Something huge is happening on the western rim of Nevada’s Las Vegas Valley, drawing tens of thousands of people to settle in the desert. It’s called Summerlin, and it’s a massive master-planned community that encompasses 36 square miles, or 22,500 acres.

Something huge is happening on the western rim of Nevada’s Las Vegas Valley, drawing tens of thousands of people to settle in the desert. It’s called Summerlin, and it’s a massive master-planned community that encompasses 36 square miles, or 22,500 acres. The project had about 32,400 units and 84,350 residents as of December 2003, and is projected to house nearly double that population in about 15 years.

Summerlin is an exceptionally large example of a growing trend in the development of planned communities, which are large-scale housing developments that feature a range of housing types, community amenities, public services and can also include office and retail space. These communities are typically governed internally by homeowner associations. Irvine, Calif., Rancho Bernardo near San Diego, Calif., and Reston, Va., are other examples of giant master-planned communities.

An annual survey of home sales in master-planned communities found that the top-20 survey participants sold 28,500 new homes in 2003, a gain of about 16 percent compared with the new home sales reported for the top-20 in 2002. Most of the communities in the latest survey, conducted by real estate services firm Robert Charles Lesser & Co., sold more than 1,000 homes per year compared with about 700 new homes sales per year by most of the survey participants in 2000. One major planned-community developer, Newland Communities, develops and sells an estimated 4,000 to 5,000 units per year and has developed more than 75,000 acres in the past 35 years. Newland manages about 40 community developments.

About 41 percent of new single-family home sales in California during the 1990s were in planned developments, according to a study the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit research organization, released in March. The study defined planned developments as those in which each homeowner owns the individual unit and lot and a homeowner association owns and maintains all common property.

Also, about 25 percent of California’s existing housing and about 60 percent of all new housing under construction in the state is in a form of a common-interest development, which the study defines as planned developments, condominiums and cooperatives in which there is some form of common property ownership.

“Beyond an individual house or unit, property owners in these communities also hold an interest in common areas–such as recreation facilities, streets, lawns or parking lots–either as individuals or through a mandatory homeowner association,” the study stated.

About 2.3 million homes are situated in the state’s 9,300 planned developments, for an average 247 homes per development. The study also found that more than 75 percent of planned developments are within incorporated cities, and about 67 percent are in the suburbs or in metropolitan areas beyond the central city.

About 50 million Americans live in common-interest developments, which account for about 15 percent of the national housing stock. In 1962, there were about 500 common-interest developments in the country, compared with about 250,000 today. Sixty-four percent of all common-interest development units in the country are in planned developments, while about 31 percent are in condos and 5 percent are in cooperatives. And the number of planned development units has quadrupled since 1985.

Some housing and economic experts have questioned whether planned communities are a form of segregation in which a financially and racially homogenous group seeks to withdraw from the public community into a private enclave. A 1991 paper by Robert B. Reich, a Harvard University political economy professor, refers to this financial drain on overall society as “secession of the successful.”

“In many cities and towns, the wealthy have in effect withdrawn their dollars from the support of public spaces and institutions shared by all and dedicated the savings to their own private services,” he noted in the paper. 

The Public Policy Institute study found that planned development residents are largely white, older, have high levels of educates and earn a high income compared with residents who do not live in private communities. About 22-26 percent of households in planned developments in California earn more than $100,000 per year, for example. And about 60 percent of the residents of planned communities in California cities are white, compared with about 41 percent white residents in other city neighborhoods. Planned developments in suburban areas of the state tend to be far more diverse and comparable to other suburban neighborhoods.

Thomas W. Kopf, a planner and architect who wrote a book about planned community design called “Building Community,” has encouraged designers and builders to appeal to a broad spectrum of residents by offering a range of building types and amenities within a development.

“A variety of housing types meets the needs of many income groups and lifestyle needs. The diversity allows people who work in the community to live in the community,” he wrote. “Different people expect different amenities to respond to their lifestyles and ages.”

American Lives, a market research company, has conducted studies on what draws people to planned communities. The latest study, conducted in 1998, found that residents place the highest priority on such amenities as natural open space, walking and biking paths, and sidewalks. Gardens and parks are also a big draw. Buyers of homes in master-planned communities are more likely to want security guards, controls over architectural styles and lot sizes, and such recreation facilities as swimming pools and fitness centers. About 440 home buyers in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida and Texas participated in the survey.

The study showed a rising interest in wider streets and larger lot sizes, for new growth to occur in the suburbs, and for commercial areas with easy auto access. About 78 percent of respondents said it is important to have a traditional-style house and yard with front porches, shade trees along the street and garages hidden behind homes, up from 75 percent in the 1995 survey. But drastic declines were reported in residents’ desire for community gathering places, which fell from about 74 percent favorability in 1995 to about 49 percent favorability in 1998.

Also, the percentage of people who favored neighborhoods grouped in towns “rather than homes marching to the horizon” dropped from about 90 percent in 1995 to about 66 percent in 1988. And the survey found that about 60 percent of respondents “want a suburb where I can walk or bicycle everywhere,” compared with about 74 percent in 1995.

Send tips, feedback or a letter to the editor to or call (510) 658-9252, ext. 137.

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