Opinion: Cordova Hills & Suburban Living

Last night, the County Board of Supervisors approved the Cordova Hills project to create a new suburb in the eastern end of the County.

I watched some of the session on the project on television and was struck by a couple significant misrepresentations being oft quoted by the opposition which were fortunately corrected during the session.

One was that approving the project would threaten federal transportation funds, which was corrected by a former federal transportation official who found nothing in the project warranting such a claim.

Another was that the project should not be approved because it was so far away from everything else, which was corrected by the board chair reminding people that it was only far away if you live in the city of Sacramento, but for those people who live in Rancho Cordova and Folsom, it’s right next door.

Our organization doesn’t have any particular feeling about the Cordova Hills project as it is not adjacent to or even close to the American River Parkway, but we are concerned about suburban development in general.

The Parkway is surrounded by suburbs and the Sacramento region is largely a suburban region so the health of the suburbs is important to all of us and the approval of good suburban projects—which Cordova Hills appears to be—is good for the region.

The suburban home, lifestyle, and residents have been the recipients of criticism ever since people began moving from the congested, polluted, and dangerous cities out to the nice house in the country, and the call for the end of suburban living as if it is just-around-the-corner, is as much a fantasy as the validity of much of the criticism.

The typical urban planner in Sacramento probably looks out over the sea of suburban housing surrounding the American River Parkway and sees a lot of wasted space, but the people fortunate enough to live here—your author included—see sacred space; space devoted exclusively to their families and their private lives, space where their children are relatively safe and can grow to maturity within the most defining aspect of the American Dream, the California suburban lifestyle, the Sacramento Dream.

To the urban advocate, being a suburbanite is virtually always suspect, and it’s reflected in our language. The Oxford Dictionary has as one of its definitions of suburban: “2. Having characteristics regarded as typical of residents or life in the suburbs of a city; esp. provincial, narrow-minded, uncultured, naïve.”

However, being urbane, from urban, fares much better. “2. Having the qualities or characteristics associated with town or city life; esp. elegant and refined in manners, courteous, suave, sophisticated.”

Prejudice against suburban living as somehow living an inauthentic life is widespread and repeated regularly.

It was a stance I also held—though I was raised in the suburbs—when I was young and single, living in downtown or midtown Sacramento, when I was sometimes able to even forgo owning a car and during that period of my life, I truly enjoyed urban living.

However, once I was married and we had a child, the importance of more space, a back yard, and easy access to entertainment and shopping with free parking, and the relatively low crime rate in the suburbs, led to us living and remaining there.

While the car, among many members of the urban planning community, is largely tainted by the negative narrative of suburban living—and correctly the cause of some air pollution—much of the value of being in our own car as we tool around the community to work, play, and shop, is the way in which it provides an extension of our personal space and comfort, as a buffer against the often chaotic and hard-edged nature of the public space we all have to traverse daily.

It is also the only way you can really shop at Costco.

There is value in all types of living arrangements and the many arguments about why one is better than the other are generally more based on sincerely held ideological zeal rather than logical thought.

The two major environmental reasons given for the evil of the suburbs, air and water pollution—though urban environments have also long contributed to each—have largely been addressed by better technology.

Living in the suburbs is at the heart of the American Dream and virtually every day, I am reminded in some way of the great joy that is part of our family life largely resulting from our life in the suburbs, whether it is the busy chirping of the flocks of birds eating from our bird feeders or bathing in our bird baths, or the squirrels eating up the sunflower seeds sprinkled on the patio each morning, or the occasional hawk finding our back yard to keep the dove and squirrel population in check; or the warmth of the winter and early spring sun when sitting in the back yard, and the refreshing cool of the pool under the blazing Sacramento summer sun; and the peace and quiet largely surrounding us broken occasionally by a barking dog or the playing of the neighbors children or the murmur of a barbeque party; being able to jump in the car and within a couple minutes to be shopping in the grocery store or ordering in a restaurant for a spontaneous meal; or take the short walk to the river; it is all wonderful, all part and parcel of suburban life in the suburban communities surrounding the American River Parkway and the river flowing through it.

But, as much as I now love living in the suburbs, I will never forget how much I once loved living in the city, and for that reason, Sacramentans can be thankful we are blessed with an abundance of many ways of living our lives.
 

Disclosure: The author is the founder of the American River Parkway Preservation Society.

