It happens all the time. People drive through downtown Escondido, Calif., on Centre City Parkway and stop for the traffic light at West Second Avenue. Across the street they see City Square, a cluster of four-story, contemporary townhomes painted in brick, mustard, charcoal, sand, and cornflower blue. It doesn't look anything like all the other, mostly Spanish-style, buildings in the area.

“They're looking at this very different project,” says Larry Clemens, president of the urban division of Carlsbad, Calif.–based Barratt American, which developed and built City Square. “They come into our sales center and say they couldn't help themselves. They just had to come in.”

Nothing could thrill Clemens more than to hear that kind of comment. The contemporary architecture of the project marked a major departure from the traditional look of the city's downtown buildings—and raised more than a few concerns. But at the same time, the city was battling the familiar issues of downtown decline and was looking for ways to bring it back to life. City Square is located on the former site of an abandoned dry cleaning company.

“Escondido is very enamored with revitalizing the urban core, but the idea of developing residential in their downtown was very foreign to them,” Clemens says. “They wanted to lean on the territory they knew best, which was a conservative town-home project they were familiar with. We convinced them what they needed to do with downtown was to make it a new place. … It was a departure for them, but they took our lead and allowed us to step out with some very different architecture and to put color into the mix that they never would have dreamed of doing. Because of our stepping out, being a little different than the surrounding area, when [buyers] walk in, it's a big wow.”

DESIGNER DENSITY: Careful site plan development and a strong color palette give City Square a  dramatic streetscape that integrates the project with the surrounding downtown  amenities.
DESIGNER DENSITY: Careful site plan development and a strong color palette give City Square a dramatic streetscape that integrates the project with the surrounding downtown amenities.

In this case, being different helped. The grand opening of the models in June 2007 drew more than 500 people. Within a month, the entire first phase of 18 units, with prices ranging from the high $300,000s to the mid-$500,000s, was sold out.

CAPTIVATING CONSTRUCTION As always, location played a central role in the project's success. City Square is a block from Grand Avenue, historic downtown Escondido's main street. It's within easy walking distance of restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, and theaters.

A classic urban infill project, City Square's success depended on the ability to achieve both high density and a feeling of openness. The site plan calls for 102 units on slightly more than 3.5 acres. To accomplish that goal, Irvine, Calif.–based architect KTGY Group used tandem garages for each unit to decrease the garage-door mass on the elevations, and a stacking design for the units.

“The tandem garage routine really gets the density up there at the right price,” says architect Jirair Garabedian . “It keeps the cost of concrete out of the structure of a big garage.”

The garages for plans 1 and 3, for example, are side by side. Both of the homes' foyers are on the first floor; plan 1's living space is directly above both homes' garages. Owners of plan 3 take two flights of stairs to their living space, which encompasses the third and fourth floors. As a result, both plans get full use of the space above the pair of garages, providing “a nice open feel when you come up,” Garabedian says, as well as generous room for living and dining functions, and private outdoor space through the use of decks and balconies. Plus, the first-floor foyer (and den in plan 2B) offers space for a home office or study.

“It's complicated construction,” Clemens says. “It's like putting a puzzle together with spaces from one unit overlaying space of another unit. As a result, it's very efficient and provides large rooms. … It's not for the faint of heart. You have to think through noise attenuation when you have a person's bedroom over the garage of someone else's unit. When the automatic garage door opens, you don't want it vibrating. It really takes some thinking. Our salespeople have learned to speak architectural talk.”

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