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Almost Pasadena Adjacent

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mark and Jennifer Summitt are moving on up--up the street. To say the Summitts like their north Monrovia neighborhood is an understatement. Their previous two homes were also just blocks away.

The Summitts, both 30, who moved to the area when they got married, wanted a bigger house, and can’t think of a better place than Monrovia to raise Amanda, their 9-month-old daughter.

“The small-town atmosphere and intimacy are great for families,” said Mark Summitt, a self-employed importer and distributor of forest products. “And the homes have more character than what you’d find elsewhere; it’s not a bunch of pink stucco houses.”

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North Monrovia is the more affluent part of Monrovia, a city of about 39,000 situated about eight miles east of Pasadena at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains between Duarte and Arcadia.

The part of town north of Foothill Boulevard, between Mountain Avenue to the east and 5th Avenue to the west, has about 3,000 single-family homes along with several condominium and apartment complexes.

With its mix of Victorian, Queen Anne, Craftsman, Spanish Colonial and modern houses, the neighborhood is a popular stand-in for “anytown USA” in films and television.

The Summitts, who have lived in the area for six years, first leased a house, then bought a fixer-upper and sold it, then moved into a Victorian before settling into their current house in January.

Built in 1996, the 2,200-square-foot four-bedroom, three-bath home, which also has a guest house and a pool, cost $484,000.

Home buyers like the Summitts are common in the neighborhood, said Mary Ann Petrovich, a Realtor with Century 21 Adams & Barnes in Monrovia. “People are staying in the neighborhood, moving to bigger homes as their families grow,” she said.

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Home prices start at $203,000 for an 850-square-foot fixer-upper with two bedrooms and one bathroom, although not many such homes are available, Petrovich said. At the higher end, a 5,000-square-foot home with four bedrooms and 5 1/2 bathrooms costs $900,000.

The average price is $350,000 for a three-bedroom two-bath home of 2,000 square feet.

Many residents--a mix of young families, retirees and professionals--looked in nearby Pasadena or Sierra Madre before ending up in Monrovia. “It’s the same type of neighborhood but more affordable,” Petrovich said.

One such buyer was Jeannine Edgerley, 59, a business manager who moved from Diamond Bar in February 1999.

Because larger homes in Sierra Madre were too expensive, she looked in Monrovia and found a three-bedroom, two-bath home of 2,100 square feet, built in 1957, for $270,000.

“I’ve watched the community grow from a little worn around the heels to a nice little town nestled in the foothills,” said Edgerley, who works in nearby Arcadia. “It reminded me of Whittier, where I grew up. People keep their homes nice, it’s quiet and I feel very safe living by myself.”

“Crime is very low in the north end,” said Sgt. Steve Cofield, head of community policing for the Monrovia Police Department. “The quality of life is so high there, the kind of thing we get a call about is a party going on too long.”

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Monrovia was founded in 1886 by four men who made their fortunes in the banking and railroad industries. It was originally ranchland covered with oak trees. The first town lots sold for $100 to $150 and, to prevent land speculation, owners had to build houses within six months of buying lots.

Neighborhood With a Bit of History

“The homes are older here, and there’s a feeling of history about it,” said Kristin Mariconda, 56, who has lived in Monrovia with her husband, Donald, since 1976.

The Maricondas’ home, a 1909 Craftsman with four bedrooms and three bathrooms in 3,700 square feet, cost $70,000. “It has lots of sun porches and windows because it was built when Monrovia was known for clean air,” Mariconda said.

In the early 1900s, Monrovia built a sanitarium for people with tuberculosis and other chest diseases, although “it’s hard to believe with all the smog we get now,” Mariconda said, with a laugh.

The sanitarium is gone, but many of Monrovia’s original homes and commercial buildings are still standing, and the city encourages residents to restore and preserve vintage homes.

Buying an older home might even lead to a tax break. Robert Kastenbaum, the city’s director of community development, said, “Our Historic Preservation Commission recommends homes that are eligible for Mills Act contracts, which provide a property tax reduction for homes that qualify as historic landmarks.”

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About 25 Monrovia homes have qualified for the contracts. In return, homeowners agree to avoid making alterations that would destroy their homes’ historic character.

New development in area, however, is not nearly so welcome. Residents fight the building of more homes in the foothills.

“People don’t want mansions on the hill that can be seen,” said Mariconda, a former member of the Monrovia Planning Commission. “They don’t want to change the naturalness of the hills.”

