Unique history, vision of Village Homes found in new book

March 12, 2000
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

Former Mayor Mike Corbett is known for his far-sighted work creating an innovative housing development, Village Homes, that has in many ways made Davis' name.

He and his wife, Judy, recently published a book, "Designing Sustainable Communities: Learning From Village Homes" (Island Press, 2000, $30), that describes the history of Village Homes and their hopes for housing of the future.

"This book was mainly rewritten by Judy," said Corbett. "About half of it appeared in a book called 'A Better Place to Live' about 20 years ago. When that became outdated, Judy decided to take the relevant portions and add more information. This book is the most complete work on Village Homes."

For those who don't know, Village Homes is a planned community on 60 acres in West Davis. Corbett began thinking about the project in 1972. He wanted a community that discouraged cars, utilized solar power and offered natural drainage and edible landscaping, among other environmentally sound design elements. It took three years of battles to get the financing and city and county approvals.

"It was a nightmare," Corbett said.

Corbett recalls an exercise in which fire trucks, garbage trucks, street sweepers and other city service vehicles drove out to the parking lot at the Hunt-Wesson cannery where traffic cones were set up so the exact minimum width for Village Homes cul-de-sacs could be measured before permission to build was granted. The fire trucks needed room to turn, the street sweepers needed room to sweep. Members of the City Council and Planning Commission came out to observe the exercise, too.

"The (Village Homes) project could never have been done without the very innovative City Council elected at that time," said Corbett. City staff recommended that Village Homes not be approved, a recommendation that the council overturned.

Today homes there sell for $140,000 to $350,000, said Corbett. Those homes were originally designed to be much more modest, but it is such an attractive place to live that the demand has boosted prices 15 percent more per square foot than any other place in town, he added. Two or three dwellings in Village Homes go on the market every year.

Village Homes is by any measure a success story. People responded to all the ecologically sensitive green inducements that Corbett offered. And not only people in Davis and Northern California but people from all over the world come to visit this community, home to writers, gardeners, professors, families and retired folks. So why aren't there more places like Village Homes?

"Most developers don't want to take the energy and time to do something innovative," Corbett said. "They have to break away from conventional design, which means their engineers have to be educated, so they tend not to take that more difficult route even though they might make more money and have a more salable product. It's not more expensive, but it takes more thought."

Corbett has two Davis projects in the works. He's the designer for Covell Center in North Davis (700 housing units) and for Hamel Ranch or Davisville (3,000 housing units) south of UC Davis.

Davisville would be separated from the campus by Putah Creek and a wildlife preserve and/or greenbelt. It is designed to operate as a small new town, not an extension of the city of Davis, patterned after development in Europe.

"In Europe they don't just sprawl out. They stop growth and build satellite villages," he said.

"Both of these projects are extremely innovative and to me they are the next step beyond Village Homes in terms of taking ecological ideas and moving forward," said Corbett. He said the Davisville project was presented to the City Council about three years ago but there was no interest in adding it to the General Plan update.

Covell Center is in the General Plan and has a housing allocation but it, too, with a sports complex and non-traditional commercial area, has been put on the back burner by the City Council, said Corbett.

"I'm sad that neither of these have had the chance to see light," he said. "It's a rare opportunity to do an innovative project. Cities don't have those kind of opportunities very often and I thought there would be more interest in it and hopefully there will be in the future."

Corbett has worked nationally and internationally as a town planner but he would like to return to his projects in Davis where many of his design principles and those of other forward-looking developers have already been accepted.

His book will interest lots of people, especially Davis residents where Village Homes is a tourist attraction. The only negative aspect to "Designing Sustainable Communities" is the very poor reproduction of the photographs, many of which were taken by Corbett over the years and do not, he says, look small, muddy and out-of-focus in the original.

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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