4S Ranch is just Another Suburb

It was about 15 years ago. A huge housing development called 4S Ranch was in the planning stages in San Diego’s northern reaches, and its developers were lobbying for building permits. It was the typical political drama in which companies want to build and sell houses, and everyone who already had a house did whatever they could to stop them. The opponents gave us the familiar refrain about too much traffic and environmental impacts.

4S Ranch

The response of 4S Ranch was to say this was not another plain-old suburban housing tract. This was going to be like a small town. It’ll have a central business district. It’ll have schools. It’ll have sidewalks. I remember seeing the architects’ vision of the future, shown in attractive drawings.  Smiling neighbors would wave to each other across the street. Parks and sidewalks were populated with people. Residents would stroll to the business district to buy groceries. It was the “old-fashioned small town” meets “new urbanism” story.

But a couple of days ago I drove through 4S Ranch to see what it was really like. Basically 4S Ranch today is a suburb with sidewalks.

Don’t get me wrong. The fact they have actual sidewalks and berms makes the streetscape greener and more pleasant. But nothing about 4S Ranch gave me the impression that people were spending a lot of time rubbing shoulders on the streets or getting around in anything other than their personal car.

The “business district” had a few stores, but it looked a lot more like a mall than a small town center. Curving car lanes carried drivers from nearby streets into its parking lot, giving it the look of a place that did not invite pedestrians. Throughout the entire development, on this particular day, the sidewalks and front yards were empty.

Did the developers of 4S Ranch sell us a bill of goods? If they really did think the concept could work, it was wishful thinking.

Unlike downtown San Diego or, say, Mission Valley, this development was never conceived as a job center. So, for one thing, you’d have to drive elsewhere to get to work. And – by the way – are the people who buy into new suburbs the kind who really want to live in a village? Or are they just looking for a nice house and a good school district? These folks probably think little of driving 15 miles to go shopping.

I have spent a fair amount of time covering urban development and redevelopment as a reporter. And there is a lot of lip service given to smart growth and anti-sprawl development. They sound good, but I haven’t seen much to convince me that is the way people in Southern California want to live. Developers want to make money. They don’t want to change culture. So until gas prices or global warming take us there, places like 4S Ranch won’t be much more than a sales pitch.

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