Saturday, August 22, 2015

Grand opening of The Cannery farm-to-table community in Davis, CA

Last weekend was the grand opening of The Cannery, the first major new-home development to be built in Davis in over 20 years (Davis is renowned for its anti-growth politics). I’m not looking to move but like so many people in town I was eager to get a first look at what is being billed as “California’s first farm-to-table new home community”.

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Built on the 100 acre site of the former Hunt-Wesson tomato cannery on the northern edge of town, this project will eventually have close to 550 housing units, all of which feature solar power, LED lighting, tankless water heaters and electric car chargers. The lots are small—how small you will see later—but there’s a big focus on shared spaces—parks, walking trails, a community center and pool, etc. Somebody told me that no house will be more than 300 ft. from the green belt that winds its way through the community.

The standout feature that every press release and promotional video seems to hone in on is the 7.5 acre “Urban Farm.” Run by the Center for Land-Based Learning, a local non-profit, it will be a teaching lab for future farmers and grow produce to be sold right on site (I guess that’s where the “farm-to-table” bit comes in). Right now the farm is planted in corn, pumpkins and tomatoes, but I suppose the selection will vary based on what proves to be popular.

At this stage, the only structures completed are a large barn, a welcome center, as well as 14 model houses ranging in price from the mid $400,000 to the “low $1 million.” I was a bit shocked by these prices, especially considering the lots are microscopic. But Davis is one of the most desirable towns in the Sacramento Valley and there is so much pent-up demand for new housing that the market will apparently bear such lofty pricing.

The main reason why I wanted to visit The Cannery was to check out the public landscaping. With California in the middle of the worst drought in 1,200 years, I was eager to see what landscaping choices the developers had made. Read on to find out what my impressions were.

Let’s start out with what impressed me the most: olive trees. The developers spared no expense to bring in several dozen mature olive trees that look like they’ve always been here. They are instant landmarks in what is essentially is a massive construction site, with the vast majority of homes still to be built.

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One of several dozen mature olive trees

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Bee box

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Bicycle parking is everywhere, not a surprise considering Davis is home to the U.S. Bicycling Hall of Fame

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The Farm House, which currently serves as the welcome center

The first thing I disliked was this expanse of white roses in the median strip near the temporary parking lot for the grand opening. The same type of roses, in white and pink, are planted in other spots near the model homes. I have nothing against roses, but in our climate they only look good in the spring, then they go downhill fast as summer approaches. The roses at The Cannery were planted recently and still look OK, but wait a year! I don’t think they make a good choice as a landscaping plant.

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The much-touted Urban Farm is along the eastern edge of the development. The fields do look beautiful, bursting with picture-perfect produce. The setting looks like it jumped off the pages of a glossy marketing brochure.

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There are even benches to sit and watch the vegetables grow.

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Now we’re at the first “neighborhood” called Heirloom. The sales brochure for Heirloom, of course printed on recycled paper, shows a close-up of perfectly ripe green tomatoes. Heirloom consists of 72 three-story townhouses which have little to no outdoor space. Depending on your preferences, this is either dreamy or a nightmare.

In front of Heirloom model home #1 we encounter a landscaping no-no I also noticed in several other locations:

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See what I’m getting at? This trio of Agave americana is planted far too close to the sprinkler valve and the valve box (I assume that’s what the purple lid is). Even if they weren’t going to produce pups—which they will, with wild abandon—they would make access impossible in just a year or two. Landscape design 101: never plant Agave americana unless the client holds your feet to the fire, and even then allow plenty of space for growth.

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This planting scheme made me sad, so sad. I came to be inspired, but this is not the way to do it.

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Here’s a reminder that this development is still very much under construction:

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Neighborhood #2 we visited is called Tilton. I wasn’t fond of the architecture but that’s a matter of personal preference. The landscaping is water-wise, with an expense of deer grass in front of this model home:

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Not sure what’s going on here, but the garage has no driveway!

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I was pleased to see Callistemon ‘Little John’ in front of this house…

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…as well as two Agave ‘Blue Glow’ on either side of the steps (but please, get rid of the day lilies!):

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Inside, one thing become shockingly clear: the backyards are tiny, tiny, tiny. What you see in the next photo is the depth of the backyard:

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A large covered porch (in marketing speak, a “California room”) adds vital outdoor space.

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There were succulents everywhere, in this model home and in many others.

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Unfortunately, all of them were fake. (I love the concrete bowl in the next photo though.)

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Very little room between the houses. You better get along with your neighbors!

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The largest house in the Tilton neighborhood had the largest backyard, relatively speaking. I thought the space was well utilized. None of the model homes had lawns. In fact, I don’t think I saw any lawn anywhere in the development. That’s a major plus.

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More succulents on the dining room table (faux again):

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Another reminder that this project is very much in the beginning stages:

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On to the next neighborhood, this one named “Persimmon.” (How do they come up with these names anyway?) More roses next to the front door of model home #1, this time trained as standards. I’m still not on board with roses here in Davis.

