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Antelope Valley Is Upscale Bound

July 18, 2006|Sharon Bernstein and Ashley Surdin | Times Staff Writers

Check out this model home: It's got five bedrooms, gorgeous slate tile on the floors, marble in the bathrooms and a bonus loft with enough space to put flat-screen TVs on adjoining walls so as not to miss a single ballgame.

Five years ago, developer Capital Pacific Homes was selling similarly outfitted homes in the upscale Orange County suburb of Laguna Niguel for $2.2 million.

But here in the arid, recently plowed high desert in west Lancaster, where Joshua trees sprout in wild clusters across from rows of new houses, they're going for about $500,000.

Scott Coleman, a 33-year-old actor from Culver City, bought one. So did Mark Snaer, 27, a recently trained air traffic controller from San Diego. So did Monica Carreon, 26, a stay-at-home mother from Long Beach whose husband is a welder.

The Antelope Valley has long been a magnet for development, but these days, the boom is accelerating and going upscale.

Lancaster, the fastest-growing city in Los Angeles County, saw its assessed property values increase about 29% last year, according to a report released last week by the county. And its neighbor to the south -- Palmdale, the second-fastest growing city -- was not far behind.

By comparison, property values in the city and the county of Los Angeles increased 11%.

"Nowhere else in L.A. County has been like that," County Assessor Rick Auerbach said. "And the reason is that there is land to build on."

There's so much land that developers offer middle-class and even working-class buyers huge homes on lots that in other areas would be used only for multimillion-dollar houses.

And though some parts of Southern California are beginning to show signs that the housing boom is stalling, planners say the expanse of raw land in the Antelope Valley means growth will continue.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments projects that the Antelope Valley's population will rise from about 290,000 to nearly 500,000 in the next 15 to 20 years. Several planned communities are also slated to the west and south, adding more than 100,000 residents.

But amid the rising home values and booming growth, the Antelope Valley also shows signs of strain.

Even with the influx of middle-class residents, parts of the valley remain poor. In Lancaster, violent crime has dropped in recent years but property crime is up. Law enforcement officials said they are dealing with gang activity that they say has come to the valley as residents move in from urban parts of Los Angeles.

The school district is struggling to handle the growth.

"Economically, it's outstanding. Educationally, we're dying," said Larry Freise, coordinator of consolidated projects for the Antelope Valley Union High School District.

The region's high schools house twice as many students as they were built to hold, and voters last month turned down a proposed bond issue that would have paid for a new school, forcing students to remain in "the cheapest portable that there is" until a new campus can be financed and built, Freise said.

Nickie Perez, a 19-year-old who moved to the high desert as a child, said growth has brought smog and crime to what was once a pristine community.

"I remember looking out over the mountains here," she said, "and it was so pretty, so clear and crisp. Now the pollution is here. I think it's from the population increase and traffic."

Perez, who lives in west Lancaster, said she no longer feels comfortable going out alone after dark and doesn't jog without a whistle or pepper spray to ward off possible assailants.

The growth, Lancaster Mayor Bishop Henry Hearns said, "is both good and bad."

"It means people are coming, and people is what we're all about," Hearns said. "But at the same time, what we really want is not just growth but controlled growth. We want to make sure we put people in the right places and have the amenities to take care of them."

The drawbacks aren't stopping new residents dazzled by the prospect of a big house with a reasonable mortgage.

Michelle Stall and her husband traded up to Capital Pacific's Clifton development, buying a two-story, 3,200-square-foot home in west Lancaster after selling their three-bedroom ranch house in Lake Los Angeles to a couple from Highland Park.

Stall, a real estate agent in the area, said her daughter also bought a home in Lancaster and that her mother was considering moving out from Glendale.

Along with the new residents come new amenities: A hospital is being built in Palmdale, and specialty retailers including Trader Joe's and Panera Bread have set up shop. A Wickes Furniture store took the place of a shuttered Kmart.

There are so many people furnishing and decorating houses here that Hal Newman, a fast-talking art salesman, goes up and down the pristine streets knocking on doors to hawk framed prints.

He bounds into the Clifton sales office bearing a framed reproduction of a Picasso.

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