A terrific street redesign is assisting economic development in a southern California community that has suffered from changing economic conditions but is nevertheless seeing significant population growth. This is a story of municipal foresight, excellent recent planning, and green ambition.
Lancaster is a fast-growing city of a little over 150,000 in far northern Los Angeles County, about 70 miles from downtown LA. Its population has more than tripled since 1980; it increased by nearly a third from 2000 to 2010. It is racially mixed (38 percent Latino, 34 percent white, 20 percent African-American) and, like so many fast-growing western cities, decidedly sprawling. The satellite view on Google Earth reveals a patchwork pattern of leapfrog development, carved out of the desert. It is a city with a very suburban character.
Lancaster’s economic condition isn’t among the country’s very worst, but it certainly has been better. According to City-Data.com, the median price of home sales in the city plummeted by almost two thirds from 2007 to 2009, from $350,000 to about $125,000, more or less where it still stands. As of August 2012, unemployment stood at 15.7 percent, way above the state average of 10.4 percent. Not far from Edwards Air Force Base and related industry, the city’s fortunes have long been associated with aerospace engineering and defense contractors, but some major employers, including Lockheed-Martin, have been moving their investments elsewhere in recent years.
Sprawl and disinvestment have also left scars. Greg Konar writes in the San Diego Planning Journal:
“By the late 1980s the City’s historic downtown was in serious decline. Most retailers and commercial services had long since migrated to commercial centers and strip malls in other parts of the city. For years big box retailers and regional malls had captured nearly all new commercial growth. Much of it was concentrated along the Antelope Valley Freeway (I-14). Meanwhile the historic downtown deteriorated rapidly. Crime became an increasing problem and the surrounding older neighborhoods were suffering.”
That’s a pattern all too typical of America in the late 20th century, but Lancaster moved to do something about it, including in 2008 the adoption of a form-based zoning code for the downtown Lancaster Boulevard corridor. (Form-based codes encourage walkability by encouraging mixed uses and a pedestrian-friendly streetscape.) The city also hired the well-known architecture and planning firm Moule & Polyzoides to capitalize on the opportunities created by the code by redesigning the boulevard to attract businesses and people.
The results – a rejuvenated section of downtown now named THE BLVD – have been spectacular, as the photos accompanying this article show. The project has won multiple awards, including EPA’s top national award for smart growth achievement. Moule & Polyzoides describe the design features:
“Among the Plan’s key elements are wide, pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, awnings and arcades, outdoor dining, single travel lanes, enhanced crosswalks, abundant street trees and shading, and added lighting, gateways and public art. Lancaster Boulevard has been transformed into an attractive shopping destination, a magnet for pedestrian activity and a venue for civic gatherings.”