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.
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.
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.
Though Webb is optimistic about its ability to minimize traffic moving in and out of the Villages, the hard lesson of Valley development has been that the self-sufficiency and sustainability of planned communities usually end where the roads and concerns about air quality begin.
There's no mystery to this. The Valley has simply lacked the vision and the will to forge an unbreakable link between transportation and land planning, and land planning and air quality.
As a result, the growth game is a perpetual round of building and reacting.
The Villages project tells the story in a nutshell.
"Suppose you do a master plan for Maricopa County," says Terry Borland, the Arizona Department of Transportation project manager for the section of I17 that will serve the Villages. "That master plan calls for a particular kind of land use, so we base our facilities on that established land use. When a developer comes in and changes the zoning, that usually affects the ability of our roads to handle the projected traffic."
Borland says his department believes traffic from the Villages will require that a third lane be added to I17, beginning around Beardsley Road and extending north beyond the Desert Hills interchange.
Webb's own traffic study, which depicts I17 as three lanes in each direction where there are now only two, generally supports that assessment. But the financing for these improvements is an entirely unsettled matter.
Because the transportation department has no authority to tell developers to pay for improvements to state roads, it looks to the county and cities for help.
In this case, says Tom Buick, head of the Maricopa County transportation department, "help takes the form of the county's zoning authority to require what you might term 'off-site' improvements to I17."
The county stipulated that Webb must contribute to improving interchanges for the interstate, but left open the matter of paying for the additional lanes depicted in Webb's traffic study.
Borland says the state expects Webb to chip in for the lanes. Webb's spokesman, Ken Plonski, says there have been no discussions about that.
"We will contribute our fair share to the three interchange constructions," he says, "but our position is that the lanes are a responsibility that ADOT has traditionally performed."
Regardless of who foots the bill, no roads or road improvements associated with the Villages can be built without an air-quality conformity analysis mandated by the federal Clean Air Act.
According to county planners and air-quality officials, this analysis is a simple idea whose process is complicated, technical and difficult to explain. The short of it is that the feds require polluted areas, such as Phoenix, to prepare a plan to clean the air.
Since Phoenix's primary pollution source is the automobile, the Maricopa Association of Governments generates the air analysis as part of its annual Transportation Improvement Plan, which it submits to the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Doug Eberhart, manager of air-quality planning for MAG, says the plan is based on assumptions about the region's existing and future roads, traffic, employment and population patterns, along with meteorological data.
At the moment, one thing is clear: The air-quality impact of the traffic associated with Webb's Villages has not yet been determined. Nor has the county formally decided whether the roads Webb proposes to add or change will be the "regionally significant" kind that the EPA requires to be included in MAG's assessment on air quality.
These matters won't be determined until long after the county supervisors have acted on Webb's rezoning application.
While it's tempting to see the devil in this lack of detail, Buick points out that Webb's plans are still far too general for the county to make accurate calls about the project's roads.
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Still unresolved are what, if any, portion of the Villages will be a retirement community; whether sections of it will be gated; to what extent its streets will connect to roads outside the community; and when, exactly, Webb's project will require the road improvements to be made.
Buick says he expects all this information to be provided when Webb submits its actual development plats for the project--by which time the county should have completed its traffic study for the area. Though no date for plat submittal has been set, Webb's Plonski guesses it will probably occur sometime early next year.
That leaves plenty of time for surprises on the traffic and air-quality fronts.
But the now-quiet opponents of Webb's Villages at Desert Hills shouldn't get their hopes up. Eberhart can't think of any instance when Valley development plans have been scuttled by concerns about air quality.