By David Holzel. Somewhere, amid the winding lanes and cul-de-sacs of suburbia, you'll find Debby Drive. And since the first home was sold there a decade ago, children have grown up, families have seen joys and trials, and neighbors have been knitted together by their shared connection to the street.

Eric Elder, the senior vice president of marketing for Ryland Homes, knows all about Debby Drive. In what he calls "a previous life," he was present at the moment of its birth.

"Debby was our receptionist," Elder says. "We were coming up with street names for a new development and we needed one more and somebody said, 'Debby Drive.'" He pauses and adds, "I don't think anybody ever told Debby about it."

It's a surprisingly ad hoc way to develop a part of a community with the power to attract or repel buyers and shape the identity of residents. And it happens all the time. Whether chosen through a careful marketing survey or out of desperation, street names will endure as long as the homes that line the streets themselves. And despite many changes in the home-building industry, developers mostly treat the task of naming streets as if it were the strange uncle whom no one really wants around but everyone feels they have to humor.

"The interesting irony is that it isn't an incredibly thoughtful process most of the time," Elder says. "And yet, someone moves in, raises a family, lives there for 60 years, says, 'I live on X Avenue,' and that turns out to be the name of the forward planner."

Awful Street Names
Avenida de las Pulgas (Flea Avenue), San Mateo, Calif.
Wobbly Bobbly Tram, Polk County, Texas
Olive Street Road, St. Louis
E. Placita Rancho La Cholla, Tucson, Ariz.
Foolish Pleasure Road, Germantown, Md.
Post Oak Tritt Road, Marietta, Ga.
E. Nonchalant Avenue (not far from E. Lazy Lane and N. Nevermind Trail), Carefree, Ariz.
Little Joe Court, Atlanta

Safety First

In America, you have the freedom to name a street pretty much anything you want. But if a fire truck or an ambulance isn't likely to find the house that dialed 911, your name is toast. "We look at street numbering and naming first from a public safety point of view," says Kathleen Johnson, the city official who approves and rejects new street names in Davis, Calif.

After that, the law of supply and demand takes over. "You want your names to be memorable, to roll easily off the tongue," says Doug Fenichel, public relations director for K. Hovnanian, in Red Bank, N.J. "They need to have a pleasant ring."

But the ring shouldn't sound like any other street in the area. It should be easy to pronounce and to spell. Those are public safety considerations. As for builders, they generally want street names to reflect the theme set in the name of the development. In mushrooming markets, that puts extra creative pressure on the person whose job it is to come up with two or three dozen pleasant-sounding names of wildflowers, trees, poets, or picturesque English towns.

So developers come up with names the same way many parents pick names for their children — from magazines, books, Internet searches, office contests, the racing pages. One Hovnanian employee "went through Revolutionary War books with his mother to come up with names" for a subdivision with a colonial theme, Fenichel says.

And if the property owner will only sell contingent on a street being named for her pet cockapoo, you add a Kibbles Lane. If the township has some ideas of its own, you negotiate, Fenichel says. "Certainly, street names isn't the time to get heavy-handed."

But you need to make sure everybody is satisfied before you submit the plat. Eight years ago, Bernie Glieberman, president of Crosswinds Communities, in Novi, Mich., used the names of Detroit historical figures and community leaders in a new development. When the authorities approved the list of street names, Glieberman submitted the plat, and that was that — until the folks who ran the community were voted out of office. "The new politicians didn't like the old ones," Glieberman says. "They said, 'You can't name streets after them. That's the name of the mayor's sister; she's no good.'"

Glieberman had to submit a new list of names and go through the eight-month process again.

"My advice is," he says, "when you go to the community, pick the names of dead people. Nobody will want to take it back then."

The "Huh?" Factor

The corollary to Glieberman's advice is: If you're naming streets after dead men, make sure they're really dead.

In Davis, Calif., part of the fast-growing Sacramento area, the city council determines the themes that street names are to have and gives final approval based on the recommendations of the public works department — that is, of Johnson, a senior engineering assistant and the city's longtime gatekeeper for street names.

In one section of town, streets were to be named after history's discoverers and inventors, she says. That was fine until someone submitted the name of nuclear physicist Edward Teller. "His name was recorded on the official map before the council said, 'Whoa!'" Johnson recalls. It wasn't just that, as the father of the hydrogen bomb, he was a tad too controversial. He was also still alive.

There are other limitations imposed by the "Huh?" factor. As one county gatekeeper explains: "If I tell you a street name over the phone and you say, 'Huh?' I'm not going to use it."

That could limit the options more than you might think. Giving streets Italian names was popular for a while in the Las Vegas area, says Christa Squillante, a project coordinator for KB Home. But some people found them too difficult to pronounce and spell. "The fire department was coming to us and saying, 'Please, no more Italian street names.'"

That kind of limitation fuels the proliferation of what Squillante calls "double-barrel names," when, for example, Oak Street morphs into Oak Grove Lane. "It's tough to give streets single-barrel names. They're all taken," she says.

What's next, Oak Grove View Terrace? "We've had those disapproved," she says. Her only hope is that Las Vegas will spread quickly into neighboring townships, so she can start naming from scratch.

It's clear that when it comes to street names, simpler is better. No one wants an address that runs off the edge of an envelope. It could turn out that as globalization continues, what is considered to roll easily off the tongue will expand. If not, we can always take comfort in the fact that new plants and poets are being discovered all the time.

David Holzel is based in Montgomery Village, Md.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, August 2002