The Allure and Abhorrence of San Diego's Master-Planned Communities

A few years ago, when foreclosures and short sales were everywhere in San Diego, Amanda Dahlgren set out to photograph a few of the most expensive, ostentatious homes that had fallen victim to the rapidly bursting bubble. She wasn't interested in exploiting the homeowners she felt were struggling to save their modest single-family homes. Instead, the photographer wanted to strike up a conversation about the morphing American Dream and ask the question of whether huge McMansion-style homes are necessary. She stylized the photos by blurring the edges, sometimes flipping the images upside-down and shooting at twilight. The houses appear in the focus of the frame as looming macabre monstrosities seemingly possessed by mischievous intentions.

Untitled photo from photographer Amanda Dahlgren's 'Master-planned' series.
Untitled photo from photographer Amanda Dahlgren's 'Master-planned' series.   

While on a shoot in one of San Diego's many master-planned communities, which have quickly crawled and sprawled out mostly toward the northern and eastern edges of the county, Dahlgren, a bespectacled blond-haired shutterbug, finished shooting two short-sale homes located next door to each other. As she packed up her camera equipment and headed out of the suburb, she noticed a nearby stretch of brand-new houses under construction.

Photographer Amanda Dahlgren | Photo by Kinsee Morlan.
Photographer Amanda Dahlgren | Photo by Kinsee Morlan.

"It just fascinated me that, in the same master-planned community where homeowners were under water and upside down, they were building brand new houses right around the corner," she said. "It was a total disconnect and kind of sick in a way. The older homes just felt like the castaways and disposed of and the company building the homes just didn't care."

Dahlgren decided to change the scope of her photographic series. Instead of shooting short sales and foreclosures she turned her lens toward the city's newest master-planned communities, which, in the face of the economic downturn, seemed especially excessive and distasteful. Yet rather than take the obvious, straightforwardly critical approach, she set out to explore and capture the powerful allure encapsulated in the manicured lawns and cookie-cutter homes of a carefully calculated master-planned community.

"I definitely see the appeal," Dahlgren said recently, as she drove us in her Mini Cooper to Toll Brothers at Stonebridge, a master-planned community that butts up against the wilderness and canyons surrounding Scripps Ranch. "I get it. Especially with my daughter who starts kindergarten in the fall. The schools out here are better because people move out here for a community--be it kind of a false sense of community--but they want a place with good schools and they're willing to pay extra taxes for a good school."

The extra tax paid by many who choose to live in master-planned communities is known as Mello-Roos. A Mello-Roos district is a new development where, on top of normal property taxes, a special property tax on real estate is paid by homeowners. According to Dahlgren, a real estate addict who obsessively researches these kinds of things, the tax can be as high as $800 a month and the money goes toward building new schools and infrastructure like roads and public parks. She says the promise of better schools can be misleading, however, because even though the building's new, the school suffers from the same budgetary constraints as the rest of the older, inner-city schools in the district.

"I love this," Dahlgren said cynically, changing the subject as we neared the bottom of a canyon. "These developments always have to have low-income housing and they always bunch them together in bad locations."

As we approached the development's sales office, Dahlgren explained that she was experimenting with the direction of her "Master-planned" photographic series yet again. Rather than shooting more aerial shots of the houses perfectly in line, or focusing on the odd, manufactured landscape that includes a smattering of water towers since no naturally flowing rivers, lakes or creeks are anywhere nearby (fires are perhaps the biggest danger looming outside the gates of most of San Diego's furthest-out master-planned communities), she had begun showing herself into under-construction homes and shooting the sterility of the unfinished interiors. What her camera captures is in sharp contrast to the model homes, which are staged with fancy furniture and décor, decked out with all the extras and made to look lived-in and homey to help attract potential buyers.

Untitled photo from photographer Amanda Dahlgren's 'Master-planned' series.
Untitled photo from photographer Amanda Dahlgren's 'Master-planned' series.   

Dahlgren confidently breezed past two Barbie-doll-like sales associates in the office and led the way to the two completed model homes at Toll Brothers at Stonebridge. Smooth-jazz Muzak piped through speakers both outside and inside the homes and a litany of various canned scents filled every room. Both homes, which are just two of the available nine models in the development, took up more than 4,000 square feet. For the bare-minimum version of one of the homes, the price tag was around $900,000.

"That's actually not so bad," said a surprised Dahlgren. "A few years ago, these homes would have been going for over a million."

