A melding of New Urbanism and 'One Planet Communities'

Philip Langdon
New Urban News
Sonoma Mountain Village is envisioned as a walkable, mixed-use center with thousands of jobs and a world-class environmental performance.

The City Council in Rohnert Park, California, voted approval August 24 for the transformation of a 175-acre light industrial business park into a new urban community that promises to be one of the “greenest” in the US.

Developer Codding Enterprises intends to turn the auto-oriented 1980s complex, where Hewlett-Packard and Agilent Technologies once made products, into a pedestrian-friendly precinct that within a decade could have 4,600 employees and 4,400 residents.

Sonoma Mountain Village, as the project is called, is planned to have “very low energy consumption and very low water consumption, and would be very livable and walkable,” said Jake Mackenzie, a Council member who chairs Sonoma County’s Regional Climate Protection Authority. “We’re hoping it will be a shining light.”

In 2005, Fisher and Hall Urban Design drew up a plan for converting the business park — Agilent Technologies Campus, in a postwar suburb about 40 miles north of San Francisco — into a gridded, mixed-use community, consistent with the SmartCode. That by itself was a big step forward for a site that had consisted mostly of large, gray concrete buildings and undeveloped land. The goal: establishment of a new urban community where people can live, work, and fulfill many of their daily needs.

The $1 billion undertaking, which will include retail, offices, light industry, and assembly facilities, is expected to take about 12 years to complete. Roughly 750,000 square feet of industrial and office space is being retrofitted, a process that began about four years ago.

Council rezoned the property from light manufacturing to mixed-use, and authorized the developer to produce 1,694 housing units. It will occupy a form-based zoning district regulated by the SmartCode. When another 25 adjacent acres also owned by Codding are considered as part of the project, there will be 1,892 highly diverse housing units in all, including co-housing, live/works, auxiliary units (granny flats), family and senior housing, low-income units, and dwellings for young people interested in a combination of urbanism and the environment.

New Urbanism plus

Brad Baker, CEO of Codding Enterprises, decided a few years ago that the complex should operate on renewable power. Thus his company bought a 1.1-megawatt solar array — 95,000 square feet of solar panels, which now sit on the enormous roof of one of the factory buildings, turning sunshine into enough electricity to power 1,000 energy-efficient homes. A second solar array, another 1.1 megawatts, is on order.

In the past four years the environmental agenda of Sonoma Mountain Village, or SOMO, expanded substantially. Geof Syphers, an environmental consultant hired by Codding to incorporate green techniques into SOMO, came to realize that solar power and efficient use of water, though beneficial, “weren’t even going to come close to meeting climate change targets.”

Syphers and Codding Enterprises were pushed to the forefront of the environmental movement by Greg Searle of the BioRegional Group, an international nonprofit organization that helped create the BedZED eco-village in London. After working with Codding to make Sonoma Mountain Village more ambitious, Bioregional designated SOMO as the first North American development in its One Planet Communities program.

One Planet’s aim is to foster developments that do nothing to exacerbate climate change. Across the globe, only three other communities have received the One Planet Communities endorsement. Sonoma Mountain Village is also in the LEED for Neighborhood Development program.

Codding has pledged to reduce construction waste on the site by 98 percent. A factory in Sonoma Mountain Village takes steel from recycled cars and shapes it into thin, new pieces that can be used for construction framing. The process does not use heat, is very quiet, and virtually eliminates waste, says Lois Fisher, who was a principal in Fisher and Hall before it disbanded. She now operates Fisher Town Design.

The target is a reduction of the total carbon footprint — including transportation and food as well as buildings — by 83 percent. That should bring SOMO’s emissions down to 2 to 3 tons of carbon per person by 2020 and “put us on a nice trajectory to then get down to 1 ton per person by 2050,” Searle estimates.

Mass transit will play a role. Codding got involved in campaigning for a Sonoma and Marin Counties sales tax that would be used to establish a 70-mile commuter rail line. The two-county referendum passed in November 2008, and one of the stations of Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit (SMART) will be within about half a mile of the site. (See July-August 2010 New Urban News.)

Within Sonoma Mountain Village, every street is to be bicycle-friendly, says Syphers, now Codding’s chief sustainability officer. Most streets will have a 15 mph design speed; on bus routes it will be 25 mph. Trees will be planted close together to create a canopy over the streets.

To help make the environment conducive to walking, most blocks will be only 170 feet long. Streets will be narrow. Signs and streetlights will be shorter than normal. Stop signs will be will be small or medium-sized. “There are about 30 or 35 things we’ve catalogued that make it feel like you’re going faster,” Syphers says, adding, “We didn’t invent any of that.”

Making big buildings fit

Factory and office buildings that Hewlett-Packard erected in the 1980s — extremely strong, they were built to accommodate any HP product line — will end up serving a variety of purposes, including manufacturing, offices, theater, retail, and live/work units, says Laura Hall, Fisher’s former partner, who is now with Hall Alminana.

“It’s a little like a redevelopment retrofit lab,” Hall says of Sonoma Mountain Village. “They’re figuring it out here in hopes it can be replicated throughout California.” Because business and industrial parks like this are numerous and because demolishing them would waste resources and generate pollution, “the retrofit aspect is really important,” she believes.

To make the entire site walkable, pedestrian connections are being cut through the large buildings, which otherwise produce excessively long blocks. One building has been cut open to insert the equivalent of a paseo into its ground floor, Fisher notes. A farmers’ market will operate there in the winter.

Additional windows and brighter colors enliven formerly dull exteriors. A building that is to be converted into a parking garage will be wrapped with retail. “To me it’s been a sprawl repair project from the very beginning,” Fisher says.

“There are a lot of parks in the plan,” Fisher emphasizes, some designed to support the goals of One Planet Communities by educating users on sustainability principles. Among them:

• The Energy-Producing Park, which will have windmills, solar panels, bicycle and hand pumps, and other devices with meters on them. The varying energy forces will supply a children’s play fountain. The park will show how energy is produced and consumed, in ways that can be easily understood.

• The Food Footprint Park, which will show how much land is needed to produce certain amounts or types of food.

• The Decomposition Park, which will show how different kinds of waste break down at different rates.

• The Recycle Park, which uses recycled materials in playful ways.

Public spaces will abound. “You should be able to walk out of every front door and get to the town square in under five minutes,” Syphers says. “All the basic services of life will be there.”

“We will be getting seriously under way in about a year,” Syphers predicts. “In 24 months, people will be moving in.” Employment in the business park is currently about 1,100, including a Comcast operations center, a biofuels firm, a company described as California’s largest distributor of solar panels, and an incubator for green businesses.

SOMO is privately owned and financed, but is looking for grants for some innovative graywater projects.

“The way they’re doing this really fits in with the goals of environmental protection, job creation, and a place where people hopefully will shop and recreate,” says Mackenzie, the City Council member. “I think there’s some real attractiveness to it from the community’s point of view.”
Syphers exudes optimism. “This,” he says, “is our template for where we think the future of all development will go.”