The controversy began in the late 1980s with the development of Gold Hills, a 60-acre area with 54 million-dollar custom-built homes in the foothills north of Scenic Drive between Myrtle Avenue on the east and Alta Vista Avenue on the west.

Residents Vote to Protect Hillsides

After protests from residents, the city placed a moratorium on further hillside development. Individual property owners, however, still sought permission to build on undeveloped land in the foothills, from the western boundary of Monrovia to Ridgeside Drive on the east.

Kastenbaum said the city formed a Hillside Advisory Committee, made up of property owners and residents with homes near the foothills, to work with the City Council and Planning Commission to develop a master plan for hillside development. In July 2000, Monrovia residents passed two measures on a special ballot to preserve the hillsides.

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Measure A designates city-owned hillside land as a wilderness and recreation area, and limits the number of homes that can be built on privately owned, undeveloped property. Measure B will raise money from parcel taxes on residents, vacant property and businesses to buy more of the undeveloped hillside for the city.

Just as important to residents as vintage architecture and historic preservation is Monrovia’s reputation as a community with strong ties to local government.

“I like how the community is run,” said Mariconda. “The Chamber of Commerce, City Council and school district work together to improve the quality of life in all aspects.”

In 1995, Monrovia was named one of 10 All-America cities by the nonprofit National Civic League. The annual award recognizes collaboration among public and private sectors.

Monrovia won for revitalizing its downtown, reducing crime and creating jobs. The organization also praised the city’s “high-quality public services and numerous cultural, educational and recreational opportunities.”

The revitalized Old Town, along Myrtle Avenue just south of Foothill Boulevard, is a real draw for residents although this wasn’t always the case.

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“Monrovia had a defunct downtown in 1961 when I first moved here,” said longtime resident Don Proctor. “You could fire off a cannon and not hit anybody. Downtown has changed enormously.”

In the 1970s, the city, with federal aid, spent more than $1 million to improve Old Town with a new streetscape (curbs, sidewalks, benches and landscaping) and remodeled stores.

The quaint street has become a community gathering place. A Family Festival, which includes a farmers market, runs Friday nights March through December, drawing about 6,000 to 8,000 people each week.

“We like the proximity to Old Town,” said Summitt. “We can walk the baby down to the park, to the Family Festival and to restaurants.”

The community camaraderie carries over into the neighborhood. “We have better relations here with our neighbors than anywhere I’ve lived,” said Summitt. “I know it’s like a cliche, but a neighbor kid even mows my grass.”

“You know your neighbors and everyone watches out for each other,” agreed Mariconda, who leads a Neighborhood Watch group.

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One problem the group doesn’t have to watch out for is truants.

Monrovia has an anti-truancy law, passed in 1994, that allows police to ticket youth ages 12 to 17 who are not in school between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Violators must pay a $135 fine or do 27 hours of community service.

The program has been a model for Los Angeles and other cities nationwide. According to Cofield, of the Monrovia Police Department, “The unexcused absence rate is down 40% since 1994.”

Although the law has been somewhat controversial because parents who home-school their kids claim their children have been stopped erroneously, Cofield said the police have never given a home-schooled student a ticket.

In 1997, parents of home-schooled children filed a lawsuit against the city and the police chief, claiming that the law was unconstitutional. In January 1999, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled that the ordinance contradicted state truancy laws because it did not permit certain exceptions for being away from school, and could not be enforced. The city amended the law, and in January 2000, the 2nd District Court of Appeal overturned the earlier decision, ordering the Superior Court to consider the constitutionality of the amended law. The case is still pending in Superior Court.

For families who choose traditional schooling, Monrovia has five elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools, said Mariconda, an administrative assistant for the superintendent of schools.

“My children all went through the public schools,” said Mariconda, “‘and most parents in the area send their children to the schools here.”

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In the most recent testing, Monrovia schools ranked 611 in the state, out of 977 districts, and 43rd in the area, out of 80.

Many of those parents attended the same schools themselves: As residents who grew up in Monrovia decide to stay, an increasing number of multi-generation families live in the area.

For example, Don Proctor’s wife, Linda, a clerk for the city of Monrovia, visited relatives in Monrovia in 1958 when she was 17. She liked the city so much she never left. “It was the small-town friendliness,” she said.

Proctor’s son David and his family have also bought a home in north Monrovia, and his kids attend the same elementary school he did.

“People who move here tend to be here a long time,” said Linda Proctor. “Once you’re in Monrovia, it’s home.”

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Karen Lindell is a Sierra Madre freelance writer.

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