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Living on the Right Side of the Tracks

Building near train stations, developers hope to attract buyers weary of traffic jams.

January 10, 2006|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Tu Nguyen has always preferred automobiles to trains or buses. But the Yorba Linda accountant's commute won't require that he keep his eye on the road after he and his fiancee move into Fullerton's SOCO Walk development this fall. Nguyen will leave his car in the garage and walk to the nearby Metrolink station to commute to Irvine.

"I've only taken public transportation a few times in my life," said Nguyen, 28.

When regional transportation officials began offering commuter rail service deep into Orange County in 1994, some experts doubted that enough people would abandon the freeway for the train. But tens of thousands have. Metrolink ridership in Orange County has risen more than twentyfold in the last decade to more than 3 million per year.

Now, developers are increasingly buying land and building apartments, condominiums and town houses around the county's growing network of train stations.

Interest in developments near transit stations has blossomed as some commuters see the locations as a time-saver now and a good investment, said Art Guzzetti, policy director for the Washington-based American Public Transportation Assn.

"They'll be tackling congestion by leaving cars at home, and the nearby location of transit will add value to the property," Guzzetti said. "In the past, people's only choice was to ride the car, and communities were designed with that in mind."

In Orange County, so-called transit villages are either under construction or being planned around train stations in Santa Ana, Buena Park, Orange, Fullerton and in Anaheim near Angel Stadium.

Last month, the Orange County Transportation Authority approved spending $400 million over three years to expand Metrolink service by adding trains and stations. With seven new locomotives and 59 more passenger cars, and additional parking at stations, trains are expected to run every 20 to 30 minutes from 5 a.m. to midnight during the week. Weekend service is also scheduled to increase.

Although once considered very East Coast, transit-oriented developments are catching on in Southern California, fueled by factors that include the area's hot housing market, gas prices and traffic congestion. Such projects are being planned along the Red Line subway in North Hollywood and are under construction along the Gold Line light rail in Pasadena and South Pasadena.

These developments offer an attractive alternative to housing built on the region's ever-expanding fringe, said Art Cueto, a planner with Creative Housing Associates, one of the developers for Mission Meridian Village in Pasadena near the Gold Line.

"As the region has grown," Cueto said, "all the development for single-family homes is out in the Riverside, San Bernardino and Antelope Valley areas. If you're a first-time home buyer, your only option is to go out to Lancaster or Norco, and your trade-off is a 90-minute commute by car."

In Orange County, the Seal Beach-based Olson Co. recently broke ground for 192 town homes in Buena Park, a block from a proposed Metrolink station and near Knott's Berry Farm and other attractions. When completed early next year, the station will become the county's 11th Metrolink station.

The developer is also planning a project in Old Towne Orange near the traffic circle and is among bidders to partner with Fullerton to revitalize the city's SOCO (South of Commonwealth) District with a bigger development in the same area as SOCO Walk.

SOCO Walk is drawing attention from municipal planners, transportation experts and potential buyers. When the project was announced, about 3,500 people signed up to receive information. The 5.5-acre development has 120 town homes and lofts and is within walking distance of more than 30 restaurants and pubs and a horde of stores.

"A lot of people in Fullerton work in L.A.," said Paul C. Taylor, executive director for planning and commuter services for the OCTA. "You can hop on the train and be at Disney Hall in minutes."

Nguyen, an accounting manager, said his motivation as a first-time home buyer was affordability, not transportation. But now, he says, he's looking forward to taking a train to work.

Recently engaged to Katey Huynh, 29, an Alhambra teacher, the couple initially shopped for homes in Irvine where Nguyen works. But they became discouraged after looking at homes in nice neighborhoods costing $650,000 to $800,000. By contrast, SOCO Walk's three-bedroom, two-bath town homes are in the "mid-500s," he said.

"The Southern Orange County area is ridiculously high, and I was trying to look at housing that's more reasonable," he said. "Plus, if taking the train cuts my commute time, that's a bonus."

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