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Is the San Fernando Valley’s future suburban?

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We asked eight residents and neighborhood leaders to weigh in on how the region is changing

Aerial view across the Valley
Though most neighborhoods in the Valley are part of Los Angeles, the area has always had its own identity.
Shutterstock

Known for strip malls and shopping centers and rows of single-family homes, the Valley is often thought of as somehow separate from Los Angeles—though most of its communities have been part of the city for over 100 years.

But that perception may start to slip away as new transit options and LA’s rising cost of living draw in new residents and development dollars. In advance of some of these changes, we caught up with several active community members in the Valley to get their take on the region’s future.

Here’s what we learned:

Don’t call it a suburb

The Valley may not be as dense as Downtown LA or Koreatown—nor as walkable—but it’s still plenty urban.

“If the Valley is a suburb, I don’t know what you’d call Santa Clarita or Simi Valley or the Thousand Oaks area,” says lifelong Valley resident Zachary Rynew, who founded the CiclaValley blog to promote bicycling events in the area and advocate for better bike infrastructure.

Yvette Lopez-Ledesma, deputy director of Pacoima Beautiful and a member of the San Fernando Valley Metro Service Council, agrees. She says the notion of the Valley as a suburb is “outdated” and doesn’t acknowledge the complex issues facing the area today.

“It’s not uniform,” Lopez-Ledesma says. “There’s a big makeup of different types of land uses out here: You have dense residential areas; you have big business centers out here ... you have lots of industrial uses, and it’s all mixed in with residential.”

Strip mall with donut shop
The prevalence of strip malls in the Valley speaks to its history of auto-oriented development.
Courtesy Andy Hurvitz

The region is already growing more dense

When Bing Crosby crooned about moving to the San Fernando Valley in the 1940s, land speculators and developers were eagerly billing the area to newcomers as a land of endless single-family homes with roomy lots and swimming pools. Plenty of those homes remain today, but the area feels a little more urban.

“Pacoima has evolved from postwar suburban housing to becoming a really dense immigrant community,” says Max Podemski, Pacoima Beautiful’s planning director.

He points out that, while Pacoima and other areas are by no means hubs for multifamily housing, multiple generations often share one single-family home, while other residents reside in makeshift apartments and back houses.

“People live in backyard accessory dwelling units, and you have a lot of people walking or taking the bus and you have this urban placemaking taking place with taco trucks and storefronts that activate the sidewalk,” Podemski says.

To the west, the Warner Center district of Woodland Hills is positioning itself to become a business and residential hub rivaling any of the busy communities along the Wilshire Corridor. A new community plan for the area, approved in 2013, envisions it as a “more cosmopolitan”—and pedestrian-friendly—live-work community.

As a measure of that transformation, Australian developer Westfield plans to replace the former Promenade shopping mall—long an example of the area’s auto-oriented commercial culture—with a massive mixed use complex with 1,400 units of housing and two hotels.

Dancers performing at Bradley Square
Folklórico dancers perform at the opening of Bradley Plaza, a public square that Pacoima Beautiful helped to install on a block-long segment of Bradley Avenue.
Courtesy Pacoima Beautiful

New transportation options

With the passage of Measure M, Los Angeles voters assured significant investment in major new projects serving the San Fernando Valley—including a connection between the Valley and the Westside, a light rail conversion for the Orange Line, and a transit corridor running north to south in the eastern part of the Valley.

Quirino de la Cuesta, who serves as co-chair of the Van Nuys Neighborhood Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee, says he’s excited about the transformative potential of these projects.

“I can see Van Nuys as a transmodal community where people are using different modes of transportation—bicycling, Uber, light rails,” he says. “It gives us a choice, those of us commuting to LA. It moves us in a different direction than where we’ve been in the past, especially being a car-centric society—now we’re talking about Vision Zero.”

Indeed, the city of Los Angeles has begun work on three Vision Zero projects aimed at reducing traffic deaths on San Fernando Valley streets.

