SACRAMENTO — Billion-dollar foundations, their money derived from the companies that fueled California's suburban sprawl, are giving away millions of dollars to turn growth back toward cities.
These foundations, primarily those supported by the Hewlett, Irvine and Packard fortunes, seek to spread an emerging but disputed gospel of development called "smart growth."
"Foundations are pouring millions into this movement," said Joel Hirschhorn of the National Governor's Assn. "This is one of the strongest social and political movements in the country, ever."
During the 20th century, California entrepreneurs such as the Irvine family made fortunes urbanizing their 120,000-acre ranch, while David Packard and William Hewlett spawned the computer industry and in turn the Silicon Valley suburbs.
They took their profits and created independent foundations to support other nonprofit groups, increasingly becoming a shadow arm of government in California and the West as they push for fewer new roads, more mass transit and people living in less space.
Staff at the William and Flora Hewlett, James Irvine and David and Lucile Packard foundations--known as "HIPsters"--tout new-age phrases such as "sustainable communities" while pushing to reverse the long commutes, lost farmland and neglected central cities that accompany California's suburban development.
This year, Irvine gave $600,000 to the Oakland-based East Bay Community Foundation to promote better transportation planning and pedestrian-friendly development. It also gave the Truckee-based Sierra Business Council $335,000 to buy office space to monitor Sierra Nevada growth management. The Hewletts gave $200,000 to San Francisco's Congress for New Urbanism to promote downtown area neighborhoods.
Frequently, the three work and contribute together to maximize their impact.
State home builders find the trend ironic.
"The root of these funds, much of it comes from growth," said Robert Rivinius, who runs the California Building Industry Assn. "I think we could take that amount of money and brainpower and do something more productive with it," such as helping the state build more housing.
But those on the receiving end of the money find it refreshing.
"Since the 1940s we've gone to a single mode of development: the strip mall and the housing subdivision," said James Corless, California director of a foundation-funded transportation reform group. "It's not that we don't want to build any more of those. It's that we want to build different things."
Even as a stock market slowdown erodes foundations' 1990s gains, the HIPsters and their brethren are steering old growth money to Corless and a growing cadre of smart-growth reformers. They're doing so with the backing of foundation directors who include the president of Yale University, California technology chiefs and former leaders of the Times-Mirror Corp., another force that helped create modern Los Angeles.
For some regions, such as the Bay Area, San Diego and Los Angeles, said Michael Fischer, environmental program officer for the Hewlett Foundation, "it's too late. The footprint is far too big and the development pattern is far too established for major investment in smart growth."
So the foundations are gambling on new regions and projects to curb sprawl and traffic congestion in California's Central Valley and Sierra Nevada, as well as Salt Lake City and Tucson, Ariz.
More than $20 million worth of foundation grants have gone into the 400-mile-long Central Valley, where the population is expected to double to 12 million by 2040. Much of the money aims for more compact growth in a region that favors single-story homes on big lots.
The Packard Foundation gave $11 million to move UC Merced's new campus closer to Merced and away from hillside vernal pools. In October, the Irvine Foundation gave $6 million to Modesto's Great Valley Center, which created an international design contest showing innovative ways to house another 10 million people.
In Salt Lake City, where one-acre home lots are common among 1.6 million residents, the Hewlett Foundation steered $3 million to Envision Utah. The aim: compact growth for 1 million new people within 20 to 30 years.
"Private property rights are strongly held in Utah," said Fischer. "But there's one word that trumps private property and that one word is 'grandchildren.' "
Nationally, the jury is still out whether people really want to change their ways, ride light rail and live closer together. Experts say smart growth concepts like transit villages, apartments above stores and high-rise loft housing account for about 1% of the market.
Rivinius, who represents an industry that builds 140,000 homes every year in California, most in subdivisions, said, "Peoples' preferences still go to that kind of housing."