Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

The Intelligent (Street) Design Debate

Dateline: 8:01 pm January 3, 2006 Filed under:

Happy New (Urban) Year! I have high hopes for urbanism in 2006. Among the many things I will be watching in the development world this year will be the evolution of the town center at San Elijo Hills. This is the year the last major piece of the town center (or as they call it, the “Towncenter”) will be built.

San Elijo Hills is no ordinary town center, as I found on a recent visit. Like many of my colleagues in the industry, I visit a lot of mixed-use developments that are pleasant, attractive and internally walkable. Too often, however, I am frustrated that the only way to access them is by car, since the surrounding road network of overly wide roads is not easily navigable on foot. With San Elijo Hills, the traditional suburban arterial road network was scrapped in order to actually incorporate the major streets into the town center.

San Elijo Hills, located 40 miles north of San Diego in the City of San Marcos, California, is a greenfield master-planned community. HomeFed Corporation, the developer, faced a conundrum in the late 1990s with their proposed development. The original plan called for several thousand housing units with a town center located at the crossing of two standard suburban arterial roads.

Curt Noland of HomeFed was intent on building a real town center, but knew instinctively that the road network would not be conducive to pedestrian movement. He understood that standard arterial roads would maroon pedestrians on each respective quadrant, with wide rights-of-way that are daunting to cross on foot.

HomeFed hired Peter Calthorpe of Calthorpe Associates to assist with designing the town center. They traveled around the country to see existing town centers, and found very few that actually incorporated nearby major roads. The opinion of HomeFed and Calthorpe was that these town centers were too “contrived,” without “real streets” running through them. Mr. Calthorpe suggested an idea he had been considering for some time; that they split the arterial into two one-way street couplets as they pass through the town center, creating a street grid.

One-way streets aren’t exactly new to cities, but couplets are quite ingenious in a suburban setting when combined with the creation of a pedestrian-friendly environment and a mix of uses built at minimal setback from the sidewalk – in short, they are the bones of a real town center.

The advantages of the design are numerous. First, pedestrians have better access to retail shops. Second, the friction of on-street parking slows traffic. Third, on-street parking forms a barrier between pedestrians and moving traffic. Fourth, pedestrians are not stranded in each of the quadrants by overwhelming pedestrian crossings – crosswalks are less than 30 feet in distance, as opposed to the 110-foot rights-of-way that were originally proposed.

Mr. Calthorpe admits his fondness for the couplet. He explains, “That is why I think San Elijo Hills is so terribly important. It does offer a systemic approach to how we can modify the tyranny of the traditional arterial grid and turn it in to something that has better nature.”

This isn’t just cute street design, either. Traffic tests performed by the City of San Marcos actually reveal that traffic will move faster, on average, through the town center, than a traditional arterial system would allow. Although the speed limit is lower, the wait times at traffic signals are less because they are only two-phase lights. This compares to standard eight-phase lights, which can lead to longer wait times.

The town center with one-way paired couplets is fundamental to Mr. Calthorpe’s idea of the Urban Network, which is an attempt to redefine the suburban road system, replacing freeways, arterials and collector streets with transit boulevards, throughways, avenues and connectors. Transit boulevards take the place of arterials, and split into one-way couplets as they pass through town centers such as San Elijo Hills. This reinforces access to town centers, instead of bypassing them as arterials do.

The town center at San Elijo Hills is a nice place. It is walkable, has a town square, a school and library, live/work units, townhomes, a city park, and the future grocery store with additional retail space and restaurants. It would be wonderful if there were more town centers like it, as its paired couplets contain a powerful lesson in urban design. This is not to say that other iterations of town centers and mixed-use developments are failures, but rather that we have a lot of progress to make with regard to how to integrate functional streets into them.

The bottom line, quite simply, is we have to create streets that are friendly to pedestrians, bicycles, cars and mass transit, which ultimately improves the quality of life in our cities.

The real test of the design will come in 2006 when the planned grocery store opens in the town center, San Elijo Road is completed through to San Marcos, and traffic approaches planned levels. I won’t be the only one watching in 2006. A lot of planners, developers, city officials and traffic engineers will be paying close attention to see if all goes as planned in San Elijo Hills.

The San Elijo Hills website is To see a plan of the town center, go to their website, click on “The Community,” then on “The Towncenter.”
Calthorpe Associates can be found at

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