Lewis Builds Social Infrastructure Into Master Planned Communities
June 24, 2006
Inland Empire developer Randall Lewis builds community, health, and variety into a new breed of master-planned communities.
In the past decade, the Inland Empire has grown from a collection of subdivisions into one of the largest, most dynamic new urban areas in the country. Once thought of as the home of endless homogenous subdivisions, it is now fostering innovative, high-quality master-planned communities that offer far more than just housing. Many of these communities bear the stamp of the Lewis Operating Corp. TPR was pleased to speak with Lewis Corp. Executive VP Randall Lewis, who discusses his commitment to livable, healthy communities on the region's eastern frontier.
When TPR interviewed you a year ago, you spoke about the master planned communities you're building in the Inland Empire and throughout Southern California. Update our readers on what's happened in the last year and what your plans are for the near future.
We're working on a number of interesting master-planned communities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The Preserve, which opened last February in Chino, is the first of these new communities. All of the homes in the first phase are sold and the second phase opens soon. The Preserve features a number of interesting planning concepts and has a clearly defined market segmentation. It has ten different housing projects, all targeted to a different market profile. We hope to break ground within 60 days on a K-8 school, which will feature joint-use amenities such as a park, library, gym, and community rooms. It will total just over 7,000 homes and apartments.
In Riverside County we're working on a number of communities, and I'm especially excited about one called The Resort, which is in western Riverside County. We believe that this project's architecture and landscaping will set a mew standard of excellence for that part of the county. It also will have the strongest lifestyle component of any project in that part of the county. We're still finalizing plans, but we'll have over 20,000 square feet of private community center activities that will include a state of the art gym, a business center, a ballroom, catering kitchen, billiards room, and about a $10 million total recreation package.
You mentioned a year ago that incorporating social infrastructure into your master-planned communities is a responsibly of community developers but may not be appropriate for smaller builders. Elaborate on what you've learned—the art of the possible—from planning and building these larg-scale master-planned communities.
From our most recent apartments and now from The Preserve, we learned that many people seek out communities with a strong social infrastructure that gives them a sense of pride and engagement in their community. One of the main selling points of The Preserve, for example, has been our clubhouse and the programming that goes with it. We've also learned, interestingly enough, that it's not for everybody. Some potential buyers go away and buy homes on conventional lots with no homeowners association in surrounding communities. That's OK with us. We don't necessarily want to build communities that appeal to everybody, but as long as a strong percentage of buyers fall in love with what we do, we're very happy. We've learned that the educational components of the social infrastructure are also very important. Anything we can do for kids is very important.
With The Resort, which is a smaller community of only 1,750 homes, we're trying to do at an even higher level what we did with social infrastructure and service at The Preserve. So we've been studying resorts all over the world trying to find out what makes a resort a resort and how we can fine-tune our plans to the new demographics arriving in the Inland Empire.
This month's Metro Investment Report is carrying remarks by Rick Bishop, of the Western Riverside County Council of Governments. He confirms the incredible population growth of Riverside County and the Inland Empire, which is Lewis Homes' market. He notes that it's the second-fastest growing county in the country and it's going to double in the next 20 years, up to 4.5 million people by 2040. He's concerned that single-family lots might not be the template on which to meet demand. Do you agree with Bishop?
Rick is absolutely correct. There's a huge stock of existing housing on large single-family lots, and there's still a number of developments on these kinds of lots in the pipeline. So we've tried to carve out a market niche to serve the under-served demographics of a rapidly changing Southern California and Inland Empire. We see the under-served groups as singles, couples, small families with children, empty nesters, and active adults, all of whom say that they don't need a big tract house on a 7,200-foot lot. These are the types of people leading us towards these new master-planned communities. Another large community we're working on in Riverside County is the Villages of Lakeview. This will have over 12,000 homes and a series of lifestyle villages.
What regulatory framework or planning process provides incentives to developers like yourself to invest in holistic planning and building in your communities?
Coming down from the Board of Supervisors and carrying through the staff, Riverside County has become very progressive in terms of the planning and entitlement process. Two separate things are going on. The first is that they're welcoming innovative developments as long as they have a very high quality of design and respect the surrounding communities. The second is that these projects must pay their own way for issues like schools, traffic, and other infrastructure.
The Villages of Lakeview project is part of a larger effort that is really unique. In this case, five projects will total over 25,000 homes. But, instead of having five master-planned communities that are isolated from each other and might otherwise be linked only by a major road system, the County Supervisor, Marion Ashley, and the county planning department have worked with the developers to look at this virtually as a new city. It may or may not turn into an incorporated city, but they're approaching the plans. So, the team of developers and the county worked together to decide what should go into a new city. We considered open space, libraries, jails, retail, churches, and so forth. It's been a fascinating process that never would have happened without the leadership of the county. We're now trying to put together a matrix that determines how many square feet of these various civic structures the “city” should have. It's been a very difficult process because there's not a lot of good research, so we've had to dig all over the country. When it's done, we won't have five isolated communities with many isolated subdivisions. Instead, we will have a well-planned, sustainable new community that promises to be the best in Riverside County. Getting the developers to talk with each other and with the county in this way is very exciting and totally unprecedented.
