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Back to the 'burbs

The trend starts here. Southern California is the test lab for a new kind of suburb where homes front parks and residents shop on foot.

January 29, 2006|Diane Wedner | Times Staff Writer

THE suburbs, long derided as cultural wastelands, are experiencing a renaissance. And buyers are drawn to them like dieters to a scoop of Cherry Garcia.

No longer just sprawling residential tracts fanning out from nominal downtowns, the reinvented suburbs of Pasadena, Fullerton, San Fernando, Burbank and Irvine -- to name a few -- are pedestrian-friendly villages featuring vintage architecture mixed with new designs, mom-and-pop stores next to national chains, plus jobs a lot closer to home. They have museums, theaters, art galleries, concert halls and restaurants.

"New suburbanism," as it's called, is putting vitality back into suburbia.

"What we're seeing is a very radical reordering of how people live and their relationship to suburbs," said Joel Kotkin, a senior fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation, a nonprofit public policy institute. "Southern California is the laboratory for this."

So what's new about it?

Residential neighborhoods that ignore the old suburban model, for starters.

When Hughes Aircraft closed its 2 million-square-foot Fullerton plant in the early '90s, the challenge was to rezone and convert the 340-acre industrial site into a residential and commercial area, said Joel Rosen, the city's chief planner.

The result is Amerige Heights, with 1,400 single-family homes, apartments and condos; a main street with ground-level shops, restaurants and offices and housing units above them; and a pedestrian bridge connecting the main residential area to a large outdoor shopping center anchored by Target.

Unlike the idealized suburb of your parents' generation, the lots are small and close together, and some feature so-called rear-loading garages behind the homes, entered via attractive, landscaped lanes rather than alleys lined with garbage cans.

Many of the homes lack traditional yards, so families enjoy the 20 acres of parks scattered throughout the development, most of which serve as central green zones and are surrounded by residences that face them. The parks are open to the public, but are maintained by homeowners' fees. The large residential streets have landscaped roundabouts to slow auto traffic. Narrow side streets accommodate wider sidewalks for pedestrian safety.

Sara and Roberto Lopez and their three kids moved to Amerige Heights from Santa Ana to take advantage of Fullerton's highly touted schools and child-friendly activities, which the family has easy access to. The development has two elementary schools and a nearby high school.

The Lopezes purchased their two-story home for $750,000 two years ago. Comparable houses in the development today sell for at least $1 million, said Winston Creel, a Premier GMAC Real Estate agent in Fullerton.

"We love the neighborhood because it's quiet," Sara Lopez said. "There are a lot of kids around too."

Not to mention pedestrians. One of the most striking features of "new suburbanism" is the dramatic shift from cars to walking. In the refurbished downtown areas, especially, residents are parking their automobiles in city lots off main streets so they can stroll along gussied-up avenues chock-full of restaurants, shops and clubs. They can people-watch in central plazas and run errands on their lunch hours.

They also can ride their bicycles. John Carroll, a 41-year-old Cal State Fullerton geography professor, pedals the 3 1/2 miles between his home and campus every day, and even gives his kids a lift to soccer practice on his adapted bike.

"My quality of life here is high," Carroll said. "All the things we want to do as a family, we can do in this one town. And we do them."

As suburbs have shifted from industry-based hubs to more eclectic businesses -- new media, biomedical and technological, for example -- they are attracting a new mix of people who desire a variety of amenities, said Henry Cisneros, chairman of the development firm CityView and a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. They don't want the old paradigm of residential sprawl with no "there" there.

In addition to a vibrant retail environment and green open spaces, a population with a mix of ages and ethnicities has brought new life to suburbs, urban planners and academics say.

"Immigrants bring culture and restaurants," said Richard Peiser, a professor of real estate development at Harvard University's design school. "They also bring capital from the old country, and multiple generations, which is what any healthy community wants to have."

The older "suburbs hit a point where they either turn around and improve, like Pasadena, or continue a downward track," Peiser added.

Suburban communities have accounted for 85% of all economic and job growth since 2000, Kotkin said. And 67% of Americans prefer living there, according to a 2005 community preferences survey conducted by American LIVES, a Carmel market research and consulting firm.

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