Huge San Ramon development nears finish line

Blanca Torres

With only 150 homes out of 5,170 left to sell, development of the Windemere master-planned community in San Ramon is in the home stretch of a process that has stretched more than 30 years.

The community has established a suburban enclave of homes for an estimated 15,000 people nestled among rolling hills that were once dotted with cattle ranches. The 2,300-acre site still maintains a sense of open space, with undeveloped hilltops thrusting out of the landscape.

If the views from Windemere can be stunning, views of Windemere remain divided. For the three builders — Lennar Homes, Centex Homes and Brookfield Homes — that formed a partnership to take on the massive project, it is a bedroom community situated perfectly to serve the East Bay job centers nearby. For some urban planning activists, it is the sort of car-centric suburban sprawl that is driving the Bay Area in the wrong direction.

“Our goal was to provide housing for an area that has one of the largest job concentrations in the East Bay: Bishop Ranch and Hacienda Business Park,” said John Ochsner, who worked on Windemere for Centex Homes, which was recently acquired by Pulte Homes.

John Ryan, president of Brookfield Homes, said he expects the development to be completely sold out within a year despite the current downturn in the real estate market.

Prices on homes in the development have come down somewhat, and buyers continue to sign contracts. Windemere offers a variety of home styles from condos and townhomes to large, detached houses with prices ranging from the $400,000s to just over $1 million. Ryan said most of the homes sold when the housing market was booming.

“We hit the upstream on the way up and the downstream on the way down,” he said. “Our sales are still doing well.”

Construction on the first homes started in 2001 after decades of planning that began in the 1980s. The three companies came together in the 1990s and worked to have the project approved, which took several years.

“For the Bay Area, it was a rare opportunity and the three companies fortunately had the vision to see it,” Ochsner said. “Not every builder could pull this off because of the size, magnitude and cost of investment required. … It was better as a joint project because the risk profile was too great for one builder.”

The builders had to install infrastructure such as roads, sewage systems and electricity. They invested $235 million into building two elementary schools, a middle school and a high school. The high school alone cost $160 million, has a capacity of 2,200 students and features an outdoor athletic pool and modern performing arts center. The community also has a child-care center, a 26,000-square-foot community center and a branch campus of Diablo Valley College. Windemere also includes 18 parks.

The project faced opposition from preservationists and residents of neighboring cities who did not want to annex the community, which was originally part of unincorporated Contra Costa County. San Ramon has gradually annexed portions of Windemere as they have been developed.

Brian Olin, Bay Area division president for Lennar Homes, said he calls the site “in-fill,” considering its proximity to major business parks and the few miles to the Interstate 580 and Interstate 680 freeways and BART. Windemere also provides an option for families who might otherwise move farther east to the Central Valley.

“It’s a good balance,” Olin said. “There’s absolutely a need for housing. As a builder, you want to be responsible about what you’re building.”

Groups that opposed the project from the start, however, say that Windemere is outside existing urban boundaries and is simply unrestrained growth in the wrong place.

“This project represents an era of unsustainable growth that must end,” said Christina Wong, who handles East Bay development issues for the Greenbelt Alliance.

Another site the size of Windemere will probably never come available again in the Bay Area, Ochsner said. Nonetheless, while Windemere finishes its build-out, another development team, FT Land LLC, has proposed a mixed-use development called the New Farm Project on 771 acres along Camino Tassajara, just a few miles east of Windemere on unincorporated county land. That proposal would require an amendment to the Contra Costa County General Plan to allow for residential development on areas currently used for cattle grazing. The Greenbelt Alliance opposes that proposal as well.

“We need to build in a more climate-friendly, affordable and economically competitive way,” Wong said. “We need to reinvest in our urban neighborhoods and suburban downtowns.”

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http://sanfrancisco.bizjournals.com/sanfrancisco/stories/2009/09/07/story3.html?b=1252296000^2044091#

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