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January 30, 2013 | 2:23 PM

With due respect, it’s unclear to me why you choose to submit this article as the founder of the ARP Preservation Society. It appears to be completely unrelated and would only serve to alienate your organization from the many who disagree with the project going forward. By all means, you are entitled to write an article as you have, but you could simply state that you do not write representing your organization. That is just my opinion of course, and you obviously have a better sense than I do about how you want to portray your organization.

You seemed to have clued in to an anti-suburban mentality among the crowd. There surely are people with some disrespect for suburban living, though it probably pales in comparison to prejudices against urban life that have led to the blight of cities nationwide, prior to the last decade or two. Regardless, not all who oppose this project oppose the concept of suburban living, nor would they disagree that people can live fulfilling living in suburbs. Indeed, very little of this metro area is truly urban, with even much of grid representing something closer to “traditional suburbs” than urban.

There were many other reasons oppose this project, and I lack the time or background to elucidate all of them. Quickly though, greenfield development is not something we should wholeheartedly embrace. We also face an opportunity cost–when a developer stands to benefit substantially from a project that will pave over farmland and open space, are we, as a society getting an appropriate benefit? In this case, I find it inappropriate that the selling point of this project, a large university, has not and likely will never materialize.

I also want to point out that your quote above is somewhat misleading: You stated: “One was that approving the project would threaten federal transportation funds, which was corrected by a former federal transportation official who found nothing in the project warranting such a claim.” Indeed, the project will not DIRECTLY jeopardize federal funding. It will, however, increase traffic and vehicular emissions as a whole, which could increase pollution. It also should be pointed out that the “former federal transportation official” is now a consultant for the developer, which seems to take away much of the credibility he earned from his previous job.

January 30, 2013 | 6:30 PM

I wrote about it because our organization has, as one of its guiding principles: “The suburban lifestyle—as surrounds the American River Parkway—which is imbued within the aspirational center of the California Dream and whose vision is woven into the heart of the American Dream, is a deeply loved way of life whose sustainability we all desire.”

And, with all due respect, I do not think that being a consultant—I am one—necessarily precludes one from speaking honestly, and my sense, watching him present his material and respond to questions, is that he was being honest.

All of our guiding principles can be found on our website, http://www.arpps.org

Thank you for your comments.

Article Author
January 31, 2013 | 8:42 AM

I agree that being a consultant doesn’t preclude one from being honest, but I think it’s completely reasonable to question them when they stand to directly benefit from the project in question, and I think that noting that the speaker was a former transportation official, while not noting that they were essentially speaking on behalf of the project’s proponents, wasn’t a completely forthright description in your story.

January 30, 2013 | 2:33 PM

Wow, that was quite the paen to suburbia. To me, our urban areas in their best manifestation are our highest expression of civilization. The writer is obviously not a hater of the urban scene and I think he understands all the issues, so no rebuttal is needed from me. I would just say that I find the urban infill projects in Sacramento city far more exciting in their potential for culture and diversity and excitement than anything going on in the suburbs. And we certainly have a lot of potential land within existing urban and suburban areas that could use a lot of improvement. We lose something every time we build on formerly open space as in the Cordova Hills project. When I drive on Highway 50 from Folsom to Placerville, I especially find the recent development there depressing as it snakes into the valleys and climbs the hills. At what point are we going to stop paving over our beautiful state? When there is no soil left?

January 30, 2013 | 6:36 PM

Thank you for your comment.

I am not a huge fan of concrete either, and agree that infill should occur, but if the market isn’t there for it, then it either falls to government to do it, or the innovative developer who can make a profit on those types of projects, of which we have far too few in Sacramento.

Fortunately, most of the suburbs we do have in Sacramento have trails and green space, as it appears the Cordova Hills project also has.

Article Author
January 30, 2013 | 8:54 PM

Why, perhaps these infill developers should follow the example of the private entrepeneurs who made so much money owning and operating the highways that allow people to drive back and forth between suburbs and cities!

Oh yeah, that’s right, they didn’t do that. Suburbs are entirely dependent on public subsidy, in the form of public highways–like the Capital Southeast Connector, which will run from Elk Grove to Rancho Cordvoa and Folsom right past the project site.

http://www.connectorjpa.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/ConnectorClientMap2c.pdf

Without the public-funded highway system, the auto suburb would dry up and blow away–and we’d be back to building what we now call “infill” but we used to just call “cities.”

February 1, 2013 | 8:28 AM

Sigh. Until recent initiatives to put a stop to fund-raiding, the gasoline and other motor vehicle taxes had long paid for things utterly unrelated to roads, or transit for that matter.

What useful infill development projects there are end up squelched by petty politics. Small wonder developers go elsewhere.

