The benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement have been debated ever since the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed that accord in 1994. But there’s little dispute that NAFTA has been an economic boon for towns along the U.S.-Mexico border. And at least one builder, the San Diego division of Brookfield Homes, is looking to cash in on this prosperity with a massive master-planned community that, if all factors break in the builder’s favor, could have as many as 11,000 homes.
That community, called 101 Ranch, was approved in March by the Board of Supervisors of California’s Imperial County. It would sit on 1,894 acres, of which more than 1,300 acres would be dedicated to 73 residential neighborhoods that would have a minimum of 6,986 homes on lots ranging from 4,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet (see chart).
101 Ranch would be in Brawley, Calif., about 21 miles north of Mexicali, Mexico, where, as a result of NAFTA, manufacturing and distribution operations—known locally as maquilladoras—have been spreading. Greater Mexicali’s population is expected to eventually balloon to 1.3 million, from around 930,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census.
This economic spurt “is bringing in people from all over Mexico to work there, and people from around the world to manage” these operations, notes David Poole, Brookfield’s vice president of land and planning, who with Steve Doyle, Brookfield’s division president, spoke with Builder on Tuesday. These managers, Poole suggests, generally would prefer to live on the U.S. side of the border, which is why Brookfield is confident about the long-range viability of 101 Ranch.
Brookfield first filed its proposal for this site in August 2005, and it bought the four parcels that compose 101 Ranch as farmland. (In fact, Brookfield is currently growing wheat, grass, and sugar beets on this land. “We’ll be farming it longer than we’ll be building on it,” quips Poole.)
Brookfield is at least three years away—and probably more—from actually starting vertical construction on this $2 billion project, which Poole estimates would have a 30-year build-out period. But before Brookfield puts shovel to dirt, a number of things need to occur, not the least of which being a significant reduction in the Imperial Valley’s unsold inventory of homes and lots. Also, the county recently approved a 16-square-mile industrial park, tentatively called Keystone Business Park, which 101 Ranch would border. That park is envisioned as a “landing spot” for companies operating in Mexico, and could employ up to 60,000 people. Poole says 101 Ranch’s success partly hinges on that park getting built, which could boost the number of homes built within the master plan to 11,000.
Take Your Pick
101 Ranch would offer a wide range of attached and detached housing, supported by 13 acres of retail and commercial space, and 184 acres of parks and open space.
Doyle says that because Brookfield “is not your traditional Wall Street builder” but also a developer, it can be patient about when it converts any of its 100,000-plus lots into residential communities. He points, by way of example, to the city of Temacula in Riverside County, which 30 years ago was farmland and now is a suburb of more than 100,000 people. In fact, one of the reasons why Brookfield is focusing on Imperial Valley lately is that much of Riverside County “is already pretty defined,” says Doyle, meaning that land has already been acquired or claimed for future development.
Doyle goes on to say that 101 Ranch would be part of a “natural crossing point” for businesses in Mexico shipping to Southern California, Arizona, and Texas. There’s also work being done to improve and expand the transportation routes from the ports along the Guadalupe Valley through Brawley.
Because 101 Ranch would be built on farmland, Poole notes that Brookfield doesn’t have to worry about endangered species or access to water. This area already has 100-year rights to water from the Colorado River. And once completed, the estimated 1.3 billion gallons of water that 101 Ranch’s residences would consume each year would be about half the water used if the property continued to be farmed, says Poole.
The Board of Supervisors approved this plan over the objections of the county’s Planning Commission, which Poole says wanted to keep the farmland as is. “I can understand their point of view, but the supervisors have a different idea for the county.” Mike Madigan, who presented the plan to the supervisors on Brookfield’s behalf, said the Ranch would increase the county’s general fund by nearly $3 million per year, and would generate property taxes that could eventually rise to $20 million a year.
Once completed, 101 Ranch would include 183.5 acres of parks, trails, and open space; up to four elementary schools on 48 acres and a junior high school on 20 acres; 12 acres for RV storage; 159 acres for roads and 13 vehicular access points; and 13 acres for a commercial shopping center.
Historically, Brookfield builds out some or all of the land it develops, and Doyle thinks that it will probably invite other builders to complete 101 Ranch.
John Caulfield is senior editor for Builder magazine.