Canyon Homes to Blend With Nature

Joyce Cutler-Shaw loves the land. Walking the raw canyon acreage west of Mira Mesa where the San Diego artist and her businessman husband, Jerry Shaw, plan to build 28 houses, Cutler-Shaw stopped for a closer look.

“The palette is quite extraordinary,” she said, sweeping her hand to indicate red, yellow and orange earth forms against gray and green coastal vegetation. A pair of hawks hovered over the hilly terrain.

The Shaws’ new development, Shaw Lopez Park, will set a new standard among San Diego housing tracts for harmonizing with a setting. The dramatic site on the edge of Lopez Canyon, just east of the San Diego Design Center and west of Mira Mesa, has inspired San Diego architect Rob Quigley and Laguna Beach landscape architect Susan Whitin, the project’s designers.


If all goes as planned, construction on the first three homes will begin by year’s end. When completed next year, the 3,200-square-foot structures will carry prices of more than $400,000.

Since purchasing the land for $16,000 in 1960, the Shaws have become protective of the natural beauty of their property.

“When Rob looked at the site, he felt this was a landscape-based project,” said Cutler-Shaw, who was dressed in loose clothes and a floppy hat for the canyon hike. A sheep’s jawbone dangled from a cord around her neck. “He was willing, as an architect, to put the site first. Ego would have meant a building that would overwhelm the place.

“Rob’s willing to put that aside for appropriateness, to look at the site first and respond with his design. That’s impressive, and sometimes it takes more invention.”

Quigley credits the setting for inspiring what are probably his most simple, subtle residential designs to date.

Stucco walls will take simple, rectilinear forms. Barrel vaulted roofs will mimic the sensuous curves of nearby hills. Shaded by steel trellises, south-facing windows will capture canyon views. The trellises will block glimpses of harsh commercial development on the mesa across the canyon.

The two-story homes will hug the hillside, and will not be visible from Sorrento Mesa Boulevard, a major nearby thoroughfare to the north.

Inside, the houses will feature straightforward second floors with open plans that play up canyon views from dining, living and family rooms. Bowed wood beams will support high-vaulted ceilings that allow a sense of spaciousness and light.

Whitin’s landscape plan specifies native plant materials. Homeowners will be given landscape guidelines, so that their landscapes will harmonize with native oak and sycamore trees, coastal sage, wildflowers and assorted shrubs.

Even with this sensitivity, the 28 homes will be an imposition on a pristine canyon. Office parks and residential tracts have been closing in on the area for years, but this will mark the first development in Lopez Canyon.

Environmental groups have fought hard, often unsuccessfully, against developments on the rim of nearby Penasquitos Canyon. But those projects are larger, awkwardly designed and visible from miles away in several directions.

To placate Sierra Club concerns about coastal sage that will be lost to Shaw Lopez Park, the Shaws are donating open space for parkland. They will give San Diego a 6.5-acre parcel they own on the edge of Los Penasquitos Canyon Preserve to the north, plus a 4.5-acre open space easement across their Lopez Park site, in the form of two small finger canyons.

As an added environmental measure, houses will be clustered on the northwest edge of the Shaws’ land--least visible and farthest from the bottom of Lopez Canyon. According to San Diego city planner Doug McHenry, grading will be mild, and development will follow the lay of the land. Houses will be partially hidden by oaks and sycamores.

Cutler-Shaw considers herself a dedicated nature-lover, but takes a moderate, some might say realistic, view when it comes to conserving nature. Where humans dwell, land will be developed, she reasons.

“It’s true,” she said. “You can’t live anywhere without disturbing the land. But we are natural wildlife. There’s room for us and everything else. And nature isn’t static. If we didn’t touch this land, it would change. There’s some notion that nature is a fixed image. It isn’t at all.”

Cutler-Shaw’s aim is to show how a new tract development can form a partnership with nature, instead of dominating it, as have other San Diego tracts.

In the site plan by Roberts Engineering of San Diego, houses will be strung along a private road that follows a soft “S” curve. The road will culminate in a cul-de-sac plaza that Cutler-Shaw is designing with Whitin. Cutler-Shaw also plans to stamp the sidewalk with animal and plant hieroglyphics and will add other artistic touches.

A grove of California oak trees like ones in the canyon will serve as the project’s “gateway.” The first three homes will be built in this grove.

Farther back, homes will be designed to suit two different types of lots: uphill and downhill from the main road.

Wide houses on the uphill side will be close together, recessed into their hillside lots to lower their profiles. They will be constructed at the fronts of lots, next to the sidewalk, creating a tangible edge.

“I felt that was really necessary in order to give the place some shape,” said Quigley, who envisions the sidewalk as important communal space, a place where residents will meet and socialize randomly in the course of their daily routines.

Whitin’s landscape design for the downhill side of the street is raw and natural, without a sidewalk, an attempt to make the edge of the road transition smoothly into the raw surroundings.

Downhill from the main road, the houses will be quite different. They will be long and narrow, with their lengths stretching into the canyon, to maximize open space between houses.

This way, both uphill and downhill dwellers will have excellent views into the canyon, with its seasonal stream, rabbits, deer, and other assorted wildlife.

Tract housing--even a small, relatively manageable project like this one--is new for Quigley, although he has designed apartments, condominiums and single-family homes.

“I’ve never wanted to get into production housing before,” he said. “There’s an incest that goes on. It’s a circular loop. Marketing people ask homeowners what they like, they look around the tract they live in, and they help create the program for the next architect.”

This market-driven approach is not conducive to new, creative tract designs, Quigley said.

“It’s like asking someone to describe red who’s only lived in a green world,” he said.

There was no market research behind Shaw Lopez Park, only passion. The developers are not going to the bank for a construction loan. They are putting up their own money to build the first three homes. When those sell, they will build the next batch.

Of course, buyers will be seeking home loans, so to some extent bankers figure into this equation. But Quigley said he felt free from usual marketing-banking criteria, which dictate mass market appeal.

The Shaws are not your average developers. Cutler-Shaw has often looked to nature to inspire her art, including the proposed Museum of Seasonal Change, a 3-acre environmental installation conceived in 1988 by a team of artists, environmental sculptors and landscape architects for Doyle Community Park near University Towne Centre.

The project stalled when conflicting community concerns could not be reconciled. Cutler-Shaw still hopes to find another site.

Her husband, executive vice president of Volt Information Sciences in Orange County, seems as concerned about aesthetics as making a profit.

He admits he was tempted to sell this land when offered $2.8 million in 1989. Instead, the Shaws decided to shoulder the responsibility of sensitive development.

With inventive designs by Quigley, native landscapes by Whitin and Cutler-Shaw’s artistic contributions, Lopez Park probably won’t appeal to your average buyer.

But Cutler-Shaw thinks these homes will find a market.

“There’s interest already,” she said, catching her breath in the canyon. “There’s a certain boldness and imagination and environmental ethic involved, and it would certainly attract those who appreciate our approach. Really, the whole thing is about light and air and space and being in the environment.”