California Planned Communities

Whether creating an ancient city-state such as Athens or Rome or drafting the Declaration of Independence, it’s never been a practical solution as much as a calling, and in the case of today’s master-planned community, vision is the key. In the not-so-distant past, some master-planned communities existed in name only, in which a developer would sell off separate parcels to various builders add a stone or waterscape entry monument, throw in some pocket parks on awkward parcels, dream up a country-sounding noun such as “Meadows” or “Canyons” and call it a day. And yet others, built by Newhall Land in the Santa Clarita Valley or The Irvine Company in Orange County, brought considerably more gravitas to the table when master planning was still in its relative infancy. In the process, these giant landowners showed that the right combination of homes, jobs, schools, retail centers, and open space could strike a balance between the needs of residents, businesses, visitors, politicians and even environmentalists. Yet, like all visions, this one, too, has been accompanied by the painful lessons of an evolving process. But if software companies like Microsoft get to issue new releases which correct previous flaws with the promise of improved function, land developers certainly have the same right. We’ll dub it Master Planning Release 3.0, in which planners borrow from history, learn from past mistakes and yet still keep open a watchful eye to create a living, breathing 21st century master-planned community.

Community designing to claim their own style, today’s X and Y Generations generally don’t want to live in their parent’s type of ranch style or split-level home on a cul-de-sac in which all trips to the store required a car or a bike. Ironically, the typical suburban life that bestowed safety and stability in the latter half of the 20th century did so at the price of what some have called cookie-cutter homogeneity, making this new status quo uninteresting to the offspring who took it for granted. With time now competing with money as the American family’s most precious resource, these increasingly sophisticated buyers know a faux master plan when they see it, and demand land planning that respects their free time, values, and basic hunger for something inspiring. To meet that demand – and also to pass muster in today’s political and environmental climate – master plans such as Newhall Ranch (Santa Clarita Valley), Centennial at Tejon Ranch (south of Bakersfield on the Kern/Los Angeles County border), and River Islands (Lathrop, south of Stockton) start with a decades-long process that marries the best of the suburban past (for example safety, services, and assumed quality) with a new vision of the future (better jobs/housing balance, transportation options, open space and community technology).
At Newhall Ranch, streets that channel traffic onto thoroughfares will slow traffic in neighborhoods, making it safer for residents to walk among the interconnecting paseos and trails. At Centennial, an unusually broad mix of housing california-communityoptions will seek to address demographic groups across the entire spectrum, from starter apartments to active adult villas. And at River Islands, the enormous influence of the adjacent San Joaquin River Delta is helping developer Cambay Group market the project as a year-round vacation environment. Jobs with over 50,000 jobs, the existing master plan Valencia by Newhall Land (now part of Lennar) has proven that a healthy jobs/housing balance includes many family-friendly consequences, such as driving less (helps the environment), biking or walking to work (helps to regulate stress) and more free time at home (helps parents raise better-adjusted kids). Part of the Newhall Ranch plan is a business park and various retail centers intended to create 20,000 new jobs – a ratio of about one job for the nearly 21,000 homes to be built. Centennial plans for over 30,000 new jobs and over 14 million square feet of commercial space, yielding a ratio of 1.3 jobs for every one of its 23,000 new homes. At Trimark’s 4,800-acre Mountain House community located near Tracy in Northern California, up to 20,000 new jobs in its commercial parks will employ nearly one-half of the expected 44,000 new residents. But River Islands must take its new jobs most seriously, as developers cannot even gain crucial building approvals unless they meet strict mandates to encourage employers to relocate to their 300-acre business park and 100-acre town center. Thankfully, local officials will be armed with up to a $55 million pool of incentives based on an impact fee of $5,000 per unit, which should greatly help them land the sort of high-paying jobs they’ll need to strike the right balance of local housing demand against out-of-town commuters. Given that U.S. census figures show Valencia’s daytime population is just 16 percent less than at night and nearly one-third of its residents live and work in the city, it’s certainly a model well-suited for duplication.

