Saturday, December 24, 2005

Onboard With Transit Town Idea
El Monte hopes to join the trend of building housing/retail around transportation hubs. But this project is based on buses, not rail.
By Arin Gencer
Times Staff Writer

Dwaine Wells travels to El Monte six days a week, but he never stays for more than a few minutes.

The 17-year-old high school student knows the concrete, open-air rotunda of the city's bus station well. Yet it is little more than the place where he catches Metro Line 484 to Los Angeles every morning, or meets friends for a night out in Old Town Pasadena or Altadena.

For Wells and other riders at the station — believed to be the busiest public bus terminal west of the Mississippi — El Monte is just another stop on their morning commute. But city officials hope to persuade those passing through to stay longer, or even make the city home, by creating an urban oasis around the Metropolitan Transportation Authority site.

El Monte seeks to join a national trend that has taken flight in Southern California in the last few years: the creation of mixed-use developments that include housing, retail, office, entertainment and open space — all built near public transportation lines.

El Monte officials say they are preparing for growth in the city and throughout the San Gabriel Valley. They also envision bringing more jobs to an area where the median household income is $32,439, compared with $42,189 in Los Angeles County as a whole, according to the 2000 census.

Before the city can break ground, it must allow for a public-comment period and perform traffic, noise and air-quality studies, said Dante Hall, deputy manager for community development.

The city and local developer Titan Group also must find funding for the project, which company president and CEO John Leung estimated would cost $600 million. In January, Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) plans to introduce a bill that would allow El Monte to take out loans on the transit village land for 10 more years after the city's 2007 expiration date for its redevelopment project area.

"In the '50s, El Monte was the place to go," City Manager Juan Mireles said, referring to the historic downtown's Valley Mall and the Five Points Plaza shopping center. "We want to bring back that reputation."

Today, the city of 125,000 has little in the way of popular chain restaurants or stores, other than a new Sears on Peck Road and three Starbucks.

Transit-oriented developments have popped up along the Gold Line in Pasadena and South Pasadena, the Red Line in North Hollywood and elsewhere.

Unlike other mixed-use developments built near rail lines, the El Monte plan centers on the Metro and Foothill bus systems, taking advantage of the El Monte Busway that connects to the San Bernardino Freeway. And the site is larger than the Old Pasadena historic district, with 65 acres stretching north of Interstate 10 between the Rio Hondo River and Santa Anita Avenue.

"Once you get above 10 acres, people get excited," said Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. That kind of space allows for more innovative developments, he added, including visitor parking, green space and more amenities.

Three agencies — the city, the MTA and the California Department of Transportation — and Titan Group own the land. In addition to the bus station and MTA offices, the site holds public works and Fire Department facilities, two public parks and Sante Fe Trail Historical Park. Less than half of the 2,000 parking spaces in the station's park-and-ride lot are filled on an average weekday, according to Caltrans.

"We do believe that over time it is going to grow as a park-and-ride facility, particularly as congestion worsens," said Jack Gabig, general manager of the San Gabriel Valley Sector of the MTA. "There's opportunity to grow without having to add parking spaces."

The MTA estimates more than 20,000 daily passengers pass through the El Monte bus station, a major transfer point for buses heading into downtown from the San Gabriel Valley. That figure dwarfs the numbers boarding and exiting trains at the South Pasadena and Pasadena Gold Line stations located near transit villages — 1,500 and 1,250 passengers, respectively, according to the MTA.

Titan has met with several community groups and, together with Gonzalez Goodale Architects, presented its ideas for the project to the El Monte City Council. Preliminary plans include about 300,000 square feet of office space, Leung said, along with retail stores, housing, an entertainment plaza for community events and a child-care center. Retail uses would not include "big boxes like Wal-Mart," he said.

The developer has spoken with the California Community Foundation about contributing funds to encourage the construction of affordable housing, said Bob Suzuki, former president of Cal Poly Pomona and an advisor on the project.

Housing would consist of condominiums and studio and multi-bedroom apartments, architect Armando Gonzalez said during a Dec. 6 presentation to City Council members, with the aim of attracting students and professors from Cal Poly Pomona and Cal State L.A., as well as senior citizens and families.

MTA and Foothill bus passengers shared the El Monte officials' enthusiasm for the project.

Dwaine Wells, a ballet dancer who attends Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, said he and his friends always meet in El Monte, then take a bus to somewhere else.

"There's nothing really around here for us to do," the Temple City resident said. A transit village would be a welcome addition, he said, especially if it had restaurants similar to those in Old Town Pasadena, such as Johnny Rockets.

Bertha Fermin, 26, lives in South El Monte and rides the Metro Line 490 or 484 every day to Cal State L.A. with friend Roani Sandoval.

"I tend to go somewhere else because there really isn't much here in El Monte," said Fermin. But the possibility of more store and restaurant choices in the city, Fermin said, would persuade her to stay closer to home.

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