Bright, shiny dreams: New towns pop up in the valley

Your dream house is new, and so is everything else.

Perfectly ordered streets for miles around are newly paved and no cracks scar sidewalks or the nearby plaza. A park across the road is green and neatly trimmed, and your children attend a sparkling new school just around the corner.

You can walk to a grocery store, post office and library -- all new, of course. Your spouse might bicycle to an office job.

Everyone you meet lives in a new home, and you share a common identity because you are all pioneers, willing members of a real-life utopian experiment, residents of a new town.

"It's hugely exciting," said Susan Dell'Osso, contemplating the new town her company is on the brink of creating near Lathrop, after nearly two decades of planning.

It's also hugely difficult, incredibly expensive and often subject to militant opposition from very angry people.

New towns -- at once invigorating and fraught with financial peril -- increasingly spark conversation among planners trying to visualize California grappling with an expected growth boom.

Some say new towns could play an important, innovative role in accommodating millions of additional residents. They say planners can do a better job creating efficient, attractive communities when they start with a blank slate, as opposed to sewing on new borders at a city's fringe when it decides to grow.

If all of California's current new-town proposals play out, they would add the equivalent of another Stanislaus County in terms of population.

Others contend that new towns represent little more than sprawl in disguise, eating farmland and creating more traffic because promised jobs rarely materialize.

"If you plop X number of units on ag land away from town, is that functionally different from sprawl at the edge?" asked Thomas Jacobson, a planning professor at Sonoma State University. "Now you have to commute from out there to wherever the jobs are. What have you gained?"

Another growth form is infill, or developing vacant parcels within a city. This is commonly preferred by smart-growth proponents because jobs, streets, water and sewer lines, and many other urban amenities are close.

There is little argument that new towns, however bold or ill-conceived, are fun to concoct but extremely hard to create. Sev- eral land-use experts are skeptical that active new-town proposals, many of them clustered in Central California, will rise from the dust.

"You've got to have a whole lot of (guts), a whole lot of patience and a whole lot of capital," said Paul Shigley, editor of California Planning & Development Report.

The allure

A widely accepted definition of a new town doesn't appear to exist, although most analysts agree on similar components: a stand-alone, self-sustaining community developed according to a master plan.

"How many chances do you get to build a new community and be in on the ground floor?" asked Diane Dzurochak, marketing director for Shea Homes, a major builder in San Joaquin County's four-year-old Mountain House.

"What's nice is, everything is planned properly," said Dell'Osso, project director for the future River Islands in south San Joaquin County. "And not just the layout, but the schedule -- when parks need to go in, when roads need to go in, when schools need to be built. So you're never behind the eight ball in terms of services you need to provide."

Many new-town backers have promised to set aside large swaths of land in permanently protected open space.

And some new-town residents say they have few regrets, other than a lack of shopping and restaurants.

"Everything's clean," said Paul Jaszka, a police data processor who commutes to San Jose from his home of two months in Mountain House.

"We try to have everyone interact, which is a positive thing," said Sandy Vidal, who moved from Hayward two years ago. He appreciates Mountain House's kite festival, Fourth of July celebration and fun runs.

Vidal admits, however, that he's taking a bath in plummeting home value. His fiancée, a Realtor, said Mountain House has been seared with 100 foreclosures among 2,000 homes. And selling is next to impossible when builders keep putting up homes; Mountain House expects to add 14,000.

Vision or mirage?

Just down the road from Mountain House, River Islands could be a poster child for big dreams full of promise and risk.

Norman Jarrett wowed little Lathrop -- and much of the valley -- with visions of four world-class theme parks and 17,000 jobs when he first proposed Gold Rush City on the delta island of Stewart Tract in 1989. Opponents called it a smoke screen for housing and brought 17 lawsuits, but Jarrett got officials to buy into his dream.

The island was deluged in 1997 floods and the grand plan changed ownership, eventually morphing into River Islands: 11,000 future homes and zero theme parks, although supporters still predict thousands of jobs in an "employment center."

Dell'Osso's company recently won approval for megalevees designed to withstand major flooding, and the company is waiting out the real estate market decline before launching the project.

"It's exciting, but it takes a lot of patience," Dell'Osso said.

Several experts said it's common to sell a new town by dangling jobs. Track records of new towns in Central California, however, have been anything but impressive.

Donald Panoz, whose pharmaceutical company developed the nicotine patch before he proposed Diablo Grande, delighted Stanislaus County leaders with a 1994 promise of 1,500 permanent, full-time jobs. A handful have resulted since 400 homes went in.

"It's basically a monster-home golf community," said Michael Teitz, an urban planning professor and senior fellow with the Public Policy Institute of California.

Get a job

Mountain House has been moving at a faster pace in residential terms. But its promise of 20,000 jobs has proved hollow so far; the new town has a convenience mart and a dental office.

"Mountain House is just a suburban community for the greater Bay Area," said Gary Patton, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League.

Shigley, of California Planning & Development Report, agreed. "For the foreseeable future, Mountain House is a housing subdivision and nothing else," he said.

"The tough nut to crack is getting the jobs over the hill and into the valley," Shigley continued. "Stanislaus County has been talking that game since at least the 1990s, if not the 1980s."

New towns must stand as balanced developments to achieve success, many experts say.

"(Developers) say they're going to give you jobs and a university, but over time, the wonderful things can go away and you have a sea of houses without services," said Carol Whiteside, founder of the Great Valley Center based in Modesto.

But, Whiteside warned, it's too early to judge some new towns harshly, especially those near Modesto, the owners of which always have cited a two- or three-decade building period.

"You can never evaluate these things until they're done," she said. "I think there is a live debate over whether jobs follow people or people follow jobs."

Patrick Duffy, a housing analyst with Metro Intelligence in Los Angeles, agreed. "It's tougher than waving a wand and saying you're going to have all these jobs," he said.

Forward thinkers are circulating another growth model that some call gateway cities, Whiteside said. The idea is to stem the tide of Bay Area people and air-choking cars from moving into the valley by promoting developments at its main gateways -- the Altamont and Pacheco passes, for instance. That positioning is similar to Mountain House, and two towns proposed to be built on 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch near the Grapevine, north of Los Angeles.

But new towns might require as many as 150,000 people to achieve self-sufficiency, Whiteside said, and that requires a lot of land, money and sustained political will.

"To put such a thing together takes really huge amounts of capital," said Teitz of the Public Pol-icy Institute of California. "New towns are unlikely to account for a very large part of future urban growth simply because they're so difficult to build."

A more likely growth pattern, many observers agree, is a continuation of the one common for more than a century -- urban areas creeping outward, usually onto farmland.

"Traditional sprawl is more common," Duffy said, "because that train is already barreling down the track."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.