At the crossroads

Our quality of life depends on the way we build our communities.

by Gary Piro


n his textbook Rural By Design, noted rural planner Randall Arendt has a 1960s' quote from a planning consultant named William Whyte who said, "developers seem always to name their subdivisions precisely after those attractive features they have destroyed." For example, a project called "Willow Glen" would cut down all of the willow trees and fill in all of the glens (canyons); Orchard Hills would cut down the orchards and level the hills, etc.

In San Diego, like many other cities throughout the United States, the main topic of conversation throughout the past year has been about "Smart Growth." The concept is that we need to revitalize urban cores, increase densities in areas near transportation corridors and preserve agricultural resources. Although there has been much discussion in the about where we will build and at what density we will build, virtually nothing has been said about the product itself, i.e., the type and nature of the communities that are being created.


Construction by big business


Probably the most significant statistic in San Diego last year was that more than 80 percent of all the new homes were built by the top 25 developers. In fact, the vast majority of all homes built in San Diego in 1998 were part a part of "production housing" developments. These numbers are up significantly from the 1960s when Mr. Whyte made his observation.

It is important for us to realize that building is no longer being done by independent craftsmen in jeans and flannel shirts. Because of the complexity and sensitivity of the development process, most development is being done by large corporations with staffs of consultants, attorneys and engineers. In other words, production housing has become to land development what Wal-Mart has become to merchandising.

Don't get me wrong, I personally believe that development companies have done an incredible job of providing quality housing to the public at a reasonable price. In fact, although lot prices have escalated greatly in San Diego due to the shortage of available land and escalating permit fees, the price of the construction itself has changed very little in the last 10 years. Few other areas of the economy have been so competitive.


Anonymous developments


If the developers are doing such a good job, then why are they always maligned and ridiculed by the community? Statements like those made by Mr. Whyte are still often echoed. Development projects are almost never complemented and descriptions like "cookie cutter" design, "sea of red tile roofs" and worse are the ones most often used to describe these types of projects.

The truth is, as development professionals, we are not doing a good enough job of designing the communities themselves. Because of the complexity of the zoning standards, most developments are designed by engineers that grade landforms to conform to the home that will go on the site rather than designing the homes to conform to the land. This often results in "boundary to boundary" development, where every square inch of the property is cleared for roads, yards and building sites. In doing this, we often miss the "big picture" and take away very features that made the property so desirable to begin with. Although architecture is an "art form," we are designing our communities "by the numbers."


Communities as art


It wasn't always this way. During the renaissance, famous artists like Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci were also the architects and community designers. More recently, Frank Lloyd Wright, America's most celebrated architect and self described "naturalist," invented a type of architecture he named "organic architecture" that was a blending of the structure with nature. Wright said, "We start with the ground. In any and every case the character of the site is the beginning of the building that aspires to architecture."

The situation we have today isn't really the fault of the developer. He is faced with consumer demand for larger and larger homes (preferably only single-story), large, flat yards and convenient parking areas. Although land is becoming more scarce and more sensitive, sprawling estates are the most desired commodity in today's real estate market. The developer also faces archaic zoning regulations that were established when land was plentiful and bigger was always better. As a result, standard residential subdivisions require minimum road widths which are twice as wide as traffic loads would warrant. This creates an inducement for cars to speed in residential communities, making it unsafe for pedestrians. Also, large required setbacks from streets and adjacent homes are destroying our sense of community and created what Mr. Arendt refers to as "zoning sprawl," which is the excessive consumption of land by arbitrary and outdated zoning regulations.


Urban ecology


Land planner Edward McMahon points out that preservation-minded cities like Santa Fe, New Mexico, Charleston, South Carolina and Annapolis, Maryland are among North America's leading tourism designations because they have learned to adopt ordinances that enhance their natural community assets. There are also many exciting and innovative "alternative type" developments being built in other parts of the country.

In the New England area, Mr. Arendt's "Conservation Subdivisions" are being constructed with 50 percent of the project placed in permanent open space; all of the project density is clustered in the remaining 50 percent. In Seaside, Florida, environmental activist and developer Robert Davis' "New-Urbanism" advocates a similar preservation-oriented development with open spaces, narrow streets, and tightly constructed "neo-traditional" neighborhoods. Mr. Davis' development is so charming that it served as the setting for Jim Carrey's idyllic hometown in the movie, "The Truman Show."

Contrary to popular belief, density is not the reason for the "NIMBYism" that exists against development projects in San Diego. At the Planning Commission hearings, I often hear people testify against a development. Afterward, over coffee, they will tell me about some wonderful community they visited in New England or in Europe that had ten times the density of the development they just testified against. What people object to is the "type" of development and the assault on their community character.

Smart developers are starting to realize that we cannot continue to develop the way we have in the past there just isn't enough land to continue to consume land at the rate that we have these past years. Many are returning to split level homes and clustered developments with natural open space enhancements that are far more desirable places to live in. However, they require expensive and time consuming zoning waivers and variations.

We must decide right now: what is the legacy we plan to leave our children? Where is San Diego's identity going to come from? San Francisco has its "row houses" in Pacific Heights, Boston has its traditional "Beacon Hill" mansions, Vermont has its clustered villages and town squares. I would rather see San Diego opt for one of these concepts that to become another Orange County where every community is interchangeable.

San Diego is blessed with one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world and we have the requirement to preserve nearly one-third of all the developable land left in the County. Why not do as the San Diego Union has recommended: call this system "San Diego Naturelands Park" and cluster the homes in small, tightly woven communities. Our ambitious preservation program would most likely then be considered an asset rather than a development liability.

San Diego is at the crossroads. If Smart Growth Committees spend all of their efforts dictating where we want to concentrate on developing without changing the way we approach development, then we will continue to get more of the same and we will lose our identity. However, if we spend our efforts adopting concepts like "Conservation Design" and "New Urbanism" that enhance our natural beauty, then we can balance nature and commerce and everyone can win.

  Gary Piro is the owner of Piro Engineering in San Marcos, a director with San Diego County Farm Bureau and serves on the planning commission of the county of San Diego.