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Southern California is becoming a tight fit

Times Staff Writer

When Bing Crosby crooned that he would settle down and “make the San Fernando Valley my home,” he wasn’t singing about apartments.

The Southern California dream back then -- exemplified by the World War II-era tracts popping up in the Valley and other places -- was of an affordable single-family home, a little house on a patch of green where kids could play out back.

But today, construction of condos and apartments is rapidly overtaking that of single-family residences, even in suburbs known for spread-out living.

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It’s part of a broader shift to urbanized living in Southern California, a change that brings with it significantly higher density and concerns about overcrowding and traffic.

Consider the Valley: In the 1940s, developers there and throughout the region were putting up houses wherever they could, plowing under vegetable fields and planting that dream along streets and cul-de-sacs.

But over the last six years, Los Angeles has approved more than 14,000 condos and apartments for construction in the San Fernando Valley, according to city records, nearly three times the number of single-family residences.

It’s a trend that is mirrored throughout the region, and it is expected to intensify as Southern California stretches to accommodate a crush of 6.3 million new residents over the next 30 years.

So many new apartments will be built that by 2035, the number of multi-family dwellings under construction will outstrip the number of single-family residences two to one, according to projections by the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

The shift is starkly obvious in Los Angeles County, where 60% of residences built in 1993 were single-family. Last year in the county, 38% of residential construction was single-family and 62% was apartments and condos.

The increase in apartment and condominium dwellings will dramatically reshape the way people live in Southern California, heralding an era of increasing urbanization for residents used to suburbia.

Even in such traditionally wide-open areas as Riverside and Orange counties, the number of permits issued for multi-family housing has nearly tripled since 1999.

Apartments and condos have already overtaken the construction of single-family residences in Orange County, where so far this year developers have started work on twice as many multi-family units as individual houses.

The shift has implications for infrastructure, congestion, schools and even the style of neighborhoods, as apartments encroach on single-family enclaves.

Top planners say that if cities and counties are not careful about where they place these high-density projects, the development could overcrowd schools, burden water, sewer and power systems and make traffic worse.

Perhaps nowhere is this clash causing more controversy than along the southern stretch of Ventura Boulevard in the Valley.

In the Sherman Oaks-Studio City area alone, 2,300 apartments and condos were approved for construction between 2000 and 2006.

Neighbors there are already feeling cramped.

“What we have is a city in crisis,” said Ellen Vukovich, a board member of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. “I don’t know how long the homeowners are going to be able to stem the tide.”

In Studio City, where mid-century houses and small apartment buildings are being replaced by mega-condo projects, residents are worried that the village-like nature of the community will be squashed under a crush of large new buildings and thousands of new residents.

As many as 1,600 new apartments or condos have been built or planned there in the last two years alone, and efforts are underway to produce 1,021 more units, according to figures gathered by neighborhood activists.

Already, traffic on streets leading to Ventura Boulevard in Studio City is backed up for several hours each day.

A Times search of city traffic records shows that at the same time many new developments were being planned and built in the southern end of the Valley, traffic at 10 major intersections along the boulevard worsened.

Ironically, residents along Ventura Boulevard nearly two decades ago fought construction of high-rise office towers there. The battle ended with stricter zoning rules, but they apply only to commercial development, not to residential.

“We’re just trying very hard to preserve some semblance of human-scale life here,” said Barbara Burke, who is a vice president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council but who said she was speaking as a homeowner. “The congestion is huge.”

Similar debates are going on elsewhere in Southern California as more high-density projects take root.

In Orange County, builders have put up more apartments and condos than houses for nearly two years, said Kristine Thalman, chief executive of the Building Industry Assn.'s Orange County chapter.

Driving the shift, Thalman said, is affordability: Condos and apartments are cheaper to build than houses, largely because less land is required per unit.

They are also cheaper to sell or rent, and with the median price of a single-family residence in Orange County at $724,000, many potential buyers can afford only condos, she said. They also appeal to younger buyers.

“They can live in a high-rise, go downstairs to a bar and restaurant and go to the baseball game,” she said.

For the most part, the shift has been embraced by planners, elected officials and developers, who say that despite the region’s history as a haven for people who moved west to escape the cramped apartments of their metropolitan hometowns, Southern Californians should expect a future that is denser and more urban.

With new construction placed near transit hubs, schools and commercial districts, these officials say, traffic will be minimized, and the region will still be able to accommodate millions of new residents.

“We need to start changing our approach from a suburban model to an urban model,” Los Angeles City Councilman Ed Reyes told planners and housing experts at a recent conference.

But Mark Pisano, executive director of the Southern California Assn. of Governments, said many municipalities, including Los Angeles, have allowed significant amounts of very high-density development in places where there is little access to the types of amenities -- like public transportation -- that will encourage residents to get out of their cars.

However, evidence seems to suggest that even if such developments were placed near public transportation, the system in Southern California is so limited that most residents would use their cars anyway.

And that, Pisano said, could lead to serious problems as Los Angeles and other cities continue to concentrate dense development in places where public transportation is not efficient.

“If you put density everywhere, you get gridlock,” he said.

According to the SCAG forecast, which was based on planned construction for Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties, about 2.5 million new residences of varying types will be built in the region by 2035.

The vast majority of the units will be condominiums, apartments and town houses. The trend is already evident.

In 1993, for example, the number of single-family residences under construction vastly outstripped the number of apartments and condominiums, as developers put up 22,414 houses and 8,662 multi-family units, according to the Construction Industry Research Board, which keeps records of building permits issued in the state.

In Los Angeles County that year, 60% of residences were single-family. And in less built-out areas like Riverside and Ventura counties, fewer than 300 multi-family units were built in 1993, compared to thousands of detached houses.

By last year, however, the percentage of single-family dwellings built in the five-county SCAG region had dropped to 64%, with 48,683 houses and 27,580 condominiums and apartments.

Vukovich, of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., said plenty of people still want to live in quiet single-family neighborhoods and worry that their ability to do so will be reduced as more condos are built.

“They’ve all bought into this idea that people are going to want to live in New York in Southern California,” she said.

Others argue that changes are not as dramatic as some might fear.

Jane Blumenfeld, L.A.'s principal planner, said the city is not going down that road. She noted that for the most part, the city’s plans call for buildings three to five stories tall along major streets where the existing buildings are one story tall.

“That’s far from Manhattan,” Blumenfeld said.

sharon.bernstein@latimes.com


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