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Azusa Jumps Off the Suburban Downward Spiral

City leaders in Azusa believe they have their community on a more prosperous track after years of political fighting and questionable land use decisions. Downtown redevelopment is finally taking hold, builders are constructing upscale houses, and an exhaustive planning process for a prized 400-acre parcel appears to be settling old disputes. Not everything is rosy in the city of 45,000 at the eastern end of the San Gabriel Valley. Incomes of residents are among the lowest in the valley, years of cheap construction have given parts of town an undeniably tacky appearance, and not everyone supports the new developments. Still, people inside and outside of City Hall believe the town, in general, is headed in the right direction. "They are not stuck in some endless downward spiral where nobody really cares," said Dena Belzer, a principle with Strategic Economics in Berkeley who has studied suburbs extensively. "No one's trying to invent it as something else. They're just trying to do what they do better." Many inner-ring suburbs, including Azusa, have gotten stuck in downward spirals, conceded Rick Cole, who became city manager in 1998. "The challenge is, what do older suburbs become?" Cole said. "Do they become like central cities without the stadiums and cathedrals and museums? Do they just provide more and more low-end housing, with more crime and school test scores that continue to spiral downward?" Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, other San Gabriel Valley suburbs including Pasadena, San Marino, Sierra Madre, Arcadia and Monrovia gentrified. They suffered during the aerospace industry downtown, but their overall fortunes headed in the right direction, and they have become stable, desirable, inner-ring suburbs. But Cole, who earned a reputation as a New Urbanist while serving as Pasadena's mayor, remembers the Colorado Boulevard of the 1970s. Far from the being the heart of today's trendy Old Town Pasadena, Colorado Boulevard 30 years ago was lined with second-hand stores, and the street was lifeless at night. With incremental improvements, good planning and public investments, Pasadena capitalized on its strong sense of place and righted itself. Cole does not picture Azusa becoming "another Pasadena," but he sees no reason why Azusa cannot become equally desirable. Azusa lacks Pasadena's famous Arroyo, but it has some similar assets well-kept neighborhoods of older homes, a decent job base, proximity to other employment, and a spot at the base of the scenic San Gabriel Mountains. An ugly political history During the 1980s and much of the '90s, Azusa politics was cutthroat and often centered on development disputes. Turnover on the City Council and inside City Hall was rapid. The conflict peaked during December 1995 with an initiative to permit casino gambling. Voters rejected Proposition A by more than two-to-one, but the fight split the community deeply. In 1999, the Azusa City Council approved a 1,600-house subdivision on about 400 acres owned and still used by Monrovia Nursery. Again, voters had their say, defeating the project in a referendum later that year. The project's defeat opened the door for the city and Monrovia Nursery to start fresh on planning for prime real estate. The lengthy and public planning process that has attracted hundreds of participants could be considered symbolic of Azusa's new approach. During the early 1990s, nursery owners revealed that they wanted to sell the property for development. At the time, developers and community leaders believed the only option for development was lower-end, single-family houses. Azusa Mayor Christina Cruz Madrid recalls the proposed project as "worse than what we have now future ghettos." With Madrid dissenting, the City Council approved the project anyway. This time around, the city is including detailed planning for the nursery site in a broad revision of the 20-year-old general plan. The city has conducted public forums regarding the nursery property, as well as a design competition. Last December, the city hired the planning team of EDAW Inc. and Maryland's Torti Gallas and Partners. "We generally would not work on a 400-acre site. It's not big enough," said Steven Kellenberg, a principal in EDAW's Irvine office. The company took interest because Azusa clearly wants a project that is "a level above," he said. "The site is very interesting for a couple of reasons," Kellenberg said. "It's an infill site of a significant size in an area where there is a very strong market demand for housing. The second thing is, it's a heritage site." Kellenberg said planners responded well to the four basic principles outlined by city officials for the project: a circulation system that connects with the rest of town; open space and parks that benefit all city residents; a mix of housing types, including affordable units; and an activity center around a future Blue Line rail station. Planners conducted a public workshop in January, and