By Simmons B. Buntin
Located seven miles south of the town of Loreto in Baja California Sur, the Villages of Loreto Bay is an 8,000-acre new urbanist development that strives to be North America’s largest sustainable resort development. At buildout—anticipated by 2020—the $3 billion project will include village neighborhoods constructed in nine phases primarily along the protected Loreto Bay on the Sea of Cortés.
Nearly all pedestrian-oriented villages will feature commercial services such as corner markets within walking distance, and a town center featuring a larger collection of retail uses a short walk from the neighborhoods is under construction. Though 6,000 homes are planned (including condominiums above commercial), 5,000 acres of the site have been set aside as permanent natural open space, and the project will also incorporate two championship-level, low saltwater-use golf courses and other amenities such as spas, boutique hotels, and a new marina.
Sustainable design and resource features include plans for the construction of two utilities—an onsite desalination plant for water harvesting, and an offsite wind farm to generate electricity—plus the use of passive and active solar technologies, alternative building materials and construction waste recycling, an onsite agricultural center that produces organic fruits and vegetables, and extensive estuary and mangrove regeneration. Other efforts include implementation of a regional affordable housing strategy, construction of a new full-service medical facility, and the donation—through the Loreto Bay Foundation—of one percent of gross proceeds to “assist with local social and community issues.”
Nestled between the steep Sierra de la Giganta mountains and the Sea of Cortés—“where the mountains come to swim”—Loreto is a community of firsts: first settled more than 10,000 years ago by the Cochimi and Guaycura peoples, it was Baja’s first permanent Spanish settlement when Jesuit priest and explorer Juan Maria de Salvatierra established the Mision de Nuestra Señora de Loreto. Loreto then became the first capital of the Californias, a title it held until 1829, when a hurricane destroyed much of the city and the capital was moved south to La Paz.
Located among lush thornscrub desert, Loreto receives little rainfall yet is surrounded by a rich mix of desert plants that include towering cardón cactus and white-barked palo blanco, in part due to hot and humid summers. The Bay of Loreto National Marine Park was designated in 1996 and, supported by the non-profit environmental organization Grupo Ecologist Antares, the federal Marine Park Authority manages the park, which includes the rugged islands of Coronado, Del Carmen, Danzante, Montserrate, and Santa Catalina. In 2005, the United Nations designated the full Sea of Cortés, including Loreto Bay, as a World Heritage Site. Marine species finding refuge in the bay include sea turtles, mother-of-pearl, starfish, sea urchins, fan coral, killer whales, blue whales, dolphins, manta rays, and sea lions—as well as hundreds of fish and bird species that use the area’s mangrove estuaries as hatcheries and rooks.
Historically, Loreto’s economy was based on fishing and ranching, according to the Alternative Futures for the Region of Loreto, Baja California Sur, Mexico report published in 2005. Now, however, “the region depends heavily on tourism, focused mainly on sport fishing.” sport fishing, a growing movement in ecotourism, and a recent, rapid increase in real estate development for second-home (predominantly American and Canadian) buyers draw more than 60,000 foreign visitors per year.
Though the population of Loreto today is about 15,000 people, it is expected to grow to more than 100,000 in the next twenty years, raising concerns of resource use and unchecked development. And while Loreto is the first community on the Baja peninsula to have a city master plan, the Alternative Futures report states that “degradation of the ecological, visual, and recreational landscape may have profound consequences for the future of the tourism and real estate sectors, as well as the quality of life for the residents of Loreto. As the size of Loreto grows, the risk of damaging the economic base for sustaining future growth also increases.” The report also notes, however, that with proper planning, economic and environmental outcomes are not in conflict.
Project History and Vision
More than 30 years ago, the federal tourism development agency Fondo Nacional de Fomento al Turismo (FONATUR) designated Loreto one of five areas in Mexico with high tourist potential. The others were Cancun, Los Cabos, Ixtapa-Zihuatenejo, and Huatulco. And while tourism in Cancun and Los Cabos, for example, have rapidly expanded, infrastructure investments including a new airport, roads, water supply, and sewage treatment facility did not result in the enhanced Loreto tourism that FONATUR anticipated. Loreto’s recent interest is likely the result of increased real estate development by foreigners and a renewed Baja tourism promotion program by FONATUR.
