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Southern California is becoming a tight fit

As more apartments and condos are built, traffic won't be the region's only kind of jam.

August 06, 2007|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

When Bing Crosby crooned that he would settle down and "make the San Fernando Valley my home," he wasn't singing about apartments.

The Southern California dream back then -- exemplified by the World War II-era tracts popping up in the Valley and other places -- was of an affordable single-family home, a little house on a patch of green where kids could play out back.

But today, construction of condos and apartments is rapidly overtaking that of single-family residences, even in suburbs known for spread-out living.

It's part of a broader shift to urbanized living in Southern California, a change that brings with it significantly higher density and concerns about overcrowding and traffic.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Housing construction: A caption in Monday's Section A said that more multifamily units than single-family homes are being built throughout Southern California. The caption should have said that that is the case in much of Southern California.

Consider the Valley: In the 1940s, developers there and throughout the region were putting up houses wherever they could, plowing under vegetable fields and planting that dream along streets and cul-de-sacs.

But over the last six years, Los Angeles has approved more than 14,000 condos and apartments for construction in the San Fernando Valley, according to city records, nearly three times the number of single-family residences.

It's a trend that is mirrored throughout the region, and it is expected to intensify as Southern California stretches to accommodate a crush of 6.3 million new residents over the next 30 years.

So many new apartments will be built that by 2035, the number of multi-family dwellings under construction will outstrip the number of single-family residences two to one, according to projections by the Southern California Assn. of Governments.

The shift is starkly obvious in Los Angeles County, where 60% of residences built in 1993 were single-family. Last year in the county, 38% of residential construction was single-family and 62% was apartments and condos.

The increase in apartment and condominium dwellings will dramatically reshape the way people live in Southern California, heralding an era of increasing urbanization for residents used to suburbia.

Even in such traditionally wide-open areas as Riverside and Orange counties, the number of permits issued for multi-family housing has nearly tripled since 1999.

Apartments and condos have already overtaken the construction of single-family residences in Orange County, where so far this year developers have started work on twice as many multi-family units as individual houses.

The shift has implications for infrastructure, congestion, schools and even the style of neighborhoods, as apartments encroach on single-family enclaves.

Top planners say that if cities and counties are not careful about where they place these high-density projects, the development could overcrowd schools, burden water, sewer and power systems and make traffic worse.

Perhaps nowhere is this clash causing more controversy than along the southern stretch of Ventura Boulevard in the Valley.

In the Sherman Oaks-Studio City area alone, 2,300 apartments and condos were approved for construction between 2000 and 2006.

Neighbors there are already feeling cramped.

"What we have is a city in crisis," said Ellen Vukovich, a board member of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn. "I don't know how long the homeowners are going to be able to stem the tide."

In Studio City, where mid-century houses and small apartment buildings are being replaced by mega-condo projects, residents are worried that the village-like nature of the community will be squashed under a crush of large new buildings and thousands of new residents.

As many as 1,600 new apartments or condos have been built or planned there in the last two years alone, and efforts are underway to produce 1,021 more units, according to figures gathered by neighborhood activists.

Already, traffic on streets leading to Ventura Boulevard in Studio City is backed up for several hours each day.

A Times search of city traffic records shows that at the same time many new developments were being planned and built in the southern end of the Valley, traffic at 10 major intersections along the boulevard worsened.

Ironically, residents along Ventura Boulevard nearly two decades ago fought construction of high-rise office towers there. The battle ended with stricter zoning rules, but they apply only to commercial development, not to residential.

"We're just trying very hard to preserve some semblance of human-scale life here," said Barbara Burke, who is a vice president of the Studio City Neighborhood Council but who said she was speaking as a homeowner. "The congestion is huge."

Similar debates are going on elsewhere in Southern California as more high-density projects take root.

In Orange County, builders have put up more apartments and condos than houses for nearly two years, said Kristine Thalman, chief executive of the Building Industry Assn.'s Orange County chapter.

Driving the shift, Thalman said, is affordability: Condos and apartments are cheaper to build than houses, largely because less land is required per unit.

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