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Homes With Attitude

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Immaculate new-home tracts may catch the eye, but the old side of town is capturing the hearts of many Americans.

Even in Southern California, stereotyped worldwide as endless tracts of tile-roofed sameness off a zillion freeways, suburban homeowners say what they want in their neighborhoods is, well, more neighborliness.

If they are to be believed, many will sacrifice resort-style suburban staples such as swimming pools, golf courses and guarded gates to get an earlier 20th century feel in their housing for the next millennium.

And developers are catering to those yearnings by downsizing neighborhoods, adding old-fashioned porches, alleys and walking trails, and subtracting walls and wide streets.

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“I think we’re all real sick of Irvine, especially the newer parts, with the cookie-cutter houses,” said Vicki Snell, who lives in a well-tended, unmaster-planned area of Costa Mesa. “It was in style for a while, and now it’s not.”

Snell was one of 600 homeowners in the heart of Southland suburbia--Orange County--who were polled by The Times about their attitudes toward housing. The telephone survey, conducted Jan. 29 through Feb. 4, came as home prices were beginning their sharp ascent in the more affluent areas of the county toward their pre-recession highs. It has a margin of sampling error of 4 percentage points in either direction.

Among the findings: Older homes with character are preferred to new houses; master plans and restrictions on building appearances get more thumbs down than approvals; and porches are more desirable than pools.

These opinions reflect many of the principles of an emerging movement often dubbed the New Urbanism, said Mark Baldassare, an urban planning professor at UC Irvine.

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New Urbanists believe that jobs, shopping and recreation should be close to home--within a walk or bike ride if possible. And they believe that neighborhoods should contain varied types of housing and residents of various ages and income levels.

“I like a variety of neighbors. I don’t want all kids or all retirees,” said Anne Leishman, who praises the mix of condos, townhouses, detached and mobile homes in the planned Forster Ranch community where she lives in San Clemente.

Planners and sociologists said it’s especially interesting to find such leanings in the heart of suburban Southern California.

“That’s amazing in Orange County,” said Berkeley-based urban planner Peter Calthorpe, whose emphasis on urban villages, public transit-oriented development and walking communities has made him a guru for New Urbanists.

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He said he would have expected the county’s residents to prefer gated communities of people like themselves, living in newer-style homes.

Cheryl Katz, director of the poll, said the respondents want modern amenities, but with a less walled-in feeling.

“People want an updated house where everything works and a kitchen that’s newer than 1940,” Katz said. “But they are longing for a sense of community--established communities like the kind they grew up in.”

That is what Snell, a 47-year-old former Taco Bell advertising employee, and her husband, Richard, a senior manager for Boeing Co., like about the Mesa Verde section of Costa Mesa. It was built in the 1960s as a mixture of mass-produced and custom houses.

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“It’s a neighborhood you can walk in. I feel safe here,” Snell said, strolling with her children, ages 2 and 4, past parks and elementary schools. She meets many older people on the street who have lived in the area for decades, along with parents like herself.

“There’s a golf course close by, but that’s not important to me,” she said. What is important is that her backyard has plenty of space, even with the family room they are adding. “One of the things people don’t like about Irvine is that--no yards.”

Another attraction is that the area’s homes have been remodeled to meet owners’ tastes, not an association or planner’s rule book--a fact that has given the neighborhood its own quirky personality.

Six gigantic palm trees--two clumps of three each--dwarf a little ranch house. A porch with fancy metalwork stretches across the entire second story of another home, almost New Orleans-style. Someone else has painted the trim on a buff-colored house a shocking shade of blue.

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There is even a dingy paint job or two. “We don’t like them,” Snell said, but she would rather tolerate that than the sameness of many master-planned communities.

Her preference for a more traditional neighborhood is widely shared. Only one in five poll respondents consider being near a golf course or swimming pool crucial. Just a quarter find gate-guarded communities highly important.