The Villages of Loreto Bay began when FONATUR approached Canada’s Trust for Sustainable Development, spearheaded by David Butterfield, to redevelop the Loreto Bay property in a sustainable manner. A partnership agreement was subsequently signed in 2003, and a pioneer team was established in January 2004. Butterfield was also instrumental in the creation of the environmentally-oriented, new urbanist Community of Civano in southeast Tucson, Arizona. The Trust for Sustainable Development then created the Loreto Bay Company, which in December 2005 partnered with Citigroup Investment Partners. Loreto Bay initially partnered with Citigroup to purchase an existing 155-room hotel that has since become the Inn at Loreto Bay, though the partnership has expanded to include other Villages of Loreto Bay projects.
“Our vision is to create a peaceful, authentic Mexican community that preserves and enhances the integrity of the environment and allows people to experience the natural beauty of this seaside village,” says Butterfield. “Loreto Bay is sure to attract those looking to embrace the casual, outdoor lifestyle of Baja.”
Jim Grogan, president and CEO of Loreto Bay Company, says, “It is our goal that Loreto Bay set the standard for sustainable developments around the world. Our focus is on conserving energy, reducing water consumption, solid waste materials, and air pollution, as well as creating economic opportunities through new jobs and local businesses.”
In developing the Villages of Loreto Bay, Butterfield sought a personal answer to a far-reaching question: Where could he and his wife retire? His answer, according to Loreto Bay marketing materials, sets the vision for the development:
More specifically, the Villages of Loreto Bay is based on the principles of new urbanism, and the project’s master plan was created by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company. The principles that drive the project’s design are:
Loreto Bay’s commitment to sustainability is even more ambitious: “The community produces more energy than it uses, harvests more potable water than it consumes, and creates more biodiversity than existed before the project started.”
The concept of producing more energy, harvesting more potable water, and creating more biodiversity is what Loreto Bay vice president of sustainable development David Veniot calls regenerative design. “Instead of simply trying to limit the impact a development has on the surrounding environment and community,” he says, “regenerative design asks, ‘How can we enhance the place where we live so much so that it, in turn, enhances our own lives there?’ This philosophy is at the heart of our approach to sustainability at Loreto Bay.”
Regenerative design begins with an in-depth site assessment and study of the region’s natural and human history in order to restore ecological health to a place “and then expand its capacity for health by developing a symbiotic relationship between the humans that inhabit that places and its natural systems.” The project’s “sustainability priorities are energy and water conservation, habitat protection and enhancement, reduction of solid waste materials, and prevention of air pollution,” according to its Inaugural Sustainability Report, published in June 2007.
At Loreto Bay, regenerative design and sustainable development fall into three categories—social, economic, and environmental:
Loreto Bay’s social sustainability goals include the implementation of a regional affordable housing strategy to ensure that people who work at Loreto Bay can afford to live in the area. Currently, single-family housing prices start at over $300 per square foot, which is well beyond the average Loreto resident. To that end, Loreto Bay is planning onsite housing for employees in a phased approach: 50 employees by the end of 2007, 1,000 by the end of 2009, and 6,000 by project completion. “Construction has not started yet,” says Veniot, “but we are in discussions with FONATUR concerning advance purchase of Phase 5 designated land (44 hectares) and amending the master plan to allow enough density for a worker village.” Features of the employee village, which will be within walking distance of the town center, other restaurants, and industrial lots, include:
Because the nearest hospital is in La Paz, two hours south of Loreto Bay, the Loreto Bay Company has contributed funding and design consultation toward the construction of a new hospital in Loreto, which will be operational in early 2008.
The Loreto Bay Company has also committed to dedicating one percent of the gross proceeds of all sales and re-sales, in perpetuity, to the Loreto Bay Foundation, which was founded in September 2004 by the Trust for Sustainable Development. The Foundation operates as an independent Mexican not-for-profit corporation. (See sidebar for more information.)
