San Diego's master planned communities

Custom homes and midlife crises

Del Mar Heights. Pardee’s 15-year building odyssey in Carmel Valley reflects a burgeoning trend.
  • Del Mar Heights. Pardee’s 15-year building odyssey in Carmel Valley reflects a burgeoning trend.
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

Nestled amid the mesas of north county are a series of master planned communities, praised by many, grumbled about by a few. The communities are orderly, neat, often meticulously landscaped. Streets are wide. Ford explorers and mommy vans are proudly parked in front of the three-car garages.

The earth-toned stucco homes in these developments, which sell for $300,000-plus, belong to “executive professionals" who, according to a demographic study, are typically between 35 and 45 years old, married, and parents to two children between the ages of 6 and 12. These professionals are baby boomers who have made it — grasped the American Dream and forged Rockwell-esque lives that are envied by their poorer peers. They have worked hard for success and now, at midlife, yearn to savor its fruits.

But these Masters of the Communities have reached a turning point in their lives. Midlife is inventory-taking time, when we awaken at 3:00 a.m. and ask our pillows, “Who am I?" “Is this all there is?" “Why does my life feel like a magazine ad?" And when our pillows fail to respond, we wonder whether our homes, mommy vans, high-tech vice presidencies, golf-dub memberships, and liposuction are not...really...us.

The master-planned community, coincidentally, also in its fourth decade of life, is experiencing a comparable midlife crisis. It has evolved from a post-World War II subdivision of inexpensive cookie-cutter homes into a more elaborate, luxurious persona — sometimes touting million-dollar estates upon its manicured acreage. But like the boomers who dwell within its confines, it struggles with The Identity Question. After spending decades birthing look-alike houses — Mediterranean on this shore. Cape Cod on the other — it now yearns to let down its hair and emulate its more eccentric custom-neighborhood cousins, whose “anything goes" philosophy it had scoffed while impersonating the American Dream.

New York builder William Levitt was the proud father of this contemporary master-planned community. A shrewd publicist and visionary, Levitt realized in the late 1940s that returning GIs and their families, particularly those ensconced in cramped urban apartments, desired affordable suburban housing and a sense of community. He created a subdivision — larger than a neighborhood, smaller than a city — midway between Manhattan and Long Island's developing defense-industry sprawl. Levitt segmented his subdivision into neighborhood clusters and organized them around “village centers." Soon, “Levittown” was synonymous with suburbia. From its interchangeable homes, men in gray flannel suits marched off to work, while adoring wives waved goodbye from identical patios. Proponents lauded Levitt for making such bucolic suburban living affordable to young veterans. Critics condemned “Levittown’s” homogeneity, joking that the men returning from work sometimes entered the wrong houses and sidled up to the wrong wives.

By 1963, even folk hero Pete Seeger was singing about the American tract-home explosion that was master-planning its way across America. The tune, an easy-to-play guitar ditty, was titled “Little Boxes" by M. Peterson:

Little boxes on the hillside,

little boxes made of ticky-tacky,

little boxes, little boxes,

little boxes, all the same

There's a green one and a pink one

and a blue one and a yellow one,

and they're all made out of ticky-tacky,

and they all look just the tame

And the people in the houses all go to the university, and they all get put in boxes, little boxes, all the same

And there's doctors and there's lawyers and business executives, and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky,

and they all look just the same...

Thirty-five years later, the master-planned community is still home to university-educated doctors, lawyers, and business executives. But this group is no longer willing to settle for ticky-tacky when they’re shelling out $400,000 to $900,000 for comfy boxes on the hillside. As they struggle to create their own midlife identities, they also yearn for homes with “custom" personalities. And this couldn’t pose a worse dilemma for master-planning architects who now stay up at night to wonder, “How can I make this two-story, earth-toned Mediterranean-style home different from the two-story, earth-toned Mediterranean-style homes across the street?"

The quest to banish home-o-geneity has proven daunting.

The Pardee Construction Company, San Diego’s top builder, is attempting to infuse architectural diversity to its North County master-planned communities. Like other master planners, it has had to weather a potpourri of vexations as it attempts to build upscale boxes on North County’s hillsides and mesas. Environmentalists and local property owners protest its proposed constructions. Buyers demand innovations to the Monotonous Mediterranean streetscapes that were once beloved. Condo dwellers complain about, well, everything. And add to this mash a manic-depressive real estate market, cutthroat building competition, and the eternal siren call of custom housing.

