Webb Design

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

Even the project's opponents concede that Webb's effort to be "a good steward of the land" is genuine.

And for good reason.
Segmented by New River, Deadman Wash and Skunk Creek, its Villages property contains substantial areas that nature and the county have placed off-limits to development. The county also stipulated that no building could take place above 15 percent slopes on the hillsides, and that the architecture and lighting should be as nonintrusive as possible.

As a result, Webb is making a number of right moves. The washes will remain as streaks of nature in an otherwise domesticated landscape, attracting the area's wildlife and allowing folks on horseback continued access to the hills.

Moreover, these natural drainage areas, which developers often treat as leftover spaces rather than truly active open ones, will also be joined to other trail systems within the development.

But there is more to the Villages than open spaces.
Although Webb hasn't refined its design into road and lot layouts, the latest plans indicate the development will be a fairly conventional golf community along a freeway, with stores, businesses and denser housing tucked around I17, and more spacious lots spread out toward the foothills.

A loop road will cover the ground between, connecting outlanders to shopping and inlanders to golf. The three courses are shaped roughly like melting eyeglass frames or distorted figure eights--take your pick--thus maximizing the number of houses with fairway views.

But what will golfers see when they look up from the green?
For a partial answer to that question, Webb's designers suggest a look at Terravita.

Coming over the ridge from Carefree, heading south toward Scottsdale on Tom Darlington Drive, you can see it rising brown and lumpy out of the desert scrub--a sight too well-organized and monochromatic to be piles of boulders, but almost too unobtrusive to be architecture.

If the design of Phoenix has been little more than an act of real estate, Terravita and the Villages are in the process of turning real estate into an act of camouflage.

And not just in wall coloring. Terravita's clustered houses and hipped, rather than gabled, roofs give the development a series of stocky, shadow-drawn profiles that attempt to mimic the outcroppings of the surrounding desert. Eventually, the low trees will grow up around the walls and add more native texture to the view.

Architect Bob Bacon hopes that Webb's New River development will have the same "minimum visual impact" on its surroundings as Terravita has.

"What that means," says Bacon, who participated in designing Terravita and who is leading the Villages effort, "is not allowing the built environment to overwhelm the character of the natural environment. There's no reason, when you look out across the desert, you should see rooftops or plaster walls."

Builders and architects who have built a new horizon out of pink walls and red-tile roofs have failed to understand what Bacon sees as the single most obvious aspect of the desert.

"It is a visually fragile environment," he says. "Its low canopy of trees and distant views makes it easier for the things we build to be seen for miles."

Bacon plans to remedy this by clustering the Villages' buildings where zoning permits, and making them shorter and darker in color so their walls don't add up in mass and reflectivity to the large, glaring suburbs that dominate most flatland views.

But like most formulas for visual salvation, this one has an unintended consequence that will be difficult for Bacon and Webb to solve: monotony.

And not the pink-wall-and-red-tile-roof variety we've grown accustomed to, or the boredom of rolling the landscape with a single paint.

The real tedium of "minimum visual impact" is the pretense that architecture isn't meant to be seen, that if it doesn't make too much of a fuss, it can rest like the Cheshire cat in the landscape--serenely invisible except for a brown grin.

Even if Webb varies the tone of the brown, as the planning commission requested, or creates greater architectural variety toward the center of the Villages, as Bacon hopes todo, the improvement will be negligible. Atfour, six and more houses an acre, the brown, beige or whatever-color grin will be everywhere. The buildings will become the surroundings--as they have at Terravita.

Turning down any inhabited street there, you face an unending bastion of identical brown walls and garage doors. There's no mixture of housing models. There's no view out, no view in, and not a natural surrounding in sight.

That's why, as one Terravita sales agent confided, the prime complaint from prospective buyers and residents--mostly second-home buyers--is "things all look the same."

And thanks to the covenants governing the community, they are likely to remain that way for many years.

This monotony will also prevail at the Villages unless Bacon and his team are able, somehow, to improve the Terravita prototype.

When you move from the visual to the functional realities of the Villages at Desert Hills, the first thing you hit is traffic. That takes you right to air pollution.

And this is where all the friendly talk about a self-contained and self-sustaining community grinds to a halt. It's also where Del Webb's vagueness about the design of the Villages has created even vaguer plans for connecting the development to the community at large.

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