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PLACENTIA

A Small-Scale Wonder

Roots run deep in this tiny Orange County town that has a historic section and arts center aspirations.

April 08, 2001|ELISABETH DEFFNER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

In Placentia, size matters.

With fewer than seven square miles, it's one of Orange County's smallest cities.

And with about 50,000 residents, it is far smaller than its north Orange County neighbors Fullerton and Orange, which both top 120,000, and Anaheim, with 300,000 residents.

But even Placentia has grown so explosively in recent decades that longtime residents can't help but complain a little.

"It's almost all grown up. They don't have too much room for more folks," said Alfred Aguirre, 80, who was born in Placentia and saw the population expand by about 60% in the decade between 1970 and 1980.

Aquirre remembers when there were just two area grocery stores-and only one was within the city limits.

For residents who didn't know the Placentia of 30 or 40 years ago, the city still has that small-town feeling that has slipped away from so many Orange County municipalities. It's not just the neat houses and the comparatively small number of residents that create the feeling. It's that Placentia's small-town origins are right there: In Placita Santa Fe-Placentia's old town-where the city got its start, and in the many residents who have deep roots in the city.

Longtime Placentia resident Virginia Bannister recalls when she and her husband, Paul, a microchip design consultant, bought their house in 1962. It was the last one in the city to sell for less than $20,000, she said. Now the mother of four estimates that her home's value is at least $250,000.

Bannister said the city has changed for the better. Fellow Placentians are friendly, she said, and she believes cultural diversity is on the rise across the city (Asians account for nearly 10% of the population and Latinos more than 28%). Even smog has decreased over the years, she noted.

The city isn't perfect, of course. Bannister, an artist, is focused on opening a Placentia Cultural Arts Center, where residents and visitors would enjoy art exhibits as well as plays and musical performances.

"Growth is sometimes a struggle, because everybody does need to have their voice heard," she said. "I think we should be a cultural arts community."

However, finances are a major issue for the Placentia, Yorba Linda and the Fullerton Art Assn., which has not been able to purchase a site for a cultural arts center. In Placentia, though, Bannister is confident that the problem soon will be solved.

"We do have more willingness in the community [to help us find a location to display our art]," said Bannister. In the meantime, Placentia Library has given the group's members permission to exhibit their works in the foyer.

That sense of small-town cooperation appeals to newer residents, too.

"I enjoy living in Placentia very much," said 10-year resident Rosalinh Ung. "It's a small city. It's essentially a bedroom community."

A city planner for Garden Grove, Ung knows what to look for in a residential community-and Placentia has it: convenient freeway access, upscale housing and a safe environment for her and her husband, David, to raise their children, Ryan, 7, and Sabrina, 4.

The couple started house-hunting in Placentia after Rosalinh's parents moved there in 1990. At 2,500 square feet, the Ungs' house in southern Placentia fits their family perfectly, she added. It has four bedrooms and three baths, and it cost $260,000 when the Ungs purchased it in 1994.

Rosalinh Ung's only complaint is that she is not satisfied with the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District. Sabrina is in private school, and the Ungs hope to place Ryan in private school next year.

"With all the new homes, all the new tracts coming up-where are we going to keep the kids? There's a lot of portables [at the schools] already," said Ung. "It's a big concern."

New tracts are being developed on the southern and eastern sides of the city, but according to district representative Karen Bass, the student population growth is expected to be minimal. If it should suddenly spike, the district could have a problem.

"We are almost at build-out," Bass said. "We have very little land space available."

Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified has 28 schools across the two cities as well as in Anaheim, Brea, Fullerton and the unincorporated county. The district covers 45 sprawling square miles, and serves 27,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade.

"Every spring we've conducted our own recruiting fair, and we've had hundreds of people show up, wanting to work here. We have an outstanding reputation," said Bass.

And local test scores are solid enough to catch parents' attention. In the most recent Stanford 9 standardized test, every grade level earned scores in the 50th percentile or higher in every subject, except for ninth-and 10th-grade reading scores (they ranked in the 48th percentile). Math and most grades' language and spelling scores spread across the 60th and 70th percentile levels.

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