Interview with Tom DiGiovanni of New Urban Builders

Interview with Tom DiGiovanni

We first heard about builder Tom DiGiovanni through our friend, Scott Wolf, when we asked him who was developing conscientiously in the NorthValley area. After driving through one of Tom’s neighborhoods (Doe Mill in Chico), we realized we needed to interview this guy. His company, New Urban Builders, is going to be developing a 250-acre parcel in Chico that will be built with the same principles in mind. We think you will agree that this type of community is a sign of how we, as a society, are changing. Tom has lived in Chico for almost 20 years so he is literally building in his own backyard, which is comforting somehow. Where we live is important, but “how” we live with each other is even more important. We also want to thank Ed Mayers for his invaluable help and expertise in formulating the right questions.

Lotus Guide: So tell us a little about yourself, Tom, and how you ended up being what I sense is a conscientious developer?

Tom DiGiovanni: Well, as a quick background, I was born and raised in New England and was the oldest of 10 kids, but I have actually lived here in Chico longer than I’ve lived anywhere else and our kids were born here. There are a few things that have contributed to my interest in planning and development. I’ve always been interested in the history of how communities develop. I studied economic history, urban planning, and basically how cities and regions change over time. All of this was an academic interest for me at first, but I also remember when I was a kid walking to school and being able to take my time to take in the details of the walk and how important that was to me as I grew older. I suppose all of this, along with the fact there were three construction companies in my extended family, added to what I am today, which is someone who is deeply interested in how communities form and how people live in those communities. Initially I became a planner and a development economist; then I moved to Southern California because that was where some of the largest developments were happening at the time. Shortly after that I returned to the East Coast to a graduate program. Later I heard of a place called Seaside, Florida, sort of the birthplace of “traditional neighborhood development”—this was before the term “new urbanism” was coined. I realized that this was a chance to learn more about the art of town building and developing in a more meaningful way.

LG: It seems it would be to the advantage of developers and investors to develop according to Euclidian zoning, which actually creates urban sprawl and supports isolationism in communities; the principles of new urbanism as set forth in the Ahwahnee Principles for Resource-Efficient Communities seems to be a response to this type of building. What’s your thoughts on this?

TD: Well, developers specifically build in response to what people want, but they are also highly regulated by local and state governments. Initially, Euclidian zoning was intended to shield people from the noisy factories around the turn of the last century. The reason builders are still separating all uses is because, to some degree, this is what they are being told to build in existing codes of most cities and towns, and it’s also their understanding of what the market wants, which in fact is changing fairly dramatically. Most builders are in the business of building, not making new rules or changing the way they’ve been doing things for years. However, in my view, there is a very definite change underway in market preferences, with mixed density and mixed housing types within a connected network of streets where the automobile is tamed somewhat, and after a decade or so the trees can actually canopy the streets. There’s a growing market for this, and in my view it’s not at all surprising for people to fundamentally want to be connected with each other. After all, we are a gregarious species; we want to be around each other. And there are also those times when we want to be alone, so we are both social and private. Where we have our social space should be on the outside of the home. Most developers still see conventional development as practiced over the last 50 or 60 years as the thing to do, but even now 7 out of 10 of the largest builders in the country are taking on at least some aspects of new urbanist development, or at least their interpretation of it, because they see the market moving in this direction.

LG: So are the rules and regulations in our local government conducive for this type of development?

TD: Well, to some degree, yes, but you have to remember that the rules and regulations here have developed over a period of 40 or 50 years or more and they’ve developed according to the needs and demands of the people. I have a picture of a street taken about 15 years ago and the street is 42 feet wide with no planter strip, which means the trees are planted in the yard well away from the street, which also means they will never provide a shaded canopy over the street. Now we have a change in the code, which requires a planter strip for trees so they’re closer to the street. Plus when the street is 42 feet wide, cars tend to go a lot faster. New urbanism is sort of a reform movement to recapture some of the better principles of planning found in an earlier era when the car was not so dominant. It’s a reform movement among planners, bankers, architects, city and public officials, and developers and its growing acceptance is fundamentally motivated by the marketplace. People are responding; there’s a shift going on. Getting back to rules and regulations, more cities are starting to develop a “traditional development neighborhood code,” which basically means narrower streets, lower speeds, and cars are stored in the back. This means the street becomes more of a social space, and is intentionally designed as a neighborhood amenity.

LG: In Euclidian zoning the one thing you can be assured of is consistency; in other words, your neighbors are more than likely going to be of the same socioeconomic group. What we liked about your design, and some may not, is that it promotes a rich mixture of socioeconomic groups. What is your thinking on this?

