Can Sustainable Suburbs Save Southern California?

Drive on I-5 north from Los Angeles toward San Francisco and you’ll hit, about forty miles in, a long climb through desolate and windswept mountains. The Tejon Pass, also known as the Grapevine, is a fickle stretch of the journey, subject to closure during heavy snowfall—the kind of highway that has ominous signs tracking the increase in altitude and informing drivers of the next opportunity for radiator water. As the highway ascends, the air cools and thins. Gas stations are few and far between, and drivers who make the mistake of thinking that, on the primary artery connecting Northern and Southern California, a gas station must be around the next bend will be eying the needle until Gorman, then paying a premium, shivering at the sudden drop in temperature. The urban sprawl of Southern California suddenly feels very far away; There is a boundary to it after all.

To the west of the interstate here is mostly national forest; to the east is the largest continuous expanse of privately held land in California, just over four hundred square miles, owned and managed by the Tejon Ranch Company, which has traded on the New York Stock Exchange since 1999. This remote and harsh terrain—which has cattle ranching, oil and gas facilities, a cement factory, pistachio and almond farms, a vineyard, and a hunting operation—contains some of the last large stretches of native grasslands that look as they might have before colonization, when the region was home to the Kitanemuk, Chumash, Tübatulabal, Tataviam, and Yokut peoples, among others. The land was parceled out to ranchers in the form of four Mexican land grants in the nineteenth century, and between the gold rush and the Civil War the area briefly became a population center. In 1865 and 1866, the land was purchased by Edward Fitzgerald Beale, the surveyor general of California and Nevada under Abraham Lincoln and California’s first superintendent of Indian affairs. In 1912, Beale’s son sold the land to a group of Los Angeles real-estate developers and businessmen, including Harry Chandler, owner of the Los Angeles Times. These investors took the Tejon Ranch Company public, in 1936.

Wildlife biologists describe the vast territory, which is larger than some national parks, as a laboratory of biodiversity. Although the area makes up only a quarter of a per cent of California’s land, it contains some fourteen per cent of the state’s native plant species. Multiple habitats converge here, including San Joaquin Valley scrubland, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, certain peaks of the Tehachapi Mountains, and the edge of the Mojave Desert. There are stands of pine trees and Joshua trees, and eleven species of native oak. The San Joaquin Valley kit fox and the California condor are two of at least twelve threatened or endangered species that live here, and the land forms part of a continental-scale corridor of genetic diversity that links mountain lions in Southern California with those as far away as the Cascades.

Today, the Tejon Ranch Company describes itself as a “growth-oriented, diversified real estate development and agribusiness company.” Being oriented toward growth means developing the business’s land, which is, more or less, its sole asset. If everything goes as the company and its investors would like, three towns will be built on that land within the next thirty years. In an unincorporated area called Grapevine, where I-5 descends back into the San Joaquin Valley, the company will build a “community of close-knit neighborhoods inspired by the region’s rich agricultural heritage.” That is, twelve to fourteen thousand homes near the Tejon Ranch Commerce Center, a massive warehouse complex and outlet mall that includes a nearly two-million-square-foot IKEA distribution center along with logistics hubs for Caterpillar and Dollar General. Closer to Los Angeles, Tejon Ranch will build Mountain Village, advertised as a “new, conservation-based enclave designed to live in harmony with nature,” which will function as a resort-residential community, with a mix of primary residences and vacation homes . Its amenities will include more than three thousand single-family homes, multiple spas, an equestrian center, a shopping center, and seven hundred and fifty hotel rooms. Finally, some sixty miles from downtown LA, the company plans to build Centennial, a mixed-use community of more than nineteen thousand homes and ten million square feet of commercial space.

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