A Grand Plan: Hamilton Air Force Base Becomes Innovative Community

  • San Francisco Chronicle
  • November 4, 1998

Close your eyes and imagine a town that's not totally dependent on cars. Bike paths connect the neighborhoods. A community shuttle carries residents to the town center and public transit. Walking, an all but an extinct form of transportation, is the easiest way to get around.

It's a town that fulfills all the residents' needs. Here, they can live, work and play without leaving the area.

This town has a heart: a hub that houses a café, a bank, a museum and an art gallery, and office space for nonprofit organizations.

Recreational facilities include a swimming pool, tennis courts, a ballpark, an amphitheater-even a movie theater. Naturalists can enjoy the preserved open space and 800 acres of wetlands, part of a regional wetlands restoration project. Nearby are a retail center and offices.

Unfortunately, towns like this just don't happen; they are planned. There's even a name for them: planned communities.

The town described above is what planners envision for Hamilton, a community now under construction in Novato in northern Marin. It's one of the first communities of this kind in the Bay Area.

This planned community, which will be completed over the next 10 years, has generated a lot of interest for several reasons.

Hamilton, on the site of the former Hamilton Air Force Base, represents the first successful transfer of a military base to the private sector. The New Hamilton Partnership purchased 400 acres of the site and sold it to builders. On it, 950 homes in six neighborhoods will be built during the next eighteen months.

Prices start around $260,000 for attached townhomes and in the low to mid-$300,000s for single-family dwellings. While those prices aren't exactly pocket change, they're very reasonable for Marin County and demand is high for houses in that price range.

A few of the homes are already occupied, and more than 150 have been sold. Homes will be available about every six to eight weeks, less frequently during the winter months. Interested homebuyers will be put on a waiting list for future releases and are contacted when homes become available.

Nationally, a number of successful planned communities have been created. Reston, Va., built in 1962, is one of the oldest. Celebration, Fla., built by Disney in 1996, is one of the newest.

In the Bay Area, there are few planned communities or any towns because it's extremely difficult for developers to obtain enough land and contend with environmental concerns.

Hamilton is unique in that it had been a town at one time. Because of that, the project was "redevelopment" in a sense, which made it a bit easier to get the go-ahead as a new town.

Like Celebration, Hamilton exemplifies many ideas of "new urbanism" or "neotraditionalism." This is a movement among architects, planners and developers to make towns more livable through the restoration of traditional architecture and design — to bring back Main Street, U.S.A., as it were.

For example, Hamilton doesn't compartmentalize segments of the community in the way suburban zoning does — upscale homes here, retail over there, apartments way over there. The tree-lined streets with homes set close to the sidewalk will reflect a small-town feel. And the town center will provide a focal point for the community the way main street once did.

The Truman Show

But planned communities aren't for everyone. Critics deride them as being to sterile, too regimented, too homogeneous. They say you simply cannot construct a small town overnight by putting in some streets and houses. The result, they say, is ultimately a place that fells like a movie set.

Case in point: The planned community of Seaside, Fla., was the setting for "The Truman Show," a film about a man whose entire life is a television program.

Planners of new towns counter the criticism by citing advantages they say outweigh the disadvantages.

"People like the sense of identity they get in a planned community," says Elizabeth Shreeve of the SWA Group, a Sausalito-based land planning and landscape architecture firm that does consulting for planned communities.

Planned communities are, by nature, orderly, efficient and even a bit regimented. But the very qualities that are often derided are what sustain them.

For example, they are a far better way to accommodate growth than the typical suburb, Shreeve says.

With strategic planning, the developer can incorporate more amenities and services such as a bicycle-pedestrian system, which are often cost prohibitive in existing communities, Shreeve explains. When you build a town from the ground up, you have the opportunity to balance commercial, public and private land uses. Environmental concerns can be addressed and traffic problems mitigated from the beginning.

One common criticism of planned communities is the "cookie-cutter" appearance of the houses.

Planners at Hamilton tried to avoid that monotonous look by offering several different plans within each of the six different neighborhoods.

In the Southgate neighborhood, for example, homebuyers can select one of four different architectural styles: California Bungalow, Craftsman, Spanish Colonial and English Tudor. They can further individualize their homes by choosing among dozens of customizing options.

The result, planners hope, will be consistency of design, as well as individualized homes and inviting neighborhoods.

The restrictions of a planned community at first concerned Charles Scott, a professional baseball scout and his wife, Marcella, an administrative assistant for Autodesk.

The Scotts were initially dubious about the rules and regulations set out by the architectural committee and homeowners' association: The Scott family's backyard play structure, for example, will have to go because of height limitations.

But now, the Scotts, who will move into their four bedroom Spanish Colonial home in the Southgate Neighborhood next month, have come to regard such restrictions as positive.

"Say you have a real nice house but maybe your neighbors house doesn't look so good," says Scott, who was born at Hamilton Air Force Base in 1964. "Here it's monitored, so everything looks good."

"Sense of Community"

But Hamilton isn't just about housing — it comes with a philosophy. Peter Palmisano, team member of the New Hamilton Partnership, says Hamilton will be more than just another suburb.

In fact, the city of Novato has voted down many proposals for subdivisions over the past few years because housing was too dense, Palmisano says.

The New Hamilton Partnership got the green light because it was a project that would "retain the small town flavor" of the area, says Cynthia Murray, a Novato City Council member. "We really wanted to try to re-create the sense of place — a place where people could belong."

And after almost 24 years of dormancy, Hamilton is coming to life again.

Palmisano envisions it as a real town with a sense of community — a place complete with homes, jobs, recreation, services and amenities; a place where people, not cars, are the first consideration.

Jim Novack and his wife, who currently live in Larkspur, are buying a home in the Traditions neighborhood. Novack says Palmisano "really inspired me with the idea that you could live in a community and not drive your car all the time. You could walk home for lunch like they do in Europe."

The planners are not only committed to architectural diversity but to economic and social diversity as well. The community will eventually have senior housing, a child care center, affordable housing and a homeless shelter.

With more than 150 planned new towns across the country in some phase of development, they may be the wave of the future.

Baby Boomers seek community above all else, says Richard Gollis of The Concord Group, a Newport Beach-based firm that tracks home buyer preferences.

"People today prefer a small-town environment, with the amenities of a city," says Gollis. "There's a desire to look back on our own childhood and try to re-create it."

Diane Gibbs, who moved to Hamilton with her family from Novato in August, echoes the sentiment. "I'm hoping it will be a 90s version of a 50s town," says Gibbs, who works from home as a customer care manager for General Electric.

Shreeve adds that studies show planned communities hold their value in economic hard times.

Although new towns may initially lack the richness and character of a traditional small town, proponents say the problem will eventually solve itself.

"You can't create history overnight," Shreeve says. "Every community takes on a patina over time."

For now, all signs point to success for the new town of Hamilton, which enjoyed the major advantage of already having the essential infrastructure, such as the palm lined streets, the town center, movie theater and chapel.

"The streets will make it feel like the kind of town people are nostalgic about," says Beth Steckman, marketing director for the O'Brien Group, which developed Hamilton's Southgate neighborhood. "It's like bring a small town back to life."