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Strawberry Fields Forever? Infill Development vs. Agriculture in L.A. County

Detail of Vargars Farms' shuttered strawberry stand in Claremont, CA. | Photo: Courtesy Judith Lipsett
Detail of Vargars Farms' shuttered strawberry stand in Claremont, CA. | Photo: Courtesy Judith Lipsett

Brunch was boisterous. Old friends from San Antonio were in town and we gathered around the dining room table in full view of our sun-drenched backyard, munching an array of spring-fresh, locally grown fruits and vegetables. The conversation was fast, funny, and convivial, but in a rare, quiet moment one of our Texas guests asked what we had done to the strawberries -- what made them so sweet: sugar? "Nothing added," my wife smiled. "This is how they grow in Southern California."

Like the rest of the residents of the academic arcadia of Claremont, we have been spoiled by the flowering presence of a local strawberry patch; Vargas Farms has long managed the site, slotted on a rectangular set of six acres running parallel to the 210 freeway and framed to the west and north by Towne Avenue and Base Line Road.

I've loved walking by it in the early morning hours of winter, watching the crews build up the beds and lay down the irrigation system, labor overseen by bustling bands of killdeer birds that zigzagged across the fertile land. Their alarm call -- a taut, nasal kill-dee, kill-dee, kill-dee -- pierced even the rumble-whine of traffic beyond.

None of that energy, human or avian, was on display the other day. Weeds now choke the untended rows, the white pipes and sprinkler heads have vanished, and no killdeer raised their sharp voices. Come spring, we'll have to hunt for a new vendor of that tender, succulent berry.

The farm has fallen victim to a post-recession land rush that's in the process of converting a number of empty lots in Claremont. Six developments, totaling nearly 700 new housing units, are underway. One of these, slated to include more than 90 townhomes, is in advanced planning stages for the former strawberry field.

Such infill development, its rapid expansion notwithstanding, has its benefits. Among these upsides, as any New Urbanist will declare, is increased density. With more people living within a smaller footprint the odds go up for a decrease in daily auto travel and a greater demand for mass transit. This should enhance ridership of local bus routes and the Metrolink, which utilizes Claremont's historic depot; in the long-term, there should be as well a larger constituency demanding the expansion east of Metro Rail's Gold Line, which is projected to swing through the City of Trees on its way to the Ontario airport.

Another set of related advantages is that those inhabiting these new developments will use fewer resources -- most crucially, energy and water. Because they are choosing to live closer in, rejecting housing options available on the urban periphery that has radiated out from the Inland Empire's complex of freeways, the conversion of this particular truck farm may signal a market-driven slowing down of the decades-long assault on the eastern desert.

To entice those consumers alert to these possibilities and pressures, City Ventures, a regional developer, has added some attractive sustainability elements to its plans for the strawberry patch. As it has for its existing Southland projects, the company will plant drought-tolerant landscapes, install solar arrays on the roofs, and build an "ocean friendly" storm-water retention structure. These amenities and efficiencies, City Ventures asserts, adds up to a win-win: "Less driving, clean air, close to everything you love and more time for the good things in life."

The car will not be erased from this smart-growth terrain: plans leave plenty of room for it, via lanes that will snake through the project and the square footage that parking will absorb.

The air will not be quite crystal-clear, either, given that the development hugs the heavily trafficked 210 Freeway. The Claremont City Council earlier had rejected a proposal to construct much-needed affordable housing there on environmental-justice grounds: why should the less well-off only find shelter adjacent to a polluted highway slipstream? (A sole representative reiterated this objection to the new project, which now lacks a meaningful number of affordable-housing units; did his colleagues in the majority feel that the middling class is somehow more immune to tailpipe toxins?).

Strangely enough, no one on the council strongly objected to another complication of the community's impending loss of open space, wherever located. Once these properties are built out, their resident vehicles will surge on to the local street grid, jamming roadways and pounding roadbeds, a crowding that will have clear implications for traffic, tempers, and taxes.

These contemporary dilemmas are part and parcel of an older narrative about the physical restructuring of Los Angeles since World War II. After all, it was the internal-combustion engine, and its poisonous emissions, that plowed under the region's one-time agricultural productivity. And smog was an equal opportunity killer: citrus groves, vineyards, and fruits and vegetables -- to say nothing of the human pulmonary system -- wilted before its fatal fumes, giving growers a negative incentive to decamp for clearer climes.

They were pushed out as well by city codes and county ordinances that prioritized residential development, much like the mid-century, auto-centric neighborhood where I now live; all such housing was accessed easily by the expanding number of freeways that reinforced the primacy of four-wheeled, gas-guzzling vehicles.

In Claremont and the other foothill communities that transition was quick and disorienting. While we were students at Pitzer College during the mid-1970s, my friends and I would ride bikes along Base Line Road past acre after acre of orange and lemon trees, and through whose sweet fragrance we happily pedaled. Less than a decade later, those blossoming orchards were gone, bulldozed for cul-de-sac subdivisions.

Vestiges remain, smaller lots that an earlier generation of builders bypassed, deeming them too marginal, too unprofitable. Today, this acreage commands top dollar.

But there's no amount of money that will compensate for the bittersweet loss of our strawberry patch.

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