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Some Wish the Once-Heralded ‘Go Homes’ Had Already Gone

Only a few years ago, San Diego architect Ted Smith was heralded by the press as the leader of “The Blendo Band,” a group of hot young local architects with a new way of seeing. Subsequently, his work was praised in several architectural journals for its fresh outlook. Now, in a matter of months, he has become the target of a San Diego city Planning Department ordinance aimed at his prized creation, the “Go Home,” a type of alternative single-family home.

Residents involved with the Del Mar Terrace Conservancy and the Torrey Pines Community Planning Group have provided the impetus. The city is now looking for a way to regulate Smith’s approach to low-cost housing in this upper-income neighborhood between Carmel Valley Road and Del Mar proper.

But these outcries against the Go Home recall news reports about mass hysteria, where victims seem to have whipped each other into a frenzy based more on mutual paranoia than reality.

“Blendo,” the buzzword for Smith’s architecture, referred to the way he lifts a palette of materials from nearby buildings and incorporates them into his designs. Redwood panels, wood-strip siding and concrete block--materials used in some of the Go Homes--are all visible in the neighborhood.

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Go Homes are Smith’s alternative way of building on lots zoned for single-family homes. He sees them as the answer to housing the new breed of American family, with its single parents, friends and relatives replacing the traditional mom-dad-kids. By having the suites within his buildings share a single kitchen, he has received Planning Department approval for buildings that include five or six individual suites.

He also thinks the Go Homes are the best use for lots along Carmel Valley Road, where neighbors don’t want more intensive commercialization, but where conventional families may not build homes because of traffic and nearby commercial uses. In fact, few homes, other than Smith’s, have been built on available parcels fronting Carmel Valley Road in recent years.

Neighbors brought their dissatisfaction with Smith and his Go Homes to the attention of their councilwoman, Abbe Wolfsheimer, last spring. Complaints included inadequate parking, poor landscaping and multiple entrances, which they said make some of the buildings look more like warehouses or apartment houses than alternative, single-family homes. And some neighbors indicate they are uncomfortable with young singles in their family neighborhood.

One of the most common complaints was about Smith’s “Blendo,” which neighbors didn’t find aesthetically pleasing.

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To understand the Go Home, one must understand their inventor. Smith is a man with a vision, sometimes to the point where his unwillingness to compromise goes beyond common sense. Yet, the greatest architects have often been those with unwavering vision and, over time, we’ve forgiven them their faults.

R. M. Schindler’s El Pueblo Ribera courtyard apartments in La Jolla, an experiment in concrete, were an excellent exercise in social planning, although poorly constructed. Some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s finest buildings had leaky roofs, or, like the Guggenheim Museum in New York, didn’t meet needs in the best possible way.

Smith looks into the future and doesn’t like what he sees. He finds our dependence on the automobile disgusting. To him, cookie-cutter tract houses dictated by conservative bankers and real-estate market researchers are reprehensible. He sees low-cost Go Homes (under $50,000 for a 300-square-foot unfinished space with a bathroom) as viable live/work spaces, appropriately placed between commercial uses along Carmel Valley Road and the Del Mar Terrace neighborhood above.

The neighbors seem to be overreacting. A couple of Del Mar Terrace homes have lost some of their views because of Go Homes and Smith’s creations are a bit bleak when it comes to landscaping. He likes natural plant materials but uses them sparsely and irregularly to somewhat ragged effect, a rough quality Smith admits he likes. But perhaps the neighbors are right when they argue that some of the Go Homes are a bit bulky.

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Economically, there is evidence the Go Homes aren’t entirely sound as investments. Owners receive a share in each building, which Smith says is just like buying a condo or co-op share. But one owner reports that a banker told him no lender would lend on a Go Home. Eventually, Smith ended up buying the place back himself.

He says every Go Home has as much parking as nearby single-family homes, though sometimes it consists of a dirt driveway instead of a patch of asphalt. And he doesn’t think young singles or children of single parents in his Go Homes make any more commotion than teen-agers or young people living in nearby traditional houses.

What Smith and his neighbors claim they want is essentially the same thing: the most pleasing development for the edge of Del Mar Terrace along Carmel Valley Road. But it appears that Smith’s architecture, with its unconventional combinations of conventional materials, is simply too unusual.

The San Diego City Council’s Transportation and Land Use Committee, which has drafted two possible ordinances to cover Go Homes, needs a new approach to get to the root of the problem.

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What is really needed is a fresh look at the future of the entire Carmel Valley Road strip and its impact on the Del Mar Terrace neighborhood, which is becoming an exclusive cousin of Del Mar.

Why not forget the name calling? (Smith accuses detractors like economist Peter Novarro and planning commissioner Lynn Benn of conspiring against him. Opponent Dick Garlock calls the Go Homes “obnoxious” and Smith a “ ‘60s rebel.”)

As Jane Jacobs in her insightful book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” observes: “Literal visual control in cities is usually a bore to everybody but the designers in charge. . . . It leaves no discovering or organization or interest for anybody else. . . . the Complete physical environment of a community and all the arrangements that comprise it must be in the total, absolute and unchallenged control of the project’s architects.”

Without people like Smith, the future is scary. San Diego could become a sanitized city full of Rancho Bernardos.

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