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The Building of Lake San Marcos : Housing: The visionary retirement community pioneered many of the concepts that have become standards in the housing industry.

April 01, 1990|KIM Q. BERKSHIRE

On paper, there were few apparent reasons back in 1963 why Gordon Frazar's new housing development in North County should top the List of Sure Bets.

Imagine a residential project built around a former agricultural pond, down the street from a county garbage dump, midway between interstates 5 and 15--in the center of everything but close to nothing.

"You can only identify and prove the true visionary by the number of skeptics and cynics that surround him, and Gordon Frazar was surrounded," real estate analyst Sanford Goodkin once said of Frazar's notion of the new neighborhood.

Skeptics and cynics no longer, though.

Frazar, better known at the time for building 6,000 tract homes in Riverside County, fathered Lake San Marcos, a 1,500-acre, $56-million project that opened in 1963 and now is just 100 homes shy of its 2,400-home limit. The retirement community surrounds two golf courses and an 80-acre man-made lake, where bass and blue heron are as much at home as pontoons puttering around at happy hour.

This is where some of the nation's first condominiums were built and sold. And where some of Southern California's first underground utilities and cable television lines were installed for residents.

And let there be no doubt about the intended age group for this place. Recreation Director Billy Nardella oversees the fishing and casting club, the newcomers club, the yacht club, the mixed bridge club, the racquet club, the art league, and the slide and travel group.

Not exactly the stuff to attract families with young children or teen-agers.

At the recreation center, residents have their choice of four tennis courts, two swimming pools, three paddle ball courts, billiard tables and a party room, with kitchen.

Today, about 4,000 residents, many of them single, live here. The average cost of a single, detached home is $278,000. The community's centerpiece is the 1.3-mile-long lake that had its genesis as an agricultural pond; a previous landowner dammed San Marcos Creek with a 50-foot-high concrete wall so he could water his onion, tomato and walnut crops year-round.

Frazar dredged the pond, making it wider and deeper, and created numerous inlets. The lake now covers 80 acres.

One of the keys to Frazar's success was building most of the development's amenities before he started selling homes.

He opened a motel, which now has 142 rooms, and an adjacent restaurant--the Quails Inn, which is as popular for its buffets as for its commanding view of the lake. The lake was finished and stocked; one of two golf courses was teasing duffers; and the neighborhood shopping center was open, selling everything from women's fashions to greeting cards.

The fact that Frazar offered a package--so prospective buyers could see what they were buying without guessing what phases II or III would bring--generated quick sales.

When Charles Hahne, security patrol supervisor of Lake San Marcos, moved to the site from Chicago with his wife 25 years ago, it had just 300 homes.

Hahne said he was attracted to the area because of its safety, friendliness and family atmosphere. All still hold true, he said.

"My wife says she's going to heaven and this is the first stop," he said.

The Hahnes have even persuaded relatives and friends to move to the lake.

"My wife's sister moved here a few years ago, and she brought in three or four girlfriends who moved here," Hahne said. "Some of our friends from Chicago have retired here, too."

Frazar's "total package" also makes Lake San Marcos a convenient place to live, he said.

"We have everything we need here. It's not necessary to go far to get much."

About 90% of the residents live in the community year-round; the balance are snowbirds who escape the winter of the northern states and Canada, prefering ice in their drinks to ice on their ponds.

Frazar did buck the trend adopted by most new housing developments: He shunned the creation of homeowners' associations and instead formed his own Citizens Development Corp., to which homeowners pay an optional annual fee for the use of the lake and other amenities. The CDC owns it all--right down to the fish in the lake.

The CDC also wields architectural control, preventing new homes from blocking views of the lake and making sure that houses are the requisite California ranch or Spanish style.

Surrounded by the city of San Marcos, Lake San Marcos is an unincorporated county island; residents have never leaned toward incorporation.

It was only because of George Frazar's track record--or lack of it--as a builder that this project became Lake San Marcos versus, say, Lake Irvine.

Frazar first approached Orange County's Irvine Co. to build his project there, but they rejected his idea because he had never built something that large.

Not to be thwarted, he persuaded his favorite banker to back him in San Marcos.

LAKE SAN MARCOS

Population: 4,400

Total Housing Units: 2,400

Average Household Size: 1.83

Median Age: 46.9 (34.2% of population is 65 or over, one of the highest in county)

Racial/Ethnic Mix: White: 78.2% Latino: 17.7% Black: Less than 1% Asian/Other: 3.7%

Sex: 52.9% female; 47.1% male

Median Household Income: $30,289

Income Distribution: Less than $25,000, 41.0%; $25,000-$49,999, 34.0%; $50,000+, 25.0%

College graduate, 25.9% Some college, 29.5% High school graduate, 32.7% No high school diploma, 12.0%

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