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Making Way for Transit Town : Planners Push Apartments, Shops Centered on Bus and Rail; Others Fear 'Manhattanization'


SEATTLE — Growing up in the sprawling neighborhoods of Southern California, Anthony Horton always envisioned the good life as a suburban house and a comfortable car.

But when he moved to Seattle three years ago, the 29-year-old restaurant manager found a good life that required neither house nor car. Instead, he lives in a high-rise apartment and gets around town comfortably on the bus that stops outside his door--a lifestyle that urban planners are trying to persuade others to emulate.

"People in Los Angeles laugh when I tell them I don't have a car," said Horton, formerly of La Canada Flintridge. "They can't relate to it because everybody in Los Angeles has to have a car to get around."

That could change.

As the next millennium dawns, the hottest new idea in development circles is one that is foreign, if not feared and despised, in Los Angeles and other cities where suburban sprawl has been the rule. The aim in Seattle and elsewhere is to rein in sprawl and reduce traffic by concentrating apartments, shops and offices around new rail stations or along heavily traveled bus lines.

The message: Density can be good.

Planners across the country--especially in Southern California--herald this "transit-oriented development" as the key to reviving declining neighborhoods and preserving vibrant ones, to reducing congestion and allowing more people increased mobility, to building more affordable housing and protecting open space.

Simply put, the notion encourages constructing neighborhoods for people, not automobiles, by making streets and buildings more accessible to pedestrians and public transit. Along the way, supporters hope it also rekindles a sense of community spirit, which has languished in most suburban neighborhoods.

The concepts are already being put into practice up and down the West Coast, most notably in Seattle, San Diego and the San Francisco Bay Area. Last fall, California Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation that encourages intensive development around rail stations, with a blend of housing and business projects in bustling "transit villages."

In Los Angeles, the concept is a major component of the city's new long-term growth strategy. The city's new General Plan, unveiled in January, calls for directing 75% of all new development onto 5% of the city's land, mostly around rail and bus stops.

Funneling new growth this way would require offering incentives--such as cutting red tape--to build around transit. The city's Planning Commission will consider the plan this spring.

It ultimately must be approved by the City Council.

"For Los Angeles to try and begin to repair itself would be a major symbolic act," said Peter Calthorpe, the San Francisco architect who is among the vanguard of designers championing a departure from suburban development patterns. "And I think that repairing itself is thoroughly possible."

In Southern California, a handful of such transit-oriented projects have already been built, such as Holly Street Village, a complex of shops, restaurants and apartments at the planned Blue Line terminus in Old Pasadena. Several more projects are under construction--most visibly Downtown Los Angeles' Grand Central Market above the Red Line.

"The problem we've had in this region is the absolute disconnection between land use and transportation," said Franklin E. White, chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. "It's imperative we better link development with transportation."

But it remains a tough sell in an area where the single-family home and the automobile are the twin icons of prosperity and freedom. Developers who made their fortunes peddling three-bedroom houses on quarter-acre lots have largely been unwilling to deviate from the tried and true. Joining them are banks afraid of risks--obtaining financing for such projects is notoriously difficult--and community leaders wary of change.

"The overall demand in California is to achieve the American Dream, and the American Dream has been defined for many decades as a single-family home," said Greg McWilliams, Antelope Valley division president of Kaufman & Broad, one of the largest builders of single-family homes in the country.

In fact, not even transit-oriented development's most ardent supporters regard it as the panacea for Southern California's traffic and housing ills. But it would give more people more freedom over how they live and move--particularly the young and the old, for whom the typical single-family home is not affordable or practical.

Those are the lessons other cities are learning.

In Seattle, officials in 1993 opted to concentrate high levels of new growth along bus lines in the urban core and in "urban villages" scattered throughout the city, which has the most congested freeways in the Pacific Northwest.

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