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Planning a city from scratch

Kai Ryssdal Mar 16, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: Heading north out of Los Angeles on Interstate 5, the road rises to cross the Tehachapi Mountains. About 60 miles north of the city, as you’re heading down the other side, you pass one of the last big open spaces left in this country that’s near a major urban area. It’s an old 19th-century ranch called Tejon. But it might not stay wild for that much longer. Jon Gertner writes about what could someday be the city of Centennial, Calif. — and the land it might sit on — in this Sunday’s New York Times.

JON GERTNER: Tejon Ranch is one of the last and largest private parcels of land in all of California. Its size is pretty staggering: it’s 270,000 acres, a third of the size of Rhode Island. What you see is a kind of rolling field of grass. And it’s kind of remote and pretty, there’s mountains in the background. It’s just off the highway but it’s kind of a blank slate. A lot of these other old ranches have been broken up and sold to developers, but Tejon kind of still exists as this enormous sort of land bank, and almost completely undeveloped.

RYSSDAL: But now they have decided, in a way, to unlock some of that value that’s in that land bank and turn it into a huge, preplanned city.

GERTNER: That’s right. I mean, Tejon is a place that has great potential, but as a corporation it has very meager revenue. So the investors in the ranch are betting that some development projects . . . and these are . . . one of the development projects is a planned city called “Centennial,” another of the development projects is a vacation village that . . . these projects will eventually create tremendous revenue streams for the ranch itself. That is, if the people who run the ranch can successfully get some of these proposed developments through the entitlement process and through the county review process.

RYSSDAL: How do you go about thinking about planning a city from scratch? It’s not something that happens every day in this country, and most places in the world, where you have a completely clean slate to start from. How do you do it?

GERTNER: It’s not. Especially in California, land is certainly at a premium. And when a rare, large, empty parcel of land like Tejon enters into the planning process, a lot of different things can happen. How big should a planned city be, for instance? How many people should live there? How affluent should it be? What kind of mix of housing should you build there? And when they approached those questions, they began by thinking that if they really wanted to create a certain vitality to give this city life, you have to set house prices or real-estate prices at a level where teachers and firefighters and policemen can afford it to really bring the kind of elements of community into the place.

RYSSDAL: How do you convince businesses to go there? Is there a certain number of homes you need to convince the local Safeway or A & P to open up, for instance?

GERTNER: To make it self-sustaining, you do need enough businesses. You need a place where people can work, where they can live, where they can shop. The planners of Centennial calculate that you’d probably need 5,000-7,000 people for a shopping center, for instance. A hospital could take anywhere from 50,000 people and then some. A university can take the same number of people. And to bring businesses in, it becomes a kind of chicken-and-egg issue. You need the people there for the businesses to have a kind of labor pool. At the same time, you need to bring the people there and have a self-sustaining community by showing them that they can work there and not just commute in on this arduous trek back to LA.

RYSSDAL: It really sounds like there’s a “Field of Dreams” element here. Sort of “If you build it, they will come.” Or, will they?

GERTNER: I think that’s a good way to put it. I think if we look back at the origins of some cities that have really become thriving places, like Irvine, Calif. Irvine is a place where there are tremendous number of jobs, where people actually commute in to Irvine to work, rather than all the residents of Irvine commuting out to their jobs. And that was a place that was a field of dreams, too. It was a ranch to begin with, too. Empty, open space, agricultural land. Columbia, Md., too. Empty spaces. Cities I guess have to begin somewhere, and Centennial’s gonna begin on a kind of open, wind-swept field, nestled between two mountain ranges.

RYSSDAL: Jon Gertner’s piece on what might eventually become the city of Centennial, Calif., is in the New York Times Magazine real-estate supplement this weekend. Jon, thanks a lot.

GERTNER: Thanks, Kai.

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