My Other Front Door Is for My Customers

Times Staff Writer

Ron and Laura Luna move into their suburban dream house this month -- a three-bedroom colonial in Orange County featuring walk-in closets, a spacious kitchen and a view of the Santa Ana mountains.

And a public restroom.

That's a requirement along Front Street, where the houses are not just for living. They also are for making a living.

The 22-home enclave in Ladera Ranch, a master-planned development east of Mission Viejo, is a tentative first step in a new suburban lifestyle: hybrid dwellings deep inside a residential neighborhood where people live in one part of the house and do business in another.

These aren't just houses with converted dens and high-speed Internet connections for home-based entrepreneurs and telecommuters. Front Street truly merges home and work, with occupants allowed to hire employees and put out business signs, and with parking set aside for customers. Ron will run his real estate business and Laura her concierge service out of the home. Among the other businesses in the neighborhood will be a day-care center, a hairdresser, a recording studio, a house-cleaning service, an insurance agent and a wedding-magazine publisher.

The family enters through one front door, and customers enter through another front door -- on the other side of the house. The business and residential sides of the single-family, detached homes are divided by a reinforced fire-resistant wall.

The development, among the first of its kind in the country, represents the leading edge in the transformation of the American suburb from residential refuges into modest centers of commerce.

"This will be in the architecture history books in 20 years," said urban historian Tom Martinson. Changes in home design "eventually reflect where we are as a society. There has been an incredible change in the way we live and work," he said. Front Street "addresses the fundamental question of how people [can] work at home."

Decades of segregated planning kept shops and jobs far away from driveways and cul-de-sacs. Slowly, a modest rebellion has been brewing: In the nation's urban cores, buildings that combine ground-level offices or shops with upstairs living units are experiencing a resurgence. So-called live/work dwellings and artists' lofts are also springing up around commercial complexes or near mass-transit hubs.

In suburbia, retail villages now link townhomes to storefront dental offices, video stores and day spas. And new master-planned communities often boast their own boutique "downtowns" with offices, stores and entertainment.

But sprinkling commercial buildings within a suburban community is one thing, experts say -- planning and designing homes for commercial use is another.

For some, this is a step too far.

"Nobody minds the CPA or attorney" who works out of his home, said Elizabeth Binsack, director of community development for Tustin, which resisted a similar proposal by another developer. "But people have a problem with the electrician or the plumber who parks his work truck in the driveway. And you can't make one legal and the other illegal just because it isn't pretty."

Other conflicts -- over noise and odor that businesses can produce, for example -- go beyond aesthetics, Binsack said. "You have to be careful what type of commercial uses you bring to the residential areas. What if someone wants to run a coffee shop?"

These concerns are built into rigid zoning laws that have led to legal trouble for many who set up shop in the suburbs. This last summer, a 56-year-old New Jersey woman lost a four-year battle to obtain a zoning exception allowing her to work as a masseuse in her house. And an Orange County judge in June ordered a Laguna Hills woman to shut down her home-based musical-instrument repair business because it violated local zoning ordinances.

Had she repaired musical instruments only as a hobby or had the New Jersey woman treated friends for free, they would not have violated their local ordinances.

Some say this distinction no longer makes sense.

"It shouldn't be illegal simply because you are making a living doing it," said Christopher L. Hansen, founder of the New Jersey-based Home-Based Business Council, which advocates reforms in local zoning laws to accommodate home entrepreneurs. "What we have is an anachronistic system based on an Industrial Age model."

Indeed, there is ample evidence that Americans want to work from home. Hansen's group estimates the nation has about 25 million home-based businesses, up from 17 million a decade ago.

And according to the National Assn. of Homebuilders, nearly a quarter of the houses built in the U.S. today have home offices -- compared to 15% five years ago. A home office is defined as a space in the house devoted and designed for work, not simply a converted den or bedroom. It is the most-sought-after feature in new homes, according to the association.

They're popular among accountants, attorneys and architects -- the kinds of unobtrusive businesses that can discreetly, if not always legally, operate in residential neighborhoods. In many cities, home-based businesses are allowed as long as the owner doesn't receive clients, hire employees, post advertisements or store products in the house.