Kellenberg hopes to release some concrete plans early this spring. "I think we could do something that is really a benchmark for the region," he said. Although Monrovia Nursery is providing $350,000 for the planning process and company CEO Miles Rosedale endorses the city's approach, Azusa officials insist that it is not a developer-driven effort. The city is not preparing a specific plan for the site. Instead, the general plan and zoning will be specific enough that developers can go straight to the tract map stage, Cole said. The goal is to end up with a "neo-traditional" development that emphasizes pedestrian activity, a mix of housing styles and public transit. Rosedale said the company hopes that the Azusa planning effort will lead to similar development on the 200 acres of nursery property in Glendora. Mayor Madrid said the project will never receive unanimous support in the community, but she believes people can reach consensus on the major issues. Madrid insists that the project incorporate open space for wildlife and public gatherings. Starting with the basics Cole began laying groundwork for the nursery site planning process well ahead of time. When he arrived nearly four years ago, he found "an incredible, untrustful cynicism" among city residents. To combat that, he and other city leaders began tackling small problems not simply to make small improvements, but also to gain credibility. The city provided money to upgrade a rundown park in a poor part of town. The city tackled a long-standing day-laborer problem by building a bus-stop type facility away from residences and businesses where workers and employers can meet. And the city implemented a campaign to plant thousands of street trees. "You can't do a big, ambitious planning project unless you can show results," Cole explained. "It's not magic. It's hard work and incremental improvements." Downtown redevelopment, which has a long and checkered past, appears to be advancing. The city spent $1.8 million on streetscape improvements, which helped entice dozens of businesses to fill vacancies on Azusa Avenue. Last November, voters approved a $5.5 million bond to build a new library on the edge of downtown. Two small, mixed-use downtown redevelopment projects are also in the hopper. At the city's insistence, a new downtown Sav-On drugstore is not simply a faceless box; instead, the blank walls are set back from the street and an attached restaurant with patio seating faces Azusa Avenue. Cole and other believers also convinced developers to build something other than stereotypical, lower-end single family homes. Several small projects of houses selling for $250,000 to the lower $300,000s have proven popular. While still suburban and automobile-dependent in nature, the new projects have incorporated some neo-traditional elements such as street trees and homes with front porches. One development now under construction takes Azusa housing up another notch. Standard Pacific's 327-unit Mountain Cove subdivision will offer homes ranging from about $350,000 to more than $500,000. They are the most expensive houses ever built in Azusa, and many people, including Cole, see Mountain Cove as another step in the city's comeback. Others are not so sure. The project is decidedly not New Urbanist it will be gated, it contains no affordable units and it is isolated from the rest of town. Environmentalists protested the project, and some people raised concerns about potential San Gabriel River flooding. "It's a very sensitive area," said Mayor Madrid, who cast the lone dissenting vote on Mountain Cove. "It should not have been in the 100-year floodplain. It should not have been in undisturbed areas. It should have been less dense and should look like its part of the national forest and not like something that is part of Irwindale and is plopped down there." Cole defended the project design as sensitive and said gates were needed because Mountain Cove is along Highway 39, which provides heavily used access to the nearby Angeles National Forest. And, he said, farming, paintball games and other uses had already degraded the site. The next phase Arguments over half-million-dollar houses suggest that Azusa's problems are becoming the sort that most cities like to have. Belzer, who did baseline economic studies for Azusa's general plan update, said the city can benefit from the San Gabriel Valley's strong local economy and lack of available land. "I think that Azusa needs to continue to work on it's physical plant, if you will, so that it seems like a nice place to live," Belzer said. The city also should ensure that new industry and jobs match the available housing, she recommended. "I think one of the reasons Azusa is now coming back is because the city is working hard to keep its blue-collar work force," she added. Contacts: Christina Cruz Madrid, Azusa mayor, (626) 334-0954. Rick Cole, Azusa city manager, (626) 812-5238. Dena Belzer, Strategic Economics, (510) 647-5291. Steven Kellenberg, EDAW, (949) 660-8044. Miles Rosedale, Monrovia Nursery, (626) 334-9321.