Adding New Towns to Map--Solutions or New Woes?


Don't bother running to a map of California.

Lakeborough doesn't exist yet, except in the minds of some developers who hope next year to begin building a town from scratch for 28,000 residents on what is now 4,300 acres of arid Central Valley farmland.

Like a handful of other new communities on the drawing boards in California--with colorful names such as Mountain House and Rancho San Benito--Lakeborough is designed to help ease the Bay Area housing crunch.

Bay Area residents increasingly are flocking to ever-distant suburbs in quest of affordable homes, despite often staggering commutes on clogged highways to offices in the East Bay or factories in Silicon Valley.

And in the next decade, hundreds of thousands more people are expected to pour into California, further straining the housing supply.

With new towns, proponents say, carefully planned houses, roads, jobs, firehouses, police stations, town halls, schools and recreational facilities could be created in a self-contained spot, making it easier for residents to live and play where they work and thereby avoiding the pitfalls of sprawling subdivisions.

But opponents fear that new towns will simply devour prized farmland and end up as isolated burgs, adding to the criss-cross congestion they propose to ease. Some skeptics denounce the explosion of new town proposals as simply a glorified marketing ploy by developers.

"There's a lot to be said for the notion of designing new towns," said Thomas Cook, director of housing and land-use for the Bay Area Council, a San Francisco-based group that promotes regional thinking. "But it's not clear to me that some of the optimistic projections of developers for a balance of jobs and housing will be realized."

The rash of proposals has set up a classic confrontation between developers on one side, who see the potential for hefty profits, and advocates of slow growth and farmland preservation on the other.

Consider Trimark Communities, the Tracy-based developer of Mountain House, a town for 30,000 residents proposed for the dry, windy foothills of southwestern San Joaquin County between Livermore and Tracy off Interstate 580. Trimark just submitted a formal application after spending three years and millions of dollars on environmental, engineering and other studies.

During that time, it prepared 15 versions of its plan in response to ecological and other concerns. It cut the project in half after Alameda County, site of half the original acreage, opposed development of its agricultural land.

But the project is still two to five years from winning the needed approvals and breaking ground, and the first phase would not be completed until 2010 or so, according to Kitty Walker, senior planner for San Joaquin County.

"It's not a development for the faint of heart," acknowledged Timothy A. Tosta, a San Francisco attorney advising Trimark. "It requires enormous patience, enormous vision and very deep pockets."

The idea of making towns out of whole cloth is scarcely new. About 1900, a British city planner named Ebenezer Howard, seeking to stem the flow of job-hungry rural residents into already crowded cities, proposed the creation of self-sufficient "garden cities" that would offer urban amenities but would be surrounded by farmland.

Two such towns arose in England in Howard's lifetime; they served as models for towns organized by the government after World War II. (Howard was knighted in 1927.)

In the United States, Reston, Va., and Columbia, Md., both built in the 1960s, top planning experts' lists of successful new towns.

Roger E. Simon Jr. was the force behind Reston, although start-up costs forced him to sell out to the real estate subsidiary of a giant oil company. Today the town has more than 40,000 residents.

Columbia, founded by James W. Rouse's Rouse Co. in 1967, has more than 70,000 people and expects to have 100,000 at full development. Promotional material crows that "each year, Columbia is becoming more and more the thriving, vibrant community envisioned in the midst of rural Howard County just a few short years ago."

With those notable exceptions, new town development in this country has largely flopped. There was a flurry of government interest in the 1960s, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development supported a dozen proposals with loan guarantees.

Most of those projects defaulted because of poor locations, economic downturns, high land costs, environmental challenges or the inability to attract jobs.

When the synthetic fuels industry collapsed in the early 1980s in Colorado, for example, Exxon Corp. scaled back plans for a proposed town called Battlement Mesa on the Colorado River and began peddling it as a retirement community.

Irvine Co.'s "master planned community" of Irvine in Orange County occasionally makes a list of successful new towns. But critics have maintained that its tight design controls and upscale nature have made it sterile and that it lacks the "sense of place" of a true new town.

