By Simmons B. Buntin [view Agritopia photo gallery]
Located in the rapidly developing town of Gilbert, Arizona, Agritopia is the Phoenix area’s first traditional neighborhood development and among the nation’s first mixed-used communities to integrate working agriculture. Rather than similar principles of New Urbanism, however, the 166-acre community built on the last undeveloped portion of the Johnston family farm is based on a set of Christian foundational principles and subsequent derived principles that range from promoting a simpler life to honoring agriculture. Indeed, Agritopia could be called evangelical New Ruralism.
The name Agritopia derives from Johnston family’s vision for the project: “Agri” for the land’s farming heritage—it has been farmed consistently since the 1920s—and “topia” for the perfect community. “Names convey a lot,” says Joe Johnston. “I’ve always been annoyed by the way places are named around here. Quail Run, something ranch. We’ve never had ranches around here. There’s no relationship to what the place is.”
With more than a dozen acres of active pastures and farmland at the neighborhood’s center, and orchards on its periphery, the project seems to defy New Urbanism’s transect model, in which dense mixed uses occur at the project’s center and become less compact (and generally lower in building height) toward the edges, which then blend to a series of parks or other open spaces. For owner Joe Johnston, however, the project’s goal was to keep agriculture as the “heart of Agritopia,” according to lead designer Steve Barduson. By preserving the farmland at the project’s core, other uses—porch-fronted homes, the local school, town center, parks and trails, the agro-commercial area, a church, and retail center—radiate from the agriculture, symbolically and literally.
Though planning and implementation was challenging, residential sales were rapid. In 2004—at the height of Agritopia’s construction—Gilbert was the fastest growing municipality of more than 100,000 people in the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Only one of the 452 lots comprised of “classic” and “cottage” homes remains unbuilt. The agro-commercial center is also largely built out, and the K-12 Gilbert Christian School and community center are complete while a senior assisted-living complex is moving forward. Because of the downturn in the economy, however, the retail center, town square with adjacent church, and bungalow office lots near the busy intersection of Higley and Ray Roads remain unbuilt.
Project History, Planning, and Design
Throughout the 1990s, the Johnston family had been selling off portions of its farm to developers. Gilbert was rapidly becoming a Phoenix bedroom community, far to the east, and with the planned expansion of Loop 202, it was only a matter of time, it seemed, before the entire area sprawled to match the rest of the metro area’s typical, automobile-oriented suburbia. Joe Johnston and his family had also sold land for regional parks, and recognizing that farming was no longer in his family’s future, he considered the possibilities for the last remaining farmland, which included the family home.
In 1998 the Johnston family entered into an agreement with Scott Homes, and soon brought on BCDM/Barduson Architects. Joe Johnston was clear on his vision, wanting to “honor God and the area’s agricultural heritage” by creating a neighborhood reflective of the Midwestern small towns that are the heart of their agricultural landscapes. Though sad about losing that heritage, Johnston passionately believed that the project that was to become Agritopia could provide for the sharing of common amenities, reduce materialism, and focus on pedestrians—all the while honoring agriculture by providing access to pastures, gardens, and orchards. “”The people make the place neighborly,” says Johnston, “but it is also the way you design the setting. The way the homes are done . . . the streets are done to deemphasize cars. All those make for a more neighborly neighborhood and attract people, who want to be social.”
Construction began in 2001, but not before the design team tackled a number of significant issues. “It was so challenging to make the project work,” says Barduson, even as he admits Agritopia is one of the most enjoyable developments he’s been involved with.
For starters, the design team needed to create a completely new zoning ordinance for the town of Gilbert, made more challenging by the fact that the Phoenix metro area offered no similar developments or ordinances from which to borrow. Part of the Gateway Area Plan for Gilbert’s “Gateway Character Area,” the Agritopia project also required a rezoning to rural-residential use. According to planning consultant David Longley, the Gateway Area Plan offered “a new approach to minimizing the effect of sprawl because of its design elements.” Town staff was encouraging, recalls Barduson, but that didn’t alleviate the great number of legal challenges.
