Randall Lewis Offers A Too Rare & Exceptional View of Development
November 22, 2005
Developer of master-planned communities talks about exploring the link between community health and the built environment.
Reprinted with permission from The Planning Report
Can you tell us about the Lewis Group’s activities in the world of residential development and your good works?
Well, we’re working on a number of master planned communities. In Chino we are working in a community called The Preserve that just opened in February. The build out will be just under 10,000 homes; our part of it is just under 7,500 homes. We’re working in Ontario on two communities that will be 3,000 homes. We’re working in Fontana on a series of communities that will be about 5,000 homes. We’re working in Riverside County on a large-scale community that will be 12 or 13,000 homes. We serve as master developer, doing the entitlement and putting in all the infrastructure. We will not build any homes but we will do apartments or shopping centers in our master planned communities. In addition to that, we are building a number of smaller planned communities that are anywhere from 500 to 1,000 homes. In all of our planned communities, we’re trying to do things very different from most of the other developers in the marketplace. We’re focusing very intently on social infrastructure, with a real emphasis on schools and creating healthy communities.
What is your social infrastructure agenda, and how does it differ from much of the suburban/ex-urban sprawl that’s taking place in California.
Most of the development that’s been built in the suburbs has been built by home builders, and home builders rightly are concerned with more short term issues. They’re concerned about the best floor plans. They’re concerned about materials. They’re concerned about excess fees. If you build a subdivision that only has 100 to 150 homes, those are the things you probably are going to be more concerned about. When we or the other large-scale developers get involved with communities, we might be there for ten or twenty years. Then you have the time, ability and resources to focus on some of these other issues. As I mentioned, one of the issues we are focusing on right now is schools.
What are you doing with regard to schools?
We are doing a number of interesting things. In Chino, we’re working on a program to build a K-through-8 school that will have a joint-use library, joint-use gymnasium, joint-use park, and joint-use community center. We have found that these projects are worth doing, but we have also found that they are very difficult projects to coordinate. These projects require the cooperation of more than one jurisdiction or department, such as a city parks department, county library, city community center, and the school district. These entities often have their own rules and entrenched methods of operation that have evolved over years. While these methods work for the respective entities, there can be conflict when trying to bring the entities together to partner on a project. It can take two or three times as much work to make joint-use projects happen. We think the results are worth the effort, though.
We are also beginning to work with the school district to have healthier foods served, and we are exploring whether there is a role for us in helping to recruit and retain teachers. Given the need for classroom space, we are also working with the school district to try to have schools built more quickly. Maybe we can only speed the process up by a month or two, but that is still an improvement. We are also working on creating safe routes for kids who walk to school.
We are working in a large community in Riverside County in an unincorporated area called Lakeview. We held an education summit there in March, at which we had about 25 educational leaders speak. School superintendents attended as well as representatives from UC Riverside, Riverside Community College, law enforcement, public health agencies, and community leaders. We spent about five hours discussing what kind of learning community we would design if we could start from scratch. We learned a lot during that session. I went in thinking it was going to be about how to develop the best K-through-12 education system possible. But the discussion included neonatal education, how to help mothers raise healthy babies, early childhood education, job training, and lifelong learning.
We are now looking into whether we can have these schools adopted by one of the teaching universities. We are offering to build extra classrooms, if the universities are interested in having their teacher education students teach in them as part of their practical training.
Why do you think it is worth doing?
We’re in an era now where there just aren’t enough resources. The public sector can’t do it alone and the private sector can’t do it alone. As a result, we have tried to devise ways to stretch resources—public and private sector capital—so land, money and people’s time can work not only harder but smarter in serving the needs of the community.
What are the roles of the city, the city planning department, and the school district in these efforts? How can they support you?
We found both the city and the school district to be very supportive in Chino. The issues we have confronted have not stemmed from a lack of intent or cooperation. Everyone has been very cooperative. The issues are simply the result of trying to mesh two and sometimes three independent systems. It’s just hard to mesh these systems that have evolved independently over years.
What are organizations like the Building Industry Association (BIA), the League of Cities and School Boards doing to help change the rules and regulations that get in the way and that make these projects more difficult?
I think the BIA is doing some outstanding work just trying to figure out how to finance schools. Money is such an issue that there are not a lot of organizations trying to do the kinds of things we’re doing. Instead, it’s more private sector and not-for-profit groups. Forest City at Stapleton is doing a lot of this. The Irvine Company has done some excellent work. A developer named Fritz Grupe in Northern California has done some excellent work with schools. One of the things we’ve tried to do as a company is look all over the country to get a sense of the best strategies being used to do this kind of work.
