February 27, 2004 - From the February, 2004 issue

New 558 Acre Town 'Las Lomas' Being Planned For Newhall Pass

In recent months, TPR has published interviews highlighting the development challenges involved with large regional projects such as Playa Vista, Tejon Ranch, and Dos Lagos. One of the more progressive of the larger planned communities being developed in the region is Las Lomas, located at the intersection of I-5 and Highway 14, just south of the Santa Clarita city line in Los Angeles County. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Dan Palmer of Palmer Investments, in which he articulates his vision for Las Lomas and answers his critics on the issue of smart growth and responsible development.

Dan, let's begin by you giving us an overview of one of the more ambitious and thoughtful projects on the planning horizon for L.A. County. Could you lay out the scope and underlying vision driving the Las Lomas project?

The really big picture for those of us who are practicing in the area of land use, development, architecture, and governance is that as a society we have a duty to the next generation to provide them with a quality of life that is at least as high as that which we inherited from the previous generation. It's essential for this community to begin to take the courageous steps that we all know are necessary.

We know that Southern California's population is growing. We know that two-thirds of that growth is births over deaths and only one-third is adult in-migration. We have a great responsibility to maintain and improve the quality of life for our children and their families. This responsibility includes providing safe, habitable housing, high quality public education, continued economic opportunities and sufficient mobility. And, we must also recognize that we cannot look in the rearview mirror for guidance.

The last generation or two of development may have been responsive to the post-World War II baby boom, but today we know that suburban development forms are exploitative of open space and burdensome to public infrastructure. Sprawl developments have unintended and adverse social consequences, such as the alienation of families, poor air quality and gridlocked traffic. They lock us patterns of life that prevent people from spending quality time with their families, where long commutes and geographic isolation by land use are commonplace.

As a community, we need to do what we already know are the right things. We need to invest in higher intensity and mixed-use developments. We need to develop projects with scaleable transit options. We need to make development forms more compact and less exploitative of green space. We need to locate the development where there's an abundance or excess of infrastructure. We need to make schools fully integrated with the communities they serve. This is the ambition of Las Lomas – to leap out of the dinner conversations and coffee klatches of the intelligentsia and into physical reality at a scale that can, in fact, be used as a model for the future.

I've been developing in this community for about 20 years, and I have found it increasingly challenging to identify suitable development sites and then to fashion a proposal that is both economically feasible and socially conscious. Las Lomas has, in my view, several significant attributes that lend itself to the application of smart growth, new urbanist and transit-oriented development principles.

Las Lomas is located in the Newhall Pass, where there is an abundance of public infrastructure. It represents a non-traditional urban infill project. Approximately 70-80% of both the water and the power that service the L.A metropolitan area bypass this site. It's traversed by high-tension electrical wires and in aqueducts. The site sits on top of a Metrolink line and is adjacent to five metropolitan freeways and two master-planned highways. So, from a human habitation standpoint, many of the infrastructure elements are already on site or immediately adjacent to the property.

From a natural environment perspective, the area has great physical beauty and should provide a great aesthetic setting for a very high quality of life, if one can take advantage of the longer territorial views afforded by the Santa Susanna Mountains to the west and the San Gabriel Mountains to the east.

Dan, elaborate on the elements of the design for the planned development you're proposing. Break it down for us.

Las Lomas is scaled to minimize offsite impacts. By having sufficient population to support a grocery-anchored neighborhood shopping area and providing on-site K-12 public education, we capture a significant amount of traffic onsite. We think of Las Lomas as a small town, where 15,000-17,000 people will be able to reside in approximately 5,800 homes of varying prices, descriptions and physical characteristics. Las Lomas will feature a commercial center, where approximately 9,000 permanent jobs can be created. Residents will have access to high quality public education within the community, as well as the full panoply of public services-police, fire, libraries, post offices, and public transit.

