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West Village at UC Davis: Down Home In Eco-Topia

Don't be fooled by the peaceful, pastoral look of West Village, a proposed housing development on the campus of UC Davis.

"Shucks," the conceptual site plan seems to say, "I'm just a little old country town. See my bib overalls?"

I'm not falling for it. West Village may be bucolic and all, but this 220-acre project, intended to provide rental housing for students and for-sale housing to faculty, shows an uncompromising commitment to sustainability. Although pastoralism is not always the same thing as environmentalism, in this case it comes with some hard-minded environmentalism.

In an age of "greenwash," or projects that purport to be more sustainable than they are, West Village is the real deal: a neighborhood in which density, compact development and care for the land all work together. West Village is no less than an attempt to create a workable model of the Neighborhood of the Future. "When you come to your senses," the master plan seems to tell us, "you will live this way."

The land-use plan seems unremarkable: Essentially it's watered-down New Urbanism, which looks surprisingly like a classic Garden City, with neighborhood retail, a town square and a transit station at the center, surrounded by a doughnut of housing. That doughnut in turn is bordered by open space for recreation, and finally farmland at the outer periphery. (In this plan, the fields, which are used by the university for crop research, are located to the south and west of West Village.) Throughout the plan, parks and landscaping are parts of a single system of interconnected green spaces. Even better, storm water runoff will flow along "water streets" with medians designed to carry the storm water into bioswales located at the edges of the neighborhood. One of the bioswales is a seasonal wetlands. How cool can you get?

One refreshing departure from the formality of doctrinal New Urbanism is a student neighborhood in the southern part of the project called the Rambles, which is an informal cluster of dormitories organized around a broad walkway. The northern side of the Village is devoted to faculty housing, both single-family and townhouses. All of these would be for-sale units, offered to faculty at below-market rates. (Financially, this seems feasible, because the university already owns the land.) This part of West Village becomes the Davis equivalent of "Professorville" in Palo Alto, where many Stanford faculty live.

The master plan was designed by Mogavero Notestine of Sacramento and Moore Ruble Yudell of Santa Monica, although many consultants had in the hand in the plan approved by the university in November 2006.

No matter who designed it, it is heartening to see a plan in which environmental concerns and the comfort of residents are the determinants of urban form. One of my favorite details of the plan is housing that is oriented to capture prevailing breezes. Natural ventilation is fundamental to passive heating and cooling, yet the practice of orientating an entire neighborhood to the breeze is rare in commercial home building, where the prime objective is to subdivide a plan as "efficiently" as possible, rather than actually build housing worth living in. (Here comes the hate mail...) All that could change, of course, when the university invites developers to build the stuff.

I see one potential complication, however: The university plans to build for-sale housing on land owned by a public university. Is that a good thing? In defense of UC Davis, the decision to devote a portion of West Village to for-sale housing is probably good for the university. As universities like Stanford, UCLA, and UC Berkeley have learned the hard way, affordable, well-located housing can help attract faculty. And although I've seen no financial pro formas, my guess is that the West Village housing will pay for itself, so the university needn't take on long-term debt. That kind of boot-strap creativity may become more common among universities in an era when the state seems unable to pay for anything.

On the other hand, has the university fully grappled with all the implications of selling housing amid the groves of academe? For instance, who owns the land underneath the house—the university or the home buyer? Another unanswered question is what happens when a faculty member, who bought the house at below-market rate, decides to sell? Who keeps the upside, the university or the prof? Housing is an investment as well as shelter. If I can't sell my house profitably, why would I want to buy it? But if the houses in Professorville North appreciate in value and grow out of reach of academics, what becomes of the university's recruitment tool?

All those concerns are minor, however, compared to the overall ambition of West Village. That ambition is utopian, if utopia means the best possible way of life. This vision of the good life, in fact, reflects a long-held Anglo-American ideal, which is to combine a home in the country with convenient access to the urban workplace. The American suburb was born of this cultural ideal. The Garden City movement was another version, and so were Clarence Stein's designs. Frank Lloyd Wright's boundless Broadacre City was a radical version. West Village is more up-to-date and more scientific than those, perhaps, but the ideal of a clean, moral life on the land survives intact.

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