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Wary Developers Are Looking Elsewhere : Growth: A moratorium on multifamily units may have expired in Monterey Park, but builders aren't exactly leaping into action.

November 05, 1989|IRENE CHANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

San Gabriel Valley developer Gregory Tse leaned back in his swivel chair and laughed.

"Make a profit in Monterey Park? Are you kidding?" he said, shaking his head.

For Tse, president of Wing-On Realty, the era of building 12-unit condominiums in the city is over.

Tse said he doesn't care that an 18-month ban on new apartments and condominiums in Monterey Park recently expired. And he isn't paying any attention to city officials who promise there won't be another such moratorium, at least not in the near future.

Tse isn't the only one who is disillusioned. Other developers, who in the past jumped at opportunities to meet the needs of Monterey Park's burgeoning population, say they too have given up trying to build in the city. They remember what it was like in 1986, when the city enacted its first building moratorium, then imposed tighter restrictions the next year. A year later, the council voted again to ban apartments and condominiums.

The phenomenon is not uncommon. In San Gabriel, a two-year ban on all construction except for single-family homes, imposed while city officials study the possibility of downzoning certain areas, will expire next month.

In Alhambra, 22 square blocks of land zoned at the highest density was downzoned last year after a nine-month ban on construction.

Some cities--including Monterey Park, Pasadena and South Pasadena--not only want lower densities, but limits on the number of apartments, condominiums and houses built each year. Thus they grant permits based on complicated competitive systems.

The slow-growth measures are nothing new. In 1982, voters in Monterey Park approved Proposition K, which designated an annual building limit of 100 single-family and multifamily units until 1992.

In April, 1988, San Gabriel citizens--incensed by what they considered runaway growth and escalating traffic problems--launched their own grass-roots campaign and elected three new council members.

And eight months ago, Pasadena voters passed the Growth Management Initiative, which severely curtails residential and commercial construction.

Several years ago, developers like Tse used to shrug their shoulders and brace themselves for the steep permit fees, design reviews and numerous planning commission hearings. They'd play by the cities' rules when it came to parking requirements, minimum lot size, open space and limits on the length of driveways.

But now, many say they've had enough.

Safco Construction Co. has just completed its last project in Monterey Park, a 12-unit condominium on Alhambra Avenue that will sell for $265,000 per unit. But had Safco moved forward with construction 10 years ago, when it acquired the land, it could have built 20 units and made twice the profit, said Safco's Sheue-Ling Su.

Instead, she said, the company lost money by paying interest on the undeveloped property for so long.

"We're not building in Monterey Park anymore," Su said. "It's ridiculous. The city keeps jumping from moratorium to moratorium."

Winston Ko, who built five condominium projects in Monterey Park ranging from 11 to 150 units, said he left the city for good 10 years ago after being harassed by city officials who wanted to control growth.

"It is not so much the specifications or the new restrictions" that turn developers away, he said. "It has to do with the attitudes of the council. They are hostile to developers. For that reason a lot of developers abandoned the city."

Some developers say such hostile attitudes are a racist backlash against Chinese and Southeast Asian immigrants, who constitute half of Monterey Park's population and one-third of Alhambra's.

When slow-growth movements intensified in the early 1980s, Asian immigrants were flocking to the west San Gabriel Valley in unprecedented numbers, searching for homes and business opportunities. That wave attracted developers who saw an increasing demand for affordable multifamily housing.

City officials, on the other hand, distance themselves from the Asian issue, and say the construction ban and tight restrictions are meant to ensure quality development, not to drive away builders.

"The ones who are complaining about the standards are the ones who want to rape the city," Monterey Park Mayor Patricia M. Reichenberger said.

"I'd be very disappointed if a developer or landowner decided they didn't want to waste their time in Monterey Park," she said.

"I can understand they're thinking, 'Oh, my God! They did it (imposed a moratorium) twice.' But once they realize they're not going to be plastered with another one, they'll feel more comfortable."

At a recent breakfast meeting of the West San Gabriel Valley Board of Realtors, Monterey Park city planner M. Margo Wheeler told an audience of about 100 that there will be no more moratoriums in the city.

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