The aesthetic we propose for Las Lomas draws heavily upon some of the more admired neighborhoods in Southern California and Los Angeles. For example, other successful mixed-use communities include Westwood Village, Old Town Pasadena, State Street in Santa Barbara, La Jolla Village, and parts of Hancock Park like Larchmont Boulevard. These areas share a certain grace while accommodating substantial numbers of families, vibrant businesses and thriving retail elements.

Las Lomas is attempting to borrow from the original utopian vision of the early Los Angeles as a garden city, promising an indoor/outdoor lifestyle with the Mediterranean plant palate and courtyard housing. You can almost smell the fragrance of the orange blossoms when you look at the original promotional material used to draw people to the greater Los Angeles region. We are attempting to create something that is both recognizable and graceful.

Over the last decade, large planned developments in the county have each faced serious political and legal challenges in part because they're very high profile projects. Some have argued that planned developments garner controversy even as they try to achieve laudable land use goals. Do you enter in to the Las Lomas project with trepidation?

I believe that this is a competition of ideas, where as a society we're faced with tremendous challenges, and very few examples of forward looking responses to those challenges. So, for example, it's a widely recognized fact that Southern California is growing at an incredible pace. Yet, as a society, we have failed to provide for the next generation in any meaningful way. Southern California's growth is outstripping the supply of housing, suitable locations for employment and so forth. The general feeling among the broader population is that the quality of life is going to deteriorate because of this tremendous population growth.

I, on the other hand, am an optimist by nature. An opportunity exists to capitalize on this growth and use it to fuel the redevelopment and rejuvenation of Los Angeles in a more mature and scaleable form, and do so while preserving the attributes and quality of life that drew the current population to the region. Economic vitality can be the natural extension of the aesthetic traditions of what was initially marketed as a Garden of Eden kind of lifestyle.

Las Lomas is being developed on 555 acres, but much of that property has 50% slope or better. Describe how you're strategically siting your develoment consistent with smart growth principles.

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One has to begin by recognizing that the site holds tremendous and lasting strategic value to two ecologies. There's a human ecology that is extremely well established along the I-5 corridor, which arguably is Main Street for the North American continent's western seaboard. The site adjoins I-5 for two-and-a-half miles at the junction of the I-14Freeway. Then, there's the wilderness ecology. This site is the linkage between the San Gabriel Mountain Range, which is one of the largest contiguous wilderness spaces in the greater metropolitan area and the Santa Susanna branch of the Transverse Mountain Range. At present, the site is failing to serve either the human or wilderness ecology. It's not working great for people. The freeways and aqueducts have severed the two great wildernesses, so it is not working great for animals. Simply put, there's considerable room for improvement on the project site.

So, from a smart growth perspective one has to keep both of these seemingly conflicting interests in mind as one develops a plan. We began by laying out the least flexible elements of the development, which, generally speaking, are the public sector interests-roads and other infrastructure. Thus, we began with a wilderness corridor to link the San Gabriels to the Santa Susannas, and continued with the road system, which would not only provide vehicular access to the site, but likely the utilities to service Las Lomas, as well.

After establishing the public sector development interests, we were left with a permeable pattern of land development with very distinct areas for human habitation, which have been deliberately articulated to integrate and preserve great expanses of wilderness and open space. The site is balanced with 275 acres of economic development and 275 acres of open space and wilderness. The 275 acres, when developed, will have a mass and scale of about a two-story village with more peripheral areas graduating to single story. There also will be some areas where employment and retail will co-exist with higher density housing forms, including both the more pronounced urban forms of residential buildings and, in some rare occasions, five-story residential buildings, and a business district with mid-rise office buildings, some with ground floor retail.

You suggest that Las Lomas is planned to resemble a small town, which obviously involves the need for schools. Tell us about plans to integrate schools into your development.

