September 30, 2007

Otay Ranch Woes Not Surprising

Otay Ranch, a 3,500-acre housing development near San Diego, has been among the communities that have been "hit particularly hard" by the recent housing downturn, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story. The news caught my attention since I visited this development in 2003 during a National Association of Real Estate Editors conference. At the time, my impression of the place was largely unfavorable.
Otay Ranch was being touted as a model of "smart growth" with "native habitat neighborhood parks, protection of biologically sensitive areas, traffic calming roundabouts, walk-through cul-de-sacs, pedestrian walkways and bridges, recreational areas and mixed-use buildings," according to a story I wrote for Inman News.
But the development had a high density of eight dwellings per acre and many of the houses were "boxy two-story structures squished into small lots." The development has no doubt changed over the last four years, but in 2003, I described it as being characterized by "an almost oppressive feeling of sameness on all sides" since all of the houses were painted in slightly different shades of desert brown and the streets were so completely indistinguishable that the developer's representative had to hop off the bus during our tour to glance at a street sign.
Prices were comparable with other communities at that time, but homeowners in Otay Ranch also faced an annual Mello Roos tax of 1 percent of the value of their home for construction of schools, community buildings, transit centers and other infrastructure and association fees of $756 annually for street maintenance, manned gated entrances and upkeep of the landscaping and parks in addition to state property taxes.
Given this bit of history, I'm not surprised at Otay Ranch's current woes. Even smart growth and good intentions don't necessarily produce a community that's an attractive and affordable place to live.