Back to the ‘burbs

Times Staff Writer

THE suburbs, long derided as cultural wastelands, are experiencing a renaissance. And buyers are drawn to them like dieters to a scoop of Cherry Garcia.

No longer just sprawling residential tracts fanning out from nominal downtowns, the reinvented suburbs of Pasadena, Fullerton, San Fernando, Burbank and Irvine -- to name a few -- are pedestrian-friendly villages featuring vintage architecture mixed with new designs, mom-and-pop stores next to national chains, plus jobs a lot closer to home. They have museums, theaters, art galleries, concert halls and restaurants.

“New suburbanism,” as it’s called, is putting vitality back into suburbia.

“What we’re seeing is a very radical reordering of how people live and their relationship to suburbs,” said Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute. “Southern California is the laboratory for this.”


So what’s new about it?

Residential neighborhoods that ignore the old suburban model, for starters.

When Hughes Aircraft closed its 2 million-square-foot Fullerton plant in the early ‘90s, the challenge was to rezone and convert the 340-acre industrial site into a residential and commercial area, said Joel Rosen, the city’s chief planner.

The result is Amerige Heights, with 1,400 single-family homes, apartments and condos; a main street with ground-level shops, restaurants and offices and housing units above them; and a pedestrian bridge connecting the main residential area to a large outdoor shopping center anchored by Target.

Unlike the idealized suburb of your parents’ generation, the lots are small and close together, and some feature so-called rear-loading garages behind the homes, entered via attractive, landscaped lanes rather than alleys lined with garbage cans.

Many of the homes lack traditional yards, so families enjoy the 20 acres of parks scattered throughout the development, most of which serve as central green zones and are surrounded by residences that face them. The parks are open to the public, but are maintained by homeowners’ fees. The large residential streets have landscaped roundabouts to slow auto traffic. Narrow side streets accommodate wider sidewalks for pedestrian safety.

Sara and Roberto Lopez and their three kids moved to Amerige Heights from Santa Ana to take advantage of Fullerton’s highly touted schools and child-friendly activities, which the family has easy access to. The development has two elementary schools and a nearby high school.

The Lopezes purchased their two-story home for $750,000 two years ago. Comparable houses in the development today sell for at least $1 million, said Winston Creel, a Premier GMAC Real Estate agent in Fullerton.


“We love the neighborhood because it’s quiet,” Sara Lopez said. “There are a lot of kids around too.”

Not to mention pedestrians. One of the most striking features of “new suburbanism” is the dramatic shift from cars to walking. In the refurbished downtown areas, especially, residents are parking their automobiles in city lots off main streets so they can stroll along gussied-up avenues chock-full of restaurants, shops and clubs. They can people-watch in central plazas and run errands on their lunch hours.

They also can ride their bicycles. John Carroll, a 41-year-old Cal State Fullerton geography professor, pedals the 3 1/2 miles between his home and campus every day, and even gives his kids a lift to soccer practice on his adapted bike.

“My quality of life here is high,” Carroll said. “All the things we want to do as a family, we can do in this one town. And we do them.”

As suburbs have shifted from industry-based hubs to more eclectic businesses -- new media, biomedical and technological, for example -- they are attracting a new mix of people who desire a variety of amenities, said Henry Cisneros, chairman of the development firm CityView and a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They don’t want the old paradigm of residential sprawl with no “there” there.

In addition to a vibrant retail environment and green open spaces, a population with a mix of ages and ethnicities has brought new life to suburbs, urban planners and academics say.


“Immigrants bring culture and restaurants,” said Richard Peiser, a professor of real estate development at Harvard University’s design school. “They also bring capital from the old country, and multiple generations, which is what any healthy community wants to have.”

The older “suburbs hit a point where they either turn around and improve, like Pasadena, or continue a downward track,” Peiser added.

Suburban communities have accounted for 85% of all economic and job growth since 2000, Kotkin said. And 67% of Americans prefer living there, according to a 2005 community preferences survey conducted by American LIVES, a Carmel market research and consulting firm.