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Two of the “bungalows” at Persimmon had an upstairs apartment with a separate entrance—great for rental income, use as a home office, or when your kid returns home after graduating from college with a degree in basket weaving and can’t find a job. What you see in the next two photos is the extent of the backyard. Yes, folks, that’s all there is. The white façade on the left is your neighbor’s house. At least the stock tanks and arbor give you some space to grow stuff (and there’s a California room aka covered porch as well).

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To make up for the lack of a backyard, you have a view of the Urban Farm. As cynical as I can be, my heart goes “aaaaahhhh” when I see fields and wide open spaces like that. Yes, I do like living here in the Sacramento Valley.

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With furnishings and décor being so personal, I decided not to include any photos or the interiors of the model homes, but I have to make one exception for what I think is the wildest tile pattern I’ve ever seen. Kudos to the designer for sticking to their conviction and using this tile through the downstairs, including the bathroom walls. I tried to imagine coming home to this everyday, and I shuddered.

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Another Persimmon model with an upstairs apartment:

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This “backyard” had a nice BBQ, a few trellises, a narrow strip of yew and Italian cypress, and several odd pockets of black Mexican beach pebbles—no doubt an attempt to dress up what is a dreary space of soul-sucking proportions. Even more depressing: Persimmon homes start in the $700,000s.

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Not even this these succulent wall planter helps (the succulents were fake anyway).

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Now we’re at the last neighborhood open for viewing, this one called “Sage.” I don’t if it’s a nod to the herb or an allusion to the wise. You decide. This is the most expensive neighborhood, with the largest homes, the biggest lots, and the best views. (Hey, don’t make fun of the drainage ditch, I quite like looking at it. My wife, by the way, thinks it’s not a drainage ditch but a deliberate water feature.)

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More Agave americana. I swear, if I had run into the landscape designers, I would have offered them some of my Agave desmettiana ‘Variegata’ bulbils. Any agave—and I mean any—is better than plain-vanilla Agave americana.

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Still looking to be inspired by the public landscaping:

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Finally, something to get me excited. I really like these two Corten beds:

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They even have drains! I wonder what the irrigation setup is like?

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Even in the Sage neighborhood, the backyards were small. See that horizontal wooden fence in the next photo? That’s your neighbor’s yard! But the available space was used very well. More Coreten planters…

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…and a nice outdoor seating area complete with a water feature.

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I’ve never see sago palm (Cycas revoluta) underplanted with echeverias, but I like it!

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And finally an agave that isn’t Agave americana! This duo, on either side of the patio, is the non-variegated form of Agave desmettiana. I thought they looked fantastic in these urns in front of the olive trees.

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Model home #2 in the Sage neighborhood had a fire feature in the backyard:

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Before we look at Sage model #3—the largest and most expensive house we saw, and also my hands-down favorite—I need to revisit the Agave americana faux pas from the Heirloom neighborhood:

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Didn’t the landscape designers notice that even now these agave are much too close to the utility hookups? They’re pupping already, so in a year it’ll be impossible to open these lids. I just don’t understand why these agaves were planted here (they’re also much too close to the sidewalk). It’s a mystery that would require Sherlock Holmes to solve.

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Now let’s look at the outside areas of Sage model # 3. The downstairs California room (aka covered porch) is great. The master bedroom upstairs had a similar setup. I could definitely get used to this. Price of admission: “low $1 million.”

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The backyard was the largest of all the models we saw. Instead of a lawn (yeah!) we get a rather interesting mix of plants:

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Sedum (left), echeverias (right) and—are my eyes tricking me?—ornamental strawberry in the middle? Now I don’t know what cultivar or hybrid this might be, but we have friends who have been trying to eradicate ornamental strawberry for the better part of 30 years.

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But there’s hope. The red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) will do really well here.

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Walking around the side of the house we have two raised planters with more sedum and echeverias…

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…an espaliered fruit tree…

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…a persimmon tree…

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…and an outdoor kitchen clad in recycled wood.

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From the upstairs master bedroom we have a view of the seating area downstairs…

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…and we see the extent of the backyard:

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At least the view of the fields beyond give an impression of openness.

As we were leaving, I was trying to sort out my impressions of The Cannery. There’s much to like—the environmental features, the small footprint (although as a gardener I’m reluctant to add this to the “plus” category), the focus on communal spaces, and last but not least the Urban Farm. In the grand scheme of things it’s probably more of a marketing gimmick than anything else, but just the act of walking, biking or driving by it every day might make the residents feel more connected to the earth. As shallow as that may sound, it’s more than many city dwellers experience today.

On the downside, I felt the public landscaping was a major miss, olive trees aside. There seems to be a real phobia among Northern California landscape designers towards “desertification.” Frankly, I have no idea why they are so afraid of desert natives that would do wonderfully well here. I’m not advocating a stark cactus-and-boulder landscape, but what about desert trees and shrubs like palo verde, baja fairy duster and Texas ranger? More attractive and better behaved agaves (too numerous to mention)? Yuccas and aloes (I didn’t see a single aloe)? The list goes on and on.

