Neighbors: Row houses no go
How dense is too dense?
That’s the question being debated by the developers and residents of the Doe Mill Neighborhood in southeast Chico, where quaint houses sit side-by-side on small lots in a throwback to the grid-like, “walkable” streets of the pre-World War II era—a concept called new urbanism.
John Whitmore moved to Doe Mill a year ago because he liked the idea. But now, he and some other residents say New Urban Builders is going too far, planning to build three-story row houses totaling 38 units in all and selling in the high $200,000’s and low $300,000’s.
“We’re high-density as it is and we think it’s going to be, like, super-high density,” said Whitmore, who lives on Roth Street with his wife and two sons. “It’s new urbanism on steroids.”
Some residents oppose the number of dwellers—and cars—the row houses will bring to the development’s narrow streets, while others are concerned about privacy, architectural inconsistencies, noise and investors buying up the houses and renting them out.
As neighborhood-developer battles go, this one is pretty polite: Each faction is quick to praise the other. The sides will do battle on Oct. 4, when the Chico City Council hears an appeal to the Aug. 18 Planning Commission decision to approve the project.
“I love Doe Mill,” said Tracy McDonald, who filed the appeal. But McDonald, a business professor who lives on England Street with her 16-year-old daughter, said she was misled when buying her house three years ago, being told two four-plexes would eventually be built behind her house.
“I bought into [the neighborhood] knowing it was dense and I like that,” she said. “But this could really wreck it.”
John Anderson, vice president of planning and design for New Urban Builders, said the new Hutchinson Green project will have less of an impact than the original 2000 plan, which was three-story apartment buildings totaling 64 units. The row houses will be set apart by 2 inches, making them freestanding units not subject to homeowners’ association fees like condos would be.
“We thought we were going in a good direction that would be supported by folks in the neighborhood,” Anderson said.
“I would like to go back to the apartment idea,” said Mary Ahmadi, who lives on England Street. The height of the row houses, she said, “is going to be a total invasion of privacy.”
McDonald said that of the seven houses on her block, hers is the only one owner-occupied. Debra Huiras, who lives on Matson Street, said there are five rentals on her street of 10 houses, including “a lot of students,” each with his or her own car. As for the row houses, she said, “I firmly believe investors are going to pick them up.”
New Urban Builders President Tom DiGiovanni thinks the housing market will stabilize and most homes will be owner-occupied. “Unlike other developers in town, we have never intentionally marketed our homes to investors,” he said.
Anderson and DiGiovanni, who are gathering photos, maps and illustrations to show the City Council, contend that it is the residents who are creating a parking problem. “Part of the reason they’re choosing to park on the street is because some of them are using their garages for other things,” DiGiovanni said.
“We chose to make ours a rec room,” acknowledged Roth Street resident Whitmore. But he said the error was Doe Mill’s and the city’s when they didn’t expect that to happen with families squeezing into houses of less than 2,000 square feet. “They underestimated the need for parking.”
John Giordanengo, who owns one of the four-plexes but doesn’t live in Doe Mill, said that he doesn’t mind the idea of row houses. But he is worried the Mission Revival-style architecture won’t fit in with the rest of the development.
“My main thing is the design,” said Giordanengo. “I think they’re making a mistake.”
Jim Horne, who moved into Doe Mill a year ago and maintains an unofficial neighborhood Web site at www.doemill.org, supports the row houses.
“If I didn’t like density I would have stayed on my acre and a half in Paradise,” Horne said.
Chuck Hazzard, who lives on Roth Street, said he prefers the row houses, especially compared to the apartment idea. “There’s going to be ownership,” he said.
Some of the residents think New Urban Builders is using Hutchinson Green to test out its designs for Meriam Park, its development planned for land at 20th Street and Bruce Road.
Others have made reference to DiGiovanni’s reputation as a consensus-builder via open planning processes. “He’s kind of the golden child of developers in Chico and he gets what he wants,” Whitmore said. “Where’s my charrette?”
“The charrette took place five years ago,” DiGiovanni countered, implying that buyers should have paid closer attention to what they were moving into.
“We think it will be spectacular—the jewel in the middle of the project,” DiGiovanni said. “Sometimes the best way to communicate is to build it and let them see.”