I tend to fixate on certain places – sometimes because I love them, other times because I can’t help but stare at twisted wreckage. Lancaster, California has always been 30/70 leaning toward wreckage, although it does show signs of ongoing reinvention so I keep going back. Lancaster is highly representative of most places in suburban America. If Lancaster can successfully adapt to changing circumstances then there’s hope for the rest of the country. I’ve already written several blog posts about the place here, here, here, and here.
Recently Mayor Rex Parris has been in the news suggesting that the MetroLink commuter rail station should either be shut down or moved to the far edge of the city limits. Why? Well… Lancaster is a typical suburb. In fact it’s a far flung exurb with a self-selecting population who left the city in order to escape certain things and particular kinds of people. You know where I’m going with this right? The proverbial “wrong element” whispered by terrified white people who are nervous about their property values and crime. I have no idea what Mr. Parris himself believes one way or another, but he’s genuinely good at representing the concerns of his constituency. In this instance the electorate felt that the wrong kinds of folks were taking the train from downtown Los Angeles and showing up in Lancaster where they proceed to loiter in a disagreeable manner. These weren’t “our kind of people”. After a period of review between the mayor and various agencies it was announced that the MetroLink station would remain, although there were hints at new procedures and assurances of an unspecified nature.
This got me thinking about the neighborhoods immediately around the train station. To the west of the tracks is an eight block commercial strip referred to as The BLVD. It was once a floundering half dead Main Street that was completely revamped by the local planning department in 2010 and has enjoyed remarkable success on multiple levels. The adjacent streets of single family homes have gotten a boost in popularity and higher property value while the rest of the Antelope Valley is still struggling unsuccessfully to recover from the 2008 crash.
But then there’s the east side of the tracks… These photos look like an Edward Hopper retrospective: bleak, empty, soulless, and unloved. No one has spent ten cents on this part of town in decades and it shows, yet it’s only a block from the beginning of The BLVD. and it’s pressed up against the back side of the train station. In another kind of town this might constitute prime real estate, or at least a place that had a little something going on. After all, the commuter train gives you direct convenient access to everything greater Los Angeles has to offer from jobs to culture. But in Lancaster it’s mostly vacant land, underutilized parking lots, semi-occupied warehouses, and marginal low value businesses. That’s not to say that people don’t live, work, attend church, and go to school in the nearby blocks. They’re just doing so without the benefit of any viable civic infrastructure.
There may be good reasons why extending The BLVD east to the other side of the tracks won’t work. Aside from any physical or political limitations Lancaster may not be able to absorb much more in the way of upscale dining and discretionary shopping. I’ve had conversations with locals who say they can’t afford a $25 Italian dinner or a $6 beer at a trendy brew pub. Maybe eight blocks of good quality brick and mortar establishments is all Lancaster can handle at the moment. I’ve also heard that developers think the local real estate market might be able to absorb another fifty urban style condo/apartments near The BLVD. But five hundred? They just don’t know since this is terra incognita for them and their traditional business model. But the east side of the tracks might be the perfect place to establish an entirely different kind of environment at a lower price point that actually works for the people who already live nearby. Yucca Ave. runs parallel to the railroad tracks rather than perpendicular like The BLVD. More importantly, it’s an area the theater and chardonnay crowd never sees and doesn’t care about so it’s a great place to do some low cost, low risk, potentially high return experimenting to see what works and what doesn’t.
The city of Lancaster spent $10.5 million on the redevelopment of The BLVD, plus some state and federal funds. Personally, I can’t see the city mustering the political will to scrape together that kind of money to transform Yucca Ave. in a similar fashion. Instead, I see the back alleys and vacant parking lots as incubators for local micro-entrepreneurs who will interact with the people who live next door and down the street. It’s less about making everything “pretty” and more about making the place vibrant and productive at a scale that works on a tight budget. Yucca is just too big and wide and needs too much major help to be saved at the moment. But the backs and sides of these commercial buildings actually have a human scale and can be connected to the smaller more domestic streets and buildings they face across the alley.