“Architectural diversity" in master-planned communities can be costly. Prove too innovative and floor plans go unsold. A multi-hued pomo cottage of rakish angles and sea-foam glass might sell briskly in Malibu but be vehemently rebuked by the Carmel Valley crowd. And “amenities" — dens, bedrooms, fourth garages, home theaters, landscaping — don't come cheap. The transformation of Look-Alike Levittown, within financial grasp of the average Working Joe, to Luxurious Leverage-town, affordable only to those who regularly read Investors Business Daily's stock tips, is costing a pretty penny to all involved. But it is auguring a metamorphosis of the residential real estate industry. The master-planned community is “finding its authentic self," to quote about 500 best-selling self-help authors. It is abandoning the goose-stepping conformity of its youth. It is quietly undergoing a facelift. In other words, it is “customizing."

Pardee’s 15-year building odyssey in Carmel Valley reflects this burgeoning trend.

In 1983, it opened “The Heights" in Del Mar Highlands, a development of Spanish-style, Tudor, and traditional California-style homes, just north of Route 56 and southeast of Interstate 5. The houses, on one-third acre lots, featured desirable early-1980s attractions: sunken living rooms, vaulted ceilings, turned staircases, master-bedroom fireplaces, and overhead bridges above the dining areas. Pardee had tapped a nerve. Its exhaustive marketing research that asked San Diegans the Freudian question “Vat do you vant?" had paid off. The homes sold out immediately.

It followed up with Mediterranean-inspired “San Remo," a community of small (about 1380- to 2126-square-foot) homes on high lots near Del Mar Heights Road, and “Santa Fe Summit," a collection of slightly larger homes adjacent to The Heights, in 1990. The architecture firm that Pardee employed, Newport Beach-based Bassenian & Lagoni, attempted to break up the developments’ streetscape homogeneity by varying house widths, interspersing grassy lots with residences, and, in some cases, grading elevations on only one street side to allow panoramic views. Buyers, particularly well-heeled ones, could further add panache to their purchases by hiring landscapers to create distinct environs.

But the “Mediterranean Monopoly" still held firm in master-plan land. How could planners eke out individuality in the Land of Look-Alike Oz?

“It’s nearly impossible to give directions to your home when it is one of 900 red - roofed, cream-colored stucco houses with a brown front door under an arch," wrote Diane Scholfieid in a letter to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

One particular thorn in Pardee’s paw was the “Garage Identity Problem"—a Sphinx-like riddle that has vexed and poxed builders since the post-World War II car craze. Drive down any upscale master-planned community street and pass row after row of three-car-garages grinning like cheap white dentures. They are status symbols, explains architect Carl Lagoni. And they are sought after by homeowners, despite their space-hogging, despite their ugliness. “Most buyers don’t even own three cars but want the spaces available because of their resale potential," Lagoni says.

How to eliminate the clichéd “three-car-astride" garage? A solution that Lagoni admits is imperfect is the “third-car swing garage" — a space set at right angle to the house's facade. Yes, it is inconspicuous but unless one has a large lot, wide driveway, and a teeny vintage Metropolitan, ingress and egress is difficult. In newer Pardee communities, Rassenian & Lagoni have located some garages behind porte cocheres or in courtyards. Slowly, perhaps more slowly than one can angle a Cadillac sedan into a "third-car swing garage" without shearing off the car’s chrome, solutions to the Garage Identity Problem are being implemented. At a cost.

In 1995, Pardee introduced two more communities to Del Mar Highlands: "Palma del Mar,” whose homes ranged in size from about 2200 to 3200 square feet, and its most upscale Carmel Valley development to date, “The Promontory at Santa Fe Summit," sited on a canyon rim adjacent to The Heights. The Promontory’s huge homes (about 3157 to 4015 square feet) were designed to attract tony buyers who might otherwise seek custom residences in nearby environs like Fairbanks Ranch. Beyond their solid oak entry doors lay posh interior spaces rarely found in conventional planned communities: master-bedroom retreats, libraries, double staircases, high-volumed ceilings, spacious gourmet kitchens and pantries, marbled fireplaces, and Jacuzzis. The homes don’t come cheap — currently the Promontory’s four floor plans are selling for between $550,000 to $750,000, not including amenities and landscaping.

But would baby boomers plop down nearly $1,000,000 for sophisticated tract homes? Pardee wagered that the answer would be “yes." After completing “Mayfield,” a series of three-to five-bedroom homes in the mid-$400,000 range near El Camino Real last year, Pardee followed up with what its assistant vice president/project manager Chuck Corum calls “state-of-the-art product, so different from anything we’ve done.”

