How high is too high? No, I’m not talking about the ballot measure to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. In this case, the topic is something else that controversial: high-density housing.
If you’re read some of the candidate profiles we’ve been posting, this has been a matter of some concern especially in Huntington Beach. Attend or watch that city’s council meetings on TV and you will hear a recurring theme among some residents: too much high-density housing.
If you’ve been at the International Space Station for the last couple of years, or just came down from the mountains, there are some areas of HB that will look very unfamiliar to you. The greatest concentration of mid- and high-rise mixed use developments are on Edinger Avenue, from Gothard Street to Beach Boulevard, but others are under construction or on the drawing boards in other parts of the city.
Why is this? What’s driving this change from the low-slung look of this city – and many California cities – into something more reminiscent of an urban landscape? Well, the most simple explanation is the urbanism is a trend sweeping the nation and our cities and county are just now seeing that wave sweep onto our shores, forgive the tortured metaphors.
Here are some of the forces behind that:
- Traffic. It may seen counterintuitive since some high-rise developments of apartments and condominiums will likely increase car trips around a specific location, but grouping housing and shops and eateries and theaters in one location – as has happened at the Bella Terra Center – may have the general effect of reducing car trips overall. With our roads and freeways close to being maxed out, and mass transit years and decades away, high-density can help ease the problem … maybe.
- Millennials. These pour souls are blamed for almost everything these days, but people born in the time of the early Eighties to early 2000s have very different interests and tastes than their predecessors. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, but members of this group are slower to get driver’s licenses, slower to buy cars and slower to marry. They find the conveniences of living in a big complex with a fitness center downstairs and a Starbucks in the parking lot more attractive than a ranch home with a big lawn. They’re looking for a place to live with fun stuff within walking distance, and there are millions of these folks coming of age.
- Land. They’re not making any more of it. In a highly-desirable area such as Orange County, much of the dirt has already been paved over and built on. In some cities, there is literally no place to go but up, as the population increases. As expensive as it is to build a modern high-rise, it’s still more cost-effective for a developer than trying to buy and assemble enough land to cover the same number of housing units.
- Mass transit. This is not so much a matter of immediate concern for Huntington Beach, but it is for other cities such as Anaheim, Santa Ana, Garden Grove, and even Fullerton. After many years of false starts, light rail – in the form of streetcars – is on its way. The first link will connect Garden Grove and Santa Ana, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that extended north along Harbor Boulevard. The millennials who we just discussed will likely see a system in which you can ride from Cal State Fullerton to Disneyland and Angel Stadium, and then transfer to lines connecting to Huntington Beach. As history tells us, development follows a rail line; we are already seeing that in Los Angeles.
If you grew up in the Orange County of new tract homes, orange blossoms and Bob’s Big Boy, all this change might be disconcerting. And certainly, overbuilding is not unheard-of. But the general trend of more people living more closely together is not just pushing against the old American dream of a single-family house surrounded by a lush little lake of green. It’s becoming the new American dream for a lot of people.
Jim Tortolano’s Retorts column is posted each Wednesday, except when it isn’t.