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L.A., Bakersfield Growth Is Poised for Grapevine Collision

Development: Plans for huge projects along I-5 threaten to blur a longtime regional divide.

September 09, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Near the top of the daunting Grapevine, the mountain route between Southern California and the Central Valley, lies a wind-swept valley where developers are proposing to build a 70,000-resident city, the largest housing project in Los Angeles County history.

At the base of the same steep grade, a mammoth white Ikea furniture warehouse juts out of a parched Kern County plain. It is the first of dozens of warehouses planned at the foot of the Tehachapi Mountains.

Over the next decade or two, the 23,000-home Centennial housing project, the 1,450-acre warehouse complex and a third large development on the giant Tejon Ranch are expected to alter regional distinctions formed over 150 years--blurring the lines that have distinguished the sprawl of the south from the farms of the north, the city from the country, the burbs from the sticks.

Like steppingstones, the three projects along Interstate 5 would link Southern California and the Central Valley, filling parts of the 75-mile expanse between Santa Clarita and Bakersfield that is now nearly all open space.

The rugged Tehachapis had long proved to be one obstacle that even Southern California's relentless sprawl could not surmount. The mountains were so formidable that the area's first U.S. surveyor used camels to traverse them. Even when the Old Ridge Route was opened in 1915, it took the better part of a day to get from Los Angeles to Bakersfield.

But those old boundaries are becoming obsolete.

On the grazing lands of Tejon Ranch--an area larger than the city of Los Angeles--developers now plot the warehouse district as a major shipping springboard for goods from the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles. The "new town" of Centennial would include jobs for 30,000.

Protests seem inevitable--water is short, wildlife may be threatened and development would leapfrog far beyond current city boundaries. But given the growth records of Kern and Los Angeles counties, the ambitious vision for Tejon could prevail.

"It's kind of like Southern California and Northern California are taking over Central California as a distinct place," said Kathryn Colebrook, a mortgage company manager in Bakersfield. "Obviously, Southern California is coming over the hill."

Indeed, residents of the Central Valley say they can already see the fading of regional distinctions in the old Depression-era boomtown of Bakersfield--and the best and worst of that change.

Tens of thousands of Southern Californians have already moved to that community, once better known for Buck Owens, oil and agriculture. There, in blistering summer heat and chilling winter fog, amid a stagnant economy, a typical house still sells for $119,000, a third of the price buyers are paying in coastal Southern California.

The president of the Bakersfield realty board said that one in five of his customers is from south of the Tehachapis. The city's growth rate was three times that of the state over the last decade. And home sales are only accelerating, up 61% in the last four years.

"It's basically people who 30 years ago might have bought a house in Woodland Hills, and 20 years ago in Thousand Oaks and 10 years ago in Santa Clarita," said author and demographic researcher Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow at Pepperdine University.

"Now they've been priced out of those markets," he said.

Amid the stylish new subdivisions of sprawling west Bakersfield, which has grown from virtually nothing in 20 years, sit trendy shops, big box stores and golf course communities so familiar to Southern Californians.

But while new industry brings jobs, along with it comes traffic. While affordable homes are the dream of young couples, they can obscure the heritage that once made Bakersfield a singular place.

"Southwest Bakersfield is almost a McTown, no different from the McTowns of Orange County or the McTown of Valencia, " said Sriram Khe, former director of the Environmental Resource Management Program at Cal State Bakersfield.

Even as the red-tiled homes and Starbucks-studded shopping centers of the Southland migrated over the Grapevine, the Tejon Ranch still seemed an impenetrable barrier between the two regions. A cattle-raising operation since 1843, the 270,000-acre ranch comprises four old Spanish land grants. It's 40 miles from north to south, 21 miles across--425 square miles in all.

In the 1870s, New York Herald newspaper correspondent Charles Nordhoff described the ranch as the "most magnificent estate, in a single hand, in America."

Tejon was sold in 1912 to an investment group that included the owners of the Los Angeles Times.

"The ranch has never earned much money, but it's a great piece of property," said former Times Publisher Otis Chandler, whose family was a principal owner, through Times Mirror Co., until it sold its interest in 1997.

"Every developer, when they looked at it, thought they were going to make hundreds of millions of dollars," Chandler said. "It's been talked about for 30 years. But nothing has really come of it."

Until recently.

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