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After Years of Unchecked Growth : Developers Encounter New Opposition

March 19, 1987|EDMUND NEWTON | Times Staff Writer

Not so long ago, the San Gabriel Valley was a choice locale for any developer with a bank account and a big idea.

A project that turned virgin land into a checkerboard of tiny bungalows. A shopping mall wedged into the middle of a business district like an ostrich egg in a swallow's nest. Low-budget condominiums that deluged unprepared communities with newcomers. All of these were proposed by developers, and all were given carte blanche approval by local governments in the wide-open spaces east of Los Angeles, critics have alleged.

"For years, the attitude of city councils was: 'If it's good for the economy, let's put it in,' " says Christopher Sutton, a lawyer representing several homeowner groups fighting major developments in the area.

There was little thought about the big picture, critics frequently charge. "On the whole, they just slapped up buildings and built to the absolute limits of zoning restrictions," contends Pasadena preservationist Anthony Thompson, talking of that city's most recent period of accelerated development in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Opposition Grows

But today, builders who show up with sheaves of plans and tract maps are liable to find every step they take countered by a well-organized opposition, whose ranks often include members of the city council as well as sign-waving protesters.

Bemoaning changes in their once-tranquil neighborhoods, protesting the loss of wildernesses to tract developments and complaining, above all, about the endless vistas of traffic, people are riled up. And they are spurring many city governments to take measures to put the brakes on construction projects that threaten neighborhoods.

Developers and their supporters argue that such constraints raise the cost of housing and are dealing young families out of the housing market. "The immediate beneficiary is the property owner" who can command a higher price for his house as the supply dwindles, says South Pasadena condominium developer David Mi. "It's like a Catch-22. The consumer ends up paying more for a home."

In many cases, it means not buying a home at all. "For every action there's a reaction," says San Gabriel City Administrator Robert Clute, whose city has elected not to restrain multiunit construction. "Suddenly those single-family homes are going for $300,000 or $400,000. That's not a price a 25-year-old or a 30-year-old can usually afford to pay."

City officials often defend local development projects as the source of financial health, particularly in cities with thriving downtown commercial sections, such as Pasadena and Monrovia.

But increasingly, the apparent laissez-faire attitude toward development in some of the diverse communities of the San Gabriel Valley is giving way to stubborn resistance.

Dean Anderson calls them "dingbats"--rigidly drawn little housing plots that developers want to pound into the gentle green hills just south of his property in Rowland Heights, an unincorporated community south of West Covina.

He describes the layout of the would-be homes scornfully. "A five-foot walkway separating the houses, a little patio out back, and that's about it," says the retired civil engineer, who moved to the tranquil area of open pasture land and one-acre lots 28 years ago.

That was back when you were liable to spook pheasants if you walked through Anderson's backyard and when deer often ambled past like pedestrians on a city sidewalk. Slowly, though, the developments have been moving in. "You can't stop progress," says Anderson with a shrug. "You can't stop somebody from building on his own land. But you can regulate it."

For more than two years, Anderson and fellow residents of the small community have been leading a successful fight against a plan by Walnut-based Shea Homes to build 1,500 homes and a shopping center into the La Habra Hills. They have hounded the County Board of Supervisors and the Regional Planning Commission, drawn up a plan for "controlled" development of the hills and, when county Supervisor Pete Schabarum agreed to meet with them two weeks ago, showed up 300 strong, with signs and fiery speeches.

So far, Shea Homes, which did not return phone calls to The Times, has been forced to shrink its housing plans to 744 units, and the targeted ground-breaking date has been pushed back until next year.

"They'd be building up there right now if it weren't for us," says Anderson.

Doug Peake drives through Alhambra and, despite the signs of construction everywhere, he sees decay. "Two years ago, this was a nice ranch-style home," he says, gesturing angrily at a large half-built structure that bristles with peaked roofs and windowpanes. "Now it's 25 apartment units."

Multiunit structures seem to sprout everywhere--20 new apartments on Woodward Avenue, 23 condominiums on Palmetto Drive, a multistory commercial development on Valley Boulevard--and they're pushing aside Alhambra's long-held idea of itself as a tranquil, manageable "small town," Peake contends.

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