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NY Times - 6/14/02

A Development Fuels a Debate on Urbanism
By Timothy Egan

HULA VISTA, Calif. - Otay Ranch would seem to have everything the back-to-the-future movement in American town-planning could ask for: front porches, back alleys, a network of paths, all built around a park with a barn-style community center and little hub called Heritage Towne Center. It's a village, the developers say, not another sea of stucco rising at the urban edge of San Diego. Advertisement

But look again, say the proponents of new-style suburbs, and you see things they have long criticized. Otay Ranch is protected by guarded entrance gates, which limit the kind of random encounters so cherished in older communities. A six-lane road as wide as a freeway leads into the development, making it a challenge to cross the street on foot. Cul de sacs, little different than those in the far exurbs of Los Angeles, fill the development.

As the largest single subdivision in California history, Otay Ranch is at the center of a fight among people who plan and build new communities in the fastest-growing states.

To hear some developers talk, a person would think they would not be caught dead building a traditional suburb, or what is known in shorthand sneer as a csd, for conventional suburban development. They build places where people live in "sustainable communities" around "towne squares," where the three-car garage has been banished.

But just as these developers have seemingly embraced this design style known as New Urbanism, many planners and architects say that the movement has been co-opted and that many of the neo-villages appearing in Southern California, as well as in the exurbs of New Jersey and on the shoreline of the Florida Panhandle, are impostors.

"More and more, we're seeing places where people just take the label of New Urbanism and slap it on a development as a way to get around political or environmental concerns," said Steven Bodzin, spokesman for the Congress for the New Urbanism, a loose-knit group of planners and architects. "It's designed to fool consumers and to fool the political process."

Otay Ranch is a kind of Levittown West, though for a slightly higher income bracket. The houses are affordable, by California standards, ranging from $250,000 to $500,000; the racial mix is diverse, by suburban standards; half the land has been set aside for nature; and homes are selling faster than any other big development in San Diego County. Developers of the 6,000-acre ranch have gone out of their way to distance themselves from the suburbia of old.

"The most visible difference is our village concept, which encourages people to once again meet neighbors, walk to nearby parks, and sit on front porches," the developers proclaim in brochures and on their Web site.

The small, nontraditional parks in the development "are the kind of places where kids go after school to count clouds or play Frisbee until their mom calls them in for dinner," said Kim Kelkenny, executive vice president of Otay Ranch.

One afternoon here in the center of the village, very little front-porch sitting or cloud-counting was evident. But children actually walked home from school, and enough people were out strolling or bike-riding to give the sense that the S.U.V.'s were on a leash.

Still, Otay Ranch is a gated community, one that has many elements heretical to the New Urbanism.

"The gates resemble New Jersey toll booths and the cul de sacs are wide enough to park a trailer," said Rob Steuteville, editor of New Urban News, who toured the development earlier this year and was highly critical. "It is so over-engineered for traffic that it's just off the charts."

Another critic, a transportation planner from Palo Alto, Calif., Patrick Siegman, said Otay Ranch was an example of an old-style suburb with a few changes that were largely cosmetic. Mr. Siegman called for a process in which developments would have to be certified "to keep the marketers from appropriating New Urbanist language."

Of course, hyperbole is not new to the business of selling real estate. The joke about new developments being named after whatever it is they displace ù Elk View Heights ù is often true. But only recently have marketers started to use the language of New Urbanism, language that was traditionally used against their developments.

It used to be fairly easy to define a New Urbanist development because there just were not that many of them. Nearly 20 years ago, when the town of Seaside was planted as a village-style development on the Florida Panhandle, it was thought to be an anomaly.

But then the Disney Corporation built a town of its own in Celebration, Fla., and others soon followed.

Now developments that claim to be New Urbanist are finding themselves the object of criticism. For example, Laguna West, a development near Sacramento, was initially hailed as a pioneering example of how to build a community that was not overly dependent on the automobile. But it has since gone through changes that have led critics to label it as classic urban sprawl, though with porches and alleys.

"Laguna West is one of the most pitiful examples of a so-called New Urbanist community that in reality is little different than a 1970's-era development in Los Angeles," said Wendell Cox, a design consultant who has written critically of recent subdivisions.

Mr. Cox pointed to houses with three- and four-car garages, "liberal use of cul de sacs" and the fact that the development pushed the edge of the city into the countryside.

The designer of Laguna West, Peter Calthorpe of Berkeley, Calif., who has been a leading opponent of old-style suburbs, said the project was changed after it was sold in the California recession of the mid-1990's.

"There are compromises," Mr. Calthorpe said, "but all in all I think it's a great success. The reality of America is that some people want three cars."

For some people, though, the compromises go too far.

"I give these developments like Otay Ranch credit for trying something different," Mr. Siegman said. "The problem is when a project takes one or two elements, and leaves out all the others."

Here at Otay Ranch, the main designer, Kent Aden, said he tried to build with narrow streets, fewer cul de sacs and more intentional congestion, but met resistance from buyers and code enforcers. The master plan calls for several villages, each about one square mile, with a school and several small parks, surrounded by arterial highways. Two villages have been built.

"We want congestion inside the villages," Mr. Aden said. "We're trying to break the mold. People aren't necessarily ready for it, and the engineers don't get it yet."

He called the architecture "California heritage," yet lamented that some intersections were too big and busy to walk across and that people seemed to ignore one of his favorite pocket parks.

"But if you compare us to California subdivisions of the 1980's," Mr. Aden said, "we're leaps and bounds ahead of what they did."