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RESIDENTIAL ARCHITECTURE : The New Suburbia : Mediterranean-Style Villages Are Replacing Cookie-Cutter Tract Homes in Award-Winning Southern California Developments

September 18, 1988|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' urban design critic.

THE SUSTAINING DREAM of most Southern Californians is to not live in, or even near, a city. Just as when millions of young families flocked to the small farming towns on the fringes of a burgeon ing Los Angeles after World War II, today people are seeking economically and socially homogeneous suburban neighborhoods. That doesn't mean the cookie-cutter tract developments of the '40s and '50s, however; today's suburban home buyers seek subdivisions with sensitive master plans that incorporate meandering bike paths and jogging trails, pleasant parks and pools, competent community schools and convenient shopping centers. In short, they're looking for a comfortable small-town atmosphere within commuting distance of a big city, an almost idyllic place to watch the kids, the grass, the real estate values and the equity grow while they pursue the American dream.

Across Southern California the population is expanding into spanking new suburban areas in Irvine, further south into San Diego County, east into San Bernardino, north onto the high desert and west toward Ventura. In 1987, this growth accounted for two-thirds of the region's population increase.

Southern California is, without question, the pacesetter for the design of the new, village-oriented, suburban America. "Ever since the sprawling (93,000-acre) Irvine Ranch was master-planned in the 1960s, we have been making pilgrimages there to check out the latest designs," remarks Nevada developer Mark Fine, who surveys residential developments in the United States as an officer of the Urban Land Institute.

Los Angeles Times Sunday October 16, 1988 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 6 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
In the Sept. 18 issue, photos accompanying "The New Suburbia," by Sam Hall Kaplan, were taken by photographer David Glomb. --The Editors

"What you see going up in Southern California now is what you most likely will see going up in other suburbs across the country in the next few years," adds Fine, who has used these ideas in developing Green Valley, a successful 8,300-acre planned community outside Las Vegas. "The materials and architectural styles may be different because of the weather and local preferences, but the land-use concepts, floor plans and marketing concepts will be quite similar to what's on the rise in Southern California, generally, and in Irvine, specifically."

The latest innovation in the shaping of Southern California suburbia is what planners call "increased densification"--putting more housing on less land. In the '50s, the average density in a tract development was perhaps three or four homes per acre; today's developments artfully compact as many as 7.75--sometimes even more--homes on an acre. Significantly, developers have not only doubled the number of homes per acre, they've also doubled their size from an average of 900 square feet to an average of 1,800 square feet. But this does not necessarily mean that suburbia is being overwhelmed with cheek-by-jowl housing.

"If you can--with imagination--keep the amenities people want in suburbia, such as the back yards, the bike paths, parks and a sense of open space, increased densification is not bad," observes Santa Barbara-based architect Barry Berkus. "In fact, density can increase the desirability of a community by creating a friendly village atmosphere, not unlike in a Mediterranean country." Berkus was a pioneer of what are called planned-unit developments in Southern California--including the prize-winning Woodbridge Landing and Turtle Rock Highland neighborhoods of Irvine--and recently he has been experimenting with even higher densities, inspired in part by the ancient villages and towns of Italy and Greece.

Berkus' design of the new Leisure Village Ocean Hills retirement community, in the rolling hills of north San Diego County near Oceanside, is considered one of the most successful of the recent, higher-density developments, with 5.2 homes per acre. Architects and developers from across the country are also studying the Le Parc planned communities in El Toro, Chino, Simi Valley and Westpark in Irvine.

Westpark, designed by the architecture firm of Richardson Nagy Martin of Newport Beach, won a Gold Nugget Award for best site plan last year from the Pacific Coast Builders Conference. The Westpark plan was cited for creating "a distinctive architectural character and sense of community on a site devoid of natural or topographical amenities."

A collection of six neighborhoods totaling 4,500 homes, Westpark is being constructed over a five-year period. It focuses on homes for the "young professional couple with a growing family" and "maturing professional families," according to sales literature. "Informal living" is stressed and, judging from the strollers and bicycles scattered in front of the houses along the gently curving streets, the developers targeted their market correctly.

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