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Brea Project Sparks Worry in Neighbors

The Region

Many in an older residential zone say a mixed-use plan would spoil the area's charm.

March 29, 2003|Errin Haines | Times Staff Writer

Noted for its success in creating a pedestrian-friendly downtown from scratch, Brea has a new project in mind: a complex of apartments and stores also designed to echo an era when people could walk from home to jobs and shopping.

There's just one problem. The project has raised the ire of residents in a real old-fashioned neighborhood.

Known as the Union Oil Neighborhood, it is made up of nearly 70 homes spread over six square blocks only a few blocks south of the downtown district. Built by the former Union Oil Co. for its employees in the 1920s and 1930s, many of the modest one-story dwellings are just over 1,000 square feet, with lawns and front porches. It's the kind of place that planners practicing "new urbanism" often try to replicate.

There could soon be a new neighbor at Brea Boulevard and Elm Street -- dozens of new neighbors, in fact. Los Angeles-based developer CIM Group Inc. has proposed a 70,000-square-foot mixed-use project at the mouth of the neighborhood.

The developer of Brea's much-touted downtown renaissance and trendy projects in Santa Monica, Old Town Pasadena and elsewhere in California, CIM envisions a complex including 69 apartments and 3,000 square feet of retail space. Nearly half the apartments would be set aside for low-cost housing, and a third would be family units.

The City Council plans to vote Tuesday on zoning changes on Elm Street and could approve the plan and development agreement as proposed.

But residents say the project is grossly out of place in their neighborhood and, despite the effort to evoke nostalgia, would ruin its small-town feeling. The square-footage of the proposed complex would equal that of all the existing homes put together, they point out.

"There's some areas [elsewhere in Brea] that could look better," said businessman Matt Jones, 28, who lives down the street from the proposal site, "but not by altering this gem of a historic neighborhood that we're trying to protect."

Jones used to come to the neighborhood to visit his father until he saw a "For Sale" sign on Elm Street three years ago. He and his wife, Cara, pooled their savings for a down payment on the house, which they now occupy with their 9-year-old daughter, Samantha. His father is 10 houses away.

Developers say they have tried to address residents' concerns, scaling down and diversifying the project.

"I think we're very close to being there," said CIM Senior Vice President John Given. "The comments [from residents] have been constructive, and we've tried to respond in kind. We've made a lot of changes."

Given noted the section of the project that stretches from Walnut Avenue to Brea Boulevard, which has been scaled down in the plan from three stories to one, to align the structure with homes on the street.

"You can imagine what kind of threat to my privacy this project would present," said 28-year-old engineer David Segura, whose house on Walnut is down the street from his sister and mother -- and would sit in the shadow of the complex.

The city's Planning Commission approved the project this month with one dissenting vote: that of Chairman Don Schweitzer, an architect. A commission report on the project indicated that Schweitzer pointed to additional neighborhood concerns, problems with the layout of the complex and traffic.

Assistant City Manager Terry Matz said the project would help alleviate the city's shortage of low-cost housing.

Over the last decade, Brea has become a popular place to work but a hard place to find housing. The job-to-housing ratio is 2 to 1, and owners outnumber renters 3 to 2. "There is a need for affordable, multifamily rental housing" in Brea, Matz said. "It is one of the key goals of the city, and this project would certainly further that goal."

Councilman Roy Moore agreed but is skeptical about the cost to the city, saying the low interest rate the city is considering on a $3-million loan to CIM Group would be "a gift."

"Some people believe we don't have enough apartments in Brea," he said. "So, in order to build more, we're willing to guarantee them a certain return on their investment? I have a hard time accepting that."

Segura, who commutes an hour to El Segundo for work, said he doesn't have sympathy for those who want to live and work in his hometown.

"If would be great if I lived and worked in the same town, but it's not a necessity," he said.

What's more important, Segura said, is keeping his community intact. "Not locking your car door, knowing your neighbors -- that's the Brea I grew up in."

Lee McKercher, a mother of four who also lives on Walnut, said she reluctantly accepts the new project but said the area is "overburdened" and can't take much more development.

"We've brought enough to the party. Take it to the other side of Brea," she said. "I've seen a lot of good changes here, but I don't see anything coming from this but more people."

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