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Dead end for the cul-de-sac?

Once a suburban dream, these streets are falling out of favor. California still builds them, to experts' dismay.

March 22, 2007|Dawn Bonker | Special to The Times

CITY planners shun them. New urbanists hate them. Boulder, Colo., all but banned them.

Cul-de-sacs -- those once-beloved icons of the suburban good life -- have become something of a demonized concept. The growing consensus among urban planners is that these lollipop-shaped streets hurt communities by chopping up neighborhoods, isolating children, intensifying traffic woes and discouraging walking.

Then why are so many still being built here?

Leave it to Southern California to defy the new convention. While cities across the country return to streets laid out on a traditional grid system, cul-de-sacs are springing up from Calabasas to Chula Vista. Yes, homeowners often fall in love with the quiet courts and initial sense of built-in neighborliness. But, experts say, just wait.

"The problem with the cul-de-sac is not the cul-de-sac itself," says Jeff Speck, director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts and coauthor of "Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream." Over time, he says, "very few streets carry most of the traffic and therefore must be exceedingly wide, creating an environment that is generally unwalkable."

People inclined to leave their cul-de-sac usually face the equivalent of neighborhood highways -- a pedestrian nightmare of high-speed arterial streets that are unsafe for children and no fun for anyone, Speck says. Dead-end streets that start out as a playground for youngsters, he says, turn into a prison when children get older.

"Age 3 through 8, it's great. Beyond there, you're a captive," says Speck, who along with his "Suburban Nation" coauthors coined the term "cul-de-sac kid" to describe children isolated by geography.

Indeed, woe to the adolescent who wants to walk or bike to a movie without begging Mom for a ride, says Michael Southworth, professor at UC Berkeley's College of Environmental Design and coauthor of "Streets and the Shaping of Towns and Cities."

"I have a lot of students who have grown up on cul-de-sacs. They loved them until they were teenagers," Southworth says. "Teenagers want more freedom to move around. They felt very isolated and really felt dependent on adults to take them to shopping centers and entertainment centers."

NEW urbanists say the solution lies partly in a return to village design that clusters homes with shopping, schools, parks and restaurants, all within walking distance of one another and preferably near public transit hubs. Downtown Brea is an example. Some developments in Santa Clarita are another.

"All of the projects that we're exploring now are very transit-oriented, new urbanist in their nature, which means increased density, mixed land uses, vehicle and pedestrian connectivity," says Lisa Hardy, Santa Clarita's planning manager. "It's about trails, linkages, bike paths. It's about green corridors and streetscapes where people want to walk and feel safe in that environment."

Adds Speck: "Whenever a new urbanist community with networked streets and community connections competes in the market, it wins."

But not everyone wants to live within a stone's throw of a hip restaurant or walk the week's groceries home, says Colin Drukker, senior planner with the Planning Center, a firm whose projects have included the Newhall Ranch development in Santa Clarita and others in Orange and Riverside counties.

"The market's not there for that design to be everywhere," Drukker says.

Do streets laid out on a grid fit more houses per acre? Yes, he says, but density is rising in cul-de-sac neighborhoods too. "Essentially, both can handle high densities," he says.

Mary Ebersole, a Realtor with ReMax in Long Beach, says buyers still hanker for a spot on dead-end streets. The phrase "quiet cul-de-sac location" can add more sparkle to a sales listing than "new granite counters."

"It's like the little black dress," she says. "It will never go out of style."

That said, there are good and bad ways to build a cul-de-sac, says Randal Jackson, president of the Planning Center. One example Jackson likes is Woodbridge Village in Irvine, where paths and bridges link cul-de-sac neighborhoods to schools, community pools, athletic fields, restaurants, churches and a shopping center with a small movie theater complex. Although many of the streets look like traditional dead-end streets, pedestrian paths link the roads.

Some cities, including Santa Ana and Berkeley, have modified a few of their older grid neighborhoods for similar effect. Concrete posts force traffic onto the main thoroughfares but still provide pedestrian passage.

And the bad example? Well, Jackson says with a wince, have you ever tried to drive through Mission Viejo?

He draws loop upon loop on drafting paper to illustrate his point. Built largely on hillsides, Mission Viejo's cul-de-sacs were easy ways to tame rolling ranchland into tract housing. The confusing maze of streets, however, means that outsiders get lost easily.

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