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“Can a new suburb be like a small town?”

March 5, 1990

In Sacramento, an ambitious plan to control growth and cool the love affair with cars

By Laura Thomas in Sacramento
U.S.News & World Report

Sacramento real- estate developer Phil Angelides and San Francisco architect Peter Calthorpe are California dreamers of a different sort. Both yearn to bring back many of the futures of the traditional small town to 21st century suburbs, to make them places where neighbors swap stories on front porches and where life does not revolve around the automobile. Fortunately for Angelides and Calthorpe, officials in Sacramento County, which includes the state capital, share their vision.

In May, pending final approval from county supervisors, Angelides will begin construction of Laguna West, a $500 million, 3,300 home development 12 miles south of Sacramento. Local officials hope that the project will be at least a partial antidote to their suburban sprawl- and planner elsewhere in California and around the U.S. will be at least a partial antidote to their suburban sprawl and planners elsewhere in California and around the U.S. will watch to see if the Sacramento plan can be applied to other bedroom communities with chronic growth and congestion problems. Since 1980, refugees from smog-chocked Los Angeles and pricey San Francisco have flocked there, raising the county’s population from 783,000 to slightly more than 1 million. A major environmental report last year heightened concerns over the area’s traffic congestion, air quality and general living conditions. “We have to do something and this a start,” says county engineer Tom Zlotkowski.

The Laguna West project differs from other planned communities of the past 20 years in its emphasis on linking suburbs via mass transit. In fact, Calthorpe’s design is based on his “pedestrian pocket” concept, in which single-family and multifamily housing units day-care centers, parks and commercial space are clustered around a town center served by mass transit. “We value our private world so much we don’t endow our public world with any quality that would drew people together,” he says. Angelides was so impressed that he scrapped his completed plan for a traditional suburban tract and asked Calthorpe to think even bigger.

Porch with a view. The result of their collaboration is an 800 acre development that will include 1,800 detached single-family homes as well as 1,500 townhouses and rental-apartment units, none of which will be more that a half mile from the town center. The homes, at least half will have front porches, will be built much closer to the street, and most of their garages will be located at the rear. Many of the streets will be narrower that the usual suburban streets, and every one will have sidewalks. Each parcel will have three trees lining the walks, and plans call for alleys behind the homes, reminiscent of older neighborhoods in many American cities, including Sacramento. Laguna West will also feature paths for bicyclists and joggers, and a branch of the public library will be located in the community center.

Prices in the development will range from $90,000 for townhouses to $400,000 for lakefront homes. Property is expected to sell fast, due as much to Sacramento’s recent 20 percent annual rise in property values as to the project’s innovations.
Planners view Laguna West as an important test of whether higher-density housing will support greater mass-transit use. Sacramento’s tow light-rail lines are not nearby, but a line to a nearby development is planned. Busses will link Laguna West to the new rail route.

Some analysts doubt Calthorpe can design a vibrant community life. Suburbanites live near others not for social interaction but to ensure their property values, says Carolyn Adams, a professor of urban policy at Temple University. “People don’t move to suburbia to recreate small-town America.”

But there are potential home buyers who think Laguna West will suit them. Gregory Lucas, 34, an unmarried financial planner, wants to sell his three-bedroom home in a neighboring subdivision and buy in Laguna West where he hopes to raise a family, and do lot of walking. Phyllis Watts, a Sacramento psychologist, and her finance plan to buy “at the high end” and they look forward to living in a diverse community that includes renters. “People are hungry for more contact with others,” Watts says.

Open for business. Angelides concedes that attracting retail stores to the town center will be crucial to reducing residents’ reliance on cars. Prospective retails may be unwilling to give up the convenient commercial strips along major thoroughfares. However, Matt Connolly, a shopping-center developer, says the town-center idea intrigues him and other retailers who are pressed to cope with traffic problems. Ironically, Connolly says retailers may be attracted to Laguna West because it will be located near an interstate highway and can draw customers from nearby subdivisions. Other builders facing environmental restrictions and higher costs are warming to the pedestrian-pocket concept. “If this is the only way we can build homes five years from now, we’ll be happy to,” says Michael Winn of Winncrest Homes.

Sacramento County has hire Calthorpe, who is designing two similar projects along Amtrak routes near Tacoma, Wash., and Tampa, Fla. to rework parts of its master plan so new growth can be better served by transit. With California’s population projected to grow by 4.5 million people in the next decade, projects like Laguna West may become more the rule than the exception.

Copyright © 1990 U.S.News & World Report