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Once a Smokestack City, Torrance Changes With High-Tech Times

May 05, 1985|JULIO MORAN | Times Staff Writer

TORRANCE — An ongoing recycling of land once occupied by heavy manufacturing is redefining the city founder's dream of creating a "Modern Industrial City."

Jared Sidney Torrance, a Pasadena financier, built this town in the early part of the century by luring several major heavy industries, including Union Tool Co., Llewellyn Steel Co., Pacific Electric Railway and Pacific Metal Products Co.

They are all closed now, but in their place stand such new industries as Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., Epson America Inc., American Honda Motor Co. and several other Pacific Rim businesses, primarily Japanese, scattered throughout various industrial/business parks.

"I've said that the city would develop westward until we reached the ocean and then we would flip back and recycle the east side where the city first started," said two-term Councilman Bill Applegate, a real estate and investment broker. "Well, that's what we are doing now."

Cost of Housing

The west side of Torrance, particularly along Hawthorne Boulevard, is overflowing with financial and retail establishments that have made the city government one of the healthiest financially in the state. And because interest in living in Torrance is high, prices of houses have jumped to an average of $129,000; some are as high as $500,000.

Now it is industry's turn for change. Real estate and business observers say there are several reasons that Torrance is successfully changing its industrial face:

- Good cooperation with industries by local government.

- The city's location between a major airport and a port.

- A good labor pool for both management and unskilled workers.

- A reputation for good housing and schools and low crime.

- Available industrial land that has become too expensive for heavy manufacturers but ideal for high-tech uses.

Change of Emphasis

Already more than two dozen companies have their national headquarters in Torrance. For a long time it called itself "The Headquarters City." Complaints from residents that the city has been too pro-business, however, encouraged city officials last year to reword the logo to "A City in Balance."

Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc. completed its $100-million headquarters complex in 1982 on 42 acres on Western Avenue and 190th Street that had been a parking lot since 1970. Epson America Inc., which manufactures computers and printers, established a small headquarters in Torrance in 1975. It now occupies several facilities throughout the city.

In the early 1970s, U. S. Steel converted part of its plant along Western Avenue near Torrance Boulevard into a large industrial park. U. S. Steel later sold that property to several independent developers who lease out the space primarily for light manufacturing and warehouses.

Good Place to Live

"There is tremendous growth potential here, and with its housing and schools, Torrance is a very desirable place to live and work," said Minoru Kinoshita, an Epson vice president.

Early in the century, it was low property values that attracted industry from downtown Los Angeles to Torrance, then nothing more than farmland.

A 1914 real estate brochure boasted of a "Modern Industrial City" and displayed a picture of the Union Tool Co. with its smokestacks emitting black fumes.

In the early 1920s, oil was discovered in Torrance and business boomed. According to the book "Historic Torrance," post office receipts, a leading economic indicator of that time, increased 68% from 1920 to 1921.

Business was going so well that residents feared that Los Angeles would try to annex the new town, and it incorporated (by a vote of 355 to 11) on May 12, 1921, with a population of about 1,800. It now has more than 133,000 people. The city's industries thrived, particularly during the two world wars when steel production was at a peak. The large number of workers attracted housing developers and retail businesses.

Growing Noise

The houses were built to the west of the factories so prevailing winds would blow the smoke away from them. But as industry grew to the north and south, Torrance's growing bedroom community began complaining about noise and pollution from factories.

That, together with a decline in the demand for the city's industrial products and more economical production elsewhere, led to the decline of Torrance as a heavy-manufacturing city by the mid-1970s.

But it marked the start of a new modern industrial city. Rather than decry the trend, the business community welcomed the closures of heavy industries.

"They are blessings in disguise," said J. Walker Owens, executive vice president of the Torrance Area Chamber of Commerce. "We're having plants with 600 or 700 employees shut down, but we're getting in new ones with upwards of 3,000 new jobs."

The latest shutdown was in February when National Supply Co., which opened in Torrance 75 years ago as Union Tool, stopped production of its oil drilling products.

Industrial Park

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