Here’s a spot in Santa Ana, California—although it could be just about anywhere. Every town in North America has a string of used car lots along the side of its aging eight lane suburban arterials. In this location land values and market demand for housing are so incredibly high even the obscene regulatory constraints, up front impact fees, environmental remediation, and NIMBY opposition are being overcome to accommodate new development. But the stuff that’s getting built is a platypus hybrid of suburban and urban typologies.
Across the street on what was once a nearly identical second hand auto dealership is a new housing subdivision. The market wants fully detached single family homes with two car garages and garden space in this location. What the underlying economic situation mandates is an intensity of land use that gets the price per unit down below the $700,000 level, which is what buyers in the region can manage. Most of that cost has little to do with the homes themselves. The dirt, infrastructure, and entitlement process chew up much of the budget. So developers are creating vertical row homes that don’t physically touch.
The few feet of air between these homes is largely symbolic, but it’s a cultural artifact that many people prefer. All these homes are tied together invisibly by a rigid homeowners association that dictates every aspect of what can and can’t be done here. But these feel like autonomous spaces.
While the floor plans don’t vary much, the aesthetic treatments do. Each home gives the impression of being unique with traditional domestic touches. The people who build these places know exactly how to appeal to specific demographics. In this case there’s a need for family homes suitable for children, yet close to employment and the larger ties of extended family and ethnic bonds. These buyers are predominantly Vietnamese.
Of course the entire subdivision is gated and walled. Residential communities like these are almost always fitted with reassuring security features. I tend to believe these gates and walls are more of a suggestion of safety rather than truly physically secure, but buyers are more confident when they see these amenities.
People may want a large front lawn and generous back garden, but to achieve that kind of property in Orange County they’d either have to pay an exorbitant price, or relocate to the far fringe of the metroplex and endure a soul crushing commute. The marketing department and interior designers set the stage for a comfortable life within the walls of these homes, which do in fact have everything on most wish lists. It’s all just a bit compressed. Each of these units sold before the complex was fully built out.
Ingeniously the units that face the arterial do, in fact, touch and form a visual and acoustic screen for the rest of the development. The trade off is that these townhome condos have the physical and legal distinction of being live/work spaces. It’s permitted and approved to conduct certain kinds of business in these units. So if you happen to be a professional photographer or tax accountant you could run your shop on the ground floor. That’s a rarity in suburbia and a trade off many people are willing to embrace.
Standing in the median between multiple lanes of high speed traffic I tried to imagine what the neighborhood would be like when the remaining used car lots and aging strip malls eventually give way to more of these complexes. It won’t be the nostalgic Ozzie and Harriet landscape many people still pine for. But I’m not sure that ever existed exactly as people like to remember. The discount auto malls put things into perspective pretty fast.
But this landscape won’t ever be Paris either. Everyone will continue to drive everywhere and traffic will metastasize as it always has. Walking, biking, and taking the bus will remain marginal and largely unrewarding activities. At best it will become a stucco Queens—an outer borough with drought tolerant plantings. Not terrible I suppose.
Then again, I remind myself that Paris isn’t building Paris anymore either from what I see littering the penumbra of that city. The hulking boxes of Carrefour, Bricorama, and Ikea that grace the French capital’s A4 Autoroute rival New Jersey at dusk. Time marches on. Is any of this better? Worse? I’ve made my peace with the process, warts and all. We don’t get perfection. We get what solves our problems and meets our needs right now. It’s all about compromise.
John Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape. He blogs at Granola Shotgun,  where this post originally appeared.