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CALIFORNIA

North County Real Estate Projects on the Rise Again

Long dormant, Ritter Ranch is now underway. Reviving development is expected to explode the region's population -- and traffic congestion.

April 12, 2005|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

For a decade, "the bridge to nowhere" stood as a symbol of the bust-boom nature of development in the Antelope Valley.

The rock bridge over the Amargosa Creek in Palmdale was built during the last building boom, meant to be the gateway to the Ritter Ranch development. But the project never materialized, stymied by delays, bankruptcies and a slowing housing market.

But now, with Southern California in the midst of another housing boom, construction is beginning on the 7,200-home community. It's one of several large housing developments rising across north Los Angeles County that over the next decade are expected to bring up to 400,000 new residents into the region.

The Antelope Valley's last building boom occurred in the 1980s, as the expansive desert area 50 miles north of downtown Los Angeles became a center for affordable housing. Large swaths of land were graded and covered with mazes of red-tile-roofed suburban starter homes, swiftly transforming the landscape. Palmdale saw its population jump from 12,277 in 1980 to 116,000 in 2000.

Although the north county has a reputation for inexpensive, no-frills housing, some of the new development in the works is decidedly more upscale. Ritter Ranch will include a golf course, swim club and an equestrian center set in 6,000 acres of open space studded with meadows and woodland.

"Ritter Ranch will be unlike anything in this valley," said Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford, who has lived in the area for 28 years. "We wanted to take our city to the next level of what urban development has to offer."

But not everyone is embracing the new growth.

"I moved out here for the seclusion, not to be near a housing tract," said Steve Cumiskey, 55, who lives in a rural area adjacent to Ritter Ranch. "It will make the city a lot closer. Where's it going to stop?"

In addition to Ritter Ranch, about 5,200 homes are under construction nearby in a tract called Anaverde. The Centennial project near Gorman will include 23,000 homes in a new town set to rise in the Tehachapi Mountains. To the south near Santa Clarita, the 20,885-home Newhall Ranch is beginning to take shape.

The area roughly from Santa Clarita north to the Kern County line has about 600,000 residents. But the Southern California Assn. of Governments expects the region's population to approach 1 million by 2020, thanks to new housing tracts.

Ledford and other officials said one of the biggest challenges facing the area would be luring high-quality jobs, especially to Palmdale and Lancaster, which have struggled to attract white-collar employers.

Another crucial issue will be traffic. The Antelope Valley Freeway, which connects Lancaster and Palmdale with Interstate 5 in Santa Clarita, is already congested during peak driving times. And as congestion worsens, commutes are taking longer. The California Highway Patrol is considering changing its officers' shift schedules to better cover the earlier-than-normal morning commute, which is in full swing by 5 a.m.

Although the developers will provide local infrastructure, such as residential streets and schools, officials are grappling with how to ease the expected traffic crunch. A study last year by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority concluded that growth in the north county would require $5.4 billion in improvements, including a new freeway as well as better bus and train service.

SCAG estimated that commuters on Interstate 5, who now travel an average of 26 mph during rush hour, would otherwise be slowed to 11 mph, while commuters on California 14 could see their rush-hour drive slow from 18 mph to 9.5 mph.

Officials have proposed a variety of ways to deal with traffic generated by the new housing, including widening both of those existing arteries and building a new one running east-west between Interstate 5 and Apple Valley in San Bernardino County.

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Plans to develop Ritter Ranch -- originally settled by one of Palmdale's pioneer families -- first arose in 1989 at the height of the valley's last real estate boom. The developers hailed it as bringing to the Antelope Valley luxury homes of the type seen "down below" in Los Angeles. The four-lane stone bridge was constructed in advance of the homes.

But plans were stalled a few years later when Leona Valley residents filed a lawsuit against the project, contending that environmental studies were inadequate.

The company that owned the land eventually filed for bankruptcy protection, and the land lay dormant for years.

Then last year, SunCal Companies of Irvine bought the 10,625-acre ranch for $57.2 million in a bankruptcy court auction.

Ritter Ranch is situated on the eastern edge of Leona Valley, a settlement of cattle ranches and cherry orchards tucked in the rolling hills west of Palmdale.

With meadows, a stream, oak trees and about 2,000 residents, the bucolic area offers a glimpse of Old California, accessible via a winding, two-lane road.

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