Randall, you mentioned the nexus between the planning for the social infrastructure in these large-scale housing developments and health. Elaborate more on that.
There has been a lot of research lately on the impact of the design and composition of communities on the health of children and families. In light of this, we have tried to look at what things we could do as a developer to try to influence health in our communities. We currently have active programs in two communities, and in two years we’ll be working with Riverside County on two more.
The first community we’re involved in is Chino. The city of Chino recently adopted a proclamation declaring 2005 the “Year of Healthy Chino.” As part of that, the mayor decided to have an annual benefit to raise money for health programs in Chino. Our company has partnered with the City of Chino. We have donated money and the city is pledging money to fund two full-time staff positions to oversee health related programs. We started on this about a year ago and it’s really taken off. Chino created a task force, which has conducted an assessment of community needs. As a result, the scope has broadened. When we first became involved, we were thinking that maybe the program would address diabetes or obesity, but I have learned that the world of health is extremely broad. Now we’re working on mental health, teen pregnancy, drug abuse, nutrition, physical activity and many other topics. In addition, we are looking into the issues related to the access to transportation for health services. It’s just been amazing to me how broad the issues are. Chino has had a health fair and partnered with the San Bernardino County Health Department, the Heart Association and the Lung Association. There are some powerful health coalitions being built in Chino.
Health Professionals try to distinguish between the built environment and the un-built environment. A lot of what I’ve just talked about is the built environment that has been around for years. What do you do in those parts of the city that have already been built?
The un-built environment provides some interesting opportunities for us. We try to attack it on four different fronts. The first is to have a plan that in itself promotes health. We want to make sure that there are places to go, there are parks, trails, safe streets that kids can walk on. In short we try to have a physical plan that is conducive to a healthy lifestyle. The second approach is to create uses within that plan that encourage healthy living. These could be community centers, swimming pools, tennis courts and gymnasiums. We really go overboard in trying to provide places where healthy activities can occur. Third are the partnerships and the programs that go on within our planned communities. These can be classes on nutrition, obesity, healthy living, swimming, judo, or yoga. Finally, we look at some of the policies of the city itself. For example, the school district in the city has pledged to serve healthier food and is considering a policy to encourage more physical education. The city now serves healthier food at city council meetings. The mayor always makes a point to mention that unhealthy snacks are not served by the City of Chino.
One other city where we’re seeing some great work on health is Fontana. The city has started a “Healthy Fontana” program. They have hired a staff person to work full time on this and have a councilperson named Acquanetta Warren, who is as dedicated as anyone in the State of California to promoting health. Fontana has sponsored health fairs. The city is also partnering with the department of nutrition at the county to work with local restaurants, and is building a 45,000-foot community center. Its main focus will be wellness and fitness. So Fontana is a leader in this also.
What lessons can you share that would be of use to communities wanting to create social infrastructure but lack the ability to build large-scale developments?
Most communities are doing some very good things, but as we have searched for best practices, we have noticed that it is rare to find communities that know what other communities are doing. So lesson number one would be to try to search for best practices. Go to the nearest five communities and find out what they are doing in terms of health or education or whatever the particular target is. I think a second lesson that we’ve learned in almost every community and certainly in every region, is that there are a lot of programs and people doing good things, but there is very little coordination of effort. It is important to pull together the different people working in these programs to be more efficient, and that is what we are trying to do in Fontana and Chino.
So the private sector, not city hall or the school board, drives these efforts?
Either sector can drive these efforts. A great example of public sector leadership is a group called the Alliance for Education in San Bernardino County. Our company has been involved for about four years, but the leadership really came from the San Bernardino County Department of Education. The alliance has more than 800 volunteers and has full-time staff. It forms partnerships between the public and the private sector. The Alliance deals with early childhood education and lifelong learning. We’re working with the industry to try to determine what skills are needed for jobs in the Inland Empire and then we work with the school districts to teach those skills. We’re conducting mentoring programs and job training programs. The Alliance has produced remarkable results, and we are proud to be part of it.
The lesson, again, is to do an assessment of your community to see who is already doing what. We have yet to find a city that isn’t doing some good work. However, we’ve yet to find a city that has really pulled it all together. That’s where the opportunity is.
To close, can you give some suggestions about what regulatory changes ought to be made at the state and local levels to create incentives for the kind of good work that the Lewis Group of Companies has been doing.
The very best incentive is a willing city or a willing school district. It doesn’t have to take money. It just takes a city or school district that indicates it wants to work together with the private sector and other public sector agencies. We are working in 30 cities at any given time, and in the cities that are willing work together with us, we roll up our sleeves and work twice as hard. We do a good job in every city, but we do the best work in cities with which we form partnerships.