By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
Developers and local housing planners often choose to promote a proposed planned community, by contacting local media. The result is news/press release articles like the following example describing a proposed housing project for southern California, outside of Old Town Temecula.
Should proposed Altair housing project near Old Town Temecula get the green light?
SHANE NEWELL | firstname.lastname@example.org | The Press-Enterprise
December 9, 2017 at 9:00 am
Nearly 300 acres of vacant land west of Old Town Temecula could be transformed to include up to 1,750 housing units and an elementary school.
The proposed Altair housing project will come before the Temecula City Council for consideration on Tuesday, Dec. 12. Last month, the city’s planning commission unanimously approved the project.
I did a little research on Temecula, and viewed a video about its history here:
According to a video produced by California Redevelopment Association Foundation, Old Town Temecula attracts locals and tourists alike to its vibrant downtown, with its unique array of shops and restaurants.
I learned that, while Old Town Temecula does have a few truly historic structures, most of the town is a product of redevelopment in the 1980s and 1990s. The buildings have facades that mimic the look of a small old west ranch town established in 1895.
According to Census data, Temecula is a diverse city of over 109,000 residents. Median home values have doubled between 2000 and 2015, from just under $190,000 to more than $380,000. Adults in Temecula are a well-educated bunch, with nearly 30% holding bachelor’s degrees or higher. Median household incomes were more than $80,000 as of 2015. Crime and unemployment rates are relatively low, and significantly below the state average.
So…in the name of growth, how might Temecula change?
At this point, the Planning Commission has voted unanimously in favor of the project. But tomorrow Temecula City Council will consider giving their approval for the proposal.
According to this report, environmental groups and some business owners in Old Town have been somewhat opposed to the high density. They argue construction of this magnitude will result in excess vehicular traffic and would adversely affect local wildlife.
The Press-Enterprise reports that the developer currently proposes the following:
“Nearly 300 acres of vacant land west of Old Town Temecula could be transformed to include up to 1,750 housing units and an elementary school.
As it stands, the project pitched by San Diego’s Ambient Communities calls for townhomes, triplexes and other designs to be built on land west of Pujol Street. Some buildings could rise up to five stories.
The 270-acre project, which would roughly stretch from Rancho California Road to Pechanga Drive, also includes plans for several miles of trails and open space.
“Honer estimated that 30 percent of the property would be used for housing. More than 50 percent of the land, he said, would be reserved for open space, parks and trails.”
“To accommodate the new population, a bypass is proposed to link Diaz Road with Temecula Parkway. It would run west of the project and give Altair residents another route to their homes instead of relying on Old Town Front Street.”
Doing the math, roughly 81 acres of the site would consist of 1,750 housing units. That works out to 21.6 units per acre. Although the article mentions townhomes and triplexes, to fit that many units on an acre will require “other designs,” most likely apartments, perhaps condominiums.
With proposals of this magnitude, several concerns come to my mind.
First of all, why are most new housing developments created on such a large scale, all at once? Why not approve up to 50 or maybe 100 homes at a time?
From my observation, it takes years, if not decades, for a subdivision or urban plan to reach completion. And during that time, the economy changes, demographics change, and consumer demand and tastes change. The result is that some of these grand projects never get completed. Too often, the original developer walks away or sells remaining lots to another developer, who then amends the plan anyway.
And, why do most residential development plans seem to cluster dense housing on a very small parcel of land, in the process mandating association-governed common interest communities with shared “open space, parks, and trails?”
Is this really the best option for housing consumers and taxpayers?
With any new development, there must be a certain percentage of open land for good drainage, and places to plant or preserve trees. And there is nothing wrong with being respectful of native wildlife.
But why must housing units be clustered so tightly together, or stacked on top of each another? Why is the default governance of open and recreational space an association governed, covenant burdened, common interest community?
Put another way, why is the majority of land ownership incorporated and distributed to collective communities, rather than supported by and open to the general public?
In Temecula, why not spread out homes over most of the 270 acre parcel, and incorporate some individually-owned green space between homes? Why not allow future residents to plant their own trees and vegetable gardens? Why not provide small to modestly sized private lots to accommodate household pets and families with children?
The dreaded bypass
How does clustering neighborhoods and then creating a bypass promote social cohesion? All it does is divide people by neighborhood. And, instead of being able to easily bike, walk, or drive to neighboring “planned” communities, residents and visitors are forced to travel miles out of the way to one of two or three main entry points for each separate common interest development.
That creates new local highways to maintain, traffic congestion and bottlenecks at exit and entry points onto the highway, as well as into and out of each separate association-governed community.
Once within one of these planned neighborhoods, the driver must then hunt for the correct cul-de-sac or dead-end loop where family members or friends happens to live.
Plus, a bypass tends to reduce in-town traffic from tourists and non-local commuters. How is that likely to affect business in Old Town Temecula?