January 30, 2013 | 7:03 PM

You’re right that the market has to be there for most developers to tackle infill. It’s a reflection of what society values, and unfortunately, much of what we value has proven quite harmful to the planet in terms of badly conceived growth. There has been a change though in the placing of more value on the concentrated glories of urban living as many rediscover the history and sense of place that the old city conveys. So much of suburbia, which was largely thrown up without much care, is leaving many more people cold these days.

January 30, 2013 | 9:05 PM

I’m not sure which is more detached from reality–Mr. Lukenbill’s grim vision of cities (like not particularly grim, or urban, Sacramento) or his overly optimistic sugar-coated vision of suburban life. His heralding of the suburbs as the one true path to peace and harmony ignores the fact that living in a single-family automobile suburb doesn’t really do anything to ensure peace or prosperity. Most of Sacramento’s high-crime neighborhoods are suburban, car-centric places, both in the city limits and the unincorporated county–but, like so many modern products, suburbs are intended as disposable consumer products, to be discarded after a short period of use. Those who get stuck with the hand-me-downs are seldom as satisfied with their purchase.

Cities, on the other hand, even modest and quiet ones like Sacramento, are not inherently more or less crime-ridden than suburbs, and the public realm can be a pleasant and comfortable place, not a scary thing to hide from, if its importance is acknowledged. They were also built to last, unlike the modern suburb, so handing them down from generation to generation is a gift to future generations, not rubbish foisted off on the poor.

January 31, 2013 | 9:13 AM

Inner cities not crime ridden? Built to last?

Detached from reality, indeed.

January 31, 2013 | 4:22 PM

Well, to be fair, he actually lives locally, and actually lives in an “inner” city. So that’s a couple credibility points on his side of the ledger.

January 31, 2013 | 6:15 PM

Well, in the case of our own “inner city,” there is crime, but it’s a lot lower than many of our 20th century suburbs. And yes, built to last, as you can see by the architectural legacy of the central city (aside from the stuff that was deliberately knocked down) and our “streetcar suburb” neighborhoods like Land Park, Curtis Park and East Sacramento.

February 1, 2013 | 8:30 AM

I used to live in same inner city. Your point? The worst neighborhoods remain in Sacramento CIty proper, and Midtown has its disproportionate share of the crime, although less than Oak Park or Del Paso Heights.

February 1, 2013 | 1:00 PM

Whether they are within city limits or the unincorporated county, suburban single-family neighborhoods are in no way immune to crime, as we see from the high crime rates in South Sacramento, North Highlands and other clearly suburban neighborhoods far from the urban core. Midtown’s crime rates put it somewhere in the middle, but there are other factors at work there–Rancho Murieta would have a whole lot more DUIs if there were a few hundred bars and nightclubs in the middle of the neighborhood.

January 31, 2013 | 11:20 AM

Mr. Burg is correct in both his comments. Missing from the discussion so far is the age and income of suburban and urban residents and availability of medical and other essential services to each. Contrary to popular assumptions, many aging people of higher incomes find that they often cannot drive their vehicles to go wherever they choose until the day they die–although too often, it is in those very vehicles that they meet their death or disability.

Even though Bill does not expand on other “cities,” there is a huge difference throughout the country in the health of those cities’ urban cores. Some attract large numbers of affluent seniors–others do not. “Retirement” compounds are often built far into the suburbs but often lose their allure as aging and strict, inflexible rules take their toll. Finally, when I hear “demand” as a market factor, it reminds me that such demand is too often determined by what is available as it was for the last several decades prior to 21st century in Sacramento.

February 1, 2013 | 9:55 AM

Experience in my family is that the older ones want to stay in their homes, whether in the suburbs or otherwise, until they reach the stage of wanting or needing “assisted living” at which point they liquidate the suburban place and go to the senior facility, or move in the spare bedroom or “Granny cottage” with their adult children. And the assisted living places all have shuttle buses to help people get around even if located in the burbs.

This is not to say I disagree with the underlying analysis. It makes sense for seniors to want to live in smaller apts/condos without big yards and be closer to the cultural amenities that appeal to them. Which would bode well for inner cities if they were well run. However,

(1) a good many inner cities are still unsafe and unpleasant.

(2) those prime of lifers raising kids will still flock to the burbs in droves. The successor prime of life generations will want to move into suburbia as it is, for the very reasons their predecessors did–family space, privacy, etc.

It would be pleasing if elder gentrification of the ghettoes occurred, and in a few cities it has, but I am not sure if that will happen for most of them. I hope it will, however. If the elders have the clout, all I can say is let “Gray Power!” drive out the ghettoes.

