Redlands, Calif., is known for its orange groves, its Victorian homes, and its small-town feel. Sixty miles east of Los Angeles, the city is home to about 75,000 people. But that number is expected to get a lot bigger.
"Redlands is already changing," says Mayor Paul Foster, "and this is just more of the future that's coming."
He's referring to a few sweeping changes coming to Redlands: an increased population and the arrival of a new train that will connect Redlands to the much-larger cities of San Bernardino and Los Angeles to the west.
The train uses zero-emission hydrogen fuel cell technology, which Foster says is good for the environment. San Bernardino County already has some of the worst air quality in the nation.
"The core intention of transit-oriented development is to reduce the carbon footprint," he says. "It's to get people out of their vehicles and to walk."
To that end, he and the city council have floated something called Measure G, which would exempt three "transit villages" around the city's three upcoming rail stations from Redlands' old slow-growth rules.
The new measure would lift current limitations on height and density within the transit villages, effectively allowing unlimited height apartment buildings and condos in a city where residential buildings are generally limited to two stories, or 35 feet.
The mayor has said he would eventually impose a new height limitation — about four stories — but that's not part of the measure before voters in state's March 3 primary.
"I think that it will really change Redlands forever. And we'll never be able to get it back," says resident Lane Schneider.
Schneider worries that if passed, Measure G gives all future city councils authority to approve what are sometimes called "stack-and-pack" apartments of unlimited height.
According to Schneider, that would completely change the character and nature of the city.
"One of the things that most people have said about Redlands over the years is it's a city with a small-town atmosphere, and I think that if we pass Measure G, that will change," says Schneider.
Changing a city's character
Genevieve Giuliano, a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California, says this debate over transit-oriented development changing the character of a small city is not new.
"It's very hard to change existing communities, especially when they're affluent and people are very active politically," Giuliano says. "It's a challenge."
Giuliano also says there's also a limit to what transit-oriented development can do. She says in the last several decades it's been touted as the end-all solution to congestion, air pollution, and now, climate change.
"None of those things were solved, or are going to be solved by transit-oriented development," she says.
Still, many small but growing cities around the country are trying to manage growth responsibly by placing housing near public transportation. And, transit-oriented development does have an effect on greenhouse gas emissions.
A study of the Chicago metropolitan region by the Center for Neighborhood Technology found that households living within a half mile of public transportation and outside of downtown had 43% lower emissions than those not located by transit. That number increased to 78% lower emissions for households located downtown and near transit.
But Giuliano says that's for a big city, and it may not translate to Redlands. For example, she says, "[a] transit-oriented development in Washington, D.C., is something very different from a transit-oriented development in Redlands."
That's why people question whether development of multi-story condos and apartments buildings near walkable shopping areas and transportation hubs will actually get residents to leave their cars in smaller cities such as Redlands.
"It really depends on the attractiveness of the transit system itself," Giuliano says. "How well can you get around on that transit system, that's what's really important."
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
A debate over how to grow and whether to grow is roiling a small city east of Los Angeles. Like many other small-but-growing cities, Redlands, Calif., is grappling with both population increases and poorer air quality. From member station KVCR, Benjamin Purper reports that Redlands is figuring out how to change the way people get around without reshaping the character of the city.
BENJAMIN PURPER, BYLINE: Redlands is known for its orange groves, its Victorian homes and its small town feel. About 75,000 people live here, but it's expected to get a whole lot bigger.
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FADEL: Construction crews at the historic Santa Fe Depot downtown are installing a new train that will connect Redlands to the much larger city of San Bernardino to the west and even further west to Los Angeles. The depot is part of what the city is calling a transit village, 1 of 3 areas where it's trying to concentrate development in hopes of creating livable, walkable communities, rather than ones where people drive all the time.
PAUL FOSTER: It's the core intention of transit-oriented development is to reduce the carbon footprint.
FOSTER: That's Redlands Mayor Paul Foster. He says transit-oriented development, which is designed to increase density around transit stations, will help Redlands handle population growth and carbon emissions.
FOSTER: It's to get people out of their vehicles and to walk because all of their needs are within walking or biking distance.
PURPER: Residents are voting in March on a key part of this project, which would allow taller, denser residential buildings - apartments and condos - in these transit villages. But the problem is this - what people are voting on currently has no height limits. So now an area that has a two-story height restriction could theoretically end up with buildings of 10 stories or higher. But the mayor says he wouldn't allow that to happen.
FOSTER: When you go to the ballot box and you elect somebody and the person you support is elected, there is an inferred commitment to that person that you're going to trust them.
LANE SCHNEIDER: I think that it will really change Redlands forever. We'll never be able to get it back.
PURPER: Resident Lane Schneider is somebody who doesn't trust the mayor. She says consolidating development downtown contradicts Redlands' slow-growth measures.
SCHNEIDER: The reason those standards were put in were because people wanted to keep Redlands a town with small-town character. And if we take out some of those things such as height limitations, density limitations, then we've lost that.
PURPER: And the evidence that people will actually get out of their cars is mixed, says Genevieve Giuliano. She's a professor of urban planning at the University of Southern California.
GENEVIEVE GIULIANO: A transit-oriented development in Washington, D.C., is something very different from a transit-oriented development in Redlands.
PURPER: Giuliano says this debate plays out in a lot of small cities where residents chafe against the idea of concentrating development in one spot.
GIULIANO: It's very hard to change existing communities, especially when they're affluent and people are very active politically. It's a challenge.
PURPER: And it's a challenge that Redland City Council member Toni Momberger understands. She supports transit-oriented development, but she thinks there should be some concrete height limitations.
TONI MOMBERGER: And I want to say, OK, what changes do we need to make? What changes are coming whether we like it or not? And how can we be good shepherds of that change?
PURPER: Momberger says growth should be handled smartly because there are some things everyone in the city agrees on. They don't want development to run amuck, and they need to improve air quality. For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Purper in Redlands. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.