Here’s the short version. The planning department in Lancaster, California did something that made property values increase by 9% this year while property values outside the project zone decreased by an average of 1% during the same period. This was in an economic environment where real estate hasn’t yet properly recovered from the 2008 crash. That’s quite an accomplishment.
Before we get into the details here’s a little background information. Lancaster is one of several towns located in the high desert of the Antelope Valley on the far eastern edge of Los Angeles County. From the late 1800’s until the early 1950’s Lancaster was a quiet farm town with a traditional Main Street (Lancaster Blvd.) and a railroad station surrounded by alfalfa fields and orchards. After World War II the military and the aerospace industry established a significant presence in the area and attracted a well educated and well paid workforce. The Space Shuttle and the Stealth Bomber were built there. Suburban style development sprang up on the edge of town to accommodate the engineers, rocket scientists, and military staff. By the 1980’s production home builders and commuters from “Down Below” in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley began to colonize the area. The new residents were families looking for affordable homes with a yard in a safe neighborhood with good public schools and a semi-rural environment. The Antelope Valley was a perfect fit. Shopping malls and subdivisions flourished with decades of horizontal growth and expansion. The municipal coffers filled with impact fees and new tax revenue. Life was good.
Then came the crash of 2008 which hit the Antelope Valley harder, faster, and longer than almost anyplace else in the nation. There were massive foreclosures, budget cuts, and lay-offs. Real estate values dropped by half. Miles of overbuilt strip malls sat vacant. Big box retailers and anchor tenants closed their doors. You know the rest… Local elected officials and established city staffers are conservative by nature and were wary of radical change. The official response to the crisis was to hunker down and wait out the storm until things bounced back and then double down on the suburban growth model to make up for lost time and revenue. But there was no bounce. There’s still a desire for new horizontal expansion, but the market just isn’t there. Meanwhile, the burden of maintaining the existing attenuated infrastructure remains and must be paid for or left to fester.
As it happens, there was a small minority at the planning department in Lancaster that had been pushing for a different approach for years. They had largely been ignored when times were good, but after the crash their message of adaptation and experimentation was more easily communicated. This was especially true since the part of town that the rebel planners were most interested in tinkering with was the long neglected downtown which no one much cared about one way or another. The general consensus had always been that the real action took place out on the edge where the new auto dealerships, big box stores, and subdivisions were slated to be built. Downtown was just a sad relic. But there were some existing redevelopment funds that were about to expire if they weren’t used quickly so it was relatively easy to indulge the eccentrics at the planning department.
Photo credit: City of Lancaster
In 2009 eight blocks of the unnecessarily wide Lancaster Blvd. in the historic downtown was put on a road diet. The sidewalks were widened, the four vehicle travel lanes were reduced to two, and the center of the thoroughfare was converted to diagonal parking, pedestrian amenities, and street trees. The specific plan process, which included the most extensive public outreach and engagement in the city’s history, was overseen by RBF Consulting here. The design was crafted by Moule & Polyzoides. here.
In addition to the road diet on Lancaster Blvd. several existing parking lots were transformed into public plazas and playgrounds. Slender liner buildings were constructed to help frame the street and protect the plazas. The city was also able to rally support for various civic amenities from longstanding members of the community. There was a deep well of established families and businesses who still valued the historic core and were willing to contribute resources toward the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, the new Museum of Art and History, and other cultural institutions. The BLVD (as it is referred to) now has a weekly farmers market and hosts holiday events in season – all of which are wildly successful.
Photo credit: Curt Gideon Photography here
The BLVD has also been a catalyst for new investment in the older neighborhoods of single family homes within a pleasant walk or bicycle ride of downtown. Evidently there is genuine market demand for homes near shops, restaurants, culture, and a commuter rail station beyond what is otherwise available at strip malls on the side of a busy highway. Older people and young couples were the first to enter the scene. Families with children are now beginning to arrive. From an economic perspective large isolated homes on the end of a cul-de-sac have lost significant market value at the same time more modest homes close to town are being bid up.
Here’s the question I ask myself. Now that this economic model has proven itself what do the planners in Lancaster do with the other 98% of their town that’s still underwater and lacking the good bones of the traditional core?