Devil in the details
ROBERT STEUTEVILLE    MAR. 1, 2002
The designers and developers of California project cross a utility and infrastructure minefield after gaining approvals and financing. For the designers and developers of the Doe Mill Neighborhood, located in Chico, north of Sacramento, getting the project approved and financed has turned out to be less painful than working out details with fire officials, the public works department, and utility companies. Tom DiGiovanni and John Anderson stress the importance of reaching out to and educating these parties as early in the process as possible. Likewise, establishing a relationship with a real estate appraiser before construction begins can prove beneficial to securing financing. For some years prior to planning the 21-acre neighborhood in 2000, DiGiovanni and Anderson had primed the ground by conducting a workshop and engaging city officials in a dialogue about the New Urbanism. “We found virtually everyone in the planning department, on the planning commission, and in the city council highly receptive,” DiGiovanni says. Using the available planned unit development (PUD) zoning category — and taking advantage of a completed environmental analysis that had been done for a previous proposal on the site — the developers won unanimous approval for the project in 60 days. Developer Doe Mill LLC is a partnership of DiGiovanni and Jeff Fleeman, co-developer of Haile Village Center in Gainesville, Florida. The project’s lead designer is Anderson Lamb & Associates, with assistance from Envision Design and 180 Degree Design. Despite earlier efforts to get the city to adopt some kind of traditional neighborhood development (TND) code, the developer stayed with the PUD approach. Ultimately, building a project where officials could see the way new street and lot configurations work would be more productive and less threatening than an upfront change in the existing development standards, DiGiovanni says. “They [city officials] were much more prepared to give it a try in a PUD, and now they are interested in developing a code that allows this everywhere.” At buildout, Doe Mill will have a gross density of 8.4 units/acre, with 115 single-family homes, seven bungalow courtyard units, and 54 units in four-, five-, and six-plex flats. Get to the right official In the application process, the street width standards had to be cleared with both the public works department and fire department officials. According to DiGiovanni, the public works director was skeptical, but agreed to a 26-foot street “because he recognized the political will behind the project.” Fire officials, on the other hand, were not concerned about political pressure. They pointed to the Western Fire Code, which strongly recommends a 20 ft. clear zone on every street for emergency vehicles. The developers made the concession to restrict parking to one side of each street. Though these initial negotiations went smoothly, Anderson warns of the potential complications that can emerge later. “In a situation where you may be dealing with both a fire marshal and a fire chief, we counsel that you keep an eye on who’s going to sign off on the plan down the road and make sure that person is fully up to speed.” In this case, the chief had taken the lead, and when the marshal had to approve the final subdivision improvement plan, “he was having a hard time figuring out why they had agreed to certain configurations,” Anderson says. This lack of communication forced the developers to change curb radii in the late stages of planning. pedestrian Lighting Going up against the city’s street lighting standards proved more complicated. Anderson and Di-Giovanni wanted illumination that responded to the needs of pedestrians. That meant using 12 ft. poles instead of the public works department’s standard 18 ft. poles, as well as placing them at shorter intervals. “The city had a coach fixture that would work, but they don’t want any new poles that they have to stock parts for,” Anderson says. The public works director asked to see a study that would justify these changes, and Anderson and DiGiovanni hired a consultant from the Society of Illumination Engineers. The consultant was unable to evaluate the city’s outmoded calculations for glare and light intensity — a bit of digging revealed that the standards were based on a textbook that went out of print in 1952, DiGiovanni says. “We provided all kinds of new information about luminance and glare for the lighting in question. The public works department thanked us for the new research we provided, which they could use as the basis for new standards, but then suddenly decided that they did not want to see the 12 ft. poles. We finally got them overruled by the planning department, but it was a three-month process just to get the lights sorted out.” Utility installation In Doe Mill, local utility companies faced a brand new challenge: installing underground utilities in alleys. In the typical conventional subdivision utilities are buried between the sidewalk and the front houses, and the tolerances around the trench are fairly wide and flexible. In Doe Mill’s alleys, however, the tolerance shrank to six inches. The developers had a major educational effort on their hands — they needed to convince the water, telephone, cable TV, and gas and electric companies that it was physically possible to work in such a narrow space. Even after Anderson and DiGiovanni had met with utility representatives in the field and done extensive survey staking, problems persisted because installation crews were unfamiliar with the tight conditions. Utility engineering is underway for the second phase, and rather than waiting to do detailed drawings based on the utility companies’ schematic plans, the developers have produced such drawings up front to streamline the process. The argument for placing the utilities in the alleys is primarily aesthetic. Utility pedestals are not particularly attractive, and are getting larger as phone companies begin to provide fiber optic service. According to DiGiovanni, phone pedestals used to be 12-15 inches high and about six inches square, but newer models are 30 inches high with a diameter of 12 inches. “They become little totems in people’s front yards and homeowners are required to keep vegetation away from them,” he says. More than ever, the alley location is the preferable solution. Educate the appraiser Anderson and DiGiovanni put considerable effort into helping the local real estate appraiser understand the concepts of the New Urbanism and giving him a firsthand experience of good projects. “The chief benefit to educating the appraiser was that when it came time for construction loans and financing of the projects, the bank was very easy to deal with, because they had an appraisal from someone who understood what TND was,” DiGiovanni says. The developers took the appraiser and a local Realtor on a tour of projects in the East, including I’On, Celebration, Haile Village Center, and Harbor Town. The appraiser met with colleagues in these areas, and the developers also supplied him with background information. DiGiovanni advises that appraisers need time to reach their own conclusions about New Urbanism. “Give the appraisers six months to absorb everything. Give them information — the “Valuing the New Urbanism” study by Eppli and Tu, research by Zimmerman Volk Associates — and challenge them as professionals to go out and take a look at this or at least call colleagues that deal with new urban communities.” Also, DiGiovanni recommends working with an appraiser with a rigorous and technical approach rather than somebody who happens to be easy to work with — banks have greater respect for the rigorous appraiser. The developers brought a local Realtor along on the tour of projects. “Realtors are used to selling new construction by selling the house only,” Anderson says, “they are thinking square footage and features. To have them see a whole project helps to shift their point of view.” The importance of selling the community as well as the home also influenced the developers’ decision to halt the sales process until all the models are completed. “The sales up front require a lot more attention from us as builder-developers, than if you walk right into a model and see what you get,” DiGiovanni says. “Showing renderings is not the same as walking down that first block, closed on both sides.” By the end of 2001, 17 homes were under contract in Doe Mill.