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VOL. 5, NO. 4 -- FALL 2003

New Towns -- Doe Mill Neighborhood, Calif.

Like most successful new urbanist developments, Doe Mill Neighborhood in Chico, Calif., is a jewel crafted by generalists. The 48-acre TND faced all-too-familiar obstacles that were overcome one by one by a team of practitioners who weren't afraid to wear more than one hat. Doe Mill's design came from Chico-based Heritage Partners, with input from Opticos Design of Berkeley, and 180 Design Studio of Kansas City, Mo. The developer is Heritage Partners and the Haile Group.

But we're all developers, says John Anderson of Heritage Partners. "I'm a designer/developer, Tom DiGiovanni (of Heritage Partners) is the developer/developer, and Jeff Fleeman (of the Haile Group) is the finance guy/developer."

Their crossover collaboration has made Doe Mill the talk of this college town.

Doe Mill started out as a planned development (PD) that had gone back to its lender (a European bank) and laid fallow for several years. Heritage Partners bought the land from the bank and replanned the site. Because the environmental work had been done previously, the team waited only 64 days from the time they landed the contract to the time they received planning commission approval, in fall 2000. The density level didn't change, just the arrangement of the elements.

The developers' work with local players is already a well-known tale. Working often on a one-to-one basis, they pushed the standards of their local fire department and public works officials -- and ended up compromising a bit by posting No Parking signs at the top of T intersections, so that a ladder truck can better negotiate the turn.

But it was the local utilities that proved to be even more of a challenge.

"We had a tremendous learning curve with the gas, electric, cable TV, and phone companies," says Anderson. "None of them had seen the utilities put underground in an alley. Their mindset was that in new construction, the utilities go in the front yard, where God intended. So we had to demonstrate that we could meet the requirements of the Green Book -- all the stuff accepted by the public utilities commission -- and make it work. Our surveyor staked the utility wall on every garage to demonstrate where the meters, etc., would go. That was in the first phase. In the second phase, we started with the garage plan. They came around. We're glad there are no big, green boxes in the front yards."

To bring their realtor and appraiser up to speed, the developers took them to Celebration, Haile Village Center, Newpoint, Port Royal, I'On, and Harbor Town. "The appraiser was very rigorous," says Anderson. "He read all the market analysis from Zimmerman/Volk, plus "Valuing the New Urbanism," so that he understood how homes in a TND should be valued for the lenders."

"We had previously taken our engineer on pretty much that same tour. He went as a skeptic and returned as a convert and advocate."

Doe Mill broke ground in 2001, and another challenge immediately rose up. "In a small market like this, convincing the local home builders to come out and change their house designs wasn't going to happen," says Anderson.

"So, in addition to being the developer, we decided we'd have to be a builder. We created New Urban Builders, and put together our own crew of local carpenters to do the interior and exterior trim -- and did 24 houses the first year. We're on track to do 50 this year. We'll have the whole neighborhood built out by Christmas 2004."

The developers are presently working to secure entitlements for a 2.5-acre commercial corner, which will contain mixed-use office space, and live/work buildings. Single-family homes, fourplexes, and six- and 10-unit bungalow courts will comprise the rest of the neighborhood. When built out, Doe Mill will contain more than 300 dwelling units, with a gross density of 8.4 units per acre (more than double that of the surrounding CSDs).

Doe Mill is enjoying success in tangible and less tangible ways. The sales numbers look good: Doe Mill competes well with local CSD projects, with homes going to members of a waiting list and garnering premiums in the 20 percent range, even though the Doe Mill homes are slightly smaller and are sited on smaller lots. The explanation behind that is easy, says Anderson. "Our home buyers understand the benefits of the neighborhood beyond their own house and yard. The houses are laid out well; they live better and look better. We have 50 to 60 percent more windows in our houses than some of the other builders in town, so there's lots of light."

Most Doe Mill streets are 26 feet curb to curb, with parking on one side. Others are 32 feet, with parking on two sides. But tell that to the pedestrians who visit Doe Mill just to walk its streets, and you'll likely get little more than a smile before they move on. They're there simply to enjoy the place.

Doe Mill's market success has garnered the development team more than just kudos from its residents. "The big news is that we demonstrated this is a viable approach for building new neighborhoods," says Anderson. "Now, with the Haile Group, we're in contract for 240 acres across the arterial from Doe Mill. That property presents an opportunity for a wider range of building types: civic uses with a full town center.

Now that's success.

Jason Miller is a new urbanist freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. Contact him at goodwords@juno.com or 651.503.6304.