Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Laguna West: Failed Execution

In recent weeks, I’ve written about a daytrip I took to several Northern California cities.  I was looking for urbanism insights to be gleaned during quick visits.  Today I’ll write about my last stop.  After the big box misdirection in Woodland, the ill-conceived environmental priorities in North Highlands, and the misallocation of resources in Carmichael, I thought I’d seen the worst.  I was wrong.  Failed execution on a large scale is even more painful.

Laguna West was among early darlings of the new urbanism movement.  Conceived in 1990, it was intended to show the world that urbanist principles could be met even in a post-World War II world that directed all of its incentives toward drivable sprawl.

With a conceptual plan that was developed by Peter Calthorpe and his fledgling Calthorpe Associates, a firm that was to have a long and illustrious history in urbanist theorizing, Laguna West could have become a model for later urbanists to meet and to exceed.

But the plan went awry.

It’s not completely clear what happened.  Although barely two decades old, the fall of Laguna West came before the full blossoming of the internet which documents so many of our missteps and miscalculations.  So we’re left to interpret from the shadows on the wall.

Perhaps Calthorpe was still refining his thinking.  Perhaps it was the reduced involvement of Calthorpe during execution of the plan.  Perhaps it was the influence of financiers who were uncomfortable with new ideas.  Perhaps it was the decision by regional authorities to not extend light rail into Laguna West.  Perhaps it was a combination of all of those factors.  But the result is a project that looks different than its neighbors, but not nearly as different as it could have and should have. 

The use of alleys and the resulting absence of driveways is probably the most striking difference.  But the weakness of the public realm failed to create an active life on the streets.  Some of the streets have creative street tree placements, softening the hard lines of the streets, but the rights-of-way are lined by concrete block walls, sucking any attraction from the setting.  Many of the homes appear well-built, but some neighborhoods are prematurely showing their age.  Overall, Laguna West failed to have the spark that good urbanism should display.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of the shortfall was the sterile and unattractive retail area at the north end of
Laguna West.  It lacks vitality and is far beyond a comfortable walk for most residents.

My perception of Laguna West was further tainted by the route I took to reach it.  The development lies on the north end of Elk Grove, between Highway 99 and I-5.  Not knowing any better, I took 99 to reach it.  Indeed, the exit from 99 is called Laguna Boulevard after the project.  But Laguna Boulevard has been corrupted by the drivable suburban mode that has swallowed the comfortable small-town Elk Grove that I remember from youth.  The street is six car-dedicated lanes of mind-numbing service to every big box and chain restaurant ever conceived.

The failure of Laguna West has had repercussions.  Opponents of new urbanism have used it as an example of why urbanism doesn’t work.  Their arguments are flawed, failing to recognize that the urbanist ideals of Laguna West were derailed before construction, but they nonetheless use the project as a talking point.

The initial developer of Laguna West, during a later run for California governor, was criticized for the failings of Laguna West, attacks that were probably unfair but still left an impression.

In a 2006 San Francisco article, reprinted on the Calthorpe Associates website, Calthorpe acknowledged the failing of Laguna West, but tried to put a positive spin on it.  “His optimistic take is that progress is a gradual thing. Developers and buyers are more comfortable now with a type of suburbia that is different from the 1950s norm.

"’There's no such thing as instant community, but you can build the right foundation,’ he argued at breakfast. "’What we're seeing is way better than the template it replaced. Given time it will be as rich and diverse and complex as all the places we love.’"

I agree that Laguna West was a step in the right direction, but it was a halting, stumbling step when a bold, confident step would have better served our future.  I’m not assigning blame.  I don’t think there was a villain.  Instead, it was a combination of failed vision and business-as-usual that undermined what could have been a milestone.

My disheartening tour of Laguna West complete, I was ready to head home.  My Northern California tour was done.  Suisun City remained the only highlight.  It was a somber drive home to the North Bay.  This urbanism thing seems so logical and right, but is so easily led astray.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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