Frequently mentioned as a model town is Seaside, a tiny Florida locale designed by Miami-based architect Andres Duany, who happened to be attorney Tosta's roommate at Princeton. Widely praised as bringing back such 19th-Century touches as strolling, front porches and picket fences, it has primarily succeeded as a resort.

In advocating new towns for California, developers point to the uncontrolled spillover that has afflicted urban areas and spawned anti-growth movements. They say that by paying attention to such issues as long-term livability and town governance they can improve on traditional subdivisions and create socially beneficial environments.

"People are becoming dissatisfied with some of the present patterns of development," said Bruce W. Liedstrand, former city manager of Mountain View, Calif., and now head of Liedstrand Associates, a San Francisco-based firm that devised the Mountain House concept, which features a series of neighborhoods each centered on a village hall.

To qualify as a true new town, a development must have four basic ingredients, according to Reid Ewing, a senior planner with an Orlando, Fla., design firm that is working on several new town projects throughout the country. Ewing is author of "New Community Development Guide," which the Urban Land Institute in Washington expects to publish soon.

A new town must have at least 2,000 acres and 20,000 people upon completion; it must have a balanced mix of land-uses, with jobs, recreation and services within easy reach of housing, thereby promoting walking instead of driving; it must have been master-planned before any construction was begun, and all land must be owned and controlled initially by a single property owner.

New towns are "like a blank tablet," Ewing said, with the developer ensuring that all uses are "consistent with the vision."

But one harsh opponent dismisses the concept as "bogus."

"It's usually an excuse to look for cheap land and put up a subdivision," said Larry Orman, executive director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a 30-year-old nonprofit group dedicated to preserving open space. "The amount of housing they'll build is trivial compared to the overall need."

Clearly, something has to give if California is to handle its frenzied growth.

Planners point to once-sleepy farm towns such as Modesto and Stockton that have erected countless subdivisions and become bedroom communities for the Bay Area.

Even unlikely places such as Patterson (population 6,700), an agricultural outpost in Stanislaus County that is the self-proclaimed "apricot capital of the world," is growing like Topsy, with asphalt and houses sprouting on the rich farmland.

"Everybody's sliding over from the Bay Area; housing is going nuts," said Marty Pupka, who with his wife, Gail, recently bought the Pizza Plus restaurant in Patterson and moved from Fresno.

In many cases, Pupka said, houses have been shoddily built in developers' zeal to quickly capitalize on the trend.

The prices of some newer homes in Patterson, residents say, have doubled or tripled in the last two years, to nearly $200,000, hefty by Patterson's standards but still well below the prices in San Francisco or San Jose.

"It's much easier to have a developer come in than to replant the orchards," Pupka said. "It's sad, but that's life."

About five miles south of Patterson is the hilly farmland that two Stanislaus County families plan to sell to developer O'Brien & Hicks for the new town of Lakeborough.

Spotting an opportunity to create housing and jobs in an orderly way--and to profitably rid themselves of difficult-to-farm land--the owners of Beltran Farms and Sunflower Ranch pooled their properties in 1987 and asked the county to designate the land for urban development for a town they proposed to call Dos Ranchos. They were rebuffed.

Three years later, their project is apparently closest to breaking ground of those being planned in California. If the necessary approvals come through, construction of roads and sewer lines could begin as early as next year.

The breakthrough occurred largely because of Frank A. Borges, whose Santa Rosa firm specializes in securing land-use permits. He hired a gaggle of consultants to analyze the site in terms of air quality, traffic congestion, biological concerns, water availability and even archeology, all in an attempt to head off future problems.

He also found a good match in O'Brien & Hicks, a San Mateo development firm that shared the ranchers' concern that a new town be intelligently conceived and executed.

Borges said his work entailed involving all potential adversaries in the planning process. The development team met with a raft of grass-roots groups and agencies, including the California Department of Fish and Game, the Army Corps of Engineers, various water control boards, federal highway officials and the U.S. Navy, which operates an auxiliary air station nearby.