Here’s one possible model that Lancaster might try along Yucca. This is a crappy triangular parking lot in San Francisco sandwiched between a double decker freeway and a Costco. I can’t imagine a worse location for anything. But a clever entrepreneur decided to rent the parking lot, install a few port-a-potties and hand washing stations, set up some inexpensive outdoor furniture, and then charge a modest rent for parking spaces to a rotating cast of local food trucks. It’s been fantastically successful and unlike The BLVD it costs almost nothing to install. This kind of operation does best in a marginal location with no NIMBYs or brick and mortar competition. Food trucks are infinitely less expensive to buy and operate than a traditional restaurant so the bar to entry is much lower for small business people. If the bank says no to a modest loan it’s possible to get start up capital from an aunt or cousin. In fact, these are most likely to be collaborative family businesses. The food these trucks serve is radically more affordable and can represent the specific tastes of the community in a way that McDonald’s or Domino’s may not – and the profits stay local rather than being sucked out to corporate headquarters. All the city of Lancaster would need to do is keep out of the way and let small business people do their thing without an endless amount of code enforcement to gum up the works.
Here’s a different approach that might work even better since I’ve never actually seen a food truck anywhere in the Antelope Valley. My guess is that they’re illegal and/or can’t find a hospitable spot to park given the relentless and pervasive “mall security” guarding the Taco Bells and Applebees. This is the Underground Food Market in Oakland. This is a pop up market that appears quickly and then melts away in a single day. Both the vendors and the customers are told the date of the next event, but only alerted to the exact location at the last moment in order to keep code enforcement people unaware long enough to actually conduct business for an afternoon. None of these people use anything more elaborate than folding tables and barbecue equipment and it all fits in the trunk of a car or a pick up truck. Does this sort of thing violate a dozen health, safety, and zoning regulations? Yep. Has anyone ever gotten sick or died? Nope. If Lancaster could find a way to legitimize this sort of activity they might discover a ready supply of people in the neighborhood who would bring their talents to bear.
I want to get back to the idea of human scale and how the best parts of Yucca are the little spaces between and around the buildings instead of the big parking lots and super wide street frontage. Everywhere I go in the world I find some of the best streets are barely wide enough for a car to pass through – and that’s part of the magic. I could see stretching some sun shades over the top of these alleys in Lancaster and lining the blank walls with shallow market stalls. This is an economic incubator that costs pennies and could lead to bigger and more permanent local businesses. The trick is to get the entry cost for experimentation down low enough to engage people without much capital or credit. Will this sort of thing terrify suburban homeowners out in the gated communities? Yep. Will they care if it happens in the “bad” part of town that they never visit? Maybe not…
Here’s another example of a reuse of an existing space with very little actual construction. Property values are so high and vacancies are so low in places like San Francisco that every crappy building in every marginal location is being pressed into service for things that no one would have envisioned twenty years ago. Lancaster could do exactly the same thing at a much lower price point. I don’t imagine the wine and cheese crowd being interested in Yucca anytime soon, but there are all sorts of other subcultures that would love this much space to tinker with for their legitimate enterprises so long as the local authorities cut them some slack. What most of these empty warehouses in Lancaster need is fresh paint and the right people to colonize them. The trouble with lone mom and pop operations in this sort of desolate location is that without community and other active participants they tend to wither. Lancaster desperately needs a well organized group to adopt this place. Koreans, Mormons, Armenians, Hasidic Jews, Guatemalans… it needs a La Raza, a Chinatown, or a respectable gay population – any cohesive subculture that can reimagine the place and add vitality in a focussed and concentrated manner. Would it kill city officials to hang out the welcome mat instead of freaking out when “They” appear at the train station?
Here’s one last example of a seriously bad location that is starting to be transformed in a way that cost the city almost nothing. Flora Grubb was a successful business woman who rented a vacant lot in San Francisco’s Mission District back when The Mission was cheap and considered a bad neighborhood. Renting a vacant lot was one of the few affordable options back when she was younger and just starting out. She didn’t need a building or much infrastructure since she sold plants, garden supplies, and outdoor furniture. As The Mission gradually became fashionable (largely due to lots of cool people like Flora doing their thing) property values rose so high that she was asked to leave so her landlord could put up luxury condos on the site. But the landlord was a clever guy. He had another vacant lot in a different miserable part of town half a block from the sewage treatment plant. He arranged for Flora to set up shop there. She had enough of a loyal following by then that people were willing to follow her to the new location. Her current shop is an open air industrial shed and a former parking lot. The landlord owns other nearby properties and is leveraging Flora’s activities to boost those values. Flora is the catalyst for the transformation of an entire block.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Lancaster needs to become a mini San Francisco. That isn’t going to happen. But there are cost-effective techniques for jumpstarting a revival that Lancaster might consider in one of its least loved neighborhoods.