The economic sustainability goals for the Villages of Loreto Bay project include:
In order to meet its goal of producing more energy from renewable resources than the project consumes, the Loreto Bay Company has implemented a plan for renewable resource use and conservation. After realizing that compressed earthen walls originally planned (and used on the first 300 homes) are not as efficient as anticipated because of high nighttime temperatures and humidity during summer months, the homes are now built with Perform Wall, a recycled concrete-Styrofoam mix with an R-40 insulation rating that uses significantly less concrete than conventional Mexican building methods, saving an estimated 7.2 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per home. The homes also feature solar hot water heaters, while solar photovoltaic systems are used in the community for fountain pumps and other systems.
The Loreto Bay Company has signed a renewable land lease agreement at Puerto San Carlos, on Baja’s Pacific coast, to build a 20 megawatt commercial wind generating facility that will tap into the existing transmission system, supplying all of the Villages’ power needs, currently estimated at a peak of 11.5 MW. Surplus electricity will be sold to the main municipalities in Baja California Sur, including Loreto, La Paz, and Los Cabos, and the plant will be expanded to 60 MW capacity by project buildout to meet anticipated demand. A special purpose company for the wind utility has been formed, and final project design is underway. Environmental permitting has also been completed. The largest environmental concern is plant salvaging; no negative avian impacts were identified in the environmental impact assessment. Road and foundation construction are expected to begin in 2008, and wind farm operation is expected to commence in winter or spring 2010.
Loreto Bay’s strategy for harvesting or producing more potable water than it uses includes conservation, harvesting, and watershed restoration. Homes and businesses incorporate low-flow fixtures and appliances, while the golf course uses paspalum grass, a saline-tolerant, low-growing plant that requires considerably less freshwater than typical golf course grass. (View sidebar for more information.)
A stormwater management plan has been created to “make optimum use of rainfall runoff for irrigation and estuary flushing,” according to Loreto Bay’s sustainability materials, and wastewater will also treated and reused onsite for landscaping and agriculture once sewage treatment plant construction is complete, expected in 2008.
The natural areas permanently set aside within the 8,000-acre project contain two watersheds. Loreto Bay plans to implement a watershed restoration program by placing check dams and flow-slowing structures at runoff channel faultlines that allow mountain runoff to be collected and replenish the existing aquifer.
Aquifer replenishing and onsite water harvesting, however, will not provide enough water in the long run. Research and planning for a 1- to 1.5-million gallon/day reverse osmosis deep intake and injection well system—a desalination plant—are therefore underway. Before implementation, Loreto Bay is conducting a comprehensive environmental assessment and extensive hydrogeologic testing. Test wells and hydrogeologic analysis begin in early 2008, and the desalination plant itself should be operational by fall 2009, according to Veniot.
Loreto Bay Company’s waste management plan provides three outlets:
Waste organics produce compost that is subsequently used onsite for landscaping and agriculture. Recyclables are delivered to an onsite materials recovery facility, “where they are sorted and either recycled locally or distributed for reuse,” according to Loreto Bay sustainability materials. Loreto Bay’s goal is to recycle 75 percent of the construction waste, and through June 2007 it has managed to recycle 74 percent of all construction waste by volume, including toxic materials.
Loreto Bay EcoScapes Agricultural Center
The Agricultural Center is a joint venture between the Loreto Bay Company and Saline Habitats. EcoScapes specializes in saline and coastal ecosystems, and at Loreto Bay:
The Agricultural Center “plays an integral role in Loreto Bay Company’s efforts to preserve and enhance the ecosystem and biodiversity of the land,” says the Loreto Bay development team. In addition to producing organic food, it maintains a nursery for food plants, trees, and other landscaping plants, and a mangrove nursery where 20,000 mangrove seedlings have been harvested and an additional 7,500 seedlings are planted, adjacent to the first golf course. As the mangroves mature, they are planted to restore and expand the estuaries, including in the new, canal-lined Agua Viva neighborhood.
