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Out West, a Paradox: Densely Packed Sprawl

"The Irvine Company persuaded a fairly conservative, mostly Republican market to buy a lot of attached housing by creating a product that was predictable and well-built," said Ann Forsyth, a professor of urban design at the University of Minnesota and author of "Reforming Suburbia," a study of large planned communities. "But none of it is cheap."

Indeed, housing across Orange County is among the most unaffordable in the country. Just one out of 10 households earns the $165,000 a year needed to buy a median-priced house, which cost $702,000 in June, according to the California Association of Realtors. DeSantis bought her townhouse for $385,000 in 1996. Since then, she says, it has at least doubled in value. If she were buying now, she said, she could not afford Newport Coast.

Infill With a View

Land for new development in the Los Angeles area is all but unavailable -- at any price. Builders, though, have found a way to squeeze new housing into the old urban footprint. It is called "infill" and is widely viewed as the final frontier of home development in Southern California and across the urban West.

Emerson and Darci Fersch, along with their 18-month-old son, Ethan, are infill pioneers. Three years ago, they bought a townhouse on Signal Hill, a hump of once-scruffy industrial land encircled by the city of Long Beach and adjacent to the San Diego Freeway.

It has been dotted with wells ever since oil was discovered on Signal Hill in the 1920s. For much of that time, it has also been known as a dumping ground for machinery and unwanted pets.

"We thought: Wow, we don't want to live there," said Darci Fersch, 44, a legal assistant, recalling her reaction when she heard that middle-class housing was supplanting rubbish on Signal Hill.

But with a child on the way, she and her husband needed more space than they could afford in their beachfront neighborhood in Long Beach. They drove up the hill to take a look and were astonished. "Every last possible spot where someone could possibly stick a house was being improved on," said Emerson Fersch, 41, a financial planner.

Builders such as Bob Comstock, who only builds infill housing, had been busy using bioremediation to extract toxic chemicals from soil, outfitting houses with passive in-wall venting for clearing methane and working with an oil company so that new wells and new luxury homes could coexist as next-door neighbors.

"Until we got about halfway through the first phase of construction, the perception was that it was still a dump," said Comstock, whose company is the largest builder on the hill. "But after we started selling, we found that we could sell pretty much every unit in less than two weeks."

Signal Hill offers a rare breed of housing in Los Angeles County -- infill with a view. Prices have risen accordingly.

The Fersch family bought their three-bedroom townhouse in 2002 for $385,000. They traded up this spring, selling the townhouse for $680,000 and paying $920,000 for a four-bedroom single-family house perched near the top of the hill. From the study, there is a view of Long Beach Harbor; from the master bedroom, a working oil well.

Beyond Overcrowded

There is another kind of infill. It occurs -- without planning, rubbish removal or construction -- when poor people pack into old houses and apartments. This is the single most important reason Los Angeles has become the nation's densest urban area, housing experts say.


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Graphic
In the East and South, cities such as Washington and Atlanta became less dense as people moved to the suburbs. In the West, cities such as Los Angeles became more dense as usable land became scarce.
Population density
SOURCE: U.S. Census Bureau | THE WASHINGTON POST
© 2005 The Washington Post Company