You're underwriting a seminar series at UC-Riverside on “Sustainable Urban Development,” which picks up on many of these planning themes. What is your mission and expectation for these seminars?
Because it's through UC-Riverside they control the content, but the topics they've selected have been great. They've discussed affordable housing, density, the role of art and culture, and the environment. The city manager of Ontario, Greg Devereaux, talked about the role of city government. One recent seminar covered cutting-edge trends in architecture and land planning. Two leading planners and architects did a presentation about ideas on the drawing board that will hit the marketplace in a few years. Bob Johnson, the planning director of Riverside County, did a great presentation on the county's vision for the planning process and how they're trying to re-invent the planning process and doing a very good job of it. I hope in the future there will be a program on health initiatives.
You've long been interested in the connection between public health and planned communities. How have you drawn from that interest and incorporated it into your projects?
We try to focus on four elements. We look at the physical plan to see if it promotes physical activity and safety. That can involve safe routes to schools, trails, adequate park space, etc. The second is to look at some of the vertical, physical elements of the plan, as opposed to lines on paper. We try wherever possible to put in major recreation components. Those could be extra parkland, community centers with gyms, swimming pools, tennis courts and other structures. A lot of research says that when people have easy access to these physical elements, they will use them. The third thing we try to do involves partnerships and programs. We try to work with the cities and the nonprofits, such as YMCAs or school districts, to determine what programs we can bring to our residents to help them live healthier lifestyles. And, finally, it's the policy – and this has to come from the cities or the county – that must decide whether to make health a priority in the wider community and how to go about it.
Some tangible things are happening in both Chino and Fontana, where they have programs to promote public health. Both cities have assigned staff to work solely on health initiatives and health-promoting activities in their communities. These are funded and run by the cities, with some contribution from our company and both have had great results. Chino, for example, is doing a new general plan, and it's the first city I know of that will include a health component in its general plan. In Fontana, they're building a new community wellness center that has come out of the “Healthy Fontana” initiatives. They use a website and billboard advertising to promote the program. They're also working with restaurants and schools to try to raise awareness of health issues and form partnerships with groups such as Kaiser. Both cities are making very good progress.
In the County of San Bernardino we have had a couple meetings, and they're planning to fund staff through their Department of Public Health to work on health promotion, understanding the link between development and health, and trying to build partnerships among the scores of groups that deal with health in the county. The Riverside County Department of Public Health has been a national leader in understanding the links between public health and community development, and recently received a major award for their efforts.
Much of what you've described relates to new communities, such as those with which you're involved. What lessons from your work could be applied to built-out cities and infill development?
All of the efforts we've been involved in have focused even more on the built environment than on the un-built. The un-built environment is the easy part. The challenge lies in the built environment. Most of Healthy Chino's and Healthy Fontana's work has been in the existing communities, and when we funded their initiative, we told them not to do it just for our homeowners but rather for the entire community.
The good thing about the built environment is that the infrastructure already exists, so if you want to partner with a YMCA or a Boy's Club or Girl Scouts, they're already there. The efforts we're doing in the planning side are, of course, on the un-built, but on the programmatic side we're putting even more effort into the built community. Helping the entire community is just part of being a good corporate citizen.
New Schools Better Neighborhoods will be co-hosting with a number of pediatricians, led by Dr. Neal Kaufman and L.A. County Health Director Jonathan Fielding, a June conference to advance consideration of healthy place-making to combat the diabetes epidemic in Los Angeles. Given your work in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, could you offer your views on what that conference ought to address.
It needs to share the severity of the problem and the powerful partnerships that can be developed to do something about the problem. Public health alone will not solve this problem. The medical delivery system can't solve it on its own, and neither can the private sector.
A big lesson will come from success stories – there are some, but not enough – from across the country on how to tackle these health issues. Judy Corbett's latest newsletter from the Local Government Commission is filled with stories from Northern California about partnerships and task forces being formed to address this issue.
If I were running a conference I would do some very dramatic presentations, but just for the first hour, to emphasize that this is a crisis, and then I'd spend the rest of the time focusing on ways to tackle it. I think the health issue has gotten enough publicity that we now need to do a call to action and develop strategies to move forward.
It's very important to support good research on what works and what doesn't work. We've been approached by some researchers who are trying to get some grants to study this on a long-term basis. Health researchers can't study something over one or two years; ten years is a short term. So, I think there are enough developments going on in the state for academics to jump in and conduct research that can help us build healthier communities.
You are a longtime supporter of NSBN in L.A. County, and you know that the connections between school spending and livability are significant, but L.A. County has few good examples to share. From your experience in the Inland Empire, what projects can you hold up as models?
In almost every situation, schools need to be the center of the community. Schools are not just for families with children. Schools are clearly the best place to make a difference for those families, but joint-use gyms, community centers, and libraries can benefit everybody in the community. So all of our planning efforts start with the school – where can we put them, and what can we do to support them? We're working in Riverside County in two different school districts and some very exciting programs. We've worked with Jay Hoffman, the superintendent of Nuview School District in Riverside, and he's as progressive as they come. He inspires us to give our best work, and the benefit will go to the community at large.