Jardine: Housing bust lets planners reflect, revise

October 25, 2008 

Booms and busts provide valuable lessons.

The housing market boomed for a decade. Then, over the past two years, it busted as the subprime loan game ran its course and, like an overworked wad of Bubblicious, left the nation covered in the reddish slime of a $700 billion bailout.

It's perfectly acceptable to blame all involved: greedy buyers who demanded the 3,400-square-foot McMansion on a tent-trailer budget, real estate and mortgage types who scored hefty commissions by nudging buyers into these exploding loans, and the greed-mongers who orchestrated this fiasco from Wall Street's end.

The only people who should benefit from this state of arrested development are city planners who, after a decade of pressure from developers and the demands they needed to meet, can finally regroup and prepare for the next inevitable growth spurt.

"A downturn is a time to plan," said Rod Simpson, Patterson's planning director.

"That's exactly what we're doing," said Debbie Whitener, Turlock's deputy director of development services.

Throughout the boom, cities grew to meet the demand. Some developers demanded faster annexations and entitlements, and in some cases, pretty much had their way. In some cities, officials circumvented their own policies to allow growth that far exceeded established caps.

Conversely, valley cities including Oakdale and Turlock had prepared to handle the growth. They'd mapped out their futures by amending their general plans during the building lull of the early 1990s. Just as important, their elected officials stuck with those plans.

"One of the unique aspects of Oakdale is that the elected officials here have always approached development cautiously," Oakdale City Administrator Steve Hallam said.

That, in part, is why Oakdale and Turlock, along with Patterson, led the way in the growth scorecard developed by The Bee and the Great Valley Center. And all three cities are using the building stoppage to rework their general and specific plans based upon what worked and what didn't during the boom.

Planning is perhaps more important now than during the last lull because of tougher environmental and air quality restrictions, Patterson's Simpson said.

"It's no longer a case of, 'We'll do that in five years,' " he said. "We've got to do it now."

Roughly 15 years ago, Oakdale and Turlock embraced neo-traditional development principles. Patterson recognized mistakes it made with some developments and amended its general plan in 2004 to include policies similar to those of Oakdale and Turlock. Expect other cities to follow their lead.

Neo-traditional neighborhoods emerged in the late 1800s, when many people still relied on horses and buggies for transportation. As the automobile replaced the horse, the garage replaced the stall.

Builders began putting garages closer to the streets -- architecture that morphed into a two-car garage door with a home somewhere behind it -- and the trend continued until some cities and developers brought the neo-traditional concept out of mothballs the past 15 or so years.

In neo-traditional neighborhoods, large front porches make it easy for neighbors to socialize and pay more attention to the happenings in the streets. That provides a level of security you'll seldom find in more conventional contemporary subdivisions that aren't gated.

The garages are set back behind the homes or along back alleys. The streets generally are narrower than in other types of subdivisions, forcing motorists to drive more slowly. These neighborhoods have parks, walking paths and retail within walking distance.

Oakdale has enjoyed success in its Burchell Hill development. Drive through Burchell Hill on Halloween night and you'll see numerous block parties, haunted houses and other gatherings. It's more than just a collection of homes. It's truly a community.

Modesto developed in neo-traditional neighborhoods around Graceada Park in the 1920s, and they remain among the city's most solid neighborhoods.

"It's been a good measure of success," said H. Brent Sinclair, Modesto's director of community and economic development.

Modesto will encourage neo-traditional concepts when the approved Tivoli development is built north of Sylvan Avenue, planning division manager Patrick Kelly said.

The housing crisis dictates that builders and buyers consider smaller, more affordable homes the next time around -- as many as eight homes per acre instead of five or six.

"Who's going to (want) the 3,000-square-foot home now?" Sinclair asked. "What's going to be the norm?"

That's why it's important for city planners and councils to use this time wisely. There's little pressure from developers. There's no need to rush projects to meet demands.

And if we've learned anything from the boom and bust, it's that future home buyers might want to consider -- as un-American as this might seem -- starting small and working their way up to the McMansion.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service