By Carolyn Weber. Until recently, there weren't a lot of reasons to get off Highway 80 at Hercules, Calif. In fact, many San Franciscans probably aren't familiar with the little town, which is on the Bay side 16 miles north of Oakland. But a forward-thinking city planning commission is changing all that. It's putting this 8-square-mile town of 20,000 on the map with a redesigned new urbanist waterfront district.
The long stretch of Hercules waterfront used to be cluttered with brownfields, dilapidated factories, and other busted remnants of an industrial past. In an effort to reinvigorate the city's dwindling commercial base, city planners, in concert with many outside consultants, decided to implement a new urbanist plan on the site of an abandoned dynamite plant. Town planner David Sargent produced a mixed-use plan that fits the city's vision for the future. The plan will turn 400 acres in the heart of town into a busy, attractive hub of commerce and housing.
To accommodate the town center and an influx of future residential development, the city planning commission wiped the slate clean and re-wrote its zoning laws. It also devised a pattern book for neo-traditional neighborhoods and architecture. The guidelines call for historically inspired designs, veiled garages, shallow setbacks, and a pedestrian-friendly scale.
Promenade, built by Western Pacific Housing, is the first residential project in the revitalization plan. Situated on 20 acres with some lovely water views, the land plan is a fairly straightforward grid. But because the site is not completely flat, it posed some grading challenges. When completed, there will be 216 homes on lot sizes ranging from 2,700 to 5,500 square feet and priced from the mid-$400,000s to the low $700,000s.
Promenade is the first TND for Western Pacific, a 500-unit-per-year company accustomed to building conventional front-loaded garage models. It was a big risk for the builder because buyers in this market are not familiar with new urbanist concepts. "We also do some attached and urban infill," says Ed Galigher, president, "so we're used to complicated situations."
When Western Pacific acquired the property, detailed design guidelines dictated by the city were already in place. The Hercules pattern book specifies genuine interpretations of early 20th-century American styles, including Victorian and Italianate revival. "We have Craftsman too, but it's clean Craftsman," says Jill Williams, a principal with KTGY Group Architects in Irvine, Calif., who created the designs at Promenade. "And the old Foursquare is slightly colonial in its form, very boxy and straightforward." To establish authenticity, scale, and proportion, Williams relied on the strength of window patterns inspired by older homes in Oakland and the surrounding Bay area.
Promenade is the only tract project in the market in its price range with real wood windows. Per the pattern book, the Andersen windows feature external grids. They are used in four different colors--white, tan, dark green, and brown--depending on the architectural style of the house. "It's wonderful," says Williams, adding that most builders would not spec wood windows at this price point if left to their own devices. "The homes look a little different because you're not seeing white vinyl windows on every single faccedil;ade."
Most of the porch railings are real wood, too. The rest of the exteriors, though, are done with manufactured products. For styles that call for siding, square shakes, or fish scales, the builder used Hardiplank and staggered Hardishingle. El Dorado cultured stone was used around the column bases on the Craftsman bungalow plan.
Williams was meticulous about the design of exterior details. The gingerbread and turned posts of the Victorian front porch have integrity and authenticity, as do the projecting eaves, strong cornices, and scroll sawn brackets of the inflated-height Italianate model. "Those brackets are made from a manufactured product called Fypon that is molded so you get a nice smooth finish and won't warp over time," she explains.
Galigher knew that all of these exterior touches would add cost, but calculated that way in advance and hit his numbers. The main challenge, he says, was that many of the products were not readily available in mass quantities for production housing. "There are so many different details," he says. "And we couldn't custom build every house."
The architect admits that following the pattern book was a bit restrictive, but the real challenge was reconciling an authentic historic elevation with a livable modern floor plan. "We had to take the pattern book and make it sensible for our market and the kinds of plans [buyers] want," she says. The houses do have a different feel to them because Williams worked very hard to keep the plans really open. "It's a tough integration," she says, "trying to decide what overrides what, and choosing the most important features."
Any fears the builder had about market acceptance of the TND concept have been assuaged by healthy sales to first- and second-time, move-up families. And most are going for the studio option over the garage, which adds an extra $70,000 to $85,000 to the price tag. Buyers can finish these 427-square-foot, second-floor spaces with a bathroom and kitchenette. The new zoning allows the units to serve as rentals; they may even have their own addresses and receive mail. There's an apartment option on the bigger homes as well. Buyers can create a 639-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment over the three-car garages on some plans.
Although the first phase is comprised of homes ranging from 1,549 to 3,240 square feet, one stretch of 27-by-100-foot lots that fronts on the future town center is reserved for smaller units. "They will be small, single-family houses with detached garages that do not have the studio option," says Williams. "They will hit a lower price point."
Project: Promenade, Hercules, Calif.; Sales started: November 2002; Sales through February: 75; Units planned: 216; Price: $426,000 to 717,500; Unit size: 1,549 to 3240 square feet; Developer/Builder: Western Pacific Housing, Pleasanton, Calif.; Architect/Land planner: KTGY Architects, Irvine, Calif.; Landscape architect: Ripley Design, Walnut Creek, Calif.