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New generation is right on track

Transit villages appeal to home buyers who are willing to sacrifice square footage to be closer to rail stations.

February 08, 2004|Morris Newman | Special to The Times

Anne Vu cannot walk to work, but she can do the next best thing: She can take a five-minute walk from her front door in Carlsbad to a train station and catch the Coaster line south to her job in downtown San Diego.

Living in a "transit-oriented" neighborhood allows Vu to avoid using a car most of the time. When she is home, she can walk to a supermarket a few blocks from her house. And for about $3 with a monthly pass, she can ride the San Diego commuter train and read a novel in the 40 minutes it takes to get downtown, less time than driving through the bumper-to-bumper traffic on Interstate 5.

"I've read more books in the last few months than I have in my entire life," said Vu, a systems analyst who lives with her husband, Hung Vu, a systems administrator, and their 17-month-old daughter.

No longer a concept of city planners, the transit village is a reality in Southern California, from such high-density urban areas as North Hollywood to suburbs such as Carlsbad. Nearly every stop on the Metro Red Line, which runs from North Hollywood through Hollywood to downtown Los Angeles, has a transit-oriented project either in planning or under construction. The Metro Gold Line, stretching from downtown northeast to Sierra Madre, has at least two, with developers proposing more. Homes and condos in these developments are commanding prices ranging from the high $300,000s to close to $1 million.

Much of Southern California was built during the early decades of the 20th century around streetcar stations of the now-defunct Red Car and Yellow Car lines. In a way, the transit villages are a return to the "streetcar suburbs," or small communities created by the streetcar. Much of the present outline of Los Angeles, including the beach cities, Van Nuys, Riverside and San Bernardino, sprung up around streetcar routes

In later decades, the rise of the freeway system had a profound effect on growth, according to Cliff Goldstein, a partner at J.H. Snyder. "The availability of cheap land allowed developers to move further and further out," he said.

But there are limits even to the legendary sprawl of Los Angeles. "With the maturing of our region, we have reached the end of the suburban paradigm," he said. "We need to start concentrating development along transit corridors.... That is the natural evolution of Southern California."

One question is how quickly home buyers will embrace transit living. While the market for the housing is likely not as large as that for traditional suburban homes, Goldstein said, "there is a small group of people who are electing to sacrifice the large homestead for the smaller house and convenient transportation."

Architects and planners view the developments as a way to introduce a car-free way of life by providing for most daily needs -- shopping, restaurants, child-care, office space and, in at least two cases, new schools -- within walking distance of home.

There are several projects under construction in the Los Angeles area. Urban Partners of Los Angeles is building a collection of lofts, courtyard housing and high-rise towers at the Del Mar station of the Metro Gold Line in Pasadena. They are also building a 380-apartment village at the Vermont-Wilshire station of the Metro Red Line near where a 800-student middle school is planned. J.H. Snyder is building NoHo Commons, a 1,716-unit project with entertainment and retail space, near the North Hollywood Red Line station on a site that will include a new high school.

In suburban communities, John Laing Homes recently finished the 219-unit Waters End single-family home project in Carlsbad and is building the 376-unit Tustin Field near a Metrolink station, while the Olson Co. is building the 156-unit Village Walk three blocks from the Metrolink station in Claremont. A Metrolink station in the San Fernando Valley has spawned the Village Green development.

"This is where the housing world is going," said Mitchell Bradford, a vice president of acquisitions at John Laing Homes.

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Urban life in the suburbs

For city planners, transit villages are a way to build ridership for commuter rail and buses, as well as creating housing units in chronically under-housed Southern California. As existing rail lines expand -- the Red Line into East Los Angeles, the Gold Line into the San Gabriel Valley and the proposed CenterLine commuter rail in Orange County -- transit villages are likely to follow, redefining the urban pattern as they go.

Many home buyers are "looking for opportunities to experience urban living without having to be dependent on the automobile," said Michael Dieden, president of Creative Housing Associates of Los Angeles, which is developing a South Pasadena project in a venture with Lambert Development of New York. "Living near transit allows them to do that."

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