THE CITY OF LA QUINTA, Calif., had plenty of golf courses. In fact, there were at least 30 within a 10-mile radius of the 20-acre parcel that would become Puerta Azul. What the area didn't have much of were resort-style homes for buyers wanting the option to lock and leave.

Cluster development was a new, untested concept for city officials in La Quinta, but one that Portland, Ore.–based Pacific Land Management saw fit to pursue in a re-zoning process that took five years. Working in partnership with RNM Architects and Planners of Newport Beach, Calif., the developer sought to introduce a new type of housing targeting second-home buyers that could also be entered into a rental pool. The final outcome: an enclave of 127 mission-style villas, arranged mostly in clusters of four (plus a few six packs) at a density of just over six units per acre.

Empty-nesters (the primary target) found what they'd been looking for in Puerta Azul. First, there were the HOA fees of just $150 per month, compared with the $600 blow to the wallet that came standard with nearby golf-centric communities. Second, shared motor courts with facing front doors created an intimate social vibe while making better use of green space. The neighborhood's tight quarters offered a reprieve from yard maintenance and redistributed land toward a shared promenade of walking trails connecting the community's central amenities, including a 5,000-square-foot clubhouse.

“These buyers were not necessarily trading down,” says Bob Tyler, president and CEO of RNM. “They might have been trading 2,500 square feet for 2,500 square feet, but they wanted a whole different kind of house, lifestyle, and lot size.”

FUN IN THE SUN: Playful scroll motifs are repeated at ground level and along the roof plane.
FUN IN THE SUN: Playful scroll motifs are repeated at ground level and along the roof plane.

With picturesque views of the Santa Rosa Mountains, the low-lying villas of Puerta Azul are a welcome drink of water in the desert. Whitewashed elevations are whimsically adorned with oversized scroll details, ornamental tiles, split shake tile roofs, chimney caps, and the occasional shock of azure blue, used as a punctuation mark on iron railings and 8-foot, raisedpanel entry doors.

“A lot of developers wouldn't do that kind of detailing at this density, but in this case, [Pacific Land Management] shared our vision of trying to do something special,” says Tyler.

Of course, there is such a thing as too much white—and thoughtful environmental design helped break down a preponderance of it in the shared motor courts. “When you start pushing densities for single-family units, you tend to create more hardscape because you have more garages per acre,” notes Tyler. Decorative pavers in terra cotta were used instead of concrete to contrast with the homes' stucco exteriors.

To say the cluster concept was a smart wager would be an understatement. The 12 inaugural homes constituting Phase I of Puerta Azul sold out in two weeks. Momentum continued to build, with 28 additional home sales before the models even opened. All told, the community saw eight price increases up through the release of its sixth and final phase, with each jump ratcheting up the price by about $22,000.

Project: Puerta Azul, La Quinta, Calif.; Site size: 20.1 acres; Unit size: 1,400 to 1,700 square feet; Total units: 127; Price: $290,000 to $606,000; Developer/

Builder: Pacific Land Management, Portland, Ore.; Architect: RNM Architecture and Planning, Newport Beach, Calif.; Landscape architect: Land Arq, Corona, Calif.; Interior designer: Catalina Design Group, Carlsbad, Calif.

20/20 HINDSIGHT Puerta Azul was initially designed and built for the second-home market—thus its single-car garages. But once buyers began moving into their new digs, it became apparent that many were using the homes as primary residences. At that point, parking became an issue. Given the chance for a do-over, Bob Tyler, president and CEO of RNM Architects and Planners, says he'd redesign the homes with two-car garages and dispense with the six-pack clusters, which tend to get overly congested.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Los Angeles, CA.