He is referring to the controversial 700-acre Carmel Country Highlands, just south of Interstate 5, which took nearly 12 years to build due to what Corum tacitly refers to as “environmental issues." What he means is this: the development sits on pastoral terrain, far from commercial sites. While this bucolic location may prove alluring to Thoreau-influenced home-buyers, it previously had been cherished by an ecosystem of native plants and wildlife, as well as a very vocal group of preservationists, environmentalists, and ranchers. Nonetheless, quoth Joni Mitchell, paradise was paved, and a series of Fairbanks-esque Mediterranean-inspired and “classic traditional" elevations arose like obelisks from the soil, ranging to about 4670 square feet in size and costing from the mid-$400,000s to nearly $900,000 after amenities.

Today, on the drawing boards for Pardee is Pacific Highlands Ranch, east of Carmel Valley, a 5000-unit “village plan" sited on 2500 acres (50 percent of which, according to Corum, will remain “recreational and natural open space") and the 400-acre Rancho Pacifica, north of Carmel Valley in the Future Urbanizing Area, which is slated to include custom and semicustom homes “more individualized, more elaborate, and with more variety" than Pardee’s Promontory residences, according to architect Lagoni.

Meanwhile, the builder/master planner is reducing its presence in the less expensive, more litigious North County attached-housing market, as other builders before it have done over the past five years. According to Bill Ostrem, chief operating officer of East Lake, a master-planned community in Chula Vista, the promulgation of construction-defect lawsuits has put skidmarks on new condominium development. "It’s just inherent to the industry due to the type of structure and the ability of condo owners to join together to bring lawsuits," he says. Adds Peter Dennehy, managing director of the Meyer Group, a San Diego-based real estate and consulting firm, "The condo market used to make up about 50 percent of sales in San Diego, but now it’s under 20 percent and falling. Pardee was a big supplier in this market, and its absence is going to greatly impact first-time home buyers."

In Biblical terms, this means that a parting of the seas between North County Haves and Have-Nots is imperative. High-income buyers already ensconced in the real estate market will continue to trade upward while renters who can’t pony up $50,000 for first homes will grow increasingly desperate. Ironically, such a trend might propel a 21st Century William Levitt to design a new, innovative, and affordable middle-class community (Less-a-Town?) to supplant the increasingly expensive master-planned developments that, ironically, are shouldering into the elite custom-home market they originally were designed to cheaply emulate. Already, architects are experimenting with “Row House Revival," narrow unattached homes harkening Victorian urban dwellings, and “Courtyard Clusters," tiny cottages in circular 'covered wagon” formation as options for first-time buyers short on cash, long on aspirations.

Within Carmel Valley exist a few Pardee condo complexes, such as the Caribbean-influenced Martinique, north of Del Mar Heights Road; Palmilla, a series of Mediterranean-styled townhomes with vaulted ceilings, adjacent to El Camino Real; Camino Villas, ubiquitously Mediterranean-influenced, south of Del Mar Heights Road; the nearby Chateau Village, French Mediterranean in design; Del Mar Bluffs, built on land formerly owned by the Baldwin Company, south of Del Mar Heights Road; and Pacific and Cambria, two swim- and-tennis townhome communities, north of Del Mar Heights Road. Most of these townhome units range in size from about 1100 to 1432 square feet. Although Corum says that Pardee is not altogether abandoning the North County attached-housing market, he confirms that the company indeed will be deemphasizing it in upcoming years.

Pardee’s competitors begrudgingly admit that the builder/master planner is turning out some good product. “They’re tough competition,” said the North County developer of a rival master-planned community. “Their newer stuff is much better than their older stuff, particularly what they’ve done over the last five or six years. Their architecture is becoming more innovative, and, although I used to think they approached the market more like a builder than a master planner, I think that's changed, too.”

Those Little Boxes on the Hillside whose ticky-tacky stucco-and-plaster walls lovingly embraced 1950s and 1960s families are no longer part of the American Dream. Today, five-bedroom boxes with home offices, media centers, gourmet kitchens, and, yes, servant’s quarters are what post-Cold War boomers feverishly dream about at night after calculating the cumulative worth of their Intel, AOL, Coca -Cola, and Disney shares. And as they get in touch with their inner children, authentic selves, and Native American protection spirits, they will find ways to further separate their domiciles from the madding crowds, by making statements — planting cacti when their neighbors have erected pine trees; using a splash of color on their window trimming and always, always, always Just Saying No to Mediterranean banality when it's offered by Salieris in architects' garb.

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