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RETHINKING SUBURBIA: Housing for the Next Millennium

Back at Drawing Boards to Build a Better Yesterday

Communities: Planners, developers and constructors meet home-buyer demands for more porches, alleys and grassy parkways. But neotraditionalism has been done before in Southland.


Coming soon to a suburb or revitalizing urban area near you: more varied styles and sizes of homes, more trails and bike paths, more "pocket parks" and porches. Narrow streets to bring people together--and make outsiders stand out. More neighborhood.

That is the promise, at least, from developers, planners and builders from Ladera Ranch in southeast Orange County to Newhall Ranch in northwest Los Angeles County to Rialto and Loma Linda in the Inland Empire.

Southern California is no bulwark of neotraditionalism, a style more associated with the Southeast, where studiously old-fashioned towns such as Walt Disney Co.'s Celebration have attracted much attention.

But the Southland is no stranger to new attempts at old-style neighborhoods--where parks, schools and stores are within walking distance and you might run into people who are richer, poorer, older or younger than you on the way there.

There are 135 new-home projects being built in North America that are deemed "traditional neighborhood development" by New Urban News, and five of them are being planned or built between San Diego and Malibu.

Best-known is Playa Vista, where the developers' feuds with DreamWorks studio moguls have overshadowed ambitious plans for an entire new district of Los Angeles. If all goes as planned, Playa Vista will have 13,000 housing units whose occupants will be within walking distance of high-tech jobs and shopping.

A similar project, which proposes more than 1,000 homes next to shops, light industry, offices and public buildings, is planned in Fullerton, where aerospace industry downsizings eliminated 13,000 Hughes Electronics Corp. jobs.

The movement toward old-fashioned neighborhoods keeps bumping up against modern roadblocks: fire officials who complain their trucks can't operate in narrow, pedestrian-oriented streets, cities that want "gated" communities with walls to cut down on policing costs.

But with "community" being a top feature on buyers' wish lists, home shoppers can expect to see more porches, alleys and grassy parkways.

Neotraditional fans and skeptics alike warn that many builders are merely dolling up standard, car-dependent suburbs with "applique porches" and other nostalgic appendages.

Irvine Co. Vice Chairman Ray Watson said people may want porches, but they "also can't live without garage door openers and 85-inch TV sets." Builders simply cater to all those desires, he said.

"It's basically a marketing concept" to make people feel they're in a more neighborly setting, Watson said. "It doesn't matter if you actually use the porch--it's a symbol."

In Woodbridge, the original section of Irvine, planners initially wanted to put in small neighborhood grocery stores.

"But the fact is, the guy goes broke compared with the supermarket two miles down the road," Watson said.

New Urbanist designer Peter Calthorpe warns of "a dangerous gang of designers that are preaching to homeowners that they can have it both ways"--gated suburbia with a more sociable old-fashioned ambience.

"It doesn't get to the fundamentals: is it truly a mix of ages and incomes, and is it truly walkable--that is, are there any destinations you can reasonably walk to that are worth getting to?" Calthorpe asked.

"Just putting the porches on and the street trees in is not enough."

Calthorpe's own communities have met with mixed success.

One planned more than a decade ago--Laguna West near Sacramento--opened in the middle of a recession and has struggled, finding it especially hard to attract the retailers that were a key part of the plan.

But his work advising Portland, Ore., on how to absorb hundreds of thousands more people without succumbing to suburban sprawl has been widely praised as model urban planning.

Others fond of neotraditional ideas, such as former Pasadena Mayor Rick Cole, take less of a hard line. Cole is a booster of downtown revivals in older cities such as his own.

He said that scores of hybrid communities borrow neotraditional ideas, if not the entire mix of local jobs, shopping, housing and recreation that advocates said is ideal. The enemy is not suburbia per se, said Cole, who also is Southern California director of the state Local Government Commission.

He praises such suburbs as Valencia in northern Los Angeles County, master-planned in the 1960s with pedestrian and bicycle "paseos" linking small neighborhoods to shopping centers, schools and parks.

Valencia, now a section of Santa Clarita, also has shown adaptability, Cole said. He likes its new "Main Street-style" outdoor shopping district--a neotraditional icon--that is being connected to an enclosed mall, the ultimate badge of suburbia.

Newhall Land & Farming Co., which built Valencia, is now planning Newhall Ranch, a community of 70,000 residents modeled on pre-World War II towns. Places to eat, shop and play will be located within walking distance of homes and relaxed zoning will allow "granny flat" add-ons for relatives and boarders.

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