Environment as the first new community to be built on Los Angeles’ Westside in more than 50 years – and in a highly visible location within sight of Marina Del Rey, a mile from the Pacific Ocean and adjacent to newly restored marshland – what Playa Vista gained in density it paralleled in positive public relations, devoting two-thirds of the original property to open space and deeding the Ballona Freshwater Marsh to the State of California in perpetuity. And, by recognizing that natural resources are by definition limited, Playa Vista’s developers were early adopters of the Sustainable Design trend now sweeping the industry, which emphasizes not just recycling, conservation, and energy efficiency but also the use of recycled, durable materials to construct the community itself. Once the buildings are complete, residents will use the most efficient lighting and appliances possible without sacrificing style, while custom-made, non-toxic paints and finishes will improve indoor air quality. Reclaimed water will nourish drought-resistant plants while low-emission trams will provide free local transportation around the community.
As part of its “Smart Planning” strategy, Newhall Ranch will completely preserve 6.5 square miles in the high country of the adjacent Santa Susanna. There are mountains that will tower over the community while providing immediate access to hiking, biking, camping and horseback riding. Since Newhall Ranch will be built on land previously used for agriculture, developers can also tap part of that historical water supply and combine it with unused water rights purchased from owners as far away as the Central Valley. And by taking advantage of drought-tolerant landscaping, using reclaimed water and storing it in underground aquifers, developers have ingeniously promised a steady supply of an increasingly controversial resource. Not surprisingly, River Islands takes its namesake quite seriously, and has introduced basins and man-made wetlands that clean storm water runoff before it can enter a nearby lake, where it’s expected to drain through the sandy bottom before refilling the river system. Planning well in advance of the recent lessons of New Orleans, modern levees high and wide enough to protect against a 200-year flood will reduce downstream flooding while creating new wildlife habitat and hundreds of acres of new storage capacity to the existing flood bypass system. And, with 40 percent of the project devoted to open space, management by a non-profit conservancy assures both public access and a positive image well after the last home has been built. Technology with broadband penetration in the U.S. now passing the 50 percent mark, developers no longer have the luxury of hoping buyers won’t demand the latest technology in new communities. Given its density, location, and buyer profiles, Playa Vista’s cutting-edge technology master plan requires that all builders provide a comprehensive high-tech package in addition to digital work spaces that aren’t simply stuck in a converted closet. By partnering with the likes of Comcast (connectivity), Cisco/Linksys (wiring), and CompUSA (design center selection, service, and training), developers can offer competitive “best of breed” options while focusing on their core business. Plus, with planned wi-fi service at various parks and public spaces, “working from home” at Playa Vista takes on new meaning. Such connectivity takes on even more function with members-only, community-wide intranets offered not just at Playa Vista (but many other large master plans such as Mountain House, Santa Luz in San Diego County and trend-setter Ladera Ranch in Orange County. Acting like an automated concierge, these multi-tasking web sites can snag early-morning tee times, review school grades, make restaurant reservations, or help manage social events – all without having to rely on that ancient technology, the telephone. And as cheaper and increasingly sophisticated home theater systems compete more effectively against pricier multi-plex cinemas, “date night” may devolve to a simple night at the house down the street.
Education with the California public school system struggling to regain its original prestige against an intensely competitive world that demands at least some college, schools in new, high-tech communities have the distinct advantage of better resources and more convenient parental involvement. While a Santaluz can piggyback on the renowned and high-scoring Poway Unified School District, more remote communities such as Mountain House, Centennial at Tejon Ranch, or River Islands involve districts early on to add school sites in tandem with population growth. To ensure an education supply as reliable as its water, Newhall Land actually funds school construction in advance of full population growth. But since education is truly a lifelong process, many master plans have partnered with community college districts and universities to bring out the inner Cezanne in a stay-at-home Mom or give that child prodigy the advanced calculus he needs. By leveraging the power of an always-connected Internet, lifelong learning thus becomes limited only by interest and ambition.

