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What do places do for people?

When you think about land development, depending on your level of involvement, exposure, and to some extent politics, you’ll likely be somewhere on the spectrum of “greedy big bad business owner who scrapes the land bare of its character” to “engine of growth and opportunity building the roads, bridges, schools we take for granted will just be there.” Ok, maybe those aren’t the exact words you would use to define your ends of the spectrum, but I know my sentiment is close.

I bet most of us don’t stop and think about what the places real estate developers create mean to us, and to how we live. Or, how dramatically the way we live has changed over the past five years even, and how that demands these place makers think differently, look past what has maybe worked before, and learn from what didn’t to create places people want to be. Yesterday, at the Urban Land Institute San Diego-Tijuana District Council I listened to three developers in North County San Diego talk about what they care most about, and the challenges they face every day. They didn’t focus on the challenges of being in business, though development in the state of California is some of the most challenging in the nation. They focused on the challenges of creating places people care about and that work for the way they want to live.

“Your architect and landscape architects are the most important consultants on your team,” said Gary Levitt, owner of Sea Breeze Properties, a development company currently creating the North City community in San Marcos, surrounding Cal-State University San Marcos. North City will be the urban center for all of North County, combining residential townhomes and apartments, student housing, high-end and community-oriented retail, superb restaurants, hip taprooms, co-working spaces, entertainment facilities and commercial offices, all with access to public transit, parks, and outdoor amenities.

He’s right. And when he says, “we are creating urbanity in suburbia” what he speaks of is creating places where people want to congregate and connect. Architecture invites people in or keeps people out, and it is a huge element in placemaking. Landscape architecture takes the natural environment relevant to a particular place and works to integrate it with the buildings and streets that make up the built environment. When done well, the combination of built and natural space just feels good. Like someone cares. Beyond just being the material for Instagram moments, like the picture above of Gelato 101 that opened recently in my neighborhood, they are places where people share life, stories, and community. Check out the detail that went into the outdoor seating space for a gelato shop! Different types of seating for large groups or individuals looking for a break; seating for adults and kids; things to look at and do; the story behind this small family business proudly displayed as art for all to see. Things that give you a moment away in the middle of your day. This is no accident.

In North City, “parks” are more than green spaces, they are sidewalks creatively designed with places to sit and street trees, and green mews that create moments of urban relief and are just more inviting than straight wide concrete strips. There’s an energy here that is not accidental. It comes from the vision for place, and the thoughtful integration of land uses that respect the diversity of people, at all stages of life who crave a great place and have life to live. Maybe the next tech start-up to come out of San Diego will be that Cal-State grad who rents a shared desk space at Union Co-work, opening this week in North City.

Kerry Garza, President, and CEO of family-owned Touchstone Communities – his son runs the development side of the business and his daughter leads the marketing – has a long history of developing master-planned communities, and time spent in multiple large homebuilding companies. His company is currently building a mixed-use condominium community in downtown Escondido. He’s also developing a master-planned community in Valley Center, an historically rural area that with recent road improvements is closer to the main employment cores than ever and will provide more than 600 homes for families and young people wanting to own a home in a new community close to work, and for move-down buyers looking to sell large estate homes and move into the new heart of the community. And you better believe his heart and soul considers very carefully every decision he makes.

Describing what’s it like to drive through a community he built many years ago and seeing how people live, he hit on one of the biggest challenges of creating places – the need to understand who lives there and how they will actually want to live. “I drove by the ‘pocket parks’ we created in one community and they were used by one person with a baby in a stroller, or in some cases just empty. We are social beings, and we want places to gather and socialize together with each other, versus single-use pocket parks,” he shared, describing how that lesson influenced the design philosophy behind Park Circle, where a 2.6-acre park will combine sports courts, playgrounds, barbecue and picnic areas, shade structures, bocce ball and horseshoe courts, fitness equipment, and an outdoor stage, all adjacent to a pool and neighborhood retail space. “In Park Circle we know we are creating the party here for people and we have to bring everything with us,” he said. The investment in placemaking, in this case, is no small one. But it will result in a community that offers ways to connect and engage in life beyond just the four walls of a home.

Gil Miltenberger is a Vice President of Integral Communities, whose company develops master-planned communities, apartment communities and infill, and mixed-use communities throughout a number of western US markets. They are currently building projects in downtown Escondido as well, with a mix of senior apartments, market-rate apartments, rowhomes, villas, condominium apartments, and some retail. Reflecting back on where people put “developers” on the spectrum he said, “Bad information is a challenge”, referring to cases where one person sees partial (and usually negative) information on social media and promotes it, passing it along without taking the time to read the actual documents. He described being met by people with false stories about places he’s creating, but who haven’t taken the time to actually read the facts.

I know, like much in the world right now, your perspective of developers is a polarizing issue, often based on long-held and outdated biases, partial facts or no facts (there are no “alternative facts”). But the cafes and funky restaurants in the places Integral Communities has brought to life, once open, are visited by those same people who spread the bad information. And these places grow into community cores where life is better, lived and shared in new ways.

Great places don’t just happen. And they don’t start out as great places. They start out as an idea full of challenges and ripe with potential for those who are brave enough to take the decades it takes to bring them to life and rewarding for those who are committed to getting involved in the potential of what could be for their community. Often, these people bring the real-world perspective developers (sociologists at heart) crave about how life is lived, to help avoid the pocket park syndrome. Places are where opportunities are created, education is supported, businesses grow and innovate, connections and movement from one place to the next is made possible, and where we all live. And none of them happen by accident.

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