A Green Residential Development Turns 25

There are people in the landscape industry with the uncanny ability to look down the road. They can predict what’s coming and make adjustments “now” that will be sought-after “then.” At the time, these visionaries might be derided as crackpots. Wrong. They have foresight.

One example is Bart Nelson at Nelson Irrigation, who saw that water would become an even more precious resource. He had a better idea for an irrigation rotor that would deliver no more water than was necessary; his MP Rotator changed the industry’s thinking about low precipitation rates. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Israeli engineers Simcha and Yeshayahu Bass made the desert bloom by applying water to crops in a targeted way. Their drip irrigation is a much-used technology that revolutionized the way to conserve water.

Back here in America, Jim Velke and Bill Wright at Wright Industries foresaw the need for a new kind of mower. They invented the Stander, a self-propelled mower where the operator stood on a platform, instead of walking behind the mowing deck.

Twenty-five years ago, when the 92-unit Meadowood residential housing development in Claremont, California, was being designed, its construction and landscape architecture team might well have been seen as an assemblage of crackpots and wing-nuts. They had an idea ahead of its time. That is, do a suburban tract house development, but make it “green.”

Meadowood was planned by the Claremont Environmental Design Group (CEDG). The project embraced the then-radical concept of marrying development to the environment in a way that makes the area most livable for its residents, with a minimum of environmental impact. The result is a community of 92 single-family homes laid out on six cul-de-sacs, each of which has the “sac” end abutting a central, private park.

Built on a site originally intended for a school, the project covers 40 acres, with three-and-a-half of those acres in the park. The park is circled by a hardscape running/walking path, and contains 112 trees.

Carl Welty is a principal architect with CEDG. He attributes much of the success of the project to a centralized vision shared by the civil engineer and landscape architect. “It’s crucial to have everyone on board sharing the same vision,” Welty declares. “Even that kind of cooperation was radical at the time.”

Landscape architect Mark von Wodtke was the founding principal at CEDG who designed the Meadowood landscape. He says that his guiding principle was the idea of an ecotone, the transition area between two different types of landscape— in this case, between a meadow and a wood. Wodtke also drew creative inspiration from Vondelpark in Amsterdam, Holland, where intimate niches along the edges provide additional recreational space.

The “meadow” of Meadowood is found in the central park. That park serves both recreational and functional purposes. The functionality comes out of a drainage plan that was radical 25 years ago. Meadowood has no subsurface stormwater management plan. Everything drains on the surface, working with the natural and engineer-enhanced slopes of the project to funnel water on the surface into a dry creek bed that runs through the park.

“If the project were to be built now,” Welty says, “that central park could easily include a stormwater retention pond. Instead of a retention pond, we built a beautiful dry creek bed to manage stormwater.”

The dry creek bed is one of Meadowood’s most important features.

Though artificial, it has been configured to look as natural as possible, with sweeping bends and uneven rocks at the bottom of the bed. After a rain event, water from the surface drainage system funnels into the creek bed, which then allows the water to flow toward an outlet into the city storm drainage system.

“We mimic nature with it,” Welty relates, “as it courses some 950 feet through the central park. The idea is that water in the bed can leach down into the groundwater system. Just as with a retention pond, there’s that outlet for overflow.”

The reason for the surface drainage system, which has worked without a hitch for 25 years, is both environmental and economic. Wodtke reminds us that the site was originally supposed to be for a school. There was no subsurface drainage in place. “When the developer realized the cost of putting in all those storm drains, the idea of surface drainage to the dry creek bed became infinitely more attractive.”

With the natural-looking creek bed in place, Wodtke wanted to design a park that would similarly blend with the environment. Rather than go for an expanse of grass that would be expected, he seeded the meadow with natural grasses and wildflowers.

Then, at the southern end of the park, Wodtke decided to salute the San Gabriel Valley’s agricultural roots. Taking his cue from the famous Village Homes development near Davis, California, Wodkte planted an assortment of fruit trees. “These were mostly orange trees and seed-pit trees. Again, the idea was for residents to live in harmony with nature and with the land.”

Even today, the creek bed system works beautifully, says Linda Worhach, president of the Meadowood Homeowners Association for the past five years. There has never been a flood. Meanwhile, the creek bed/park combination is so attractive that it has become a recreational center.

Maintenance of the creek bed is the job of Jonescape, a landscape and hardscape design, installation, and maintenance company based in Montclair, California. Jonescape does all the common area upkeep for Meadowood. Among those jobs is the responsibility for keeping the dry creek bed functional and attractive, says company president Kasey Jones.

“Creek beds require maintenance like everything else,” Jones explains. “Our job is to keep the flow going, move the rocks around as needed, rebuild as needed, and be careful of silt. Runoff doesn’t just introduce water to the creek bed; it introduces silt, as well. Silt settles toward the bottom, and gets in between the rocks. Standing water after irrigation or rain will indicate where that silt is located. We move the rocks, dig out the silt, cart it away, and deposit that silt where it could be useful.”

Meadowood has other green features. The streets are only 60 percent as wide as comparable developments—26 feet wide instead of 40 feet. Less asphalt was a green innovation that meant more room for turf, trees and plant life, and less hardscape runoff for the dry creek bed to handle. Parking is accommodated by alcoves on both sides of the streets.

The developers planted trees along the cul-de-sacs, mostly Chinese pistachios that can create a canopy over the narrow streets, as well as provide striking autumn coloration.

There are also substantial numbers of koelruterias. One challenge is the effect of healthy tree roots on Meadowood’s irrigation lines. Jones is also responsible for all irrigation line repairs.

One of Jonescape’s main efforts has been to restore and maintain a natural look to the development’s hedges, which had been trimmed into what he describes as “Marge Simpson hairdos.”

Just as an Apple computer from the late ’80s looks nothing like a 21st century iPad, it’s not fair to expect a 25-year-old green development to look like the opening ribbon was snipped yesterday. What Meadowbrook did and does stands as a shining, living example of the art of the possible.

There’s one more benefit to going green like this, says Wodkte. “During this recession, the development has held its value better than comparable neighborhoods, and there has been higher resale demand.” That means green in more ways than one.