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They've Discovered a Small Piece of Paradise : Census: Unlike nearby areas, Palisades Highlands grew in the 1980s. Ten years ago it didn't merit its own census tract, but today nearly 3,000 people call it home.

NEW FACES. CENSUS: THE CHANGING NEIGHBORHOODS. One in an occasional series.

July 14, 1991|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

So sparsely settled that it did not merit its own census tract 10 years ago, the Palisades Highlands is today home to nearly 3,000 people, half of them in the 40-60 age group and almost all of them prosperous Anglos, the 1990 Census found.

Real estate agents are not embarrassed to market the Highlands as Shangri-La, a hidden valley tucked away only minutes from the beach, where the sun shines when it's foggy below, and where curving streets lead to the streams and sycamores of Topanga State Park.

The Highlands is one of the few neighborhoods in Pacific Palisades and Brentwood in which the population grew in the last 10 years, and construction is under way on the last of the 1,694 household units planned for the area.

The continuing growth has some old-timers worried. The area is already home to so many high-income younger people that their speeding BMWs are scaring the wildlife, said Barbara Reiber, 75, a condo-dweller since 1976.

"We have the yuppie population up the hill, who drive very fast and don't stop when they run over deer," she said. "It's not really too cozy a climate for raccoons and coyotes any more."

But her Paradise is not yet lost. "When that happens, I just look up the canyon," said the former Brentwood resident.

Highlands residents are lured by the quiet views of city, ocean and hillside, the sense of security provided by private patrol cars and the lack of escape routes for the criminal element, and by housing values that are somewhat lower than the surrounding areas of the Palisades and nearby Brentwood.

There is one traffic light, no school, no gas station, no nightclub.

"I drive 22 miles to downtown L.A., but when I get home I'm glad to be there," said Stephen A. Bost, 36, an attorney and former Santa Monica resident. "At night, honest to God, you can see stars that when you live in most parts of this town you had no idea they existed."

About 88% of the people who live in the Highlands' existing 1,096 household units own their homes, which range from $350,000 condos to $3.5 million estates in gated, guarded enclaves inhabited by such worthies as James Worthy, the basketball player, and Chevy Chase, the comic actor.

According to Census Bureau data, about a quarter of the units are worth half a million dollars or less; 90% of the homes in the larger Palisades-Brentwood area would go for half a million dollars or more, property-owners told the Census Bureau.

Rents, on the other hand, start lower in the larger Palisades-Brentwood region, where 58% of the 8,792 apartments go for $1,000 a month or less. In the Highlands, 88% of the 124 rental units cost $1,000 a month or more.

"You can actually have a two-bedroom-and-den condo that's like a little house for under $400,000, and you can't find anything like that in Brentwood or Santa Monica," said Rita Nickels, manager of the Jon Douglas real estate office in the Highlands.

Sales have been sporadic in recent months, said Nickels, a 23-year veteran of Palisades real estate.

But bargain-hunters have snapped up some of the lower-priced condos, while recent offerings of higher-priced, higher-altitude mansions have brought in newcomers and veteran residents whose hearts are in the Highlands.

"People trade up within the community. Very few people leave unless they're relocated," she said.

Some of the pricier offerings have remained empty for months, however, along with a third of the stores at the Palisades Highlands Plaza, a shopping mall at the foot of the 2 1/2-mile drive up to the Highlands from Sunset Boulevard.

"The recession didn't help the center. People quit leasing there for about a year," said Michael Carr, a leasing agent who said he has two clients ready to sign deals for some of the open space.

"I think it'll be a good center, but its time has just now come," he said. "Everybody who lives in the Highlands goes by that center every day."

But Ira Goldfarb, a five-year resident, said that people tend to zoom up the hill once they're that close to home. He has two speeding tickets to prove it.

The pharmacist, a father of three, said the Palisades is a good place for children but tough on teen-agers, who find the area boring because of its isolation. The teen-agers, however, can take a 25-cent DASH bus ride to Palisades Village or the beach to get away during the summer.

The Census found in the Highlands 681 boys and girls who are 18 and younger, 23% of the population, compared to 16% for Brentwood and the Palisades at large, which recorded a 22% drop in the number of youngsters since 1980.

Greg Autry, who has been building luxury houses in the Highlands for the last seven years, said that he and his wife liked it so much that they recently moved into a condo and plan to build a house of their own.

"It's not totally exclusive. You get the feeling it is, but from what I see, there's real diversity," said Autry, 42, who previously lived in a house he built in Bel-Air.

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