The plant choices made at The Cannery are baffling to me. But I’m not giving up hope. What we visited are just model homes. The folks that will make up the bulk of the residents will make their own choices about landscaping. I’m hoping they will look to what has proven to be successful in Southern California and Arizona, both aesthetically and environmentally.

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19 comments:

  1. Well, this is utterly disappointing. I wonder how truly lucrative a boondoggle this on, capitalizing on romantic bougie aspirations of Green Acre-living. They get to sit and watch the community tomatoes grow! And, presumably, wither on the vine!

    On a more positive note, you've done a bang-up job capturing the grim, corporate, thoroughly unimaginative, and surprisingly energy-inefficient greenwashing that seems to have engulfed a potentially interesting project. Thank for you the exhaustive post. (The visit alone seemed exhausting!)

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    1. Also, those prices: despite the feel-goodness it's still a gated community even if the clubhouse has been replaced by a barn / Welcome Center.

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    2. I love your comments. I can't say that I disagree with them.

      Our visit was moderated by free swag, lemonade, cookies and ice cream bars :).

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  2. Something always seems missing to me in these planned developments - they lack a soul. My in-laws moved into one down this way after their custom-built dream home burned down in one of Malibu's many fires. Although at the time I couldn't believe they settled for a cookie-cutter house with cookie-cutter landscaping, they eventually made it their own, as did their neighbors. I don't know why the landscapers employed by developments, especially the expensive ones, don't show more creativity but perhaps the developers actually want a certain degree of uniformity, recognizing that the average new home buyer isn't looking for originality. It's too bad though - if I were a new home buyer, I'd prefer a blank slate and a credit toward landscaping to what these homes deliver.

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    1. I have a feeling that public landscaping (paid for by the developers) is almost an afterthought and relatively little money is budgeted for it. Maybe in this case they spent most of that budget on those mature olive trees (which I do love)?

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  3. Sad, really sad.

    Great post! Thanks for braving that place so we could see it.

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    1. It's just so different from how I live and what I want. That's the hardest part. But then, it's better than many (many!) other new-home developments I've seen. Most are even more depressing.

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  4. Odd mix of things there, not even sure which bits to comment about....

    But the garage without a drive, now that's very odd...

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  5. Gerhard, it's pretty common for developers to landscape the driveway of the model homes..it's a marketing thing-the illusion of less concrete. Certainly the lots are tiny, but it always interests me how few of my neighbors are ever actually in their yards-front or back for that matter. They go out to use the grill and thats about it. I did notice a rain barrel in one of the photos-at least that's encouraging !

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    1. I had never known that about some model homes having a "landscaped" driveway. None of the other houses I saw did. So when they eventually sell the models, they tear up the sidewalk and landscaping and build a proper driveway?

      You're so right about many people not wanting or needing a real yard. I'm fairly certain the Cannery project wouldn't suffer from a lack of buyers.

      Yes, there are rain barrels, and PV systems on the roofs, and water-wise landscaping (albeit uninspired) and other sustainability features. You can fault the project in that regard.

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    2. Gerhard, the sales office is usually in the no-driveway house . So it's the last to go sales wise, and I imagine the developer pays for the d-way installation.

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    3. Apparently I have a habit of opening doors in model homes when and where I shouldn't. I did open one garage door to what was the sales office but I can't remember where that was. Maybe it was the house without a driveway. Frankly, it's all become a blur, and I'm not unhappy about it if you know what I mean.

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  6. Ye gods, the agaves on top of the valves and utilities...There will be blood :~( And the tile, the beach pebbles, the faux succulents...! The roses in the median...! Oy oy oy. On the other hand, the desmettianas in their urns look wonderful. I love the planters (both the steel and the wood). And my small yard suddenly feels huge!

    Couldn't help but be reminded of your visit to Civano. Here's the link -- whew! Much better now :~) The Cannery suffers mightily by comparison. I even found a perfect house! OMG, that almost-blank canvas of a back yard... Pity it will be sold long before I retire :~/

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    1. Luisa, from the pictures of your yard that I've seen, it's huge compared to this development. And so much more interesting.

      Thank you for bringing up the comparison to Civano. In my book, Civano is pretty much the perfect development for the arid West. Its blueprint could be replicated all over the West, and the world would be better for it.

      "Your" house looks awesome. And the price! Oh my god, you don't get a dog house for that around here. I'm half serious when I say this, but I can see myself living in Civano after I retire.

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  7. I must be blunt. Living in a place like this is pretty much my worse nightmare...and, as you know, we aren't exactly living large here in our tiny NE Portland home.

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    1. I agree with you. I wouldn't want to live that way either.

      Your house may be small, but it's a perfect package. Just like your garden.

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  8. It's really difficult to envision a community based on a few model homes, especially since there's so little shade -- excepting fantastic mature olive trees. It seems like area landscape designers have a great opportunity for new clients here -- just hoping the better ones jump in before more of these mistakes are repeated 500 times.

    Do people not want yards any more? I don't know if I could live this way...

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    1. The lack of space is one thing I have a hard time with. I could never live in a crammed situation like that, but as Kathy pointed out above, not every wants a yard.

      Yes, there's little shade and most yards are too small for shade trees. Shade sails to the rescue!

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