As with the golf course, challenges at the nursery include limited access to freshwater. The single onsite well contains salty water (5,000 parts per million salt). While potable water must be trucked in, the Ag Center is also experimenting with vegetables, turf grass, and trees that can grow on the salty water. Center director Dan Murphy believes that the EcoScapes Agricultural Center may be the only organic farm in Mexico, and perhaps the Western hemisphere, using salty water. “But that first batch of kale,” he says with a laugh, “sure was too salty to eat.”
Villages and Homes
Each of the nine villages at Loreto Bay represents a different phase, and the first two phases—Founders’ Neighborhood and Agua Viva—are currently under construction. Founders’ Neighborhood is about 75 percent complete and mostly sold out, containing more than 600 homes with prices beginning at $300,000. Located centrally, it is comprised of “streets [that] flow like streams; from wide to narrow, under archways, and in and out of sun-drenched courtyards,” says Ayrie Cunliffe, original town architect.
The area surrounding Founders’ Neighborhood—east of Mexico Highway 1 and tucked along three miles of beaches—will include the town center as well as phases 1 through 5 and 9, all pedestrian-oriented. West of the highway, the 5,000-acre nature preserve surrounds phases 6, 7, and 8, which “tuck a village into the foothills of the Sierra de la Giganta mountains and allow a footprint-limited development of individual homes,” according to Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company.
Loreto Bay Company leaders note that “village scale architecture is how we put the principles of new urbanism into action. At the heart of this ideal is the belief that communities should be designed not for cars, but for people, and that this design should strive to enhance our quality of life.” Three overriding principles therefore drive village design:
Agua Viva is the second neighborhood, with homes beginning at $400,000, and is a built attempt to meet Loreto Bay’s third leg of regenerative design: creating more biodiversity than when the project began. It will accomplish this goal by incorporating five miles of new inland waterways—soft-edged estuaries and structured canals, the former providing native mangrove habitat for marine and bird species—situating the neighborhood between the beach, golf course, and Highway 1. The neighborhood features a variety of Mexican Colonial-style homes, including courtyard homes, luxury condominiums, and beachfront and golf course custom homes.
According to Loreto Bay Company management, “the planned village center will be an island located where it all flows together. Cafes, studios, and galleries will populate the edges of this vibrant urban village center and golfers will play through the center of the village like the best of Europe’s Old World courses. There will be performance spaces [including a waterside amphitheater], gathering spaces, and wide promenades along the water’s edge. Posadas, or small hotel apartments, will look down into the town square and out across the estuary to the sea and the Sierra de la Giganta mountains.”
Currently, Loreto Bay Company offers three types of homes throughout the Villages: village homes, custom homes, and condominiums. Village homes are located throughout the phases; eleven floor plans ranging from 1,515 to 2,380 square feet feature private interior courtyards, rich finishes, and environmentally sound construction, including the use of Perform Wall, plaster, and low-VOC paints. Custom homes can be placed on beachfront and golf course locations, often in “very special residential enclaves,” though still publicly accessible among paseos. The Founders’ Neighborhood includes three condominium buildings—Posada del Mercado Norte, Posada del Mercado Sur, and Casa Nopoló. The first two are sold out. Each four-story building in “the town’s signature architectural style” includes one-, two-, and three-bedroom homes, a private pool, and landscaped grounds and gathering places.
The theme of Loreto Bay’s residences is “Live Fully. Tread lightly.” At the homes, residents will “find everything you desire: the sea, the proposed beach club, and the planned shops and restaurants of the town center,” says the Villages of Loreto Bay website. “The pathways and public spaces are beautifully scaled and detailed with fountains, carved wood, cooling tile, and other design elements.”
Commercial and Mixed-Use Development
Each village is built around a neighborhood center with commercial services such as shops and restaurants. In some neighborhoods, as in Founders’ Neighborhood, mixed-use buildings that contain retail at street level and residences upstairs will be constructed. At the core of the development is a town center, where a larger market, galleries, boutique hotels, and other services will be located.
The largest current commercial entity is the Inn at Loreto Bay, a 530,000-square-foot, 155-room resort that opened in 2002. The Inn offers a spa, meeting spaces, restaurants and bars, recreational activities such as kayaking and snorkeling, a large pool, and other amenities, and is located on a secluded beach adjacent to the Loreto Golf Club.
