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Urban Approach to Suburban Living: New Developments in El Monte

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The Gateway Project will be El Monte's first Transit Oriented Community | Photo: Carribean Fragoza.

The last home on the block on Monterey Street in El Monte is a duplex apartment, neighboring a vacant lot on the corner with Valley Boulevard. The father of one of the families that live there washes his car in the driveway while keeping a vigilant eye on his kids and dog. Across the street, their shaggy dog wanders into another large vacant lot, jumping through tufts of overgrown grass and then sniffing eagerly into the huge crack of a collapsing building. His two children ride their bikes in figure 8s on the traffic-less street, while a young man talks on his cellphone as he lounges under a tree. His gaze rests in the space of yet another vacant lot on the other side of the duplex property.

In fact, their apartment is almost completely surrounded for several blocks by vacant lots and condemned buildings. Behind them, bulldozers and tractors plough the earth of a recently demolished strip mall, marking the definitive arrival of change that has been years in coming.

Soon, this family will have new neighbors, a 110,000 square foot commercial complex called the Santa Fe Trail Plaza that will include a mix of large, medium, and small box businesses such as Superior Grocer Supermarket, Ross Dress for Less, and Petco, as well as a network of smaller retail shops. Just a few blocks down the street on Santa Anita next to the renovated El Monte Bus Station, The Gateway Plaza, a residential and commercial development, has been in progress for months, and by now the tall wooden structures of a building rise prominently above the tarped fences announcing its arrival.

These developments are only two of many El Monte projects that have broken ground in the last year and are part of the city's and investor's larger push to revitalize the local economy.

It's a delicate and complicated balance: the task of creating room for El Monte's much needed economic growth, while making it a more livable city with access to transit, housing, recreation, and other vital services. El Monte, as investors and developers are figuring out, is a place of great opportunity. But as city officials are often reminded, it is also a place of great need.

The last house on Monterey Street on the corner of Valley Blvd | Photo by Carribean Fragoza
The last house on Monterey Street on the corner of Valley Blvd | Photo by Carribean Fragoza

Vision and Economic History

"The city has a vision that the city we become is balanced, in providing our residents a place to work, live and play, helping people live in a desirable place," says Minh Thai, El Monte's Assistant Economic Development Director.

According to Thai, within that vision, a major goal is to provide city constituents with services which he thinks are possible with tax revenues generated from businesses. These revenues will allow the city to offer youth programs, improved parks, arts and cultural programming, and more recreational opportunities.

In addition, Thai notes, "El Monte has direct benefit because it creates sustainable economy that can weather economic crisis," referring to El Monte's new strategy to diversify its economy rather than "putting all its eggs in one basket."

At some point, El Monte's egg basket was automobile sales. For years, car dealerships made up much of El Monte's landscape and economy. Miles and miles of car dealers along the city's main corridors; thousands of new car windshields sparkled under endless strings of colored flags. It was a Southern California dream. Car buyers from everywhere flocked in like honey bees looking for a sweet deal. Tangentially, car repair shops, auto body shops, and all things in the way of car maintenance sprouted like hungry mushrooms and offered job opportunities to locals.

And then with each economic dip that accompanied every wave of growth (which culminated in the mid 2000's), the car sales economy weakened, and over the years, began to gradually wither away. Then the 2008 recession and spiking petrol prices dried up consumer pockets and overnight, many car dealers lots emptied into a wasteland. El Monte became a car dealer ghost town. Lots remained vacant for years as an unavoidable reminder that El Monte's former self was gone, and needed to find another approach to economic revitalization.

Retail seems to be an important part of the answer. "The goal is to enhance quality of life by providing services that people need and like," says Thai. He notes that one key way of doing this is by working with the private sector. While Monterey Park, Arcadia, Rowland Heights, and other surrounding SGV cities seemed to flower with the influx of Taiwanese and mainland Chinese money -- much of it channeled by the EB-5 visa program -- El Monte remained largely ignored and untouched by investors. Over the years El Monte's earlier plans for development became dotted with false starts and streaked with derailed projects. Numerous lots have remained fenced off for years. Signage for promised developments have gone up, with no signs of actual change on the property, and then disappeared. This became the standard.

Until now.

The Santa Fe Trails Plaza

At the busy lot on Valley Boulevard, men and machines rip out old slabs of concrete, the roots of forgotten buildings. They turn up the wet earth that was once known for its agricultural fertility. They dig up vast ditches and push the land into new configurations. For longtime El Monte residents, there's an odd sense of vertigo in not recognizing a place that you once knew, not necessarily as your personal property, but as your personal landscape that is part of what defines a place as a home. Yet, as many people know, change is inevitable.

At the Santa Fe Trails Plaza groundbreaking ceremony late last year, city officials and Los Angeles-based developer, the Festival Company, celebrated a project that was once plagued with setbacks. For years, the city had wrestled with their "Swiss cheese problem" of acquiring properties along Valley Boulevard, between Santa Anita and the Metrolink station near Tyler. The dissolution of redevelopment agencies throughout the state in 2011 forbade cities from owning property, and as a result the process of securing this swath of territory became more complicated; it was years before the city finally settled on a developer.

The entire process has been so slow in its interruptions that at the end of 2014, many residents were shocked to see El Monte's only movie theater, closed and completely demolished within a matter of weeks. Thai offers that it was "outdated" and the "center was not thriving."

Architectural sketch of Santa Fe Trail Plaza | Image courtesy of the Festival Company
Architectural sketch of Santa Fe Trail Plaza | Image courtesy of the Festival Company

As for the last family on Monterey Street, they wake up to the sound of change every morning. In the last 10 of the 17 years they have lived here, they have witnessed how their neighbors sold their properties off and moved away, one by one. Their homes have since been demolished, leaving growing patches of empty properties. They've watched their neighborhood cease to be a neighborhood.