Gilbert’s resulting Gateway Area Traditional Neighborhood Design Guidelines took more than two years to complete, and were key in not only allowing Agritopia, but also in providing for future pedestrian- and transit-oriented development in the town:
The Gateway Character Area describes desirable physical characteristics that will enhance Gilbert’s unique identity and bring back traditional neighborhoods. It provides for traditional village/neighborhood design concepts in exchange for higher densities. It promotes pedestrian/bicycle/transit-oriented design, and integrates residential, commercial, employment, schools, places of worship, and parks with rail and bus transit, bikeways, and pedestrian paths. It affords an opportunity for small-scale urban agriculture.
Perhaps the largest challenge in establishing the guidelines and subsequent overlay for Agritopia was working with the Gilbert Fire Department, which opposed the project’s skinny streets and roundabouts. Only after Scott Homes agreed to build sprinkler systems into every home did the Fire Department sign off on the planned area development.
Designers faced another interesting challenge, as well. To maintain the Midwestern feel of the project, the team decided early on to provide for grass lawns and planting strips between streets and sidewalks. In Arizona, however, it is illegal to plant grass strips in residential rights-of-way because of the amount of water required to sustain the grass. By amending Gilbert’s street standards to allow the property line to be defined as the back of the curb, however, Agritopia circumvents the right-of-way constraint and grass planting strips prevail.
BCDM/Barduson Architects led a series of design charrettes and workshops that included neighborhood meetings and storyboarding. The project’s design grew out of those sessions, as well as negotiations with town staff. With the gardens and pastures at Agritopia’s center, more active uses radiate out from the core. Along the southern border of Ray Road, the agro-commercial area bridges date and peach orchards with the town square and retail center, both still unbuilt. The gardens adjoin the school and ball fields, community center, and compact neighborhoods of cottage homes. The retail center at the intersection of Ray and Higley Roads is bounded on the north by the still-unbuilt live/work bungalow offices. The remaining classic and cottage homes are bisected by landscaped pedestrian paths and pocket parks with play structures. Along their northern edge, Loop 202 (SanTan Freeway) is offset by a green belt and Gilbert’s extensive Central Trail system. On the west, Agritopia is bordered by Cosmo Dog Park.
Agriculture and Open Space
The Johnston family has owned the former cotton and cattle feed/grain farm since the 1960s. Though the 12-acre pastures and gardens at the center of Agritopia continue to be the heart of the project, they are privately owned. Still, the Farm at Agritopia—as the full operations are called—is perhaps the key element for the community. “It is not like a country farm in that it will be in the heart of a fairly dense urban area,” say Agritopia’s marketing materials. “This farm is an ‘urban farm’ designed to flourish in the urban setting. Instead of a huge field of one crop, you find a patchwork of numerous specialty crops.”
Crops from the central farmlands as well as eight additional acres of orchards on the project’s periphery include dates, peaches, citrus, beets, basil and other herbs, lettuce, carrots, heirloom tomatoes, and more. “Initially,” says Johnston, “ we have focused on a broad mix of lettuce and other salad greens plus a vegetable garden. We have chosen these because we will need theses items in large quantities, they are high-value crops, and they have a long growing season . . . An experimental area in which we can test tropicals and other marginally adapted plants will come later.”
A farmer experienced in growing organic greens aided the Farm in setting up its systems. Organic produce from the farm serves Joe’s Farm Grill and the Coffee Shop and supplies the Farm Stand, open on weekends in the agro-commercial area through the fall, winter, and spring.
The Farm at Agritopia also intends for animals to join the urban farm mix. Candidates include goats (for milk and cheese), chickens (for eggs), cows (for milk), and bees (for honey and pollination).
Surprisingly, Agritopia doesn’t support a community garden, nor do backyard vegetable gardens appear to be common. However, one of the lead farmers plans to hold classes that teach residents how to grow food and cook or prepare raw meals.
In the meantime, residents can stroll along the groomed pedestrian paths that are lined by white fences overgrown with seedless grape vines and dotted by flagstone benches. All trails lead to the agro-commercial area, and eventually will lead to the town square and retail center once constructed. Neighbors may also wander on paths adjacent to the orchards.
