Greening the west side
New Urban Builders creating Chico’s most sustainable neighborhood
Even before the houses in his Doe Mill Neighborhood project were constructed, local developer Tom DiGiovanni watched residents from surrounding neighborhoods flock to the build site for a stroll through the planned community in southeast Chico.
Now, about six years later, the popular development is in its final stages of construction. DiGiovanni’s New Urban Builders firm is putting up the last of the row houses that encircle its main entryway, and the sidewalks continue to be a heavily traveled pathway for Chicoans who live there or nearby.
Meanwhile, a new neighborhood reminiscent of Doe Mill is slowly taking shape across town. Colorful structures are appearing on a 20-acre parcel nestled between orchards along Highway 32, west of Eighth Avenue. Similar to NUB’s first project, and unlike conventional subdivisions, the development has wide sidewalks and narrow streets with sharp turns, features that tend to increase pedestrian traffic and slow down vehicles.
But with Westside Green, NUB has taken its smart-growth concepts to new heights, employing planning and construction methods that will turn the site into one of the most sustainable neighborhoods in the North State.
“What we do sticks around for 100 years, so in my view we have a responsibility to think in the long-term, to design and build not only for the immediate customer but for the residents to come,” said DiGiovanni, a longtime planner and president of New Urban Builders.
The company is undergoing a third-party green certification process by bringing in Build It Green, a Bay Area-based nonprofit dedicated to the promotion of healthful, efficient buildings. The organization will come in and inspect and rate the project, and DiGiovanni is expecting high marks.
At the neighborhood level, even location plays into the concept of eco-conscious development. Westside Green is near public transportation and the bike path that runs through central Chico and into downtown, all of which will help cut down on the number of vehicle trips by its residents. As seen in some of Chico’s historic areas, many of the homes will not have garages. At the houses that do have them, the structures are tucked into alleyways behind them.
DiGiovanni visualizes the development in a decade, when its narrow streets become canopied by trees and resemble the charming old downtown communities that long have fascinated him. In many ways, Doe Mill and now Westside Green are a re-creation of these beloved neighborhoods.
From outward appearances, the fledgling community has many of the trademark signs such as those narrow streets, uninterrupted sidewalks and, in many cases, front porches. The features are important to the project that, when finished, will average about 12 units per acre, making residents close in more ways than one.
“A good, lasting neighborhood of value is not just of economic value,” DiGiovanni said. “It’s also the social value, and [people] want this sort of thing.”
City Councilman Scott Gruendl was the fifth occupant of Doe Mill and has not been disappointed by his five years in the friendly subdivision east of Bruce Road. The neighborhood has been host to community gatherings—picnics and garden tours—that aren’t so typical these days.
Gruendl knows all his immediate neighbors and many other residents in the colorful community, and proximity has not been an issue. In fact, he said, it’s hard to hear criticism about Doe Mill’s density from people who have never lived there.
One complaint is that the development doesn’t fit in with Chico, that it belongs in the suburbs of San Francisco. But Gruendl, who initially was looking to buy an older home, said he was swayed because of the development’s likeness to old Chico.
“Doe Mill is not a slice of the Bay Area,” he said. “It’s a rebirth of historic parts of Chico.”
At the unit level, Westside Green homes are fitted with sustainable products such as standard entryway bamboo flooring and countertops made of recyclables. All are equipped with Energy Star appliances, energy-saving cooling systems, tankless water heaters, specially coated vinyl windows and low-flow, dual-flush toilets.
Westside Green is a mixed-use development. Its single-family homes include traditional structures and two-story row houses. It also contains a new offering of two- and three-story live-work homes, in which the ground floor serves as the work space, complete with a restroom, while the living quarters upstairs have all the amenities of a typical home.
DiGiovanni sees the flexibility in the structures, envisioning them first for younger folks who are focused on their careers and second for people in the middle stage of life who have a serious hobby and want a studio on the side.
“It’s really for personal service or business service,” he said of the work space. “It more replaces the second or third bedroom that’s housed your consulting business.”
Debra Lucero, a marketing consultant for Westside Green, sees the practical side of the community, and especially the live-work spaces that start at about $230,000.
“Not only could you afford to live here, but there’s the green quality, too,” she said.
Lucero, who is mainly known for her work with Friends of the Arts, signed on to the project after she saw the creative vision behind it. She points out the attention to detail in craftsmanship of the homes and the greater neighborhood, where the streets are named after leaders of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Communities all across the country, she said, are looking into how to attract and retain what she called creative-knowledge workers: artists, musicians, technology-savvy designers and other entrepreneurial, innovative types.
Westside Green’s proximity to downtown, plus its green appeal and variety of housing, she believes, is a combination that will put Chico on the map in a realm where large, urban cities such as Seattle and Austin have reigned.
“We can do this here,” she said, “and things like this are a start.”