Owning a home is the American dream. But in many parts of the country, this entails commuting to work over clogged roads that make the driving increasingly onerous, often consuming as many as 15 hours a week. An alternative that would put homeowners closer to work so they spend less time commuting and more at home has a definite appeal.

The question is, how much are new home buyers willing to give up to get it? Quite a bit, judging by Rivermark, a new planned community near Santa Clara, Calif., which I visited recently. It’s in Silicon Valley, an area where many commuters routinely spend three hours a day on the road, most of it on freeways.

The first thing the Rivermark buyers have given up is a lot of money for a not-so-big house. For someone from another part of the country, the prices are astonishing. A 16 to 18-foot-wide townhouse with the entire first floor given over to a two-car, tandem garage–one car is parked in front of the other–and 1,460 square feet of living space above is priced “in the low $500,000’s.” A detached house with 3-5 bedrooms and 2,400 to 2,645 square feet goes for $750,000 to $800,000. On a cost-per-square-foot basis, these production-built houses are selling for more than $300 a square foot, surely among the highest in the entire country.

The other thing the buyers have given up is privacy and the freedom to sun in the backyard in your skivvies without a thought to the neighbors. Privacy at Rivermark is at a premium and the density is as astonishing as the prices.

With 1,889 units of multifamily high-rise rental apartments, townhouses and detached houses crammed onto 100 acres, the average density is about 18 units an acre. One group of townhouses that I saw was 21 units to the acre! Though townhouses with shared party walls will always have a higher density than detached houses, the area between these rows of townhouses is less than most I have seen. The house fronts face each other across a 30-foot-wide landscaped pedestrian walkway.The backs face each other across a narrow 28-foot-wide alley, which provides access to the ground floor garages. The detached houses that I toured are closely packed together as well, with about 8 feet between houses on the sides and 30 feet at the rear. The backyards are separated by a fence; each backyard is 15 feet deep.

With everyone living in such close quarters, designing the houses so that the owners would not be eyeball to eyeball with their neighbors was a central concern. Mark Day, the San Ramon, Calif., architect who led the design team for both the land use plan and the housing at Rivermark, said, “Every house is designed by who is looking into it.”

These densities are driven by the high land cost, which was estimated to be a whopping $2 million an acre. To make the project financially viable, the developer had to build the maximum number of allowable units.

What does Rivermark look like? Its density could quickly make a person feel hemmed in on all sides, but in walking around the community I found it an uncommonly pleasant place to be. With six different product types built bythree different builders, the potential for a hodge podge look was great. Instead, because Day’s firm–the Dahlin Group also in San Ramon–designed everything, Rivermark has a striking visual cohesion.

Block upon block of townhouses gives Rivermark a definite urban cast that I do not associate with California and its famously laid-back lifestyle. But the profusion of colors on the exteriors throughout the project tells me I couldn’t be in any other place. The palette ranges from bold reds, blues greens and yellows to a more subdued peach and rose and numerous beiges. Stylistically the facades run the gamut, from English Tudor to Spanish, Tuscan and California Bungalow style. Some of these are clearly not indigenous, but the principal siding material is stucco, which has been used throughout California for more than 100 years.

The numerous pocket parks scattered throughout Rivermark also work to make the density less apparent. The landscaping budget was unusually generous, judging by the number of mature trees and flourishing ground cover that I saw.

The strongest accolades, however, have come from buyers–after only 18 months, nearly half the housing units have been built and the developer expects to complete the other half within two years, Day said.

According to Elaine Palmer, a marketing executive for Shea Homes, one of the home builders at Rivermark, density is “absolutely not an issue” for the buyers. The large number of homeowners who work in the neighboring high-tech industries are ecstatic about being able to walk or bike to work and to Rivermark’s shopping center, she said.

As I walked around, however, I was struck by this contradiction. On the one hand, the townhouse owners are paying a bundle to avoid driving to work. They are also paying a bundle to house their cars–the entire ground floor is given over to car storage. At these prices, I wondered, did the buyers calculate how much they were paying for this convenience? Foregoing the garage and parking nearby would have netted them an additional floor of living space. If the garage was a must, why not add a fourth story to get additional living space? Once you go up three stories, the added cost to build a fourth is not that great.

When I started asking questions I quickly found myself launched into a discussion of the intricacies of the local building code, local zoning and height restrictions, and buyer preferences.

As Day explained it, the local building code defines a grade-level garage as a “basement” and the second and third floors as “two stories above grade.” To add a full fourth floor, which the code construes as a “third story above grade,” would require an additional staircase leading directly to a ground floor exit. Adding a fourth floor with only 500 square feet–usually enough for two bedrooms and a bathroom–would not require the stair. But it could not be done in this case because even a partial fourth story would have exceeded the local jurisdiction’s mandated height limit for this section of Rivermark.

Incorporating a small room on the ground floor in front of the garage was not an option either. In the eyes of the local jurisdiction, this would make the entire floor “above grade.” And this in turn would have limited the third floor to only 500 square feet. Not surprisingly, Day characterized his work on the townhouses as “a balancing act.”

As to buyer preferences, Palmer said a townhouse with an attached two-car garage is unusual in this market. It was a major attraction for buyers who moved from apartments and were fed up with the inconvenience of a remote parking space. No one has questioned the space allocation and asked, “how come we didn’t get an extra level of living space,” but she conceded that buyers in focus groups were not offered the choice. 

But, after the novelty of home ownership has worn off, I predict that townhouse owners with the tandem garage arrangement–one car in front of the other–will find it as irritating as the hike from a remote parking space in their old apartment complex. Inevitably the partner who comes home first and parks towards the front will be the first to leave in the morning. Departure will involve moving the rearmost car out first, then moving the forward one out, then moving the other one back into the garage and hoping that neighbors are not performing a similar maneuver in the narrow alley at the same time.

Is Rivermark the wave of the future? Though its density may represent an extreme, land costs are rising everywhere and so are densities. If buyers are lucky, however, the higher densities that confront them will be as pleasing to the eye as Rivermark’s.

Questions? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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