TD: Well, what people seem to have in common is they all want a place like this to live because they like the variety. Originally [in Doe Mill] we offered homes valued from $180,000 to $300,000, so this allows people to live there with different income levels and different stages of life. Our most common profession buying those homes were teachers. Many of them rented out the granny flat or carriage room over the garage, which helps out with the house payments. We think that kind of variety adds to neighborhood interest, cohesiveness and cooperation. Six of our own employees actually live in Doe Mill.

LG: The reason we want to interview you, Tom, is because we believe that it’s important to create a more spiritually sound society and this is, at least in part, created by our living conditions, which directly affect our overall health: mental, physical, and spiritual, which in turn affects our social health and behavior. When we drove through Doe Mill it felt as if we returned to the past—not so many cars because of alleys and garages in back, and front porches close to the street that I’m sure would influence closer relationships with neighbors. Do you feel that what you’re doing is a reflection of what some see as a spiritual movement toward oneness and away from alienation?

TD: In a very tangible way we also see and sense that quality. What we’re trying to do is build a place that people feel naturally attracted to as a neighborhood or social space, not just a series of private spaces linked by streets. So to the extent we build what people naturally want, I suppose this is a reflection of such a trend. What we’re actually doing is removing barriers, physical impediments, that keep people from being themselves—unconnected networks of streets, separations (walls, earth berms and the like) between different house types, the fact that most homes are oriented toward the back of the lot and away from the street Of course we all like and need privacy but there is another basic human need of wanting to be connected with others, and this seems to be a growing desire that is reflected in the marketplace. I’m not sure if this has just to do with my own stage in life or if it’s a broader cultural trend, but we see this happening. We were talking earlier about how we are connected through technology, but this is more fundamental to being physically connected within our neighborhoods and communities.

LG: I think this also helps us accept diversity instead of rejecting it, and diversity is actually the foundation of a healthy society.

TD: Absolutely.

LG: Chico seems to be growing and there’s only so much land inventory within the “green line.” What do you see happening to Chico when this land is used up, which is estimated to be within five years?

TD: Well, I think we’re going to be growing up more than out. This is the importance of growing neighborhoods as cellular units, because they have their own centers and they have their own connected roads so you end up having a district center, which cuts down on traffic. What’s unhealthy is if we “sprawl” in one form without a connected network of streets and where there are no centers nearby, which requires more driving and increased traffic.

LG: Developers in general are seen by communities with suspicion. What are you doing to change that?

TD: It’s true developers are seen with suspicion, not only here in California but in Texas, Colorado, back East and all over, and to some degree developers deserve that reputation, although most builders will say that they’re building what people want. To some degree they’re right but not entirely. People need shelter, but beyond that is where you enter the art of neighborhood planning and create more than just a private house in a subdivision. . It’s really important to think long-term about this because the house is going to be around for 80-plus years and the streets and infrastructure could be around for 150-plus years. This is why the whole community needs to have a say in the direction development takes. We need to start paying more attention to things like the size of our streets, how they connect, and social space like neighborhood greens and parks—these are the long-term issues. And of course we need to start paying more attention to sustainability and what resources are we using and how efficiently are we using them. So my recommendation is to change this suspicion of the developer as being the ‘necessary evil’, but to be seen truly as a key participant in how our community is being physically formed over the long haul. The answer for developers is to be prepared to sit down and have a genuine dialogue with neighbors and the larger community about these important issues, not only about neighborhood or street design, but to take it up a notch to this particular part of town, take it up another notch to the whole town, to eventually include the whole region over the long term. In our experience, a plan is always made better by good constructive dialog and observations. A successful community happens when you understand the whole but also pay attention to the details, like where exactly should this park bench go, and how and when will the sun hit it, and where should we plant the tree to provide shade, what kind of a view will people have sitting on this park bench watching kids play? This is the creative and fulfilling part of being a developer. This is when you say, “This is what I want to do in life,” that’s when you know you’re a lucky person to have found what you were meant to do in life. It’s very gratifying to come back later and watch kids play in the park.

Tom has more than 25 years’ experience in all aspects of real-estate planning, development, and management. Previous professional experience includes infill commercial and retail development in the Boston area and large-scale master-planned community development in Southern California. He holds a degree in history from Harvard and a master’s degree in real-estate development from MIT. He is a charter member of the Congress for the New Urbanism and has served as co-chair of the Development Task Force. Tom serves as a board member of the National Town Builders Association (NTBA) based in Washington, D.C. He has made numerous presentations for the Local Government Commission, GreatValleyCenter, and Sierra Business Council, and he has lectured at CSU, Chico and at UC Davis, Berkeley, Harvard, and MIT.

Tom DiGiovanni, President New Urban Builders, Inc.