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Orange County Gets Density—and Subpar Urbanism

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, [1] where this post originally appeared.

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "Orange County Gets Density—and Subpar Urbanism"

#1 Comment By collin On January 26, 2018 @ 8:23 am

I lived this area and frankly I don’t what your problem is here. (And Santa Ana is better than 30 years as well.) This seems a reasonable housing for a crowded city that needs more housing and apartments.

This is one aspect I don’t get from the libertarian arguing for less housing regulation to solve our economic problems of The Rent Is Too High. Coastal cities need this housing but once built it is sorta ugly, too small but still expensive for it is. That is the reality of less housing regulation in cities.

#2 Comment By josh On January 26, 2018 @ 11:38 am

It has nothing to do with compromise and everything to do with status and in order for the rich to have status they have to keep the rest of us living in squalor so they have something to look and point too as a measure of there “..superiority…”.

#3 Comment By Mr_Mike On January 26, 2018 @ 11:59 am

I like the idea of being able to have businesses on the ground floors, especially if the occupants live above the store. I wonder if more small businesses could survive if they didn’t have to pay business rent, and a home mortgage. It would be better to combine them. The extra money saved each month could allow the business to succeed.

#4 Comment By Nelson On January 26, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

I like the idea of being able to have businesses on the ground floors, especially if the occupants live above the store. I wonder if more small businesses could survive if they didn’t have to pay business rent, and a home mortgage. It would be better to combine them. The extra money saved each month could allow the business to succeed.

Exactly. This is not a new idea though, it’s the way things used to be done before some fool thought it would be a good idea for cities to separate residential from commercial zoning and a bunch of other fools agreed.

#5 Comment By The Scientist 880 On January 26, 2018 @ 4:30 pm

Just curious, I’m new here and was wondering why a website dedicated to social conseritism even has a section on urbanism? Social conservatism has been dead in major cities for at least my entire lifetime (30 years) if not a generation or 2 longer. I don’t think it was ever something that was the majority creed since cities, with their density, cultivate a “live and let live” attitude. I would guess that the natural constituency of this blog are small town rural and exurban folks and maybe some suburbanites but certainly not major American city dwellers. Any thoughts?

#6 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On January 26, 2018 @ 6:17 pm

Orange County, where I live, is Northern New Jersey (where my sister lives), with palm trees.

Euclidean zoning has not stood us in good stead.

#7 Comment By John On January 26, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

To Scientist 880:

I’ll quote Winston Churchill, “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

After years of examining small rural towns, suburbia, and urban cores all over the country I’ve discovered that the dynamics are amazingly similar everywhere in spite of the political and cultural variations. The ways our towns are different are superficial. They ways they’re the same are deeply rooted and exactly the same.

Our national systems of finance, zoning, corporate production, and NIMBY resistance deliver the same products regardless of the local Red State / Blue State thing.

The Drive-thru burger joints and Jiffy Lubes in Houston are identical to the ones in Orlando or a tiny town in Nebraska or Vermont. The same cul-de-sac subdivisions exist in Connecticut as New Mexico – give or take the vinyl siding vs. stucco. The 200 unit condo complexes in Seattle are the same as the ones in Nashville. The dead mall in California is reinvented as a “Towne Centre” just like the dead mall retrofits in Minnesota or Georgia. Political flavoring doesn’t change any of it.

What makes a real difference is how much money is available in a given market. When enough money is put on the table things change. When the money isn’t there, they don’t. That isn’t good or bad. It just is.

#8 Comment By Ray Woodcock On January 28, 2018 @ 6:27 pm

I’m sure everyone has his/her ideas on suburbia. I have [2]. I think there are ways to improve on what I saw, when I lived in L.A. Regardless, this is a good article. Thanks.

#9 Comment By peter in boston On January 29, 2018 @ 2:19 pm

Scientist 880:

You could start here


and with other Coppage and Marohn posts on TAC.

There is always a lot of pushback to these pieces from readers who mistakenly think urbanism means you have to live in a tiny apartment in a city vs. having a half acre of grass and trees. Really urbanism is more about towns and cities that create walkable neighborhoods and walkable town centers, both of which have a high taxable value per acre and low infrastructure per acre costs. Urbanism is about a return to a traditional development pattern, versus what Marohn calls ‘the suburban experiment’.

#10 Comment By Matthew On June 9, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

This is Agenda 21. there will not be cars in the future.