But three in four said a “walking community,” where people stroll to parks and other public destinations, is a top priority. And more than 40% rate old-fashioned porches--from which people can visit with their neighbors--as highly desirable.

Skepticism About Preferences

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Skeptics wonder if baby boomer cravings for such features will add up to much in the end, tending to lump them with the craze for things past that has landed “I Love Lucy” on Nick at Nite and James Brown’s “I Feel Good” on Senekot laxative ads.

“People have a nostalgic wish to live in the ‘Brady Bunch’ era,” said Raymond L. Watson, the Irvine Co. vice chairman, whose vision shaped the prototypal planned communities on Orange County’s Irvine Ranch.

Watson said people have always wanted their homes to feel a little old-fashioned. Victorian gingerbread adornments, for example, were calculated attempts to evoke earlier times, he notes.

Some who have moved to older homes, especially smaller ones, were skeptical that many of Orange County’s homeowners would pick the old over the new.

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“They may say that, but most of them wouldn’t do it. People want big closets,” said Dan Summerl, who five years ago moved from a house in Irvine to a South Laguna cottage of less than 1,000 square feet, with views of the ocean.

“To tell the truth, we could use a little closet space ourselves,” Summerl said. “Would I trade for it? Heck no. But I think a lot of people would.”

Indeed, of those interested in buying a new home, half said more space was their main reason, with better neighborhoods and better home conditions far behind. And though the beach was considered the best place to live, only one in four would trade their home for a smaller one near the ocean.

Southern California is clearly no bulwark of neo-traditional urban design, a style more associated with the Southeast, where studiously old-fashioned towns such as Walt Disney Co.'s Celebration have attracted much attention.

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But of 135 projects in North America that New Urban News recently deemed “traditional neighborhood development,” five were being planned or built between San Diego and Malibu.

The best-known example is Playa Vista, where the developers’ feuds with DreamWorks studio moguls have overshadowed ambitious plans for an entire new district of Los Angeles. If all goes as planned, it will have 13,000 housing units whose occupants will be within walking distance of high-tech jobs and shopping.

Developers and planners are hybridizing New Urbanist ideas from Ladera Ranch in southeast Orange County to Newhall Ranch in northwest Los Angeles County to Loma Linda near San Bernardino.

Neo-traditional fans and skeptics alike warn that many builders are merely dolling up standard, car-dependent suburbs with “applique porches” and other nostalgic appendages.

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“It’s basically a marketing concept,” said the Irvine Co.'s Watson. “It doesn’t matter if you actually use the porch--it’s a symbol.”

Emphasis on the Fundamentals

Calthorpe, the New Urbanist consultant, warns of “a dangerous gang of designers that are preaching to homeowners that they can have it both ways"--gated suburbia with a more sociable old-fashioned ambience.

“It doesn’t get to the fundamentals: Is it truly a mix of ages and incomes, and is it truly walkable--that is, are there any destinations you can reasonably walk to that are worth getting to?”

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Surveys conducted by Los Angeles-based Kaufman & Broad Home Corp., the West’s No. 1 home builder, show that what buyers really want is more spacious homes and more choice of details, said Chairman Bruce Karatz.

Randall Lewis of giant Lewis Homes in Upland, a frequent panelist in community-planning discussions, said the issue has become so charged and jargon-ridden that it’s confusing to all involved.

“I couldn’t even tell you what New Urbanism is,” Lewis said.

Yet Lewis and Kaufman’s Karatz are hedging their bets. Both are working with Calthorpe on projects mixing homes with retail and other uses--Lewis Homes in Loma Linda, Kaufman & Broad in the Northern California community of Brentwood, near Livermore.

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“Five years ago, these guys regarded me as a total outsider, a crazed radical,” Calthorpe said.

As more such projects make their way off drawing boards, he trusts that they will prove profitable--the only way in the end to persuade mainstream developers of their worth, Calthorpe said.

“They’ll follow their wallet until they see that it coincides with their hearts--and then they’ll follow both.”


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