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Housing Returns to Its Roots

Neighborhoods: Village lifestyle takes hold in Orange County, adding a little more urban to the suburban experience.

October 21, 2001|EVAN HALPER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Planners say there are many suburban Southland homeowners feeling just as frustrated. They have lived all their lives without an urban experience, but have gotten tastes of it in their travel, and have come to feel that kind of living makes more sense.

"This may seem counterintuitive, but they are not afraid of something different," said William Fulton, a land-use expert and president of Solimar Research Group in Ventura.

Fulton said people are fed up with the "hassle factor" of trying to live a suburban lifestyle that has become overrun with congestion. "People now want to avoid getting in their cars whenever they can."

In the Southland, their options are limited to small in-fill developments here and there, such as the Pasadena Civic Center redevelopment and the "transit villages" that are mixing eclectic residential architecture with shops and cafes around train stations. Orange County is in the process of rezoning about 1,000 acres of blighted property to get more such projects in the ground.

In Corona del Mar, home-seekers are willing to pay big money to enjoy a new urbanist experience. Sales are already brisk at Sailhouse, which opened this month. It offers bungalows and carriage homes with large front porches, squeezed close together along wood boardwalks with gazebos and fountains. Prices for a 1,700-square-foot home start at about $600,000.

Planners: Demand for New Urbanism Soaring

Yet large-scale developments that actually succeed in creating an entire new urbanist community so far have been nonexistent. New urbanists were hopeful about plans to do that in Lake Elsinore in Riverside County, but investors pulled the plug on it two years ago. A mixed-use Playa Vista development plan in Los Angeles has been mired by controversy over environmental concerns.

But planners argue that demand far new urbanism is soaring, although consumer surveys have found mixed views.

The movement's marketing guru, Todd Zimmerman, a New Jersey-based consultant, says that should be no surprise. People hear terms like "high-density" and "mixed commercial and residential use," he said, "and the image that comes to mind is an apartment building with a 7-Eleven and gang members drinking slurpees in front."

"But take Americans and drop them into one of these neighborhoods, and they vote with their wallets."

That happened in Brea.

Along Ash Street are cottages with gingerbread laced front porches, landscaped back alleys and canopied walkways to a downtown shopping plaza. Most of the 88 homes went for $190,000 when they hit the market four years ago. Now they can sell for more than $300,000--a striking increase even by Orange County's lofty housing standards.

Nobody anticipated such enthusiasm in Brea, where many gawkers now stroll on a typical weekend and can hear residents gush about their community.

"This is the perfect neighborhood," said Paul Cain, 42, a warehouse supervisor who bought when the development opened. "We can stay here the whole weekend without taking our car out. There are like 12 restaurants in walking distance."

His only complaint: a shortage of kids in the neighborhood for his 12-year-old son to hang out with. The homes are about 1,600-square-feet, making them tight for families with children.

Cain lives in a neighborhood with a salad bowl of residents who fit the various emerging demographic groups who experts say are searching for an alternative to the standard suburban model.

Kip Christianson, 50 and semi-retired, spends every evening on a wicker chair on his tiled front porch, listening to the soothing trickle of his rock fountain, smoking cigarettes and striking up conversations with passers-by.

A few houses down is Linda Sherrill, a 53-year-old school administrator who moved to the neighborhood after her divorce.

"I wanted a house, but I didn't want to take care of a yard," she said. "And I love being able to walk around at night."

Analysts say it was Brea's success that sparked interest from developers and financiers.

"Investors are accustomed to investing only in certain kinds of projects and a certain kind of use," Fulton said. "They are lemmings. They follow what they think works. It's been a big hurdle to get them past this. . . . The market was there. Now the money is there."

Developer Going Back to Building Communities

Bill Warkentin wagers the same will happen in his Inland Empire development known as Rio Vista Village, which was modeled on the design guidelines of famed new urbanist communities like Walt Disney's Celebration Village in Orlando, Fla. Construction is expected to begin soon.

Warkentin, the land planner on the project, can talk for hours about the beauty of a properly executed back alley, one of the defining elements of new urbanism.

"These are well-lighted, usable spaces," he said. They're places to keep cars, trash facilities and storage--all out of sight to clear up the front of the home for leisure space. "These are not crime-ridden, trashed city alleys."

Rio Vista plans call for a school, a church and a community center residents can walk to, though there will not be stores. The residential streets will be narrow and won't be filled with curb-cuts and driveways that make walking and playing on them a hazard. And as with the Fullerton project, the most expensive homes will not be segregated from the most affordable ones.

"You are buying into diversity here," said Larry Lazar, a vice president with SunCal Cos., developer of the Fullerton project. "Lots of people talk about the way Fullerton used to be in the past, where there was lots of diversity and interesting neighborhoods. Then developers got into the practice of building subdivisions. . . . We're going back to building communities."

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Times staff writer Daryl Strickland contributed to this report.

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