Out West, a Paradox: Densely Packed Sprawl
L.A. Area Growing Crowded the Fastest

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 11, 2005

SIGNAL HILL, Calif. -- Sure, it looks like sprawl.

From atop this hill near the port of Long Beach, greater Los Angeles splays out through the midsummer haze as a low-rise suburban muddle stitched together by freeways.

But take a closer look: What you knew about sprawl turns out to be wrong.

The urbanized area in and around Los Angeles has become the most densely populated place in the continental United States, according to the Census Bureau. Its density is 25 percent higher than that of New York, twice that of Washington and four times that of Atlanta, as measured by residents per square mile of urban land.

And Los Angeles grows more crowded every year, adding residents faster than it adds land, while most metropolitan areas in the Northeast, Midwest and South march in the opposite direction. They are the sprawling ones, dense in the center but devouring land at their edges much faster than they add people.

Odd as it may seem, density is the rule, not an exception, in the wide-open spaces of the West. Salt Lake City is more tightly packed than Philadelphia. So is Las Vegas in comparison with Chicago, and Denver compared with Detroit. Ten of the country's 15 most densely populated metro areas are in the West, where residents move to newly developed land at triple the per-acre density of any other part of the country.

"If you want elbow room, move to Atlanta or Charlotte or the countrified suburbs of Washington," said Robert E. Lang, director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute in Alexandria. "You probably aren't going to get it in the West. There, if you and your neighbor lean out your windows, you can hold hands."

This demographic pattern is having profound effects on housing construction, commuting and the quality of urban life.

In upper-income quarters of metro Los Angeles, density can be an aesthetic kick. When wedded to smart design and careful planning, it is a high-energy stimulant for suburban ennui, luring high-end stores, protecting open space and paying for toll roads that reduce traffic. But in poorer parts of the region, especially where large immigrant families have settled, density is a just fancy word for severe overcrowding.

Ten municipalities in the nation average more than four people per household -- and nine of them are in greater Los Angeles, according to the Census Bureau. In these mostly older neighborhoods of tract houses, density has a way of turning garages into illegal apartments, while strangling public schools, overwhelming parks and choking streets with cars. Problems born of overcrowding also have a way of being ignored by politicians, since many residents are illegal or poor or both -- and do not vote.

Bursting at the Seams

Open space in the West has always seemed endless. But deserts, mountains, huge tracts of federally owned land and a pervasive lack of water make much of the region unlivable. As such, it has remained the most rural part of the country in terms of land use while becoming the most densely urban in terms of where people live.

Sometime around the early 1980s, greater Los Angeles collided with these unforgiving restraints.

Still, newcomers kept pouring into the Los Angeles Basin, at a rate of about 2 million to 3 million a decade. They had to live somewhere, and many could not afford to settle in -- or did not want to drive for hours to -- suburbs way out in the desert or on the far side of the mountains.

So sprawl sputtered to an unplanned and unheralded halt. Los Angeles began "densifying dramatically," even at its fringe, according to an analysis of federal population numbers by the Brookings Institution's Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

From 1982 to 1997, as part of a uniquely L.A. phenomenon called "dense sprawl," an average of nine people occupied every acre of newly urbanized land in metropolitan Los Angeles, the Brookings study found. That is nine times the average in Nashville during those years, four times that of Atlanta and three times that of New York.

During these years, both the Washington and Los Angeles areas gained population at a brisk 30 percent clip. But Washington's growth gobbled up rural land at about twice the pace of Los Angeles', the Brookings study found. As a result, Washington had a 12 percent decline in overall density, compared with a 3 percent gain in Los Angeles.

Planned Communities

To understand how cheek-by-jowl western living can seem both gracious and roomy, it is instructive to look in on Susan DeSantis. She lives in a three-bedroom townhouse perched on a ridge of the San Joaquin Hills near the Pacific.

The home shares walls on two sides with neighbors. Yet from its soaring living room, neighbors seem not to exist, hidden behind landscaping that is tended daily by gardeners. From large windows and from the patio, the eye is drawn to the sky, the distant hills and Newport Bay.

"There is light and there is openness," said DeSantis, 55, a consultant in urban planning and a former director of housing for the state of California. "With housing in pods like this, you can get angles for views and privacy. It is the density that allows these design features. I can see my neighbors, if they are out on their patio, but it is very rare."

DeSantis lives in Newport Coast, a gated, master-planned development in Orange County, the nation's most densely populated suburban county. Most of the housing in Newport Coast has been built at a density of about seven units per acre. That leaves nearly 80 percent of the development's 9,493 acres as open space -- covered by chaparral, threaded with footpaths and overlooking the sea.

