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California and the West

Homes With Attitude

Survey: Suburban owners express preferences for older buildings with character and a dislike of restrictive master plans.


Immaculate new-home tracts may catch the eye, but the old side of town is capturing the hearts of many Americans.

Even in Southern California, stereotyped worldwide as endless tracts of tile-roofed sameness off a zillion freeways, suburban homeowners say what they want in their neighborhoods is, well, more neighborliness.

If they are to be believed, many will sacrifice resort-style suburban staples such as swimming pools, golf courses and guarded gates to get an earlier 20th century feel in their housing for the next millennium.

And developers are catering to those yearnings by downsizing neighborhoods, adding old-fashioned porches, alleys and walking trails, and subtracting walls and wide streets.

"I think we're all real sick of Irvine, especially the newer parts, with the cookie-cutter houses," said Vicki Snell, who lives in a well-tended, unmaster-planned area of Costa Mesa. "It was in style for a while, and now it's not."

Snell was one of 600 homeowners in the heart of Southland suburbia--Orange County--who were polled by The Times about their attitudes toward housing. The telephone survey, conducted Jan. 29 through Feb. 4, came as home prices were beginning their sharp ascent in the more affluent areas of the county toward their pre-recession highs. It has a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points in either direction.

Among the findings: Older homes with character are preferred to new houses; master plans and restrictions on building appearances get more thumbs down than approvals; and porches are more desirable than pools.

These opinions reflect many of the principles of an emerging movement often dubbed the New Urbanism, said Mark Baldassare, an urban planning professor at UC Irvine.

New Urbanists believe that jobs, shopping and recreation should be close to home--within a walk or bike ride if possible. And they believe that neighborhoods should contain varied types of housing and residents of various ages and income levels.

"I like a variety of neighbors. I don't want all kids or all retirees," said Anne Leishman, who praises the mix of condos, townhouses, detached and mobile homes in the planned Forster Ranch community where she lives in San Clemente.

Planners and sociologists said it's especially interesting to find such leanings in the heart of suburban Southern California.

"That's amazing in Orange County," said Berkeley-based urban planner Peter Calthorpe, whose emphasis on urban villages, public transit-oriented development and walking communities has made him a guru for New Urbanists.

He said he would have expected the county's residents to prefer gated communities of people like themselves, living in newer-style homes.

Cheryl Katz, director of the poll, said the respondents want modern amenities, but with a less walled-in feeling.

"People want an updated house where everything works and a kitchen that's newer than 1940," Katz said. "But they are longing for a sense of community--established communities like the kind they grew up in."

That is what Snell, a 47-year-old former Taco Bell advertising employee, and her husband, Richard, a senior manager for Boeing Co., like about the Mesa Verde section of Costa Mesa. It was built in the 1960s as a mixture of mass-produced and custom houses.

"It's a neighborhood you can walk in. I feel safe here," Snell said, strolling with her children, ages 2 and 4, past parks and elementary schools. She meets many older people on the street who have lived in the area for decades, along with parents like herself.

"There's a golf course close by, but that's not important to me," she said. What is important is that her backyard has plenty of space, even with the family room they are adding. "One of the things people don't like about Irvine is that--no yards."

Another attraction is that the area's homes have been remodeled to meet owners' tastes, not an association or planner's rule book--a fact that has given the neighborhood its own quirky personality.

Six gigantic palm trees--two clumps of three each--dwarf a little ranch house. A porch with fancy metalwork stretches across the entire second story of another home, almost New Orleans-style. Someone else has painted the trim on a buff-colored house a shocking shade of blue.

There is even a dingy paint job or two. "We don't like them," Snell said, but she would rather tolerate that than the sameness of many master-planned communities.

Her preference for a more traditional neighborhood is widely shared. Only one in five poll respondents consider being near a golf course or swimming pool crucial. Just a quarter find gate-guarded communities highly important.

But three in four said a "walking community," where people stroll to parks and other public destinations, is a top priority. And more than 40% rate old-fashioned porches--from which people can visit with their neighbors--as highly desirable.

Skepticism About Preferences

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