A month ago, I was visiting a friend in downtown Hermosa Beach, and a couple weeks ago I went to dinner in downtown Manhattan Beach. Though the beach cities have a suburban reputation, I’m always struck by just how much density there is in the downtowns – say, within a half mile of the beach.
Further inland you get larger lots of 3500-7500 SF, though many are still developed with two or three small lot size houses that are interesting in their own right, but today I want to focus on the development near the beach.
This is classic LA County development that doesn’t feel dense but is actually has quite a bit of density. Since many people like (or believe they like) suburbs more than cities, development that hits a density of 10k-15k people/sq mi without feeling too urban is extremely useful. The development pattern in this area also provides a ton of small units and small buildings, making it affordable to a many different people. Walkable, ocean breezes and beach access, varied housing stock: so, why don’t we build Hermosa Beach anymore?
The impulsive response is that it’s because there’s nowhere left on the SoCal coast to build it. That’s… mostly true. We’re obviously not going to develop Camp Pendleton, because the Marines need it and it’s nice to have such a large, relatively unspoiled natural coastal area in the otherwise almost unbroken stretch from Imperial Beach to Malibu.
But it’s not entirely true. In fact, Taylor Morrison is currently developing a large (about a quarter of a square mile) site in San Clemente right across the street from the beach. The development will have 330 houses, which will result in a density of about 4k/sq mi, about 25%-30% of the density of Manhattan Beach and Hermosa Beach.
Sure, you say, but that’s southern Orange County. It’s all low density gated community exurbs; they wouldn’t know good design from a hole in the ground. Except… the adjacent census tract is practically an outpost of beach city style development, with a density of 12k/sq mi.
So what gives? Obviously, the zoning: the maximum density is 4.5 dwelling units per acre (du/ac). At that density and what must have been astronomic land costs, all you’re going to get is huge single-family homes, and indeed the cheapest house in the new development is north of $1 million. It kind of makes you wonder what the Coastal Commission was doing not insisting on more density, to make the area more accessible to more Californians.
Beyond that, we don’t have much coastline left in SoCal if you want to build a waterfront city. The Colorado River is too far east, and the Colorado Valley is very hot in the summer. The Salton Sea probably could support some beach city development, but first we really need to figure out an environmental plan to save it. That leaves us with a few scattered waterbodies in the Inland Empire like Canyon Lake (already developed) and Lake Elsinore.
Lake Elsinore isn’t exactly an easy commute to LA or even Orange County, but it is a very pretty spot. Aside from the eponymous lake, the Santa Ana Mountains rise in the background to their crest at over 5,000’ on Santiago Peak. On the north shore of the lake, a small ridge rises, not unlike the beach cities sloping up from the ocean.
Now, the really crazy thing is that while this area is undeveloped, it appears to have been subdivided a really long time ago. It has a ton of small lots and awesome narrow, hillside streets. It’s currently zoned Residential Hillside, which only allows single-family development and has rural type development requirements (30% max lot coverage, 12,000 SF minimum lot, 20’ front & rear setbacks, 5’ & 12’ side setbacks), though you’d likely be able to get variances for existing lots. The lake front itself has its own zone, which allows restaurants and conditional uses for some other commercial development.
Probably because of the zoning and somewhat challenging topography, you can buy land here stupid cheap, by SoCal standards.
This area is pretty close to Lake Elsinore’s downtown district, and strangely enough, the west side of the lake already has some fairly dense (10k/sq mi) development. The city’s clearly not getting much development or benefit out of the current situation, so… why not give it a shot? Why not rezone for something like beach city style development? Or why not buy a bunch of lots and pitch a few projects to the city? Doesn’t anyone want to build the next beach city?