The master plan controls life in Newport Coast with a fussy rigor. It bans mortuaries, union halls and sanitariums for the mentally ill. It permits gazebos, tennis courts and therapy baths. An "opaque screen" must shield all parked cars from arterial highways. "All landscaping shall be maintained in a neat, clean and healthy condition," by order of the master plan.

What it lacks in flexibility, Newport Coast makes up for in convenience. A six-lane road feeds cars in and out of the development so efficiently, DeSantis said, that in the past nine years she has never seen it clogged with traffic. The road connects to a nearby toll highway, part of a regional system of toll roads that cushions many Orange County commuters from the traffic congestion that torments much of the region.

By car, DeSantis is five minutes from the ocean, 10 minutes from high-end shopping and 15 minutes from John Wayne Airport. She can also take commuter rail -- a station is about 15 minutes away -- to downtown Los Angeles or San Diego. Distances here are measured by time in a car. DeSantis said she has never once walked to a local grocery store, although the nearest one is 10 minutes away on foot.

Newport Coast is the final oceanfront piece in the largest private master-planned development in the United States. Begun in the early 1960s by the Irvine Co., it is eight times the size of Manhattan and covers a fifth of Orange County.

"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.

Maria Sanchez is an expert on this kind of housing. She is one of nine members of an immigrant family from Guadalajara, Mexico, that lives in a two-bedroom apartment in Maywood, a one-square-mile patch of southeast Los Angeles County that is the densest city in California and probably the densest city in the West.

This summer, in one of the apartment's bedrooms, Sanchez, 42, is sharing a double bed with her mother and her father, both of them in their late sixties.

Her daughter, Yesenia, 19, sleeps in the second bedroom, along with her boyfriend, Raul, and their 2-year-old son, Raul Jr. In the living room, Sanchez's two sons, Efrain, 28, and Juan, 8, share a sofa bed with one of Sanchez's brothers.

"There is a lot more room for the kids to play back home in Guadalajara, but there is no work," Sanchez said. "We are better off here. We have enough to eat."

Efrain is the family's breadwinner. He makes about $90 a day deboning chickens in a processing plant within walking distance of the apartment.

By Maywood standards, there is nothing exceptional about the Sanchez family's living situation.

The city's white working-class population fled Maywood in the early 1980s and was replaced by Latino immigrants, most of them Mexicans from poor areas such as Guadalajara. Maywood's sewers, water lines, streets, schools and housing were built in the 1930s to serve a population of about 10,000. There are now at least 30,000 residents, and virtually no new housing or infrastructure has been built.

"It is futile to try to enforce laws against overcrowding," said David Mango, director of building and planning in Maywood. "When we go to a house and see six adults living in one room, they say, "We are just visiting.' "

City inspectors recently issued a citation to an enterprising landlord who had purchased four metal toolsheds from Home Depot, set them up around her house and rented each one for more than $150 a month.

"Every year, I say that this city can't accommodate more density," said Samuel A. Peña, the mayor of Maywood. "But every year I see the enrollment numbers from the schools, and I am wrong."

Schools have been officially overcrowded and operating on an emergency year-round schedule for 23 years. School officials acknowledge that crowding has undermined children's ability to learn.

"As it has increased, we have a seen a steady decline in attendance, student performance, graduation and an increase in dropouts," said Shelley Weston, director of instructional support services for secondary schools in the most crowded part of the Los Angeles Unified School District. To ease crowding, new schools are being built. But in Maywood, where virtually every inch of land is spoken for, less-crowded schools have meant more crowded housing. School construction required the demolition of 200 housing units, all of which were occupied, mostly by large immigrant families.

"Residents now tell me they are approached all the time by people saying, 'You have a really nice garage. I will convert it for you and pay you $800 a month,' " said Mango, the city planning director.

Maywood's housing miseries echo across Southern California, according to a report on regional housing from the School of Public Affairs at the University of California at Los Angeles. It found that in Los Angeles, the population grew by 11 percent between 1990 and 2002, but the number of households increased by just 5 percent.

Density's Burden

The regionwide momentum toward density that has jazzed up life in Newport Coast and transformed Signal Hill from industrial dump to real estate gold mine is also putting pressure on the Sanchez family.

Maria Sanchez learned a couple of weeks ago that her rent would increase in September, from $650 to $950 a month. She said that that is more than her family can afford and that she will soon start looking for another place to live.

Since there are no vacant apartments in Maywood that her family can afford, they will probably have to find another immigrant family that is strapped for cash and double up.

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