup work are necessary.

Ironically, the property's history has in some ways made development an attractive option. Because the property is not a pristine piece of land but one that has been built on and abandoned, "there's really not a lot left to do with the site except develop it," Heidt said.

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