With its location on the Sea of Cortés, the Village of Loreto Bay offers a variety of outdoor and other amenities. After location, the community’s design is its primary amenity: narrow, walkable streets, lush landscaping, estuary and other natural open spaces, vernacular architecture, and a mix of uses allow residents and visitors to move freely and enjoy vistas of the steep mountains and the sea.
Built amenities include the Loreto Bay Beach Club, Loreto Golf Club, and Loreto Bay Racquet Club. Other amenities include a day spa at the Inn at Loreto Bay, plus three miles of open beach and access to the bay itself for kayaking, snorkeling, scuba diving, and related activities.
The Beach Club will “serve as the five-star centerpiece of Loreto Bay,” according to marketing materials. It will offer more than an acre of water features, from grotto pools and negative-edge pools with waterfalls to private coves and a children’s play pool with slide and lazy river. As the hub for the community, the Beach Club will also feature a movie theater, children’s activity center, library, and full-service fitness facility. Adjacent amenities include restaurants, bars, and cafes.
Two championship-level, 18-hole golf courses are planned. The first has been redesigned by PGA Tour professional David Duval, and is near completion. Managed by Troon Golf, the course is unique because its renovation includes the use of a mix of freshwater and saltwater for irrigation, organic fertilizers, and design elements that provide for wildlife habitat, including mangrove estuaries and an onsite mangrove nursery. (See sidebar for further information.)
At buildout, the Villages of Loreto Bay also plans to have a 100- to 200-slip marina at the town center.
A 2006 article in Baja Life criticizes the Villages of Loreto Bay for declaring that it is North America’s largest sustainable development—without setting sustainability goals or creating methods for gauging success. “Loreto Bay is claiming to be a sustainable development without using any measurement tools to prove it or without making an actual effort to do so and hoping that no one will notice,” says Ross Spiegel, author of Green Building Materials.
Loreto Bay’s Inaugural Sustainability Report, however, identifies commitments and results to date for its sustainability measures. For example, designers estimate that the Villages of Loreto Bay will offset a minimum of 140,000 tons of emissions annually by the time it is completed, with an additional 43,000 tons in prevented carbon dioxide emissions due to reduced use of cement. How? The “no car” design saves 11,400 tons of CO2 per year; energy-efficient appliances save a total of 11.4 gigawatthours of electricity per year compared to standard appliances; and the use of compact fluorescent lights in lieu of incandescent bulbs saves over 20,000 tons of CO2 per year. Other emissions and pollution reduction goals include:
Other sustainability goal progress, if not explicitly quantified, is nonetheless documented in the Inaugural Sustainability Report, including job creation, agriculture, and community support through the Loreto Bay Foundation. Read the full report.
Success of the project can also be measured—and most often is—in home sales. Here the Villages of Loreto Bay excels. The project recently passed $330 million in residential sales, selling approximately 750 homes through November 2007. Re-sales have also been brisk. Loreto Bay Company’s marketing efforts have been substantial, benefiting not only project sales, but area tourism, as well.
“The project speaks for itself,” says new Agua Viva homeowner James Young. “The vision, size, and scope are impossible to fully comprehend without actually seeing it.” Living in southern California, Young’s purchase was based both on developer commitment and the project’s emphasis on sustainability. “My decision to buy came down to my belief that the owners were truly committed to building a project that would preserve the integrity and beauty of this glorious property,” he says. “My purchase is a gift to my children, grandchildren, and future generations as a special place for my family to visit where they can enjoy the spirit of this truly magnificent place.”
Though early in its 15-year buildout, the Villages of Loreto Bay has already demonstrated and found success in an aggressive approach to sustainable development, an approach that ensures an “authentic Baja” sense of place while restoring and preserving much of the environment around it. The pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use neighborhoods rich in vernacular architecture and desert landscaping serve as both resort and community. Built respectfully upon the area’s cultural and natural history, it is a community leading the way in sustainable design for Mexico—and far beyond.
For more information, visit the Villages of Loreto Bay at www.LoretoBay.com.