Real estate reporters and doctors share a certain sang froid. Just as doctors are not excited by seeing undressed people all day, real estate reporters are generally inured to the charms of vacation properties.
Imagine, then, my discomposure when the pangs of property envy set in while viewing images of Grizzly Ranch. A golf community in the northern Sierra Nevada, the ranch is cradled in blue mountains and hedged with tall trees, where timid deer nibble on supernaturally green fairways. When I saw this scene, I lost all moral scruple. (Just slip the cash into this shoulder bag I got for free at the Urban Land Institute fall meeting, and nobody will get hurt.)
All that to say that resorts offering the possibility of home ownership have an obvious appeal to the growing number of high-end folks who do not need to rob banks to buy such places. Homebuilding, in fact, is profitable enough and the demand for vacation homes sufficiently strong that the traditional resort is looking increasingly like suburbia — crowded with housing and spaghetti streets.
True, resort cities have always teemed with vacation homes. The difference now is that the resort itself — traditionally a large hotel with spacious grounds for tennis and golf — is getting filled up with housing because developers see unrealized value in vacant land. The question is whether the proliferation of housing will compromise the natural settings that are the chief selling-points of resorts.
Two projects currently under construction—the aforementioned Grizzly Ranch in Plumas County and Terranea Resort at the southernmost tip of Los Angeles County, both projects of Lowe Destination Development of Los Angeles—may provide some insight into what the capital markets think is the best way to optimize the value of high-end resorts.
Terranea Resort is slated for a coastal bluff on the Palos Verdes Peninsula, perhaps the wealthiest enclave of Los Angeles County. True to tradition, a 400-room hotel and various outlying buildings are positioned close to the bluff. Terranea will also have a golf course and an “executive golf academy” among other resort amenities. The site also has room for 80 single-family homes. The biggest and fanciest ones are called “villas” and the smaller ones are called “casitas.”
In spite of my avowed preference for the urban grid, I find the site plan of Terranea appealing in several ways. First, the entire site looks small enough to walk or bicycle through comfortably. Secondly, the residential housing is split into several small clusters, and grassy open space appears to dominate the plan.
In one sense, it is easy to design Terranea because the site had already been graded and stripped of its natural contours and chaparral by the now-defunct Marineland theme park. Soon, Terranea will be carpeted in green turf, which is ecologically meaningless but does have the esthetic advantage of unifying the site with a single plant material.
Terranea’s land planners have conscientiously preserved views of the bluffs and the ocean from nearly every angle, and here the clustering of housing in different areas was a wise choice. The worst move is the wall-like façade of the resort hotel itself, which could have been broken up into several buildings without sacrificing functionality. Happily, at least to my way of thinking, Terranea still looks like an old-fashioned resort, even if housing has made an encroachment.
Perhaps it is a stretch to call Grizzly Ranch a resort, because it is not hotel-centered. Located at the northern edge of the Sierra Valley in Plumas County, the ranch is more accurately described as a golf community in a resort setting—that is, the spectacular Sierra landscape that upset my equilibrium. The housing component dominates here, with 400 home sites ranging in size from one-half acre to four acres.
The center of the site plan, somewhat poorly defined, is the clubhouse and related buildings. Even a resort needs a social center, and one much more developed than this.
Other than broad fairways cradled in mountains, the most attractive thing about the site planning at Grizzly Ranch is the margins of forest that apparently serve as buffers between different housing clusters. Much of the forest has been eaten away, however, by the fairways. Such is the nature of golf. It makes about as much sense complaining about denuding the forest in a golf community as it does to grouse about substance abuse in an opium den.
Still, the presence of forest is a large part of the appeal of Grizzly Ranch. Yet the developers have shaved down the forest to a thin, cosmetic veneer to be wrapped around an essentially suburban housing project.
Maybe the veneer is enough. My awareness that the forest had been reduced to icing on an expensive cake did not deter me from contemplating bank robbery, and it will not stop Grizzly Ranch from selling out quickly. There are more rich people now than formerly, and there are ever-fewer resort sites in an increasingly crowded and regulated state.
Still, I wonder if the informality of suburban planning is the best approach to resort development. At Grizzly Ranch, the forest that is part of the appeal of the place survives only as a facade around the housing clusters. Is there a way of laying out streets that could preserve more forest for recreation and wildlife? It would be weird to impose a four-square grid on a wilderness setting. On the other hand, the arbitrary peregrinations of suburban streets eat up open space like Pac Man.
If you compare the ratio of golf space to forested buffer on the map of Grizzly Ranch, you will see that natural landscape was the loser. This happens when developers deny the value of any open space that is not explicitly reserved for golf. After a certain point, developers may find that they are destroying the very amenity that brings buyers to the table.