Rynew says he’s eager to see better infrastructure for bicyclists, particularly a completed LA River bike path, but he’s concerned about the implementation of such projects.

“There’s a lot of complaints about the Orange Line bike path,” he says. “Because you have to stop very frequently at lights. And the Orange Line itself has the same problem in that they have to sometimes wait a minute for the light to change.”

Cars on Van Nuys Boulevard
Metro is planning a new transit corridor serving the eastern Valley. It would travel in a dedicated center or curbside lane along Van Nuys Boulevard.
John Sequeira | Curbed LA Flickr Pool

Not everyone is excited about the changes

“The elephant in the room around LA is gentrification,” Podemski says. “We’ve been sort of insulated from that, because we’re way out in the Valley, but Pacoima is going to become a nexus of transit ... in the next 10 years. And we’re trying to get ahead of that and model inclusive community development.”

Angel Orellana, a member of the Canoga Park Neighborhood Council, is working to create a San Fernando Valley chapter of the LA Tenants Union. He says he has deep concerns about the type of development happening in nearby Warner Center, arguing that projects like Westfield’s Promenade 2035 are “geared toward wealthier people and investors.”

He says that new developments like these are too often built in pursuit of profit, rather than the community’s best interest, and they can lead to displacement of low-income communities.

“They treat us like cockroaches,” he says of developers and city officials. “It’s like they shine a light on a spot on a map and expect us to scatter.”

Many in the Valley are also simply skeptical of the unknown, says Michael Menjivar, who chairs the North Hollywood NorthEast Neighborhood Council’s Planning and Land Use Committee.

“For some ... there’s a tendency to want to slow things down,” he says. “There’s an inherent uneasiness people have about seeing their communities change.”

Aerial view of Rocketdyne plant
The former Rocketdyne facility in Canoga Park (seen here in 1960) is now being replaced with a $3 billion high-rise complex.
Los Angeles Public Library photo collection
&nbsp;<br>A rendering showing people relaxing in a rectangular park with mid-rise buildings in the background
Developer Westfield plans to transform Warner Center’s Promenade shopping mall into a pedestrian-oriented mixed use complex.
Courtesy Westfield Corp.

The era of the automobile may be ending

With strip malls, car washes, and gas stations lining its major arterials, the Valley caters heavily to auto traffic in its layout. To Andy Hurvitz, who has lived in Van Nuys since 2000 and writes about the community on his blog, Here in Van Nuys, that’s a source of frustration.

“Everything is dictated by car convenience, rather than human need,” he says. In his mind, that’s created a “paradox,” whereby the neighborhood’s major commercial streets don’t cater to area residents.

“We—people who own houses here, as well as renters—need places to walk to,” Hurvitz says. “There’s nothing nice within walking distance of my house where I’d want to go hang out.”

Rynew, who lives in Valley Village, agrees that planning around traffic patterns can be a self-defeating process. He points out that many people now commute to Los Angeles from communities north of the Valley. “We’re now catering to that traffic as well,” he says.

But Mary Dickson, secretary and treasurer of Walk Bike Burbank (a local chapter of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition), says that she’s starting to see people’s outlooks shifting—at least in Burbank.

“We see an increasing number of people in the city supporting commonsense alternatives to help calm traffic,” she says. “Because people are concerned about cars that are speeding and traffic accidents related to that. There’s always a difference of opinion on certain projects, but we feel that people are beginning to ... understand the benefits of being able to walk and ride a bike—that walkability factor that real estate agents talk about.”

Residents want a say

Everyone we spoke with stressed the importance of community involvement in planning for the region’s future. The San Fernando Valley has gone through many enormous transformations, even in the last 100 years, and there is still much uncertainty about what the future holds.

“The sooner we can get involved in the planning process,” says Lopez-Ledesma, “the more we can determine what the outcome is going to be.”

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