The former chapel of the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys is now The Commons, the recreational complex at The Groves community in Whittier, California. (Christopher Mayer)

At the resident recreation club, kids are splashing in the pool, people huddle over laptops in the coworking space, and a family in the catering kitchen is prepping for a birthday party. The building appears exciting and new, with vaulted ceilings and white walls. But it’s actually over 100 years old: This is the former chapel of what was California’s first reform school, founded in 1891—now transformed into an infill development.

The brick chapel, along with three additional historic buildings, is the architectural mark of the Fred C. Nelles School for Boys, in Whittier, California, founded on July 1, 1891. The 75-acre (30 ha) complex went through several other names and a long decline before closing in 2004. It wasn’t until 2020 that the walled-off and defunct property (having become a refuge for trespassers, cats, and coyotes) re-emerged as The Groves, a residential and retail masterplan community by developers Brookfield Residential and Lennar, in coordination with City of Whittier.

Despite opening (safely) in the early days of the pandemic, the development was a swift success. Today all its 559 homes are sold, and its 189 apartments are actively leasing with approximately 3,000 residents drawn from Whittier and surrounding areas stretching across Southern California. The tree-lined and park-dotted neighborhoods connect to a new retail center anchored by a Stater Bros grocery on one corner of the parcel, and the remaining historic buildings are being transformed into curated retail and restaurants, serving both The Groves residents and the surrounding city.

“It is a dream for me to take a former correctional facility and make it productive for this and future generations,” said Whittier Mayor Joe Vinatieri. “The revitalization of the property is the tide lifting all boats. It’s wonderful to see how it has turned out.”

The road to this positive result was long, but cautious. It involved one of the first planned developers falling into bankruptcy, protracted discussions with offices of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), extended negotiations with the state to purchase the land, and ultimately productive consultations and approvals by the City and community groups to arrive at the right plan. (The development team eventually purchased the land for $42 million.)

The facility, located on 75 acre (30.4 ha), closed in 2004.

In the interim, the region’s housing crisis continued to worsen. And to top it off, the shuttered site itself was a blighted scar on the land, and the institution had been known for mismanagement and documented mistreatment of the youths.

During all this time, Brookfield Residential Properties vice president of land Dave Bartlett kept the vision for revitalization alive. He and team members knew that housing and retail were essential planning cornerstones. This included preserving as many of the remaining historic buildings as possible. The city’s retail district, known as Uptown Whittier, was 6/10s of a mile to the north, connected by Philadelphia Street. So, a new development could complement its very positive history and urban vitality.

“Our site had to be the other end of the barbell,” said Bartlett. “This could be the economic engine that makes Whittier tick. But what does that look like? And how could we achieve it? Our market studies recommended a neighborhood shopping center bordered by housing. Much of the trick in unlocking the land value was combining sales tax revenue with the potential increased property value of new homes.”

ULI Los Angeles recommended the same in a 2006 Technical Assistance Advisory Report for the city. Under the heading “Build New Housing,” the report states: “The 75-acre site that formerly served as the location for the Fred C. Nelles Youth Detention Center is proposed to be redeveloped with new retail and residential uses. Both projects are located at the primary gateway to Uptown. Employment at these two developments should be attracted to residential opportunities created on sites in the Uptown area.”

Inside The Commons, an 11,000-square-foot (92.9 sq m) club built from a historic chapel. (Christopher Mayer)

Helping to craft the masterplan for Brookfield Residential and Lennar were three firms, SWA, Galloway and Company, and Urban Design Associates (UDA). Bartlett said UDA rendered details of the larger concept, including the restoration of historic structures and the street grid. It was decided that there would be one main entrance, since the streets of the existing side neighborhoods were already cul de sacs. And it was this entrance that would “thread the needle,” connecting the new development with Uptown Whittier.

Brookfield Residential already had a healthy redevelopment record and relationships. Playa Vista, in coastal Los Angeles, has become recognized worldwide as the center of tech-focused and walkable “Silicon Beach,” built with the bones of the former Hughes Aircraft facility. Today Playa Vista holds over 6,000 housing units among parks, natural open space, retail centers and repurposed historic buildings with tenants such as Google and YouTube. To the east, Brookfield Residential continues to partner with City of Ontario to build the New Haven community, which has been a national leader in new-home sales, assisted by a retail node within walking distance of homes.