Whether or not it’s true that cul-de-sac living causes obesity, today’s master plans include such a wide array of recreational options that it no longer matters; in fact, a well-planned, conveniently located array of amenities is a primary reason residents are willing to fork over an additional HOA fee or Mello-Roos tax. Newhall Land reports that residents who grew up in Valencia but moved away return due to the common-sense approach to mobility called the paseo (walking paths connecting different parts of the community), so the company is planning for 50 miles of such paths for Newhall Ranch that will also connect with the vast open spaces that surround it. Of course, golf courses remain a favorite form of open space, and many of these large master plans don’t disappoint in terms of acreage and design. While Santaluz contents itself with a single Rees Jones-designed course, Centennial at Tejon Ranch plans two golf courses as well as 18 parks. Not to be outdone, River Islands will feature the requisite golf course frontage as well as river(front), lake(front) and canal(front) areas, while Mountain House proposes 750 acres devoted to parks (including linear parks along waterways), a marina granting access to the Delta and, of course, golf. Given these combinations of amenities, activities, and technology to spread the word, it simply won’t be possible anymore to blame planners for the sin of sloth. increased traffic keeping.

With no-growth NIMBY’s in a constant state of anxiety, the number of new cars associated with a larger master plan requires a variety of solutions to gain approval. Given its urban location, Playa Vista has been investing more than $125 million within a 100-square-mile area including new lanes, improved signals at over 100 key intersections, a new multi-lane road to fight congestion, and the purchase of 10 city-run buses. Within the community itself, a low-emission tram system provides public transit, while a partnership with DaimlerChrysler’s Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) offers individual residents an all-electric car with multiple charging stations in key locations. Similar plans are underway for Centennial at Tejon Ranch, with a circulation plan incorporating private cars, public transit, bikes, pedestrians, and Neighborhood Electric Vehicles (NEVs) built on a grid system with multiple access points. At Newhall Ranch, the $120 million already committed for new freeway interchanges and regional roads encouraged Caltrans to expedite road improvements well in advance of the first home built. And, in a bid to the future, developers have already reserved a right-of-way should the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) elect to extend Metrolink light rail service to the community.

While community intranets and web sites can make planning social engagements more efficient, 10 years of Internet mania have proven that nothing can replace old-fashioned, in-person interaction, and it is in this realm that large master plans truly excel. By stealing a page from the active adult playbook – a centralized community center – and combining the small-town feel that today’s buyers say they want, future residents of River Islands, Santaluz, Windemere near San Ramon, and many other master plans need not even leave the premises. The combination of the 19,000-square-foot Hacienda Santaluz and its adjacent 11-acre Village Green becomes the beating heart of the members-only Santaluz Club, and also offers a large pool, multi-purpose gym, fitness facility, lighted tennis courts with stadium seating, a pro shop for golfers, and rooms for various clubs. The children (ages 3 to 10) of club members even get their own version called Camp Santaluz with sports clinics, storytelling, science presentations, and traditional summer camp activities. At River Islands, Lathrop Landing Town Center will provide not just a riverfront central village but immediate access to its most obvious amenity, the San Joaquin River. Over at Mountain House, the self-contained Community Services District controlling everything from water to phone service will allow residents to manifest their own destinies with their Town Centers the hub of activity for shopping, business, sports, and entertainment with a turn-of-the-century, small-town ambience. And, while Windemere plans a community center offering an eclectic mix of uses including a police sub-station, performing arts theater, dance studio, gym, and day care administered by the City of San Ramon, Playa Vista is hoping to turn over its planned Village Retail Center to the creative mind of Rick Caruso, the retail developer behind the hit project The Grove near the historic Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles.

If vision is the art of seeing the invisible, then actually bringing the vision to fruition is the commerce of the practical. Only by catering to an often-quarreling group of conflicting demands can a large master plan build its first home or lease its first retail store. Yet like all great things, the sum of its parts working together –including residents, businesses, and government – may ultimately create something far greater than the original planners envisioned. That’s when you know that builders and developers don’t just build homes – sometimes they truly can inspire a new way of living.

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