Daily Breeze: Torrance housing boom ends, but not the fallout
This March 21 story by Nick Green (link will expire) in my opinion reveals a potential future direction in our social mood. Residents of Torrance are tired of overcrowding and have started applying the brakes to further development. The current mayor, Frank Scotto (he of the towing service), was elected last year on a platform of slowing residential development. He is concerned about city services being impacted by the addition of many new homes, and wonders where the money will come from to add more services, and wants the time to "play catch-up" before further development. Scotto is also concerned about addressing social issues - having more affordable senior housing available, the use of space for parks rather than cramming more condominiums into them, and so forth.
I don't know if I believe the studies that claim that commercial development and commuters are to blame for the increased traffic (rather than residential development - did home builders fund this study?). But I'll post the article here and you can read it yourself.
With 10 years of residential growth slowing, the city looks for ways to lessen the impact on infrastructure and quality of life. By Nick Green STAFF WRITER Torrance's almost decadelong residential building boom is over, done in by a combination of political and economic forces. Last year the number of approved housing units in the city declined to double digits -- 61 -- for the first time since 1996, when just a dozen were given the green light. But the legacy of that boom -- an increase in traffic, a strain on some municipal services and, perhaps most significantly, an unprecedented shift in the city's political climate -- remains. "It will take us some time to adjust to the additional population we have in the city of Torrance," said Mayor Frank Scotto, elected last June along with two other council members who shared a platform of dramatically slowing the pace of residential development. "We now have to try to catch up with the city services that are being impacted by the addition of all these homes," he added. "Where do we find the money to add more paramedic units? Where do we find the monies to add more police officers? That's the problem." To be sure, there are still large-scale housing projects going on in the city of Torrance. A half-dozen are under way, sprinkled throughout the city, that together account for roughly 750 homes. But all but one of those were approved in 2003, the year residential development approvals peaked in Torrance at almost 600 housing units. There could have been many more, possibly inadvertently creating a housing glut given the slowing real estate market. More than 1,400 proposed homes in three dense developments -- 104 condominiums on the former Days Inn site on Pacific Coast Highway, 917 condominiums at Del Amo Fashion Center and 409 more near the Costco between Skypark Drive and Lomita Boulevard -- were spiked by city officials before they got too far along. Another 226 proposed homes behind the Del Amo Financial Center were rejected by the City Council in 2005. Today, the prospects for new large-scale subdivisions or condominium projects in Torrance are poor given the economic and political climate, said developer Doug Maupin of Torrance-based Maupin Development Inc., which has built several hundred homes locally in the past six years. Economically, Maupin said he has noticed the slowdown at a 60-unit senior condominium project his company built at Torrance Boulevard and Madrona Avenue. "We're at about half the (sales) pace we used to be," he said. Politically, Maupin said, pressure from Torrance's powerful homeowner associations has been a major factor in putting the brakes on large housing projects. "They feel it's overcrowded in the South Bay -- there's too many people," he said. While studies have shown that commercial development and commuter traffic are more to blame for the increased number of cars on Torrance's streets than housing construction, the perception of rampant residential growth caught the attention of residents and policy-makers. The 1,400 homes built in the past six years is more than double the number built in the preceding six. That's added an estimated 4,400 people to the county's sixth largest city since 2000, sending the population to more than 142,000 in 2005, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. "Traffic, I think, would be the main thing people have noticed in particular," said Todd Hays, co-president of the Old Torrance Neighborhood Association and chairman of a committee Scotto appointed to examine uses for the Del Amo parcel once considered for the dense condominium project. "It just seems there's a lot more people on the roads, especially at rush hour," he added. The tipping point for residential development came about not solely because of the sheer volume of homes being approved -- although that was certainly a factor -- but because of how it was being done. Large parcels of former industrial or commercial land were being rezoned residential, infuriating residents who had long cherished the notion -- true or not -- that Torrance was a balanced city, as its slogan goes. Moreover, critics believed those moves often violated the city's own General Plan -- its blueprint for growth. A plan update has been halted over concerns it was hijacked by pro-growth factions and will be reworked with greater community input. "When they put in these massive condominium blocks in what used to be commercial areas or industrial areas, it just kind of tears at the fabric of the community," Hays said. "The backlash against the tremendous residential development that went on there for a few years has put the reins on the current development climate." That backlash also claimed the political careers of former Mayor Dan Walker and two City Council incumbents last June. It was the first time in the city's history voters had dumped an incumbent first-term mayor, Scotto said. The election results confirmed a survey the previous year performed by a coalition of Torrance homeowners associations, said Robert Thompson, president of the Madrona Homeowners Association. "(The survey) showed us what the people wanted and the election verified that," he said. "(A total of) 98 percent of the people were upset about the way the growth in the city was going and the election reflected their feelings." The scale of the win, which many believe mirrored the depth of the electorate's discontent, caught even candidates who triumphed, like Councilman Bill Sutherland, unawares. "I thought it was going to be close, but it wasn't close in the least," he said. "It was quite a mandate." With that mandate Scotto and the new council have turned their attention to infrastructure they believe has suffered from the development. For instance, the council wants to add a fifth paramedic unit during peak daytime hours. No additional paramedic units have been added since 1996, said David Dumais, the Fire Department's operations division chief. Meanwhile, the number of incidents the department has responded to increased from 10,000 in 1998 to 12,500 last year. "We've been on an increase the last five years," Dumais said. "We've had an average rise in incidents of about 5 percent in the last five years. If it continues, are we going to catch up? That's the question." The aging population has played a role in the increase in paramedic calls -- as has the fact that more commuters means more traffic accidents, he said. More traffic also puts more strain on city streets. That's prompted a renewed focus on street projects, for example, and the city has allocated $1.5 million to repave 190th Street in conjunction with neighboring Redondo Beach. But in the wake of the growth the city plans to reassess all its needs -- from recreational amenities such as gyms and swimming pools to public transit and affordable housing. The buzzword now is smart growth rather than unrestrained growth. "The sad part of all this is that with all this building we haven't addressed the social issues -- we haven't even built any affordable senior housing," Scotto said. "There's locations in the city that potentially could be park sites and things like that rather than more housing development. "This council recognizes that we need to do everything in our power to increase these services," he added. "Hopefully in the next three to five years we'll be able to do that catch-up we need to do."