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Builder's Plan Mixes Homes, Public Transit : Real estate: Breaking with Southern California tradition, the planned Porta Bella project boasts a 750-foot escalator for easy access to Metrolink.

March 14, 1995|GREG MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA CLARITA — At first blush, plans for the 996-acre Porta Bella development here don't look much different from dozens of other projects that have leaped from designers' drawing boards into the jagged hills of this burgeoning Southern California suburb over the past few decades.

But among the expected assortment of houses, businesses and roads outlined in this plan is something strange: a 750-foot escalator connecting the bluff-top community to the Santa Clarita Metrolink train station in the adjacent valley below.

City officials hope residents of this community will leave their cars behind and glide down that escalator every day to board commuter trains for Burbank, Los Angeles and other work destinations. The developer of the project, Marina del Rey-based Northholme Partners, hopes that easy access to public transportation will entice legions of gridlock-weary commuters to line up to buy houses.

Such hopes are mundane in other regions of the country, including Washington, D.C., and the San Francisco Bay Area, where millions ride mass transit every day, and proximity to a train station drives property values up. But in the car-crazy culture of Southern California, the project marks an ambitious departure from decades of stretching the urban landscape simply by adding another freeway.

"I'm sure it's been 80 years since somebody has done something like this in Southern California," said William Fulton, editor of the California Planning and Development Report, a monthly industry newsletter.

Building a residential community here around a public transportation station may be an innovative idea, but it's still only an idea. The project was approved by the city's Planning Commission in June, however, and the City Council could vote on it this spring. Even if developers get quick approval, it will be several years before construction starts and at least 20 years before the project is completed, said Sam Veltri, a consultant hired by Northholme to manage the project.

Plans call for as many as 1,244 single-family houses, 1,667 condominiums and apartments, and 1.5 million square feet of commercial space. The project is located in the center of Santa Clarita, a city of 120,000 formed six years ago when the communities of Valencia, Newhall, Canyon Country and Saugus banded together.

Northholme was formed specifically to build the Porta Bella project and is owned by Banyan Management Corp., a real estate development company based in Chicago, and by Eugene Rosenfeld, a developer based in El Segundo. The property is owned by Whittaker Corp., a Los Angeles defense contractor, which vacated a manufacturing plant here in 1987. The developers and Whittaker have agreed to share the profits of the venture, Veltri said.

If the entire Porta Bella project is built, it will cost "hundreds of millions of dollars" to complete, Veltri said, including at least $2 million for the escalator--actually a series of escalators, all under a plexiglass roof, that will snake along a narrow ridgeline to the Metrolink station. Veltri said some of the financing for the project will come from the partners in Northholme, but much of it will have to be obtained from outside investors or commercial banks.

Veltri stressed that the whole project is designed to encourage pedestrian travel, with dozens of walking trails connecting neighborhoods and with clusters of apartments and condominiums located within walking distance of markets and movie theaters. Still, he acknowledged that many prospective buyers will see the escalator as the key attraction. "People will identify the project with the escalator and the connection to the Metrolink," Veltri said. "It makes the whole project."

Metrolink is a 3-year-old public rail system that connects Union Station in Los Angeles with cities in Orange, Ventura, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. About 1,500 Santa Clarita residents currently use Metrolink every weekday, city officials said. A one-way trip from Santa Clarita to Los Angeles takes about 50 minutes and costs $5.50.

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The Porta Bella project, tied so closely to public transportation, hearkens back to the turn of the century, Fulton said, when Southern California real estate barons including Henry Huntington built electric rail lines to entice people to move from Downtown Los Angeles to developments in Santa Monica, San Bernardino and other then-remote outposts.

But from the dawn of the automobile age until recently, Fulton said, freeways had pushed commuter railways to near-extinction in Southern California. Many hope the Porta Bella project will spark a renewed commitment to incorporating public transportation in the design of urban communities.

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