If the Farm at Agritopia is the community’s heart, then the extensive trail system and parks are its circulatory system. “Our goal was to have a park with play equipment within two blocks of every home,” says Barduson. Connecting the well-appointed pocket parks and larger playing fields is a network of clay and concrete trails that enable pedestrians to easily move throughout the neighborhood. Additionally, the cottage homes front lushly landscaped, meandering walkways instead of streets.
Agritopia is bordered on the north by Gilbert’s wide Central Trail, which connects neighborhoods throughout the town’s incorporated area. Agritopia developers worked with town staff on the adjacent, award-winning Cosmo Dog Park, which features a large ramada for picnics, four acres of fenced off-leash area as well as individual areas for timid dogs, a pond with wetlands, an amphitheater, area lighting for night use, and more. The design team also worked with town planners and the Arizona Department of Transportation to erect a bridge that spans SanTan Freeway north of the development. The pedestrian bridge connects Agritopia, via Gilbert’s Central Trail, to the neighborhood north of the freeway as well as the large Crossroads District Park.
Landscaping by Floor Associates (now JJR|Floor) provides a mix of native and non-native plants, though it’s clear that Agritopia’s design is far more Midwestern than Southwestern despite its arid location. Barduson admits there was little discussion about water efficiency at the time of Agritopia’s planning more than ten years ago. “Things would be different now,” he says. But, he noted, the Midwestern feel was important, and grass is a critical component.
While reclaimed water or other alternative water saving landscape features do not exist onsite, play fields, finger parks, and gardens are designed to capture runoff, and pastures and much of the agro-commercial area is flood-irrigated as part of the Roosevelt Water District.
Homes at Agritopia
Agritopia’s home designs stem from Johnston’s passion for houses that reflect the vernacular of older homes in downtown Gilbert and Phoenix neighborhoods like F.Q. Story, Coronado, and Encanto-Palmcroft. Scott Homes offered 11 floorplans each with four elevations created by BSB Design and based on the following architectural styles:
While the homes range from 1,300 to more than 3,200 square feet—not including optional basements on some models that can add as much as 2,000 square feet and three bedrooms—the lots range from 2,500 square feet for cottage homes to between 7,000 and 10,000 square feet for classic homes. Because BSB Design wanted a mix of home sizes on the same block without larger homes dwarfing smaller homes, it concentrated on approaches to massing, including:
The homes—288 classic models and 164 cottage models on 452 single-family lots—are further delineated through three additional approaches: flex-lots, bungalow units, and garage living space. Agritopia’s unique flex-lot system allowed some homebuyers to choose lot size. The purchaser of a lot where the lot behind had not yet been purchased could choose the depth of the lot, which typically was 62 feet wide. The standard lot is 120 feet deep, but one or two 15-foot extensions could be purchased resulting in a 135-foot or 150-foot deep lot. Variations in lot depth allow for larger yards while maintaining consistent streetscapes and front massing.
Like many New Urbanist projects, Agritopia allows for the addition of carriage homes—or what BSB Design calls bungalow units—on about 40 lots designated for classic homes. The owner of the lot may then live in the main residence and use the bungalow unit as an additional residence for a relative or a renter, or as a place of business. The bungalow units are approximately 800 square feet in size with three floorplans: two-bedroom home, business office, and pool house designed for recreational purposes. They sit on the back of lots that do not back to another lot—usually on greenways or with a street at the rear of the lot. The architecture of the bungalow unit matches the architecture of the main residence.
“We consider it extremely important to design homes that are flexible enough to fit the changing needs of their owners,” say Agritopia marketing materials. The builder also capitalized on flexible space within the garage, enabling original homebuyers to configure the garage to add an adjoining casita—equal in size to the space of one garage bay—or an apartment—equal in size to the space of two garage bays, with a floorplan of a one-bedroom flat.
Though homeowners may have opted for bungalow units and casitas which may then be rented out, the Agritopia homeowners association does not allow individual rental of full homes. “With rentals, you just never really know who you’re going to get,” says Dena Wall, whose family moved to Agritopia in part because of the no-rental policy, according to a 2004 article in The Arizona Republic.