If fewer drivers travel directly through Old Town, fewer are likely to stop for antique shopping, lunch, or dinner.
Will residents of 1,750 new homes be sufficient to support businesses that now draw many of their customers from other parts of California, the U.S., and the world?
Are common spaces truly beneficial?
Essentially, common areas – be they parks, dying golf courses, recreation centers, retention ponds, or conservation zones – serve as barriers between neighboring “communities” in the same city or county.
“In a city report, Temecula officials outlined several benefits they say Altair could bring to the region.
These include a 5-acre park, 8 miles of pathways and trails and a 55-acre site on the project’s southern tip that could be used as a nature center.”
The language sounds a bit like PR, but this time it’s coming from elected officials of the city.
Don’t get me wrong. Having traveled to Europe, I can appreciate the plans for attractive pedestrian walkways, the wide roads with a bike lane. Some elements of urban design can be good things.
But incorporating these elements into mandatory association-governed communities just increases the overall cost of homeownership, considering that property owners end up paying both property taxes and HOA assessments.
Proposed for new development in Temecula:
The city also required a $43-per-unit per year conservation fee in the development agreement. Proceeds from the fee would go toward studying a wildlife crossing.
Looks like future owners are already on the hook for a conservation fee. Is the city really concerned about wildlife, or is this merely an attempt to appease conservation advocate groups? After all, the best way to avoid disturbing wildlife would be to avoid excessively dense development.
Townhouses vs. Row Homes
I can certainly understand why townhouses might appeal to some people who don’t want to maintain a big yard, and to those who want to save money on heating and cooling costs.
For readers who may not be aware, at one time, townhomes were known as “row houses,” and they were very common in cities and towns of the northeast and midwest.
BUT… that was a different time, when each row house was individually owned and maintained. There were no common interest zones, because the U.S. was primarily governed by cities and towns with locally-elected public administrators. There was a time in U.S. history when civic involvement was valued, when real estate developers did not buy politicians’ votes in favor of their grand development plans.
Many row homes still exist here in the U.S., as well as European cities and towns, and these mature neighborhoods have never really needed a homeowners’ or condo association.
(That has not stopped some cities from unnecessarily imposing mandatory residential owners’ associations upon redevelopment.)
The point is, for future residents of Temecula, or any similar residential development, who prefer not to have a yard to maintain, townhomes could be placed on small lots with low-maintenance landscape plan. That could eliminate the need for common maintenance provided by a homeowners’ or condominium association, and restore individual property rights in favor of collective rights of an owners’ association.
Here’s a “radical” concept that worked for centuries before the mass promotion of HOAs, condos, and co-ops: homeowners should be free to hire their own landscape or home maintenance contractors, thereby gaining control over their own property and supporting local small business enterprises. Another option: perhaps homeowners could opt-in to a local landscape maintenance cooperative, negotiating lower rates.
Duplex and triplex housing
Along the same lines, duplexes and triplexes can also work as an income housing option, with one owner who lives in one unit, renting the other one or two units. Or the entire structure could be used to house extended family.
Again, this arrangement used to be the norm in the U.S.
Back in the 1980s, I rented several safe and clean, second story apartments in duplex homes, with the owner-landlord residing on the ground level.
At the time, I found this arrangement preferable to renting in large, professionally managed apartment communities. It provided more privacy, less noise from neighboring units, and better parking. Oh, and it was much more affordable.
On the other hand, I have also lived in several cities with more than their share of duplexes and triplexes owned by absentee landlords. Unfortunately, too many of these absentee owners were slumlords. They failed to supervise or maintain their properties, and had a nasty habit of renting to undesirable tenants such as rowdy college students or unemployed criminals running meth labs.
These days, it is common for poorly managed condominium associations with lots of investor owners to end up in the same sad condition.
Maybe in the long run, Temecula and other urban developments would be better off if a group of triplexes were professionally managed as one cohesive apartment rental community. (Not condos and certainly not absentee slumlords.)
The Big Picture
If urban planners really value “smart” growth, they need to return to the traditional way of designing and building townhouses as separate, individually-owned housing units.
With improved building technology, developers could also greatly improve on soundproofing, fireproofing, and storm drainage between homes. Architects could craft innovative home designs that would create private outdoor spaces.
Detaching townhomes would avoid the disadvantages of shared walls, while also allowing more natural light into each home and yard. That would allow residents to grow plants and gardens in the sunshine rather than shade, and it might even encourage the use of solar energy. Aren’t these the kind of environmentally responsible behaviors most urban planners want to encourage?
Most of all, housing plans need to avoid mandatory common interest “ownership” and developer-controlled “communities” that lack financial and political accountability to residents, homeowners, and taxpayers alike.
I have a very strong hunch that home buyers would be happy to pay for a new home that entitles the homeowner to a full bundle of property rights, without the burden of covenants and common ownership, and without added HOA or condo fees.