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Thursday, Feb. 8, 2007 | With neighborhoods named Cabrillo and Kensington, it’s quite plain what muse Del Sur master developer Fred Maas invoked when dreaming up a sales pitch for this 3,050-home planned community north of State Route 56 — old-school San Diego neighborhoods.
Hence the phrase used in a recent newspaper ad, purporting Del Sur is connected to old San Diego “by more than a freeway.” Maas hopes to separate this development from cookie-cutter suburban subdivisions that have sprung up around the county in recent years to meet rising demand for housing. And to do that, he’s evoked the names and the histories of the established neighborhoods usually ringed by these types of new developments. The homes in the “Alcala” community, named for the San Diego Mission, claim to form a “personal sanctuary” for residents and are planned to be built in the Spanish style reminiscent of old San Diego, for example.
Maas said he’s been thinking about and planning this community for 18 years, and in that time, he said he’s had “a lot of time to observe communities that have been done well, and others that have been done not so well.” He surveyed Mission Hills, Coronado, Point Loma, Rancho Santa Fe, La Jolla and others — and tried to imagine elements of those old neighborhoods showing up in 21st-century construction.
“We wanted to create something that was really true to the roots of San Diego,” Maas said.
But the charm of neighborhoods like Bankers Hill and Mission Hills, for many who live there, is that they’ve evolved over time. Mom-and-pop shops and rickety houses and neighborliness have all grown up together over the last several decades, residents say, with new cafes and condos and storefronts assimilating into the existing neighborhood identity a few at a time.
“We live in these older communities to avoid the suburbs, where everything looks alike,” said Leo Wilson, chairman of Uptown Planners, a community planning group representing Bankers Hill, Mission Hills, Hillcrest and University Heights. “All the buildings are different — it’s an architectural treasure to go down the streets of Bankers Hill.”
To be fair, Del Sur’s one-foot-in-the-future, one-in-the-past strategy runs deeper than the paper brochures and newsprint advertisements bearing the community’s mission-esque cross logo. Many of the architectural elements that mark old San Diego neighborhoods — like colonial pillars and eaves, Spanish-style roofs and exterior, plaster-like finishes — show up there, amid the blend of browns and tans painted on the 500-some homes already built. And the developers have embraced environmental building elements that promise sustainability.
The community is divided among six different builders, each of which has a few different model types under construction. And before the builders — including Standard Pacific Homes, Shea Homes, Davidson and William Lyon — could purchase any lots, they were required to go to Mission Hills and take photographs of the architectural bits they planned to include in their homes. And even the houses from a particular builder are split up and mixed among each other to try to avoid the homogeneity so commonly associated with subdivisions.
Mirle Rabinowitz Bussell, an urban studies and planning professor at the University of California, San Diego, said it’s intriguing that Del Sur takes some cues from Kensington, which was itself a subdivision in the 1920s.
“If you look at San Diego, the history of growth and development is the history of subdivisions,” she said. “[Kensington] was one of the earliest subdivisions.”
And Bussell said even the cozy neighborhood of Kensington, now replete with cafes, restaurants, the Ken Theatre and a snatch of an air of superiority among its residents, was once marketed in much the same way as Del Sur.
“It was evoking this ambience, with a big sign the builder put up about the wonderful, Spanish-style community,” she said. “It was the way that the developer appealed to these people’s emotions.”
Indeed, a 1929 ad printed in the Journal of San Diego History for “Valley Rim of Kensington Heights” shows Father Jayme, a famed padre in the region. The ad depicts him standing on the “scenic rim of Kensington Heights,” surveying the valley below for the perfect location for his San Diego Basilica de Alcala — the San Diego Mission.
That strategy of appealing to the history of the land is kind of what Del Sur seems to be doing, Bussell said. But Kensington proper has the benefit of 80 years of history and a proximity to workplaces that can’t be touched by the freeway commute to Del Sur.
“I think if you asked some Kensington folks, they’d say, ‘We still have the better end of the deal. My house may be 80 years old, but look what I have in a 5-mile radius,’” she said.
Wilson, in Bankers Hill, lists Balboa Park as a capital-letter Amenity for his neighborhood. Del Sur plans counter with eight parks, many with pools and 18 miles of hiking trails.
Though Del Sur can’t compete with some of the inherent benefits to living in the older communities, like proximity to downtown San Diego or historical buildings, Bussell said she’s encouraged that developers like Maas have studied San Diego and are trying to tailor a subdivision to this region. Some of his contemporaries, she said, just plot out lots of land for pink stucco box-like houses and call it a subdivision.
“We still need to at least acknowledge and appreciate that some developers are willing to go to the next mile,” she said. “Subdivisions get a really bad reputation. Some are generic and homogeneous. But it’s an encouraging sign that some builders are trying to do this.”
Wilson’s still not convinced, though he said he hasn’t had the chance to check out Del Sur first-hand.
“Community is more than just houses. It’s history,” he said. “It’s neighborhood. It’s flavor.”
And if he were to classify the copycat neighborhoods about 25 miles to the north?
“It’s like going to Las Vegas to experience Paris or Venice,” he said. “It ain’t the same.”