Redefining Property Values

Ladera Ranch, a California planned community, is divided into myriad neighborhoods, including Surrey Farm, which features numerous small parks.
Ladera Ranch, a California planned community, is divided into myriad neighborhoods, including Surrey Farm, which features numerous small parks. (By Mark Avery -- Orange County Register)
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

The survey went to thousands of people who'd called a number on highway billboards announcing that Ladera Ranch, a new planned community in Orange County, Calif., was coming soon.

It asked predictable marketing questions, such as whether people wanted ballfields or trails. Then came a section titled "values."

"Please check the box that comes closest to how you feel most of the time," it began, and asked people to rate how strongly they agreed with various statements.

"We need to treat the planet as a living system," read one. "Abortions should not be legal unless there's a threat to life," read another. And, "I have been born again in Jesus Christ." There were questions about corporate greed, divorce, the merits of foreign travel.

And over the next several years, the results materialized across thousands of acres: For the more conservative-minded "Traditionalists," Covenant Hills, where homes have classic architecture and big family rooms, was built. For the green and soul-searching "Cultural Creatives," developers built Terramor, where Craftsman-style houses are fitted with photovoltaic cells and bamboo flooring.

At Ladera Ranch, now a thriving community of more than 16,000 people, various villages are tailored not simply to practical needs, but to what marketers call different "values subcultures."

"We were trying to characterize the lens through which people see the world," said Brooke Warrick, who heads Ladera's marketing firm, American Lives. "A community is a collection of symbols and images. And we wanted our symbols and images to be better than the other guy's."

As the largest building boom since the 1950s continues across the suburban frontier, the story of Ladera Ranch offers an extreme example of how developers are using the kind of sophisticated market research more commonly used to sell Hummers or Cornflakes to build the very places people live, and in a sense, to try to socially engineer community.

Whether it is actually working, of course, is another question.

Dan LaBelle, who recently moved into Terramor, doesn't consider himself particularly culturally creative. He said his neighbor turned his so-called culture room into a TV room with a 50-inch flat panel, and others in the environmentally oriented village have installed big swimming pools and $100,000 landscaping.

"The environmental stuff was a secondary concern, really," he said. "The truth is, I got a neighbor with a Hummer. I doubt he's very soul-searching."

It's not that the builders and marketers actually care whether buyers are right-wing Bible belters or left-wing tree-huggers as much as they care about selling houses. But large-scale developers are realizing that it's not enough to build a plain subdivision anymore. They must also manufacture community itself, which has become an amenity people crave, right along with tray ceilings.

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