A Unique City Evolving Over Time

City of Arcadia, CA

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When Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin founded the City of Arcadia in 1903 he couldn’t have known that it would turn into what it is today: a small, unique city that has a high quality of life and services, offers excellent education and medical care, provides a mix of residential and commercial options, and is centrally located near Downtown Los Angeles and the thriving Santa Anita Park.
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It’s no surprise that the city of Arcadia, CA has, on several occasions, been named as one of the best cities in which to raise children in California by BusinessWeek Magazine. Arcadia has evolved from the early days to what it is today. But the evolution and growth of the city hasn’t been without its challenges. It has had to overcome a retracting retail sector and deal with changes in California State Law. But through flexible and creative approaches, Arcadia has been able to meet these challenges and successfully evolve over time.

The colorful character of Lucky Baldwin founded the City of Arcadia. Lucky, the original owner and operator of world-renowned Santa Anita Park thoroughbred racetrack, wanted to incorporate Arcadia to avoid the taxes of L.A. “The city has truly developed around this racetrack,” remarks Jason Kruckeberg, the Development Services Director of the City of Arcadia.

It was primarily a residential community in the early days. Post World War II it evolved with the addition of commercial corridors. In the ‘70s a large retail center (now operated by Westfield) was developed, allowing for a new commercial center. The historic downtown that existed back then still exists today, although it has evolved with niche uses and small-scale “mom and pop” shops.

“We really view Arcadia as a series of business districts – the Westfield Santa Anita Mall being one district itself, and then the historic Downtown being another,” remarks Jason. “We also have three to four other commercial, auto-centric, classic boulevards that evolved as business boulevards with services, restaurants and things of that nature.”

The city is conveniently located in the San Gabriel Valley, near Downtown Los Angeles, next to Pasadena. When asked why Arcadia is a good place to live, Jason said the following: “The quality of life in the city is very high. We have a very high level of services, it’s a very stable city financially, has a high median income, and we have an outstanding school district that has always driven people to want to live here. It’s a quality place to be.”

Besides being a quality place to live, what makes the city unique is that it has a full array of commercial sectors in a small area. This combined with entertainment, retail, an arboretum and a large park facility (that allows for a lot of open space) makes it a city like no other. Few cities can claim to offer this in addition to the historic and thriving Santa Anita Park as well as a central location with easy access to L.A. The addition of a new metro light rail station in the historic downtown is helping with the evolution of Downtown Arcadia.

This light rail service has contributed toward improved accessibility to L.A., has helped with traffic congestion and also played a role in the city’s metamorphosis toward creating a mixed-use zone of residential and commercial corridors. “We have several residential mixed-use projects being built very close to the train station. So over time, that downtown, which has been traditionally a small-scale commercial area, will be more of a thriving mixed-use zone with people living there and residents being able to walk and get on the train and not need a car,” explains Jason.

But establishing and growing the city is not without its challenges. “Like every other city in the region, we’re challenged by the retraction of the retail sector,” says Jason. But having an a-list shopping center in Westfield Santa Anita has helped, as it’s evolved with the global changes in retail, becoming more of a lifestyle center. By working with Westfield, the city is well poised to continue addressing these challenges.

The retraction of retail has also affected the city’s commercial corridors. ”Like everywhere in Southern California, these corridors are struggling. We are looking for ways to inject life into them, whether through new anchors or by allowing residential development in areas that have historically been commercial,” says Jason.

The biggest challenge the city faces with these corridors is preventing stagnation. Officials are addressing this problem with creative techniques that will help with Arcadia’s continued evolution. “We created what we call a residential flex overlay zone which gives a developer or a group of property owners the ability to get together and apply for an overlay zone. This allows these predominantly and historically commercial areas to be redeveloped as straight residential.” With success on one project using this method, there are several others under consideration. These zones are going to be infill developments; because the city doesn’t have open land to build on, it needs to knock something down first.

Additionally, Arcadia has also had to cope with changing Californian legislation. “Several years ago in California, as a financial and revenue generating measure, the State of California did away with redevelopment,” says Jason. “Redevelopment was a way that cities could create redevelopment areas with money being invested back into them. It allowed an opportunity for reinvestment into certain blighted areas. The City of Arcadia had one such area and when money was taken away, it left a big hole in our ability to really use public money to effectuate change in these areas.”

The city has dealt with this challenge through a creative approach to redevelopment initiatives. Officials focus on a mix of land uses and development incentives to retain existing businesses and attract new ones. They also ensure they’re not bogged down by traditional zoning patterns. And when new projects come, in they strive for an expedited process. “We have an ombudsman who can walk an applicant through the process and get them from a to z much more quickly than a typical process of having to be kicked around from counter to counter, from planner to developer.”

In addition to general redevelopment initiatives, Arcadia also focuses on specific initiatives for each business district. The creation of the Downtown Arcadia Improvement Association (DAIA), a property-based business improvement district in Downtown Arcadia, is one such example. The City provided initial seed money for conducting a district study and assembling a group of interested property owners and business owners willing to champion the project. Over time, these efforts gained the support of downtown property owners to levy a small annual assessment on their properties and reinvest this money back in to the area in the form of streetscape improvements, special events, and district marketing.

The city also has a world class medical sector. Methodist Hospital of Southern California is among the top five percent of hospitals in the nation. Its prestige has also led to the development of high-grade office space near the hospital, and the demand for this space is only set to increase as the city evolves.

Indeed, the city is constantly evolving and growing for the better, with notable growth in the logistics sector. “We also have a large property in the Southeastern portion of the city. It’s about 1.4 million square feet of industrial warehouse space. And we have a FedEx facility going in there and several other buildings being built for logistics uses.” The creation of the facility comes at the perfect time, as online retail and shipping continue their aggressive growth.

As Arcadia looks to the future, it realizes it needs to change its marketing approach. In the past, the city didn’t need to market itself aggressively. “We haven’t been a city that’s been out there with flashy marketing materials and all that,” explains Jason. “Because quite frankly, it hasn’t been a city that’s needed to do that. But times have changed. We do feel like we need to be more competitive for the retail and tourist dollar and for businesses. So, we’re promoting a business-friendly environment that is a great place to live, work and play.”

Santa Anita Park is set to play a pivotal role in the future evolution of the city. The racetrack property includes over 300 acres of prime land, much of it developed with surface parking surrounding the racetrack. “There will be a project there someday. To us working, and those who live in the city, the development of the land [the grounds around the racetrack] is going to be a game changer. That’s going to be an important future consideration.”

The unique city of Arcadia has evolved a lot since its establishment. It has become a quality place to live and work, with a combination of residential and commercial options. It offers education and medical care of the highest quality. It’s centrally located and accessible to L.A. via light rail. It boasts the thriving Santa Anita Park that’s set to play an integral part in its future evolution.

While the city has had its fair share of challenges such as a retracting retail sector, it has managed to overcome them through flexible and creative approaches. Its distinct redevelopment initiatives like the creation of mixed-use zones are one example of how Arcadia is creatively evolving. By continuing to adopt such creative and flexible approaches, the unique city of Arcadia is set to continue its successful evolution.

October 23, 2017, 7:39 AM EDT

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