Untitled photo from photographer Amanda Dahlgren's 'Master-planned' series.
Untitled photo from photographer Amanda Dahlgren's 'Master-planned' series.   

In one of the bedrooms, a video featuring the owner of Toll Brothers looped on a flat-screen TV hanging on the wall.

"We're proud of the fact that we don't just build homes, we build communities," said a smiling, rehearsed Bob Toll onscreen, adding to the overall Stepford Wives ambiance of the place.

"That's what they all say," snickered Dahlgren as she took note of the various design details in the bedroom. "You know, I've heard that the development's marketing department comes up with the stories about who lives in these model homes and they give these detailed narratives to the interior designers. It's this whole elaborate thing of little Julie is 8 years old and she's really into horseback riding. Really specific things so they can make the home seem real and reach buyers on an emotional level."

Dahlgren's right. Every room tells a story of the family who lives there. The narrative starts to fall apart when we get to the framed photographs hanging in one of the model home's master bedrooms. The photos are visibly pixilated and blurry.

"They probably stole them from the internet," Dahlgren laughed.

Leaving the model homes required walking back through the sales office. Dahlgren chatted with the sales managers and they immediately launched into their pitch about the impressive size of the 16,000-feet-and-up lots (which is actually rather large for a master-planned community) and showed us a map listings the many homes that had already been sold even though they were only in the "soft-launch" phase of the project. A sense of urgency filled the air as she went on to list what she said was one of the development's biggest appeals.

"It's strictly residential in here, you're not going to have any commercial, so people really like that," the sales manager said.

The schools, she continued, were about 15 minutes away. The community they were building, in other words, was more of a place for people to drive to and relax or sleep in their comfortable, safe, exclusive homes.

Dahlgren accepted a stack of brochures and headed back to her car.

"Driving your kid 15 minutes to school." she said. "What happened to walking down the block?"

A cul-de-sac of under-construction homes stretches out below the sales office. Dahlgren navigated her way through a string of hardhat-only signs and parked in front of a house that looked like it might not be far along enough to require a locked door. She packed up her camera and tripod and strolled into the home, immediately finding her shot in the entryway, which was framed by a swanky double staircase.

"I came up with this idea of pre-abandoned space," she said, setting up the shot. "In photography, there's this really rich tradition of people photographing abandoned spaces. These houses are going to be abandoned spaces in a sense, but they're totally virgin and brand new. To me, instead of seeing hope, I see sadness. This is somebody's dream and it's sort of empty. It's not going to be what they think it's going to be. Not that they're all going to become short sales or foreclosures but they're going to be real. They're not going to be this ideal they were sold."

San Diego architect and educator Ted Smith is well-known for his experimental approach to building. In the 80s and 90s, he built "Go Homes," alternative, affordable single-family homes with shared common spaces that got lots of attention from fellow followers of New Urbanism, a movement that promotes everything master-planned communities don't--walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods that keep smart growth and environmentalism in mind.

"The whole idea of the gated community is absolutely horrible," said Smith. "It's an example of what's wrong with us. That me-against-you mentality and the whole American spirit today. The master-planned community, the gated thing where you protect your dream against those people out there, it's just a disaster."

Throughout his career, Smith continues to challenge the way architecture, development and financing is done. When he was young and just getting started, though, he worked for a developer of a suburban community and quickly figured out it was something he simply couldn't do.

"When you think about the people who want to have the mansions out in the 'burbs with the green lawn and the big security gate, I just don't even know who those people are," he said. "I don't."

He recalled working with the big developers trying to come up with a spec house by envisioning the couple who'd eventually move in.

"I would try to dream up all this silly stuff they'd need or want without really knowing the people," he said.

So rather than build homes for people he didn't understand, Smith started building homes for his friends and people more like him. He found what he likes to call a "micro-market" of buyers and renters who like what architects like--nice materials, big windows and a smart location close to the city's core.

These days, Smith teaches a one-year Master of Real Estate and Development program at Woodbury University School of Architecture for mid-career architects who, like him, don't want to design buildings for finance-focused developers. The course aims to turn architects into developers themselves and ultimately churn out better, smarter, more creative developments.

Yet even with a new generation of smart architect-developers calling San Diego their home, Smith says he doesn't have much hope for the end of the city's massive master-planned communities or a mainstream shift toward buyers wanting to live in the kind of experimental developments he and his students and friends like to build.

"Will our micro market ever be the mainstream?" he asked and then answered with a quick and decisive "no."

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Top Image: Untitled photo from photographer Amanda Dahlgren's "Master-planned" series.

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