Although I know little about Scottish history, I seriously doubt that the Scotsmen of the early 1400s who invented golf ever thought about the environmental impact their delightful new pastime would bring to the as-yet-undiscovered shores of California. Intent on whacking leather balls filled with feathers, those same 15th Century Scotsmen probably did not think that their seemingly innocent diversion from herding sheep would ever be the rationale behind something as weird as the Santaluz development in North San Diego County.
The 3,800-acre Santaluz is innovative, to be sure, perhaps too much so. The very look of the site plan inspires queasiness, at least to my conservative eyes. In contrast to other site plans, which look like street maps or parks, the plan of Santaluz looks like the abdomen of a female frog, full of eggs. Swimming amid those frog eggs are creatures resembling long green nematodes. These nematodes, in fact, are the fairways of a golf course. For those who have lived in outer space for the past several decades, it may be necessary to explain that it is impossible, nay, against the law, to build an upscale, suburban housing development without a golf course. (Enacted during the administration of the first President Bush, the law is known as the Universal Right of the Affluent Americans to Have Access to a Golf Course from Their Back Yards Act of 1989.)
Santaluz offers a very-low-density estate housing scheme consisting of 850 homes and house lots, of which 300 are the circular kind. The other houses are conventional, home-builder "product." All of this, naturally, is tucked behind locked gates. The large lot sizes allow the houses to be separated from one another by distances of 100 to 200 feet, which is an important point of sale in a development that retails in the fantasy of making homeowners feel like landed gentry. The circular lots, which the developers describe as “curvilinear,” start at around $775,000 for six-tenths of an acre, and soar upward to $2.45 million for four acres. Those prices do not include the cost of the house.
Much of the oddity of this site plan is the byproduct of the lofty environmental aims of Santaluz, which is being developed by a partnership of DMB Associates Inc. and Woodrow Taylor Homes. The things I called frog eggs are in fact circular home lots, which are a genuine innovation (unless you want to give credit to those mysterious crop circles that appeared in Great Britain a few years ago). Ingeniously, the circular home lot allows the home buyer the hitherto unheard-of opportunity of spinning the floor plan around on an imaginary turntable, until she has selected the very best view.
It is as hard to argue with the marketing sense of this appealing idea as it is difficult to justify it architecturally. Traditionally, we design houses to respond to particular landscapes and solar orientations. We might add more shade on the south and west exposures to cut down on the summer heat, for instance, and provide windows in other places to capture prevailing breezes.
In the anti-architectural logic of Santaluz, however, a pre-existing home design is spun on the roulette wheel of the homeowner's imagination, with little or no acknowledgement of the sun or any other natural forces that may invade the sun-drenched hills of the San Dieguito River basin. Seen from the air, the houses of Santaluz may remind viewers of a wall of clocks in a travel agent's office, where the hour hands point in all directions to indicate different time zones.
The sight of a group of houses twirled around at different compass points may discomfit some hide-bound urban planners, who make a compulsion out of lining up buildings in the same direction, but so what? The point-it-where-you-like-it idea is a genuinely creative gambit on the part of the developer because it plays into the ancient Anglo-American fantasy of owning a country house. We may steer our house in a direction outside of the view of other people's houses. This makes us feel like gentleman farmers surveying the broad lands of our estates. In other words, Santaluz is suburbia pretending to be rural. You can almost hear the cows lowing - that is, if the Codes, Covenants and Restrictions of Santaluz allowed cows, which they don't.
Maybe I am making too much out of the seeming eccentricities of Santaluz. Fairness dictates I disclose that this development won awards from the both the Building Industry Association and a Gold Nugget Award for “Best Land Plan” from the Pacific Coast Builders Conference. The project was even a finalist for an Urban Land Institute award of excellence. If the experts like Santaluz, who am I to naysay their judgment?
As an attractive, money-making development, I think Santaluz is a sure-fire hit. As a model of urban or suburban organization, I think it is disorderly, but that is a matter of taste. As an environmental event, which is more important, I think Santaluz is indefensible.
The development is one of many instances of high-priced, low-density housing subdivisions masquerading as environmental “sensitivity.” The developers may have been able to snow the local Board of Supervisors with talk of limited environmental damage, but I do not buy it. Even if the homes are of low density today, the existence of roads, electrical conduit and sewer mains ensures this neighborhood will soon be expanded with additions and guests houses and eventually subdivided.
In other words, Santaluz is the opposite of good environmental stewardship. The proper way to protect fragile lands is to concentrate housing in a limited area, thus maximizing open space and minimizing natural habitat fragmentation. While golf courses are popping up in all kinds of sensitive settings, I think they are inappropriate in the extreme, because the green turf of golf courses is neither public open space nor habitat for birds and animals.
But golf is the opiate of the middle classes, and developers and their lenders have learned to build links along with housing as a means to ensure pre-sales. What was good for 15th Century Scotland, however, may not be ideal for 21st Century California.
But why concern yourself with a problem for the future? Right now, it's your turn to tee off while I tuck into my latest vodka tonic. God, it's beautiful here! Thwack!!