Plans were devised to add two highway interchanges, at a cost of at least $10 million each.

All told, the firm expects to build 10,000 units of housing on 2,100 acres, from low-density housing with five units to the acre to high-density condominiums with 20 units per acre. Prices are expected to range from $89,000 to $300,000, although those could be driven higher if the developer must pick up greater-than-expected infrastructure costs.

No employers have yet agreed to put offices there, but the town expects ultimately to provide 15,000 jobs. Stanislaus County will require that the developer devise a transportation plan, including car pools and staggered work shifts, to limit vehicle use.

One of the first things O'Brien & Hicks did was to change the project's name to Lakeborough, to "evoke that water image," Reed said. He added that the developer has obtained rights to water from both the California Aqueduct and the Delta Mendota federal canal and that it is proposing the use of reclaimed water for all irrigation.

Water will be a strong selling point in the parched Central Valley, which has an average summer temperature of 94 degrees and average annual rainfall of just 12 inches. A century ago, before engineers brought irrigation water to the valley, the land was suitable only for dry farming and grazing. (In winter, the valley is chilled by dense tule fog, a boon for the orchards but a bane of drivers.)

The difficulty of irrigating crops prompted the ranchers to consider selling the properties, on which they grow walnuts, tomatoes, almonds, melons, tangeloes and lima beans.

"We have to pay more to pump the water uphill," said Fred E. Beltran, whose father in the 1940s farmed the sandy soil on which Los Angeles International Airport now sits. "Our view is there's a lot of other ground that's easier and better to farm on the valley floor. And affordable housing is something we desperately need." The Beltran family plans to use its proceeds to buy other farmland in Stanislaus County.

Of the 4,300 acres, about 1,000 is designated prime agricultural land, and therein lies a potential hurdle.

The Stanislaus County Farm Bureau last year adopted a policy stating that "under no circumstances should new towns be allowed on prime farmland or lands of statewide importance." The bureau also opposes new town proposals that would divert water from agricultural uses.

Jan Ennenga, executive manager of the Stanislaus County Farm Bureau, said the agency has not yet taken a stance on the Lakeborough proposal. But in general she fears that the loss of prime lands could ultimately cripple agriculture, California's No. 1 industry.

Briggs Nisbet, a spokeswoman with the American Farmland Trust in San Francisco, noted that prime land is being lost at the rate of nearly 20,000 acres a year in the Central Valley.

"It would definitely be better if any new development went into less viable soils," she said.

Cash-starved counties, however, are unlikely to resist the lure of such development. Developers sell the idea that the communities will be unincorporated and that businesses and residents therefore will contribute to county coffers.

But "one of these days the yuppies and yuppie puppies will say we need a city council, and then the fun starts," said Victor Holanda, planning director for Stanislaus County.

Despite that, Holanda sees new towns as one way to grapple with growth pressures. "Growth throughout the state is inevitable," he said. "By accommodating the growth but deflecting it to non-prime (agricultural) land, there is a dual benefit. The real challenge is to try to come up with the jobs-housing balance."

A Planned 'New Town'

On 4,300 acres of Central Valley farmland, the development firm of O'Brien & Hicks is proposing to build a town from scratch called Lakeborough. If all goes as planned, the town eventually will have 15,000 jobs and be home to 28,000 residents. Commercial Office-Industrial: Employers in office parks just off Interstate 5 are expected to range from financial institutions to engineering firms to high-tech manufactures. Low Density Residential: About 5,000 single-family homes will be built on lots ranging from 3,500 square feet to 12,000 square feet, with an average of eight houses per acre. Medium Density Residential: Condominiums and townhomes, as well as smaller, detached, single-family houses, will be included in 2,000 housing units built 14 to the acre. Med-High Density Residential: These 3,000 units will include primarily rental apartments and townhomes, with 25 per acre.

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