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Redlands at a Crossroads

The quaint community in San Bernardino County seeks to balance its agricultural heritage with the inescapable pressures of growth.

September 24, 2006|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

Monty Hempel always knew when he had reached Redlands: The rail yards, slag heaps and industrial blight along Interstate 10 through the San Bernardino Valley yielded to palm trees, citrus groves and mountain views.

"I knew I was in Redlands," Hempel said, "because it became surrounded by trees, and that was especially noticeable after coming through Ontario and Fontana, where it's gritty."

Smitten by Redlands' small-town charm, with its quaint downtown and elegant Victorian and Craftsman-style homes, Hempel moved his family from Claremont to take a faculty position at the University of Redlands.

But that was eight years ago. Since then, Redlands has seen dramatic changes, as "power shopping centers," drab warehouses and low-slung office buildings have sprouted along the I-10 corridor, replacing hundreds of acres of citrus groves and pressing hard against the city's borders.

The self-proclaimed "jewel of the Inland Empire" is caught up in the whirlwind of urban sprawl. This city of 73,000 has long used the ballot box to slow growth, but now worries that the relentless building boom in San Bernardino and Riverside counties threatens to change the city's character.

About 45,000 new homes have already been approved in the eastern San Bernardino Valley and in Riverside County's Banning-Beaumont area -- enough for about 150,000 new residents, equivalent to a new city almost the size of San Bernardino -- on Redlands' flanks, with more to follow.

"Growth is going to happen, but we want to make sure Redlands doesn't get bowled over," said Mayor Jon Harrison. "We are at the point where we need to define Redlands for the 21st century."

But others say growth is already taking its toll and that the best the city can hope for is to wring enough taxes and fees from development to pay for services while protecting vestiges of open space and landmarks, such as the historic neighborhoods and downtown, an oasis of shade trees and old brick buildings.

"We don't have much time" to figure out a better way to balance growth with the city's economic needs, said Tim Krantz, a lifelong Redlands resident and a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands. "We are definitely at a crossroads. It's a 50-50 shot if we are really going to seize the day and the opportunity."

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The city was established in 1881, and its founders discovered that hot days and cool nights produced bright, succulent navel oranges, so they built Bear Valley Dam -- creating Big Bear Lake -- for irrigation. It sparked a citrus boom that spread to inland valleys and the coast.

Lured by orange groves and sunshine, East Coast gentry flocked to Redlands and built mansions and chateaus as vacation homes. They spent lavishly on philanthropic projects that enriched the city's architecture and culture. Copper magnate Albert Burrage built a mansion in Redlands, as did John Kimberly, who founded the company that makes Kleenex and Huggies, and Henry Fisher, whose electric company was a predecessor of Southern California Edison.

Knox Mellon, the California historic preservation officer under Govs. Jerry Brown and Gray Davis and who lives in neighboring Riverside, recalls sports events at the University of Redlands after World War II.

"Redlands seemed set apart from its neighbors, an island of culture," Mellon said. "It's a community very interested in the performing arts, the university, an intellectual bent."

But these days, visitors are greeted by development and congestion along the I-10 corridor. It's difficult to discern where San Bernardino, Loma Linda and Highland end and Redlands begins because so many commercial buildings have replaced the trees that Hempel recalls.

"We've always been on the edge of the L.A. Basin, a transition zone between urban and rural, but there's no boundary anymore," Hempel said. "It's a leapfrog form of development that's overtaken the city. We have the effects of this: traffic, more concrete for freeways, dirty air, noise. All of those things have increased at the expense of the small-town feel and quality of life."

The most contentious parcel in Redlands has been a 1,000-acre tract that locals call the "doughnut hole." It is unincorporated land in the northwest portion of town near Lugonia Avenue and Alabama Street where the county allowed developers to bulldoze citrus orchards and build a "power shopping center."

Citrus Plaza is anchored by a Kohl's store, Target, Barnes & Noble bookstore, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Warehouses spanning 1 million square feet are being erected in place of orchards on nearby land in the city limits. The city receives 90% of the tax revenue from the shopping center, Harrison said -- money that can be used to help pay for a new police station and $150 million for street repairs.

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