City planners have been challenged to reuse historic buildings for retail and residential units, convert industrial spaces for mixed uses, and create city centers that draw private investors and home buyers.

“Cities must ... create a balance,” said Steve Pontell, chairman of the Planning Center, a Costa Mesa consulting firm that produced Kotkin’s “The New Suburbanism: A Realist’s Guide to the American Future.” “If they want Lowe’s and Wal-Mart stores, then put them in the right place with the right design. Downtowns should have a mix of scale and types of retail. It’s not all or nothing.”

Fullerton faced such a quandary, and the results of the city’s decisions are dramatic.

The Orange County suburb’s character had already been established by the time its boom hit, between 1955 and 1964, when St. Jude Medical Center and the Hughes Aircraft and Beckman Coulter plants brought a tidal wave of jobs to the community.


Its downtown started fading, however, as the demand for housing pushed residential areas farther out. Malls drew shoppers away from the downtown core, leaving its streets lined with tattoo parlors and pawnshops, and businesses began shuttering in the ‘70s.

Eschewing “bulldozer development” -- the wholesale razing of buildings to start from scratch -- the city decided to preserve many of the older, historic structures for other uses. Two train stations have been reclaimed as restaurants, for example.

Downtown Fullerton now boasts the Wilshire Promenade, with 128 apartments and 11,000 square feet of commercial space, and City Pointe, with 192 apartment units and 12,400 square feet of commercial space at ground level. Nearby is the landscaped Downtown Plaza -- formerly an asphalt lot -- which every Thursday evening is the site of a farmers market popular with the pedestrian-only crowd that buys crafts and fresh produce. Downtown Fullerton’s historic Spanish-style public library was restored and now houses a museum. The charming California Hotel, built in 1922, today houses restaurants and offices.

Not everyone is aboard the new-suburbanist bandwagon, however. Critics -- usually residential opponents of mixed-use projects -- call it a stealth move to make suburbs denser, said Ray Young, associate vice president of academic programs and dean of graduate studies at Cal State Fullerton. Others call the trend social engineering, the result of which will be a loss of the small-town character of suburbs.

“Actually, we’re bringing back a sense of small-town living,” Young said. “We’re creating pockets of places for people to gather. People enjoy sitting and conversing with others; they want a sense of community.”

The poster child for this new scene is Pasadena. With an advantageous location, its share of wealthy residents, unique traditions, such as the Tournament of Roses and the Rose Bowl -- not to mention a strong sense of place -- the city was a prime candidate for a successful makeover.


At the turn of the last century, Pasadena was an established winter resort for well-heeled Midwesterners and East Coasters. After World War II, large department stores opened in outlying areas, drawing the higher-end retail away from the city’s center.

Downtown Pasadena began to decay, with vagrants and low-cost hotels moving to Colorado Boulevard, and no jobs to speak of in the area.

In 1976, talk of razing and rebuilding revved up. Heritage and preservation groups decried that redevelopment strategy, instigating a historic preservation overlay zone for Old Town Pasadena. With the architectural integrity of the boulevard assured, a redevelopment plan evolved, which other communities -- such as Sherman Oaks, Santa Ana and Anaheim -- have since emulated.

Old Town Pasadena’s renovation began with strategically located parking, said Allan Kotin, adjunct professor of urban planning at USC’s School of Policy, Planning, and Development. With multistory parking structures established off Colorado Boulevard, small-property owners had a reason to stay and enhance their properties. Today, they have been joined by national chains occupying beautiful old buildings that give the boulevard its charm.

“I never set foot in Old Pasadena, till the early ‘90s, anyway. No one went there,” said Greg Seares, 33, owner of Bodega Wine Bar at Paseo Colorado, a full-scale development with apartment units above retail stores. He rents a condo in a turn-of-the-20th-century building two blocks from his business. “I can walk to work, to the market, to movies, to every shop and restaurant in town, and I can hop on the Gold Line to get downtown.

“Sure, there’s more traffic on these streets now, and some people here don’t like it. But it doesn’t bother me. I laugh at the traffic when I’m strolling through town. Those people should get out of their cars too.”