New Haven’s retail—New Haven Marketplace—is centered on a Stater Bros market via developer Almquist, which became a natural partner in Whittier as well.

“Once we had a grocery anchor, the other stores fell into place, including an In-N-Out Burger, a tenant the city had always wanted,” said Bartlett.

While the larger grocery is new-construction, The Grove’s three remaining historic buildings are key to unlocking the land’s ultimate potential. This area is scheduled to debut in late 2023 as Heritage Court, with “experiential retail,” including a brewery, small restaurants, a lounge, and other “eclectic spaces.” Like the former chapel and now community club The Commons, these structures – the Administration Building, Superintendent’s Residence, and the Assistant Superintendent’s Residence – are early 20th century buildings drenched in character and craftsmanship.

One historic building, the gymnasium – which has appeared on television and in films – could not be salvaged. But even its wooden floors will be repurposed into new facilities of The Groves’ Heritage Court area. And a new gym is being built.

Here, too, Brookfield Residential is looking to past successes. The company was a pioneer in re-envisioning The Packing House in Anaheim. This is the 1919 former citrus packing facility which combines rare architectural history with authentic mom-and-pop proprietors to lead the revitalization of Anaheim’s downtown. As with the Nelles juvenile center in Whittier, Anaheim searched for solutions for the defunct packing house with Brookfield Residential, which restored the building and recommended creating a food hall after studying famous foodie meccas such as San Francisco’s Ferry building and New York’s Chelsea Market. Today, the Packing House is owned and managed by LAB Holding.

Acknowledging Anaheim’s accomplishments, Whittier Mayor Vinatieri said, “These properties are not just monuments. They are examples of living breathing culture and economic resources that contribute to the feel of the entire community. Where else can you find that?”

Retail developer Almquist Founder and CEO Dan Almquist agreed.

“All our projects want to have a soul, to be a centerpiece of a community,” he said. “In a ground-up site you try to create that, but with historic buildings the soul is built-in. The challenge is to find tenants who understand the value of a place that is not an everyday, four-walled space. But those are the types of tenants we want to work with anyway.”

Almquist said his company partners well with the vastly larger Brookfield Residential. This is their third partnership: “We are smaller in scale but our values are aligned. For a large company it is extremely entrepreneurial and forward-thinking. All of their places are case studies in residential and retail.”

Fans of the new development include its own residents. Wayne Hao, head of China for Crave Global, purchased one of the new homes when The Groves opened in 2020. He has since organized on-site presentations for the Wharton and Harvard schools of business. (Hao is a Wharton School graduate.)

“The Groves lifted the entire area,” he said. “Everything is well designed with friendly happy neighbors. It’s a real feeling of community, with the homeowners’ association helping to build cohesiveness. I can see this model replicated elsewhere.”

The development is not Southern California’s only property whose troubled past is ripe for revitalization. In nearby El Monte, the shuttered MacLaren Children’s Center is scheduled to be redeveloped, according to a recent study by City of El Monte. Not unlike The Fred Nelles School for Boys, the blighted McClaren site is 14 acres that for over 20 years has been walled-off from its surrounding neighborhood. It served as a temporary shelter for youths in Los Angeles County’s foster care system between 1961 and the early 2000s. In 2003 the overcrowded facility was forced to close as a result of a federal lawsuit alleging mistreatment of some of its mentally ill children.

Plans for new development by Prima Development do not include reuse of existing buildings. But there would be a major affordable housing component, a large community park and neighborhood-serving uses such as a vocational school, medical clinic, and senior health center.

Brookfield’s Dave Bartlett noted that when a deal was finally struck for the Fred Nelles School for Boys, The Groves’ groundbreaking celebration included symbolic site blessings to symbolize its new beginnings,

“This is ultimately a very uplifting and positive story, both economically and for the heart of the city, and one that was very much worth the wait,” he said.

It’s a development truism that the fate of a piece of land should be its “highest and best use.” That usually translates to its most profitable use. But it can also mean transforming blight and troubled history into the much-needed healing of an entire community.

More by Jack Skelley