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Cerritos Thrives on Cash Cows From Old Pastures

The former Dairy Valley milks prosperity from its auto mall and shopping centers.

September 03, 2006|J. Michael Kennedy and Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writers

The glass artwork at the Cerritos Library is top-drawer, of course. How could it be any other way?

The four stunning glass creations are the work of the internationally acclaimed Dale Chihuly, commissioned to do the pieces to the tune of $340,000. And on the second floor is an acrylic abstract by famed artist Al Held, who is $166,760 richer for it.

Still, these are drops in the bucket compared with the titanium skin that covers the $40-million library. The architects who built it say it is one of the few buildings in the world -- the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, being another -- that boasts such trappings. The Cerritos titanium shell cost a cool $2.7 million, but it never rusts and is guaranteed to last for 100 years.

Then there is the new sculpture garden, where a recently installed granite memorial commemorates a dark day in the city's history: the 1986 air disaster in which two planes collided, killing 82 people and destroying 11 homes. Among the dead were 15 Cerritos residents.

Cerritos is the only city in Los Angeles County that financed the construction of its own sheriff's station. And it provides deputies extra patrol cars, sophisticated fingerprinting equipment and other amenities.

All this for a city that only turned 50 this year. One that, until four decades ago, was a community of dairies where former First Lady Pat Nixon grew up.

But today's lavish library and state-of-the-art Civic Center are the rewards of decisions made in the 1970s by visionary leaders who transformed cow pastures into sales tax-generating engines for decades to come.

While other cities were grappling with the crippling effects of Proposition 13, which capped property tax revenue, Cerritos was busy developing a regional shopping center and one of the first and largest auto malls in the nation. Today, 43% of the city's sales tax revenue comes from Cerritos Auto Square.

"There's a pretty simple answer to Cerritos' success," said Bill Fulton, an urban planning expert and author. "The answer is cars."

Other Los Angeles County cities have tried to emulate Cerritos' successful auto mall, but none comes close to rivaling it.

"There's nothing magical about Cerritos," Fulton said. "They just did it earlier and way better than anybody else."

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In the beginning, it was christened Dairy Valley, a fitting name for an area of Los Angeles County that at the time had more cows than people -- even if there was no valley.

"You'd see people stopped at the side of the road watching calves being birthed," said Mayor Paul Bowlen, who spent much of his career as a civics teacher at Cerritos High School.

Longtime residents recall the constant swarm of flies and smell of manure that once filled the air.

"There was a cow field here that we used to play in. We loved the haystacks," said Marcie Tracey, 44, who grew up in Cerritos and is now raising two sons in her childhood home.

Today, Cerritos, on the southern edge of Los Angeles County, is a prime example of the good life beyond Proposition 13, which brought on fiscal hardship for most cities.

This city of 8.9 square miles and 51,400 people, far from both the ocean and mountains, is a financial treasure trove. Its auto mall and two mega-shopping centers generate an estimated $18 million in annual sales tax revenue -- what its city manager calls its "lifeblood."

The seeds of Cerritos' success were planted only a generation ago, when neighboring Artesia was poised to annex the land and zone its dairies out of existence to make way for new homes. But disgruntled dairymen pushed for incorporation and Dairy Valley became a city in 1956.

Boasting a population of 3,500 and a $33,190 budget, Dairy Valley surrounded Artesia on three sides like a horseshoe. Today, as Mayor Bowlen is wont to point out, it's easy to see where ritzy Cerritos ends and a somewhat more dog-eared Artesia begins.

In 1965, less than 10 years after the dairymen incorporated to keep subdivisions out, voters approved a measure that would allow them in. The farmers of Dairy Valley, renamed Cerritos in 1967, moved to more rural areas such as Chino, where suburban sprawl was not a threat.

And as their land came up for grabs, renowned developer Ernest W. Hahn snatched some of it up and proposed a regional shopping mall, now known as the Los Cerritos Shopping Center. As City Manager Art Gallucci said, "That was the goose that laid the golden egg." The mall generates $4 million annually in sales tax revenue and was the city's foundation for future projects.

Then in 1979, the Cerritos Redevelopment Agency spruced up Studebaker Road and lured a Chevrolet dealership, marking the beginnings of the Cerritos Auto Square. The auto mall was a radical concept at the time -- the bringing together of dozens of dealerships on a single piece of ground.

The square remains one of the world's largest auto malls with 25 dealerships on 100 acres, generating $12 million in annual sales tax revenue.

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