Quality schools are a critical component to achieving a high quality of life. The development patterns over the last couple of generations have featured a segregation of land uses that many people have found to be alienating. People now are more reliant on their automobile to move from their homes to where the jobs are, to where the schools are, and to where the shopping is each and every day. In conceptualizing Las Lomas, we've attempted to fully integrate school facilities within the community's fabric and made them easily accessible by every resident.

A Kindergarten through 8th grade facility is planned for Las Lomas with expansive fields and other recreational amenities that can also be use by the larger community as a means to provide continuing education, recreational opportunities and some social services. On the high school level, we're offering two high school academies, each of which is compact and urban in form. One is envisioned as an academy of the arts, and the other is envisioned as an academy of the sciences. The businesses located within Las Lomas will be encouraged to participate in mentoring programs and continuing education programs so that there can be a "cross pollination" of the vitality and energy of the students with the wisdom and knowledge of the professionals.

Dan, the Las Lomas project presently sits in unincorporated Los Angeles County. You have stated publically that you would like the project to be incorporated into the city of Los Angeles. Can you give an update of this effort?

Las Lomas adjoins the city of Santa Clarita, which is one of the largest recently incorporated communities in the region. Santa Clarita has attempted to promote higher-quality development within the Santa Clarita Valley, and the city has demonstrated some competency with transit-oriented development with the three Metrolink stations located there. Santa Clarita has ambitions to have jurisdiction over the Las Lomas site and its ultimate development.

Notwithstanding this, we applied to Los Angeles because of Los Angeles' commitment to smart growth and transit-oriented development, as well as its ability to deliver reliable water and power services. We note with interest the public sector effort to create mixed-use zoning on many of the large boulevards and experiments with higher density forms around transit stops. And, we find a very sophisticated audience within Los Angeles City Hall for the concepts that lay the intellectual foundation for Las Lomas.

Scanning the July 2002 issue of "The Signal," it would appear that the Mayor of Santa Clarita is not too happy with your plans to join the City of Los Angeles.

The city of Santa Clarita first engaged in this process by participating in a scoping meeting for the E.I.R. to be prepared by the City of Los Angeles that was hosted by the City of Los Angeles' Planning Department. Santa Clarita, as well as many other interested governmental and private constituencies, were represented and offered comments. At some point, Santa Clarita began to move in a starkly competitive and/or disruptive direction that ultimately resulted in Santa Clarita making a second formal application to LAFCO on the same piece of property, in effect asking to be given the opportunity to have jurisdiction over this property.

All of the civic leaders in Southern California and the three agencies in question-the city of Santa Clarita, city of Los Angeles and county of Los Angeles-recognize, as we do, the property's tremendously strategic location and its unique ability to provide both a model for enlightened development and the opportunity to generate tremendous ongoing fiscal benefits to the city in which Las Lomas ultimately resides. For example, the fiscal impact analyses of Las Lomas demonstrates that the annual general fund recurring revenue to the city of Los Angeles would be on the order of magnitude of $10 million per annum at full build-out. As we face a period of fiscal challenges at the state level, and with so much of the shortfall being shifted to local government, it's not surprising that we have a contest of competing local jurisdictions interested in annexing the Las Lomas project.

To conclude, how long have you been working on this development opportunity? What's the likely timeline for the approval process being completed?

I first began working on this property almost 15 years ago. The City of Los Angeles has been actively working on this project for a couple of years and city officials are coming to a point where they should be ready circulate a draft EIR sometime this year. Public hearings could commence toward the third quarter of 2004. We view the CEQA process and the public hearing process as an opportunity to test the strength of the ideas that underpin Las Lomas and also see it as a challenge to those who have a genuine interest in sound planning to offer their best thoughts and best ideas on how to take advantage of this very special opportunity. As with any large development proposal, we anticipate that the hearing process could go on for some time. It is our hope that through the hearing process new and better ideas will be brought to our attention. It is our desire to continually enhance the quality of what we're offering, and expect the plan will continue to improve as it works toward land use approvals. The land use approvals could occur late in 2004, with the jurisdictional approvals following sometime in 2005.

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