The blueprints for the Sailhouse development seemed better suited for Disneyland than sleepy Corona del Mar: They showed a folksy village of carriage homes and cottages that attempted to re-create an authentic beach town neighborhood formed over generations.
Such proposals tend to make seaside community planning boards panic. They don't like developers tampering with the local aesthetic.
Naysayers don't have to search hard to find examples where such grand visions were approved--complete with lavish renderings that promised an old-fashioned neighborly experience--only to see builders cut corners and leave the community with a densely populated mess.
Yet some see the tidy homes that have sprouted on eight acres in Corona del Mar as a successful "new urbanism" in-fill project where an unsightly apartment building once stood. Gazebos, fountains and wood walkways will be nestled among 88 homes that may look a bit like a theme park to some, but that also represent a bold departure from standard suburban architecture in Orange County.
"I love the design," said Whitney Dahlin, a 46-year-old mortgage banker who recently bought a cottage. At Sailhouse, "a color historian" picks out the rich textures to complement the dark wood siding. No two homes are the same.
"It's not that dull, muted gray beach tone so common here," said Dahlin, who used to live in Rancho Santa Margarita, where he said he quickly grew tired of monotonous design.
Others aren't so impressed. They question whether the builders are just tacking some fancy facades onto standard boxy homes and misusing the term "new urbanism" as a sales pitch.
True new urbanism, they say, involves a healthy mix of commercial and residential development, lots of green space and various types of housing. "They are using a very loose definition of new urbanism," said Stefanos Polyzoides, a Pasadena architect and an original member of the Congress for the New Urbanism in San Francisco.
Regardless, prospective home buyers are paying $500,000 to $900,000 to live in the "St. Augustine"-style community of Sailhouse, across Coast Highway from the beach. The development offers cozy front porches and funky shingling--without the hassles of taking care of an old cottage. The architecture was based on homes built in the prized Florida new urbanism communities of Rosemary Beach and Seaside. Both are landmark examples of "neo-traditional" design.
The Sailhouse homes are small by Orange County standards, averaging about 1,700 square feet. More than a dozen units sold in the first month, and residents have moved in.
The designers say their research suggested that more buyers than ever were willing to spend more money for smaller spaces if it meant that they got a more manageable, attractive home in a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.
"There is a huge demographic emerging that wants this," said Mark Scheurer, the architect behind Sailhouse. "These people are not into high bedroom count. . . . They're perfectly fine with less space. But it has to be a different kind of space."
Not a retirement community, Scheurer says, but a place in the suburbs suitable for the growing population of childless home buyers young and old who prefer a stylish home that is low maintenance, and in a neighborhood that fosters an outdoor, social lifestyle.
They are buyers like Lisa Mathaisel, a 27-year-old attorney who recently bought one of the cottages with her boyfriend.
"I didn't see anything else like this around here," she said. "We wanted to be near restaurants and shops. . . . Everything else we looked at was a back unit overlooking someone else's home."
The Sailhouse planners made big garage doors, cul-de-sacs and barren front lawns off-limits. They consider such characteristics anti-social. Boardwalk paseos, wide shutters and balconies take their place.
Garages are in alleyways around the back to make room for neighbors to spend their leisure time lounging on the porches or strolling down the paseos at the front of their homes.
Scheurer says this is where the new breed of buyer wants to put its money--not in the biggest private lot they can afford with a tall fence and a giant garage.
"When we go to focus groups in Orange County and ask, 'Where would you like to live?'--in the 10 years I've been doing it, the place that comes up the most is Balboa Island in Newport Beach," Scheurer said. "People say they like walking to the market, walking to stores, feeling a sense of community.
"Balboa Island is 18 units to an acre. It is one of densest developments in the county," he said. "That's where people want to live."