Soon they will be surrounded by the Santa Fe Trails Plaza. They expect their streets to be clogged with traffic and parking.

The father, who asked to remain unnamed, says that he thinks that this commercial area could be good for city residents who, like himself, find themselves having to leave El Monte to shop. This would bring a much needed supermarket to the area, for example. However, his neighborhood of 17 years is no longer a place to raise a family.

Gateway Plaza

It may be easy for suburbanites to picture a a Petco or a Ross, but picturing another one of El Monte's somewhat more ambitious projects -- a mixed residential and commercial, transit-oriented community (TOC) -- doesn't come as naturally. After decades of investment in a car-reliant suburb and economy, the transition to a community that is "transit-oriented" and more walkable is an interesting experiment for this city.

The Gateway Project encourages residents to cut back on their use of personal vehicles in favor of more convenient and accessible public transit options. Its proximity to the El Monte Bus Station and its limits on parking space are meant to steer new residents toward new transit behaviors. It will also take advantage of its connection to the bike path along the neighboring river.

Hypothetically, residents will be able to take the bus to work, ride their bikes to local parks, and walk along safe pedestrian paths to their local shops and restaurants. "We're hoping to de-incentivize people from driving," says Thai.

For many residents of greater L.A., becoming less reliant on cars is a significant lifestyle choice -- one that the city of El Monte and development partners, Grapevine Advistors, LLC and Jamboree Housing, hope people will be willing to make.

In short, we're not just talking about new buildings, but also a new way for residents to navigate and engage their city and, potentially, each other.

Moreover, the Gateway Project, will combine residential and retail space, a development trend that El Monte will continue to follow with several of its other projects. The complex will consist of 485 residential units, nearly a third of them affordable housing, and 25,000 square feet of retail. The mixed-use Gateway Project will resemble more of an urban environment than what El Monte has been for most of its incorporated life -- a suburb.

Urban Approach to Suburbs

Thai describes this trend as "an urban approach to suburban living." By creating density along main corridors with mixed-use complexes, this approach will respond to demands of growing suburban populations that may no longer have the space to sprawl into rural or undeveloped lands.

At the same time, notes Thai, officials have taken steps to conserve some of El Monte's suburban assets. These include the preservation of the equestrian community along the San Gabriel River: officials have passed policy that protects these properties, where residents traditionally keep their horse stabled in backyards, from being broken up into smaller lots for new development.

However, in the complicated balancing act that is urban planning, there is often a price to pay.

Steve Valenzuela grew up in a home along a busy stretch of Santa Anita Street, mostly lined with storefronts and vacant car lots. Up the street is the entrance to the 10 freeway, followed by the El Monte Bus Station, with its endless stream of buses and commuters flowing in and out around the clock. Right next to that is Heritage Park, also known as Pioneer Park. Valenzuela would skip over the park's old pioneer homestead and the dilapidated replica of a covered wagon, to arrive at an oasis amid the bustle of traffic: the baseball fields. "I grew up playing softball and baseball there," he says. Many El Monte residents did.

Valenzuela is a recent graduate of UC Santa Cruz, and has since returned home, where roughly only 12% of the population has a college degree. An aspiring teacher, he's part of a generation of young college-educated men and women that have returned home to El Monte and South El Monte, ready to help forge positive change in their hometown.

However, upon his return, Valenzuela discovered that some things had changed. For one, he and his family could no longer afford to live in El Monte and had to move to neighboring Temple City. Lack of affordable housing in El Monte is a severe and ever present problem. And for Valenzuela, the new Gateway project and its limited affordable housing units does not seem promising. "Who is this housing for? It doesn't seem like it's meant for people in El Monte."

Valenzuela is also less than optimistic regarding another change. The construction of the Gateway Project has temporarily closed and gutted the baseball fields at Pioneer Park, and has heightened anxieties among residents about the oncoming changes in their neighborhoods. "We are running out of areas for recreation," says Valenzuela. "Now I have to go to other neighborhoods to find someplace to play ball."

In a city that is considered park-poor with less than 0.72 acres of park space per 1,000 residents, its impact is experienced as a loss more significant than what is figured into most required impact reports. The city has promised to re-open the baseball fields, though depending on changes in plans, they may be re-located to another site within the city.

Pioneer Park is temporarily closed but expected to re-open | Photo: Carribean Fragoza
Pioneer Park is temporarily closed but expected to re-open | Photo: Carribean Fragoza

More Development Projects

Now that El Monte's pace of economic development has quickened to match the rest of the San Gabriel Valley, demographic changes that meet a ready market can be expected as well. Plans for a Hilton Hotel and Plaza, for example, seem to have no place in a predominantly low-income community along Valley Boulevard, just east of Baldwin Avenue. However, it is relevant to a potential, new community of moneyed Chinese tourists that have made the San Gabriel Valley a favorite destination. Likewise, a proposed Chinese Media Center would seem to cater to a population that does not currently exist to its full potential, but very well could in the near future.

Nearby, a 186,000 square foot Walmart Supercenter is expected to eventually break ground on Arden near Valley Boulevard. This project is currently being challenged by local residents and activists.

With factors such as these generating El Monte's transformation, the future is not very discernible for people like Valenzuela. He and many long-time residents are proud of their community, but recognize that El Monte's self and public image could use much improvement.

"People here are tired of El Monte being 'ghetto'," says Valenzuela, and thinks that in general, El Monte residents look forward to most of the new developments. He just hopes these changes will also permit them to stay and enjoy their fruit.

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