YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Orange County

From Dingy Mall to a Nice Place to Live

Revitalization: County officials want to turn run-down unincorporated parcels into attractive affordable housing. State has nudged them along.


It means "plaza of gold." Yet the Plaza de Oro strip mall near Anaheim hardly glitters.

There is no plaza, just a massage parlor, pawnshops and other run-down storefronts, all surrounded by a sea of cracked blacktop.

But Esther Wallace thinks this relic can shine anew--by replacing it with homes.

"This place could be retrofitted with nice houses," said Wallace, chairwoman of the West Anaheim Neighborhood Development Council. "There is no place around here for young families to buy a home. We could level this and transform it into a great neighborhood."

With nudging from the state, county officials are starting to listen to Wallace and others who are calling for major changes within Orange County's isolated pockets of unincorporated land. Planning officials have been checking dozens of properties, searching for underutilized plots that could help ease the county's housing crunch.

The pressure is on. Last summer, state housing officials sent the county a letter warning that it doesn't have enough affordable rental and owner-occupied housing to meet the needs of low-income people, and hasn't created enough incentives for builders to encourage construction of inexpensive homes.

Now, with a bill gaining steam in the state Senate that would punish local governments that fail to meet affordable housing quotas, Orange County officials are scrambling to find ways to get units built. In the process, planning officials say they are hoping to turn the many unattractive, semi-vacant properties blemishing the county's "islands" of unincorporated land into desirable neighborhoods.

It comes, too, as the region's largest landowners prepare to develop the remaining swaths of undeveloped county land. The planning department is shifting its emphasis toward decaying urban areas.

"We need places to house low-wage workers, and we want to revitalize the civic core of these neighborhoods," said Thomas B. Mathews, director of the county Planning and Development Services Department. "Bringing in working families is the best way to do that."

Key to Nice Housing Is in the Planning

Such efforts require a balancing act. The county wants to attract developers, but also include enough restrictions in building permits to prevent the creation of overcrowded housing projects.

"We're envisioning projects that are landscaped, with walking paths and attractive architecture," Mathews said.

Linda Boone, who has been involved in similar projects as the economic development director for Orange, said requirements need to be thoughtfully considered. "If they zone for high density without attaching any strings, they could wind up with more slums in 10 years."

Cynthia P. Coad, chairwoman of the county Board of Supervisors and a force behind the revitalization program, says the county will approve only those plans that have the support of the neighborhoods affected.

"We're not going to do this in a hit-or-miss method that duplicates failures of the past," she said.

In all, the county is reviewing more than 1,000 acres in the more urbanized northern islands. The planning department will recommend that supervisors rezone 10 county islands surrounded by the cities of Anaheim and Orange.

"We're looking at the islands that have been most neglected," Coad said.

After the rezoning is approved, it is up to landowners to decide what to do next. They aren't required to change a thing. But planning officials are betting that many of the properties aren't generating much income for their owners, and that builders will be eager to buy them to build affordable housing, especially if the county subsidizes them.

"We can offer all kinds of incentives to landowners to come in and work with us," said Josh McDonnell, a senior planner for the county. "We're hoping to convert structures like half-occupied strip malls into nicely designed developments."

And not just strip malls, but run-down hotels, storage lots and auto depots as well.

In La Colonia Independencia, for example, a school district bus depot sits in the middle of a dense residential area popular with elderly residents. Local activists say the site is an example of a place that should be converted for residential use.

So far, county planners won't say which sites they have in mind, but stress that they intend to work closely with community groups once the zoning changes are adopted.

Not everyone shares the same vision, however.

The state is pressuring the county to create homes for low-income and very-low-income residents. That would include inexpensive rental housing and homes that sell for less than $200,000.

Some residents and community activists complain that north Orange County has too many rentals and overcrowded multifamily units. They want higher-end projects, which they say are the best way to revitalize their neighborhoods.

"We have enough cheap apartments around Anaheim already," Wallace said. "We have more than anyplace else in the county."

Even Supervisor Coad blames cheap rental units in North County for attracting undesirable elements--"transients," "prostitutes," and "parolees."

"We want to bring in working families," Coad said.

Then there's the issue of how many dwelling units are packed into one area. Some county planners say they might like to see density on par with a place such as downtown Brea. Residents in some county islands worry even that would be too crowded.

Los Angeles Times Articles