Such restrictions may come under increasing criticism as a growing number of Americans earn a living at their homes, said Joanne Pratt, a Dallas-based researcher and expert on home-based business. "The trend is not only to have more telecommuters," she said, "but government policies to cut commuting times and air pollution will add more pressure [on local ordinances] to accommodate home based businesses. I think it is healthy and it will create much more interesting neighborhoods to live in."

In Front Street, Ladera Ranch's developer, Rancho Mission Viejo company, and its planners saw an opportunity. The 4,000-acre master-planned community is sprinkled with commerce. There are three retail centers with shops and restaurants within walking distance of residential neighborhoods. Front Street is the fourth business plaza, designed right into a residential neighborhood.

"Generally missing from master-planned communities is a business center where people can get professional services like your tax guy or landscape artist," said Steve Kellenberg, a partner at Edaw, an Irvine firm that helped plan Ladera Ranch. For decades, "we've organized land use in very singular uses. We didn't want factories right next to homes, and we overreacted."

All the same, landowner Rancho Mission Viejo company, proceeded carefully.

"It may be too cutting-edge for some communities," said Paul Johnson, a senior vice president at the company, which still owns 23,000 undeveloped acres in Orange County. "But only by putting our toes in the water can we learn how far we can go in the future."

To create a new model, Orange County bureaucrats had to bend convention. They created special zoning -- dubbed HBBE, for "home-based business enclave" -- to allow business uses in Front Street and another portion of Ladera Ranch that will feature similarly designed hybrid townhomes.

"The biggest issues were for the building department, which had never seen this before," said Bill Melton, a planner with the county who helped draft the zoning ordinance for Ladera Ranch. "You have to have handicap access; there are special building requirements to separate the office from the main living area.... I is a unique product."

With that came the challenges of applying regulations that were created with conventional buildings in mind.

"As simple as this sounds, it is complicated to try to get the codes to differentiate between a 50,000-square-foot office complex and a 700-square-foot" office built in a house, said project manager Ralph Spargo.

The hybrid structures were designed to appear as homes, in part as a hedge so that if the concept didn't prove popular, the residences could still be marketed to conventional home buyers, said Spargo, a general manager with Standard Pacific Homes, which built Front Street.

The commercial features are subtle. Spargo and Newport Beach architect David Kosco made the ground-floor windows, for example, large enough to serve as display windows. An artist or photographer could hang work samples on the walls in plain view from the street and advertise without explicitly doing so.

The shingles in the front of the homes that announce the resident businesses could as easily say "The Smiths" as "John Smith, Attorney at Law."

For all that work, the project almost didn't make it.

"It took six months of intense negotiation with the county," said Kellenberg, the master planner. "After we got it through zoning, it got killed again by the building department," which argued that a business needed to abide by commercial building codes. That would have ruined the project's financial viability, he said.

The builder and the Orange County building department reached several compromises for Front Street. Fire sprinklers were not required, for example.

And although the special zoning law does not ban specific types of businesses, the Front Street homeowners association will serve as the arbiter of what is allowed in the private neighborhood. The developer set some initial guidelines: music teachers are OK; tattoo parlors are not.

That gave reassurance to Rachel Defilippis, who lives in a neighborhood near Front Street.

"It really depends on the type of business," said Defilippis who moved to Ladera Ranch two years ago with her husband and son. Defilippis, a sales manager for Campbell's Soup, works from home part of the time and said her fellow suburbanites are not opposed to business in their midst as long as it is subdued.

Front Street homeowners will be allowed to hire up to two part-time employees, or one full-time, and receive customers during business hours.

In the end, the response was better than the developers expected. Close to 140 potential buyers lined up for the $600,000-plus homes when they went for sale last spring. The homes range from 3,200 square feet to 3,600 square feet and have 450 square feet to 700 square feet of business space.

The Lunas were not planning to buy a new home, they said, but when they saw Front Street, they knew they had to move from their Mission Viejo house.

"This is the perfect setup," said Ron Luna, 42, a real estate broker, as he toured his nearly finished home recently.

Ron can step away from his desk and fax machine and step into the family's kitchen for a quick lunch or to check on his two young daughters while Laura checks up on her clients. It is, the Lunas said, a seamless blend of work and family.

Their corner unit is next to a bustling community pool and tennis courts and has maximum exposure to cars driving in and out of the neighborhood.

The traffic is a benefit, not a burden, Ron Luna said. "It's good for business."

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