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Signal Hill Revives a Failing Neighborhood

Las Brisas, a vibrant and attractive neighborhood in the City of Signal Hill, now thrives where dispiriting conditions once made any notion of improvement difficult to envision. This small but decisive urban victory was orchestrated by the Signal Hill City Council and redevelopment agency, which set their sights high and developed a clear plan to improve their community.

The Las Brisas neighborhood was built in the 1960s. The original plan called for 50x130-foot residential lots, four-plex buildings with a total of 92 for-sale units, and private streets governed by a homeowners’ association. The ownership concept never materialized, and many of the buildings were sold to people who did not intend to live there. By the 1980s, Las Brisas was suffering from high crime, frequent foreclosures, vacant and boarded-up buildings, and mismanagement by absentee landlords who owned 90 percent of the properties.
The streets were clogged with inoperable vehicles and strewn with garbage. Dilapidated garages served as storage for junk. What landscaping had existed was overgrown with weeds. Furthermore, the disintegration of Las Brisas was beginning to spread to nearby, well-maintained residential neighborhoods. The city attempted the traditional “code enforcement” program, citing approximately 20 percent of the properties for health and safety violations, but realized that this strategy was inadequate. The redevelopment agency determined it was necessary to design and implement a revitalization plan.
A New Vision for the Community
Signal Hill had seen tremendous growth in market rate housing over a period of years, and that trend was continuing. The city’s goal was to afford the same quality of life to Las Brisas as elsewhere in Signal Hill. In an effort to not merely stem blight but also create a neighborhood pleasing to its residents, an ambitious, comprehensive plan was devised. The new Las Brisas would be a community with a high quality of life and the common facilities to sustain it.
The concept for Las Brisas included landscaped residences and courtyards, a neighborhood park, and a community center to house an on-site police substation, a childcare facility, a public meeting area, offices for social services such as parenting classes and job training, a computer lab and rental management. This vision encompassed the needs and desires that Las Brisas residents had expressed in workshops, while taking financial constraints into account. A key component was to unify ownership and management under a single entity, which required the redevelopment agency to acquire 23 parcels.
The project cost about $18 million, including site assembly, demolition, relocation and construction. The redevelopment agency contributed $4.5 million and donated the one-acre site for the community center. A $2 million HELP loan was secured, and the LA County Community Development Commission provided $2 million. State tax credits brought in $8 million, and the Affordable HousingProgram provided $500,000. The $1.7 million community center was funded by private foundations, including the Mark S.Taper Foundation, The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, The Weingardt Foundation and The Ahmanson Foundation. The park was funded through state and county grants and city funds.
The redevelopment agency’s partner in designing and building Las Brisas was the nonprofit Los Angeles Community Design Center, which has 25 years of experience managing and developing affordable housing.
A Total Makeover for The Neighborhood
The original Las Brisas buildings were stripped back to their wood frames and rebuilt with new exteriors, windows, doors and utility systems. All new drywall, floor coverings, counters and other interior features were added. The garages were demolished, and landscaped open parking areas were established, providing 125 parking spaces. Laundry buildings were added throughout the site. Each unit has a private balcony or porch. While the majority of the 92 residential units have two bedrooms, one-third have a third bedroom, which qualified the project as a family development under the state tax credit guidelines.
With its mix of low-income, very low-income and very, very low-income units, Las Brisas is expansive in its offerings. Half of the 90 units are reserved for families with special needs. Forty-six units, including 32 two-bedroom and 14 three-bedroom units, are reserved for households with incomes up to 35 percent of the area median income; 32 units, including 22 two-bedroom and 10 three-bedroom, are for households with up to 50 percent of the area median income; and 12 units of eight two-bedroom and four three-bedroom are for those with up to 60 percent of the area median income. Two units are reserved for on-site property managers.
The simple yet varied building design offers seven unit types and four color schemes, helping to mitigate what could have been an institutional low-income look. Landscaping around the residences features drought-resistant plantings and shade trees, including mature 40-foot palms, creating well-defined public and private spaces.
The city’s Parks Master Plan had designated an area east of Las Brisas for a park, which was integrated into the rehabilitated development. Called Calbrisas Park, it includes a basketball court, play equipment, picnic areas and public art. The city operates year-round recreation programs and provides supervised activities for children from Las Brisas and the surrounding neighborhoods. More than 3,200 children took part in supervised activities in summer 2005.
The 12,600-square-foot community center contains an on-site police substation that has a specific commitment to maintain a safe family environment. A police officer trained in neighborhood policing provides regular contact with residents and management staff, an arrangement that has helped enforce the rules and regulations of Las Brisas.
The community center offers childcare to residents of the greater Signal Hill/Long Beach area (operated by the Long Beach Community Improvement League). This service makes it easier for residents to take advantage of the community center’s other social services, including job training and parenting skills classes. Residents also have the advantage of a computer lab at the community center.
As for the difference made in the community, Las Brisas has been transformed by reintroducing affordable, attractive and secure housing, along with community space and services, a park and open space. With the vision and energy of its development collaborative, Las Brisas today is a model for what a community can overcome and become.
 
Contact: Gary Jones, community development director; phone: (562) 989-7345; e-mail: gjones@cityofsignalhill.org.