The single-family homes were built in phases. Phase I was comprised of 157 classic home lots in the western third of Agritopia, adjacent to Cosmo Park on the west and bordered by a green belt and fields to the north. Phase II was comprised of 160 lots for both classic and cottage homes, bordered on the north by the greenway and Gilbert’s Central Trail. Phase IV was constructed simultaneously with Phase II and is comprised of a cluster of cottage homes near the agro-commercial area. Phase III includes both classic and cottage homes, and bridges the town square and retail area with the community center.
“Land use planning and the home designs went hand-in-hand,” says Brad Sonnenburg, partner at BSB Design, which led Agritopia’s architectural design. His goal was to create an overall street system and individual streetscapes where people could interact. “We view the street system as not just for cars, but as a part of the public open space shared by pedestrians and cyclists,” says Johnston. With sidewalks separated from tree-lined streets, narrow streets with on-street parking to reduce traffic velocity, and front porches serving as prominent and usable features, the neighborhood’s walkability is evident.
The widest road in the project is Agritopia Loop, which bisects the project, connecting Ray and Higley Roads as it passes the school, community center, and forthcoming Agritopia Senior Living complex. Studded with a series of shallow roundabouts, the street is 37 feet wide, including two parking lanes of eight feet each. The distance from sidewalk to house front is only eight and a half feet, though the planting strip is seven feet wide and the sidewalk five feet wide. Secondary streets are ten feet narrower—27 feet wide—with similar dimensions from street to house front. Alleys do not provide for parking and are typically 17 feet wide, providing for a five-foot distance from sidewalk to house.
In addition to the single-family lots, developers still plan to build apartments above the commercial spaces of the retail center, as well as live/work units coined “bungalow offices” along Higley Road on the eastern edge of the project. The combination of loft-like apartments, carriage houses, cottage homes, and larger classic models results in a range of pricing and helps meet the developer’s goal of residential affordability.
Yet given Gilbert’s desert location and the abundance of sunshine—as well as the project’s goals of promoting sharing and a simpler life—the use of passive and active solar resources on the homes would seem logical. However, Scott Homes offered no solar or energy efficiency options beyond tankless water heaters. Likewise, no advanced technology features such as home energy management systems or neighborhood wifi was built into the homes. Nor were water efficiency measures, beyond standard low-flow toilets and showerheads, implemented.
Commercial, Mixed Uses, and Civic Uses
Agritopia’s most distinctive feature may be its agro-commercial area, the design team’s “vision for our development of the Johnston family homestead area.” Each existing building has been preserved by converting it to a new use compatible with an urban setting: the family’s home became Joe’s Farm Grill, a tractor shed became the Coffee House, and a garage and carport now house a Vespa repair shop and the Farm Stand fresh produce stand. One of the most visible structures is a bright silver barn shaped like an airplane hanger, which is fitting since it was constructed in the 1950s from the sheet metal of retired World War II aircraft. It houses farm equipment and may host a farmer’s market in the future. The businesses within the renovated buildings tie into the project’s rural history through structure, plantings, and other elements, including tractor gears, cultivator wheels, and other parts that serve as artwork throughout.
Combined with the still-unbuilt retail center, the overarching goal of the agro-commercial area, according to Barduson, is to create a kind of “epicurean” center—a destination of local food and culinary arts for which the Coffee Shop, with its fresh-baked goods and gourmet coffees, and Joe’s Farm Grill, with its organic produce and distinctive recipes, are just the beginning. A string of local restaurants is still a possibility, though in the current economic climate, no specific additional restaurants are yet planned.
Though the retail center and lots designated for bungalow offices along Higley Road remain unbuilt, they are actively marketed, and Johnston recently inked a deal with a bank as a tenant in the retail center. Construction should begin soon. Barduson acknowledges that the placement of a small-footprint Fresh & Easy Neighborhood Market across the street was a missed opportunity for Agritopia because the grocery store is exactly the type of progressive market the developers were hoping would be built in the neighborhood. Though it’s still nearby, residents are not as likely to walk to the grocery store since they’d have to negotiate the busy intersection.