However, will quiet elders want the same kind of inner city that childless young hipsters do? Probably not. Perhaps they can split midtown down the middle between them?

This thread did get me to thinking–what if the City of Sacramento deliberately encouraged the elderly to move in to some of its neighborhoods?

Two candidate areas:

1. The north end of Oak Park. Ghetto, but close to the “Fabulous 30′s-40′s”. Older homes that while they are single family, are rather dinky and cramped by suburban standards, but probably great for empty nesters. Also close proximity to Sutter Memorial, Sutter General, Mercy and UC Davis hospitals and associated clinics. Close to cultural amenities of downtown. Perhaps Business 80 could be the divide between the rowdy “rainbow” youngsters of Midtown and the quieter elders. This neighborhood could be “Walker–able”, so to speak.

2. Del Paso Heights/North Sac. As I ride the trolley along this route, I notice all the vacant lots and storefronts. What if senior care centers, dialysis clinics, “Urgent Care” mini hosptials and the like were encouraged to go there? It would fill up the vacant buildings. What if Eskaton-like centers were encoouraged on the many vacant lots around Swanston? Haggin Oaks Golf Course could become “the poor man’s Sun City”.

Relative infrastructure demands:

1. Police. Initially, lots of cops might be needed to protect the elders, but the new inhabitants themselves are not likely to commit crimes, nor need crowd control.

2. Schools. Demands by elders would be minimal, save an adult education class or two. Crappy school districts would not be a problem.

3. Medical. Here, demands would be noticeably higher.

4. Tax base. Elderly on pensions are not lucrative, but they are preferable to slums.

January 31, 2013 | 3:10 PM

It is true that many of the high-crime areas in Sacramento are some of the first suburbs that started cropping up in the 1950s. But I think it just shows that any place can deteriorate given the right conditions. The inner city died as people escaped to these first suburbs. And now we’re building farther-away suburbs to escape some of the first suburbs. I think it makes far more sense to enhance the built environment that already exists than to escape to yet another development like Cordova Hills which will destroy yet more open space. We as a society are guilty of wanting the bigger cheaper house far away from urban centers and the big inefficient cars. Demand is a very real driver of what gets built and for a long time it was suburbs that was what most people wanted. It’s changing somewhat, which is why urban Sacramento is far nicer than what it was when I first lived here over 30 years ago and why it continues to improve.

February 1, 2013 | 12:57 PM

You raise many good points, but a lot of those central city residents didn’t escape to the first suburbs–they were forced out of their homes and neighborhoods, and they were unable to buy homes in those suburbs because of racial covenants. Market forces and consumer demand did not kill central cities, it was government-driven social experimenting intended to move people to the suburbs whether they liked it or not–at least white middle-class people, anyhow.

February 4, 2013 | 7:38 AM

It has been nearly 5 decades since the Civil Rights Act and associated fair housing acts.

It is amusing to see people who don’t like suburbs, but seeing that most people do, have to concoct great conspiracies as to how the masses were “tricked” into living there.

February 2, 2013 | 10:21 AM

Pretty good discussion and thanks to all the folks who contributed, and it mirrored one of the article’s paragraphs:
“There is value in all types of living arrangements and the many arguments about why one is better than the other are generally more based on sincerely held ideological zeal rather than logical thought.”
The bottom line is that, each form of living, urban, inner suburbs, outer suburbs, exurbia, rural, etc, have great value for the people who desire to live in them according to their life circumstances and our general consensus, which most commenters shared, should be to respect and encourage each to life where they wish.
Throughout history, the choice of the majority has been the suburbs, and I suspect that will continue, for all of the reasons I outlined in the article.

Article Author
February 6, 2013 | 2:02 PM

Good, thoughtful article. The author shows no bias, as some of the chronic detractors claim, but he portrays the reality of our region and the fundamental importance of providing people with reasonable choices about where they live, and/or where they aspire to live. As long as planning is done well, wherever it may be, we can be grateful that we (still) live in a State and country that gives us the option. Downtown is fun, but it is not where I chose to live. I don’t berate people for choosing downtown as a lifestyle. Leave me alone for choosing where I want to live.

February 4, 2013 | 7:39 AM

If anyone has caused the decline in US infrastructure, it is the likes of you, blocking badly needed roads, power plants, and industry in order to try to recreate late 19th and early 20th century cities that simply do not work. And the likes of you have caused economic decline as well. Small wonder business goes elsewhere.

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