SALINAS, Calif. -- From the fertile fields on the outskirts of Salinas -- the town that once prided itself on being the "Salad Bowl of the World" -- houses are sprouting where lettuce once was king.
The pieces of heavy equipment working at the north side of the booming city these days are not tilling the soil; they are preparing the ground for a crop of homes, apartments and shops that could add more than 20,000 new residents by the end of the century.
While the recession and a mix of nasty urban problems have made some other parts of the state undesirable for families looking to put down roots, a trio of factors has made the rich alluvial soil in the valley of the Salinas River a haven for home-seekers:
* An inviting atmosphere that combines good weather, clean air, mountain views and proximity to the ocean and Monterey Bay.
* Housing prices that, while above the national average, seem dirt-cheap compared with sky-high costs in the Bay Area.
* Local governmental policies that favor new development.
Houses are inexpensive, at least when compared with listings in counties to the north. The average sales price for a single-family home is $178,675, far below the $247,994 average cost of a similar place in San Jose.
And local officials are nothing if not accommodating to developers. While neighboring Santa Cruz County, for instance, has held the line against building on high-grade agricultural soil, Salinas welcomes new development on farmland at the northern and eastern edges of town, where more than 7,000 dwellings are slated to go up over the next few years. Development is prohibited on top-quality farmland to the south and west of town.
Already under construction on 480 acres at the northeast edge of town is the 2,598-unit Creekbridge development. More than 2,000 units are penciled in on the 466-acre Williams Ranch to the east. Another 600 units are proposed on some smaller parcels.
And, at the north end of Salinas, just east of Main Street, is the 520-acre Harden Ranch. About 2,400 dwellings -- from $450,000 luxury homes to clustered apartments and townhouses -- will replace the lettuce, broccoli, strawberries and other row crops that used to grow there.
Together, says City Manager Dave Mora, those developments eventually will boost the city's population from 114,000 to at least 135,000. Developers are anticipating the homes will be sold to newcomers from the Santa Clara Valley who will commute northward to work as well as to other families moving to town because of its amenities.
Observers agree most of the existing newer homes at the north end of town are being bought by locals, who are moving to the edge of the city as poorer Hispanic families move into older, inexpensive housing near downtown and in the Alisal, the east side. Mr. Mora says about 51 percent of Salinas residents are Latinos, who are spread across the local economic spectrum.
Meanwhile, residents have mixed feelings about their city's growth.
Valerie Flores, who runs a day care center in her North Salinas home, is a fan of development. New streets through the nearby Harden Ranch, she says, provide "easy access for me to get to the mall" at Northridge.
But neighbor Greg Banks, a psychiatric technician, says, "It saddens me to see them cover up farmland."
Mr. Banks is not the only one skeptical of the city's sprawl. Even some of the enthusiasts admit that growth is causing problems.
Mr. Mora agrees that the old retail centers downtown and on South Main Street "are dying" as commerce follows residential growth to the north.
Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Carol Kurtz says she's hopeful that the Old Town redevelopment concept will draw more businesses, and customers, to renovated stores and offices in the heart of the city.
Lawyer Andy Church, who comes from a prominent farming family, speculates that the old downtown will continue to serve as a civic center for attorneys, insurance agents, bankers and others who want proximity to city hall and the county courthouse. But, says Mr. Church, the commercial future for Salinas lies to the north and east.
Mr. Church is secretary of the Harden Foundation, owner of the ranch land named after founder E. E. Harden, who died in 1984. Harden came to the Salinas Valley in the 1920s and, at one time, owned 2,500 acres. He and his wife left land and other assets to the foundation -- which is using profits from the proposed development to support local non-profit organizations.
Sierra Club spokesman Larry Espinosa, a biologist with the state Department of Fish and Game, worries that Salinas about expansion.
"It seems that one of the manifestations of disorderly, unregulated growth in a body is cancer," he says. "Growth has to occur within systems, so it strengthens and refines the organism."