Agritopia’s town square, once built, will bridge the agro-commercial area to the west with the retail center to the east, while also providing linkages to pastures and gardens. It will be anchored by a church, though none has yet been identified. The vision for the town square is to include a bandshell reminiscent of those once popular in small Midwestern town centers.
The community center provides a venue for public meetings and other neighborhood events. It also includes a swimming pool, tennis courts, and putting green. The putting green and grass surrounding the community center are crafted of artificial turf to reduce water use and maintenance. The community center is located next to the ball fields that are jointly shared with Gilbert Christian Schools, a preK-12 1A private school with 470 students that focuses on spiritual development, fine arts, and community involvement in addition to academic development.
Though development of the retail center has stalled, Agritopia Senior Living is moving forward on a five-acre site south of the community center, adjacent to a cluster of cottage homes and orchards. Two two-story buildings totaling more than 140,000 square feet will house 118 units, administrative offices, central kitchen and dining areas, a wellness center, and other indoor/outdoor lifestyle amenities. It will be constructed within the Spanish Eclectic style.
Additionally, a number of home-based businesses operate within Agritopia. Gilbert, in fact, has the highest rate of home-based businesses in the Phoenix metro area. Agritopia’s developers encourage home-based businesses in order to:
Though Gilbert does not allow non-family members to be employed in home-based businesses, Agritopia received a variance that allows up to two non-family members to be employed. Other restrictions include operating hours limited between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., no operation on Sunday, vehicular traffic cannot exceed five cars per hour or 25 cars per day, and no signs are allowed except for bungalow studios.
The home-based photography business of Bethany and John Lamar was recently featured in Arizona Woman magazine. Three-quarters of the Lamar’s 4,300-square-foot home is dedicated to Lamar Photography Studios. Though the studio itself is in the basement, the dining room serves as the sales office. “We don’t run our business out of our home,” says Bethany Lamar. “We really live out of our business.” Still, the business is separated from the living area because, as Bethany says, “Business is business; home is home. You have to have boundaries.”
For Paul Prosser, who operates his own architecture firm, Prosser Architects, the distinction is clearer because his office is in the bungalow unit on the back of his lot. The opportunity to expand his firm and yet live nearby are the reasons he moved to Agritopia.
Agritopia’s Sense of Place
Despite the Johnston family’s efforts—or rather because of them—Agritopia remains a paradox: a green oasis in the desert; a suburban community that grows much of its own produce; a neighborhood school that, because it is private, is not open to all residents; and a mix of residential architectural styles that have evolved from historic architecture of the region and yet which seem out of place because of the bland uniformity of the tile-roofed houses otherwise found throughout Gilbert.
But are these faults? Upon an initial visit to the community, it may appear so. But on the second visit, thoroughly walking the neighborhood convinces one otherwise. Though it’s easy to argue against grass lawns in the Sonoran desert, for example, it’s also clear that lawns are successful in propagating Agritopia’s rural heritage, both of Gilbert and the Midwest. And growing our own produce—urban, suburban, or otherwise—is a necessary step in sustainable development. Indeed, planners and policymakers recognize more and more that agriculture must be a key component of communities moving forward, with a recent movement by New Urbanists specifically to preserve agricultural land as a central component of a neotraditional town rather than, say, creating a golf course.
Though Agritopia’s school is parochial, it gladly shares its ball fields, outdoor courts, and other exterior sports amenities with the community. Additionally, Gilbert Christian School opens its gymnasium to host large community events such as public meetings. While admissions are selective and tuition is cost-based, the school nonetheless serves as an amenity and central feature of the project.
Finally, Agritopia’s architecture feels out of place only in the context of the surrounding I-could-be-anywhere suburban landscape. While some nearby projects have adopted similar architectural elements, those additions are only skin deep. At Agritopia, the architecture and land use were developed together—and work in harmony—to create an authentic neighborhood with a real sense of place and recognition of its agricultural heritage.
Evangelical New Ruralism? Maybe so, because Agritopia is a project worth preaching about.
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