Webb Design

The good, the bad and the boring of Del Webb's New River development

When Del Webb Corporation brought plans for its huge New River development to Maricopa County for approval early last year, the ensuing donnybrook was about as lively and entertaining as land planning gets.

On one side was Del Webb, assuring the county that its 5,661-acre community--the Villages at Desert Hills--would be a self-contained, self-sufficient eco-burb that would be good to the desert, good to itself, and even better to its New River neighbors.

Its roster of assets included a new elementary school, a library, donations of land for a high school, police and fire services, water-treatment facilities, roads and upgraded freeway connections--in all, more than $110million of infrastructure.

Its perimeter would be buffered by acres of rural development. And with nearly 40percent of the site reserved for golf courses and open spaces, including preserved washes and hilltops, the Villages project would be a sobering though outlying symbol of environmental correctness.

Dissenters deluged the county with hundreds of fuming letters and petitions with more than 1,000 New River signatures, complaining that Webb was glossing over the Villages' most obvious flaw.

While the name suggests something small, bygone and quaint, they said, the Villages would be anything but. When this new city in New River is completed in 25 or 30 years, it would have as many as 16,500 houses and as many residents as Flagstaff has now. And its overall density would be three times New River's current rural zoning of one house per acre.

Little wonder, then, that when the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors approved Webb's development master plan last April, the howls could be heard nearly halfway to Flagstaff--about where some experts believe Phoenix commuter sprawl will eventually extend, as more projects like Webb's sprout along Interstate 17.

Then all went quiet.
For the past ten months, Webb's design team of 20 or so consultants has been putting flesh on the bones of its master plan, turning it from a pile of friendly ideas into schematic designs that are part of Webb's pending application to rezone its New River property.

When the application was considered by the Maricopa County Planning Commission in January, Webb's project team encountered a scene few could have predicted.

Instead of an auditorium packed with last spring's rancor, the hall was more than half empty. Most of those present were nervous-looking employees of Del Webb, who couldn't fully believe that the only signs in sight were green-and-white buttons sporting a saguaro cactus and the words "Friend of the Villages."

Seeing there wouldn't be a peep of opposition, the commission agreed to skip the public presentation of the refined project designs. And in considerably less time than it had spent earlier that morning discussing the rezoning of a tiny restaurant lot in Desert Hills, the commission recommended Webb's application to the Board of Supervisors for approval.

The supervisors are expected to consider and approve the application this week. Oddly enough, and despite last year's public brawling over the project, county approval will probably precede any detailed discussion of what the Villages at Desert Hills might actually look and feel like, and how the development will be connected to the community at large.

To understand what Del Webb might produce in New River, one needs to look at what has come before.

In seven new retirement communities under way in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas and South Carolina, as well as already completed developments such as Sun City, the firm has always been focused toward or beyond the edge of urban development.

"We don't move out there by design," says Webb spokesman Ken Plonski, "but as a fundamental of our business. We develop large tracts of land. In many cases, to assemble 5,000 acres plus, you have to look beyond the areas that are currently being developed."

Call it "Californication" if you like, but Webb's moves are part of a national trend that started after World War II, when cities began emptying into surrounding countryside. Since 1970, when the rush to leave town accelerated, the density of America's urban population has dropped about 25 percent, pushing suburbs into an estimated 35,000 square miles of previously rural land.

Over the past half century, Webb's knack for turning land beyond the urban fringe into marketable versions of paradise has helped to transform the company from a general-contracting outfit run by Del Webb himself into one of the nation's leading developers of planned communities.

Webb's first developments--soldiers barracks and internment camps for Japanese Americans--came during World War II. After the war, he built the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, then joined the legion of developers expanding the American suburbs.

When Sun City opened in a cotton field near Peoria in 1960, it distinguished Webb as more than just a builder and seller of houses. At Sun City, Webb sold that transcendent American commodity called lifestyle.

This wasn't a Leisure World. It was an "active adult community" (a phrase still used to sell houses in Webb's other Sun Cities) where civic life was billed as something approximating a theme park of happy involvements with like-aged, like-minded and like-moneyed people. And it was a place where property taxes--thanks partly to the community's exclusion of children and the elimination of schools--were lower than anyplace nearby.

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