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Eastward, Ho : Southern Californians are Headed Inland, to the Area Around the Ontario Airport--the Newest Edge City in a Region That Invented the Concept.

March 15, 1992|Bruce Kelley | Bruce Kelley is a senior editor at Sunset magazine who last wrote on day laborers for this magazine

ROSY-CHEEKED, PRETERNATURALLY BLOND WILLARD (Skip) Morris, president of the Ontario Center, has the air of a scratch golfer or daily tennis player. His professional attire is a pink monogrammed oxford shirt, collar and one button undone, and loafers without socks. It's not surprising to discover that he, his wife and their three kids live in a master-planned, gated community in Mission Viejo--and that they love it.

To afford that life, every weekday morning Morris drives north and east 62 miles to an office building on Haven Avenue just north of Interstate 10 in Ontario, two miles east of Ontario International Airport. It's a reverse commute, Morris admits, to an entirely different world, where Holsteins chomp grass alongside California 83, and the hottest restaurant around is the new Chili's. "Sometimes out here," he says, "I do feel a little out of place." That's one reason Morris and the area's other developers--many of whom also reside in Orange County--are trying to build Ontario into a place more like the one they live in.

Another reason is that, someday, they could make a lot of money.

"When I first got here in 1985, there was nothing but tumbleweed and jack rabbits," says Morris, whose development occupies the dusty site of the former Ontario Motor Speedway. The Ontario Center, a subsidiary of Chevron Land & Development Co., has since rousted some rabbits with a Hilton hotel and office buildings, including San Bernardino County's tallest, the nine-story Empire Towers. And Morris and Chevron are just beginning. On the wall of his office's fourth-floor conference room, with its picture-window view north up a dramatic alluvial plain to the sprawling city of Rancho Cucamonga and 10,064-foot Mt. Baldy, is an architectural drawing of what Morris hopes Ontario Center will become. The development would be of a scope never seen in California so far from the beach. A dozen more buildings. A mall twice the size of any around. Possibly a public library. A full-service "car care" center. Acres of landscaped and lighted parking lots. Streets named to evoke memories of the speedway: Lotus Avenue, Mercedes Lane, Alfa Romeo Lane, Ferrari Lane.

"We're looking to create a better version of John Wayne," Morris says. He is referring to the gleaming cityscape around the Orange County airport, where a person standing on the MacArthur Boulevard overpass above Interstate 405 can count as many as 40 office towers of between five and 20 stories. Just 15 years ago, there were none. His colleague Tom Merle, the Ontario Center's bow-tie-clad vice president, chips in: "Create an oasis, a mini-environment that has the image, the shine."

They mean an oasis carved out of the hardscrabble underdevelopment of the Inland Empire, from its truck stops, pig farms, listless late-19th-Century downtowns, treeless tract developments and abandoned industrial plants. They mean a place where coastal business people will be comfortable in spite of the stifling summer heat and smog and harrowing 50-mile-an-hour winds, a place where they will want to locate their operations. Merle mentions Joel Garreau's recent book, "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier," which chronicles the national burgeoning of these shiny concentrations of glass-and-steel towers and landscaped plazas, of which Century City, the John Wayne Airport area and Warner Center in the San Fernando Valley are archetypes. "We need to create an environment that looks like that."

In other words, like a new American city.

To understand the machinery of growth in California as it turns, finally, inalterably inland, the place to go is 37 miles east of downtown Los Angeles, to the area around the Ontario airport. "If LAX is the capital of coastal California and maybe of the whole Pacific Rim, then I think of the Ontario airport as the capital of the Inland state," says Asia- and Washington-based author James Fallows, who grew up in Redlands and flies into Ontario when he visits his family. "You get off a plane and it hits you: People wear polyester, they're regular. It's Midwesterners who have found the sun. Then you get off a plane at LAX. There's no sharper image of the division." Yet as the economic juggernaut of Los Angeles reaches over the hills, western San Bernardino County suddenly finds itself a bridge to the coast, an experiment in what the Inland state might become.

Now that its once-distinct cities are fusing together, the area is suffering an identity crisis: No one is quite sure what to call it. Planners use "West Valley," meaning the western half of the San Bernardino Valley. Developers hype it as the "Gateway to the Inland Empire." The local daily newspaper is the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, though "Inland Valley" turns out to be a recent editorial invention that hasn't stuck.

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