Webb Design

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

Marketing is an American magic that Webb and his company performed better than almost anyone else, right down to the jingle reminding prospects of the life they could have by signing on the dotted line:

Wake up and live in Sun City
For an active new way of life.
Wake up and live in Sun City
Mr. Senior Citizen and Wife.
Don't let retirement get you down
Be happy in Sun City
It's a paradise town.

As in all marketing dreams, however, some things were not what they first seemed.

In the corridors between such cities as Dallas/Fort Worth or Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia, suburban growth has gobbled up the rural land that used to separate them, smearing their outskirts into a nearly continuous metroplex--a word that suggests something more organized and better conceived than sprawl.

With Webb already planning a community in now-rural Cottonwood, and other builders looking beyond the immediate metropolitan area, the growing debate about suburbanization of the Phoenix area's rural fringe is just another example of the Valley's tendency to think locally about issues that should be seen regionally.

"Right now, I see the Phoenix commuter shed going as far south as Eloy, and the Tucson commuter shed going as far north as Picacho Peak," says Dr. Lawrence Mann, an urban-planning specialist at the University of Arizona's Drachman Institute. "But at the rate Phoenix is growing, there will be a time when the Tucson-Phoenix commuter shed will be one integrated mess."

When that occurs, Prescott and the Verde Valley will drain people in the morning down I17 into Phoenix. And the same will be true of Payson, whose four-lane connection to Phoenix is expected to be completed in three to four years.

Mann and others see two motivations behind this expansion. "There is the drive-'til-you-qualify attitude, sending new homebuyers or buyers with relatively little money farther to the outskirts, where land and homes are still cheap.

"But the reverse is also true. Communities are being developed to disqualify people that others don't want to be near. That's what's happening in the whole Scottsdale/Paradise Valley complex and going up to Cave Creek.

"People are getting out far enough so the people they dread won't be able to follow them."

So what, exactly, will these good folks be getting if dread and high prices chase them as far as New River?

Del Webb Corporation characterizes the Villages at Desert Hills as a "highly amenitized, self-contained, multiple-use, mixed-density community of four interrelated villages."

This planning and marketing jargon conjures an image of adjoining medieval country clubs with shopping and golf on the far side of a moat. But the voluminous, if still vague, plans submitted to the county suggest something else--something along the lines of Webb's considerably smaller, award-winning Terravita development in north Scottsdale.

Webb and the design team developing the Villages say it won't be the strictly residential community Terravita is. They claim the Villages will contain the full services and commercial opportunities of a small city. Yet they stress that Terravita contains a number of design concepts that will be expanded and improved at the Villages.

The concept foremost in Webb's thinking is suggested by the name Terravita itself, which, in Latin, translates to "living earth," but in Webbspeak becomes "The Harmony of Land and Life."

The land with which the Villages will try to harmonize lies about half a mile north of the Pioneer Road exit of I17. Nearly 4,800 acres of it stretches east of the highway to Seventh Avenue. The acreage runs north along the interstate for nearly three miles to the Desert Hills interchange, where it hops west of the road and consumes another 900 acres that was recently annexed by the City of Phoenix, and that surrounds a grouping of factory outlet stores.

This rolling, wash-cut terrain below Daisy Mountain is laden with bursage, paloverde, cholla, saguaro and a good mix of other Sonoran vegetation. New River, Skunk Creek, Deadman Wash and the smaller floodways veining the acreage sustain a rich blend of acacia, ironwood, mesquite, burrobush and desert broom. There are hoofprints from horses that occasionally cross the land in the sandy beds of the washes.

The area is good habitat for cottontails, jack rabbits, tortoises, javelinas and mule deer; for lizards, rattlesnakes, coral snakes; and for the birds chittering and peeping overhead--100 different kinds of animals in all.

If Webb commissions a jingle for the Villages, it will undoubtedly focus as buoyantly on lifestyle as the Sun City ditty did. Butinstead of an irrigated, Sun City oasis, the Villages will be a parched friend of the desert--warm and hilly and clear-aired, and filled with cactuses and critters, and golf courses with limited greens.

Whole-earth pitches such as the one emerging from Webb's plans for the Villages, and the one used to sell Terravita, usually produce little more than community names like "Ocotillo," "The Preserve" and "Ironwood," or street names commemorating the fauna and flora eradicated by suburban development.

But Webb and its designers have been smart enough to mulch some of the grumbling about growth in the desert into the design process for the Villages.

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