Quarry Village: Suburban Life Without Cars

Something seems to be missing from the site plan for Quarry Village, a 42-acre proposed housing development in Hayward. Here are orderly rows of streets, a scattering of small parks and a "village center" for neighborhood-scale retail. The 950 housing units are made up entirely of three-story townhouses, arranged in rows of four and six units.

Although the layout of Quarry Village does not appear to be based on any historical model, something about the plan reminded me of something I had seen in a history book: The squarish arrangement of dense residential blocks found in the plan of Reading, Pennsylvania, circa 1747. (See Moholy-Nagy, S., Matrix of Man: An Illustrated History of Urban Environment, 1968. p. 17). What do 21st Century Quarry Village and 18th Century Pennsylvania have in common? Neither has any garages.

Quarry Village is a radical proposal, introduced by a quixotic, retired professor from California State University, East Bay, to build a car-free residential neighborhood in suburban Alameda County. Parking is limited to 1,000 spaces on the periphery of the property. Otherwise, the streets oops, "walkways" are free of vehicles except for an occasional electric cart. Children can play freely in the streets, or indeed, throughout the entire compound. Mass transit, of course, is the lifeline of Quarry Village: The local bus line delivers commuters to the BART station less than two miles away at the college campus; the bus ride takes six minutes. The smallish retail component, only about 5,000 square feet, may include a tiny market and a child-care center.

The project is the brainchild a group of investors led by Sherman Lewis, a retired political science professor who is also past president of Sierra Club's California chapter. Although not a developer by training, Lewis has mastered many of the financial and planning skills needed for large-scale homebuilding. This is a serious proposal with real numbers: According to his latest spreadsheet, construction costs, including photovoltaic cells on every unit, comes to a moderate $225 per square foot. The internal rate of return (IRR) is a robust 28% , which could make the project attractive to investors.

The environmental review process may not entail much delay: Lewis expects Quarry Village to qualify for a "negative declaration" under the California Environmental Quality Act, meaning developers and the city would not have to wade through a long and costly environmental impact report. Lewis, however, does not get to decide on the level of environmental review, the city does.

Caltrans, which had planned a freeway for the site "I've spent 30 years of my life fighting that freeway," said Lewis is expected to sell the acreage for development in the next several years. The professor-turned-homebuilder is trying to raise some additional money from investors to buy an option on the land.

The project, inspired by a similar project in Vauban, Germany, will probably not be for everyone. A New York Times story from May relates that some residents left the German project because they could not tolerate the inconvenience of living apart from their cars. Also, individual units are reasonable in price, by California standards, with prices averaging $316,000. Units will range from studios to three bedrooms. Each unit will be fitted with photovoltaic or other solar-power converters that will supply virtually all electricity for household use. In short, Quarry Village seems best suited for young families on moderate incomes, such as junior faculty at Cal State. Lewis, in fact, says he has received at least 10 reservations for future units from university staff.

Quarry Village map

Car-free cities have long been imagined by ecologists and eco-minded planners. In fact, a number of European cities besides Vauban have set aside entire districts for pedestrians, typically for shopping. While Quarry Village is grounded in similar idealism, there is an encouraging realism to the project; rather than being a utopian island set off by itself, the project is very much part of the present-day Hayward. The biggest difference from surrounding housing, of course, is density; while typical suburban densities are about 8 to 10 homes per acre, the density of Quarry Village would be about 45 units per acre, or equivalent to a medium-density apartment house or condominium complex. In fact, Lewis plans to build the housing on condominium maps, and home owners would be obliged to belong to a condo organization and pay monthly dues for maintenance of common areas and the like. In addition to maintenance, the condo organization will also be charged with policing the residents. Renting out units to subtenants is forbidden.

In a car-free environment, streets turn into active open space, especially for children who would otherwise be limited to their back yards or public parks. The parks, including a wetlands preserve on the southern end of the site, provide additional open space. Not shown on the site plan, but enormously important in terms of open space, is a planned extension of the Highridge Trail, which would run north-south from Castro Valley to southern Hayward, and would take the form of a new, linear regional park.

Getting rid of cars and garages is a practical move toward the ideal of sustainability. Residents would have the use of electric carts to carry heavy loads, and Lewis is also considering a car-share club for village residents. Beyond the quiet atmosphere, clean air and open space made possible by removing cars and garages, the car-free strategy also offers a new model of high-density housing in traditionally low-density suburbs.

The car-free strategy may be attractive to conventional developers, because this new model of density, made possible by excluding garages, translates into potentially higher returns to developers and investors. Developers can charge market rents, without the cost of building either garages or costly subterranean parking. Housing officials, on the other hand, now have an alternative beyond mediocre apartment buildings and "stacked flats" to meet their housing numbers.

Before I allow enthusiasm about pedestrian-oriented planning to gallop away with me, it is important to point out that the project is still only a proposal. City officials appear interested in, but not committed to, Lewis's car-free plan. In late 2008, the City Council conducted a public workshop about the project and suggested that Lewis needed more working capital so he could buy an option on the land. (In a recent interview, Lewis said he needs at least $1.6 million for that purpose.) In June, the Hayward City Council amended the city's general plan to allow housing on the former quarry site, which the city is also considering for a school. For the time being, Quarry Village looks far away.

Even with those caveats about this particular project, I say that idealism is good, practical idealism is better and practical idealism with a realistic business model is best of all. The most intriguing aspect of this suburban, achingly green housing development is the possibility of making density not only tolerable but desirable.

And while you're bicycling to Cal State East Bay, would you please drop off the children's Gameboys at the recycling center? It's time for kids to play outside.