By Simmons B. Buntin
- 270-acre New Urbanist neighborhood with adjacent 55-acre “town center”
- Neighborhood is nearly built out
- Designed around principles of sustainability, with quantifiable goals for energy and water reduction, solid waste recycling, onsite job creation, reduced automobile use, and housing affordability
- Two-acre mixed-use neighborhood center, including activity center/meeting hall and adjacent live/work residences
- Town center includes super-efficient light industrial manufacturing building, medical office complex, and (at the time) the nation’s greenest Valero gas station
- 650 high-efficiency homes, many with carriage homes
- 35 percent open space in a mix of natural desert, landscaped parks, sports field, community gardens, and paths and trails
- Extensive, pre-construction tree and cactus salvage effort resulting in a 90 percent transplant success rate
- K-5 Civano Community School named “Greenest Grade School in America”; Civano Middle School (6-8) based on expeditionary learning model
- Developed through public/private partnership that included the Trust for Sustainable Development; Case Enterprises; Community of Civano, LLC; Civano Development Company; CDC Partners, LLC; Fannie Mae’s American Communities Fund; Jump Enterprises; and the City of Tucson
- Designed by Wayne Moody, Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, and Moule & Polyzoides
Once planned as a 1,200-acre development comprised of four neighborhoods, a town center, environmental technology business park, 2,700 homes, and nearly one million square feet of commercial and light industrial space, the community of Civano located 15 miles southeast of downtown Tucson is now defined by its beautiful, New Urbanist first neighborhood and scaled-down town center. Despite the fact that Civano did not build out at the larger scale as initially planned, it has been called “the largest high-performance, mixed-use community in the United States” and was named the “Best New Community” by Sunset magazine in 2004. The result of nearly two decades of planning, the community has morphed from the Tucson Solar Village to Civano: A Model Sustainable Community to the Community of Civano, which celebrated its grand opening in 1999.
During its development, the master-planned community was controversial—whether the City of Tucson’s financial commitment, or the eventual sole ownership by the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), or the place-based politics of a passionate residency. Today, the neighborhood of 650 resource-efficient homes, an architecturally iconic mixed-use neighborhood center, lush desert landscaping, and the nation’s “greenest” school continues to evolve, meeting its goal of serving as a pilot project for sustainable development while exceeding goals for reduced energy and potable water use.
Civano remains the region’s most distinct integration of sustainable development and New Urbanism. While its suburban location, lack of transit, and struggles to bring successful retail into the neighborhood center have hampered its overall success, Civano boasts a remarkable sense of place—an integration with the natural Sonoran desert environment that is more than the sum of its diverse architecture, network of trails and public spaces, and extensive native landscaping.
Civano’s Early History
In 1981, Arizona governor Bruce Babbit participated in a showcase of locally built, solar-powered homes. His comment to the builders? “This is great. What are you going to do next?” That sparked a discussion that resulted in a vision for a new community that could significantly reduce resource consumption and adverse environmental impacts compared with standard subdivisions.
By 1987 the idea had evolved into the Tucson Solar Village, a community of 1,000 solar-powered homes. In 1988 the State of Arizona provided a grant of $210,000 to plan the village. Its concept was to “develop a whole community as a ‘showcase’ to demonstrate ways in which solar energy could be utilized to reduce overall energy consumption and result in a more harmonious environment,” said planner Wayne Moody. That year, funding and siting for the solar village were authorized by the governor and Arizona State Land Department.
The conduit for funding and organizational activities behind the Tucson Solar Village was the Tucson-Pima County Metropolitan Energy Commission (MEC), which entered into a contract with the State Land Department and the Arizona Department of Commerce’s Solar Energy Office. The MEC established ambitious goals for the site that included reducing energy consumption by 75 percent compared to standard developments, reducing water consumption by 65 percent, reducing air pollution by 40 percent, reducing solid waste production by 90 percent, and providing one job onsite for every two homes.
A request for proposals for planning consultants was then issued, and Wayne Moody was selected as planner and project manager in 1989. Moody, who served until 1992, was driven by the idea of “sustainability,” according to friend and fellow consultant Paul Rollins, and he evaluated many models of sustainability in their application to the solar village.
In 1991, the project’s name was changed from Tucson Solar Village to Civano: A Model Sustainable Community. “Civano” is a name that represents the golden era of the late classic period of the Hohokam, the native peoples who developed sophisticated social, economic, and agricultural systems in the Tucson region from 650 to 1450. According to Lee Rayburn, director of planning and design for the Community of Civano, LLC, the name change was the result of input from nearly 60 public meetings held in 1991 and 1992. During those meetings, participants recognized the need to broaden the project’s focus from solar energy to sustainability.
The State Land Department committed 818 acres of undeveloped desert on the southeast side of Tucson, and the city approved rezoning for a master-planned community. In order for the land to be sold, the State Land Department stipulated a comprehensive planning process that included extensive public involvement. The city’s rezoning likewise set aggressive resource conservation goals and performance requirements. The result was the Civano: Tucson Solar Village Master Development Plan, which was approved in May 1992 (and revised as the Civano Master Planned Area Development in 2005). The original Plan states:
The development of the Village of Civano is an attempt to demonstrate our ability to accomplish the broad goals [of] the use of the sun as our primary source of energy; the conservation and multiple uses of water; the configuration of uses on the land which minimizes the use of fossil fuel- and time-consuming automobile travel; the reduction of waste in both product and time; and the development of a sense of community, social interaction, and place.
The Plan incorporated a background summary, site and area analysis, market analysis and marketability study, energy and resource conservation features and techniques (including “Civano Performance Targets” for energy, water, solid waste, transportation, and employment), and a development plan summary.
Following a series of planning and marketing studies conducted John Laswick, the City of Tucson project manager for Civano, the 818-acre parcel went up for auction in July 1996. David Case of Case Enterprises and David Butterfield of the Trust for Sustainable Development, working together as the Community of Civano, LLC, placed a bid of $2.6 million, the minimum asking price and the only bid received. Case came from Connecticut and Butterfield from British Columbia, and soon after they were joined by Kevin Kelly, who moved from Massachusetts.
Earlier in the year, the Arizona Energy Office granted $300,000 from oil overcharge funds to the City of Tucson to contract with the Arizona Solar Village Corporation—then called Civano Institute—to develop the Civano Builder Program and a sustainable design plan book to assist builders at Civano in creating residences that would meet the Master Development Plan’s ambitious performance targets. The performance targets were codified in 1995 as the Civano Integrated Method of Performance and Cost Tracking (IMPACT) System, the quantifiable goals that remain in place.
Once the land was purchased, the city agreed to support Civano with $200,000 in sewer credits and $3 million in infrastructure funding for water, sewer, and roads—including a new line to supply reclaimed water for irrigation, the city’s first and most comprehensive effort to use treated wastewater to offset potable water use in a residential development. The city’s seed money was leveraged by developers through a commitment of an additional $20 million in private funding. City funding came after a 4-3 city council vote, at which, according to an Arizona Daily Star article, supporters said the expenditure “is justified because the project will show other developers how energy-efficient construction, pedestrian-friendly design, and recycling can work in central city areas.” Critics, however, claimed the city “has no business putting public funds into a private development when the city has so many other pressing.” In 1997 the city agreed to loan Civano developers an additional $250,000 to help offset design costs—a move that drew more criticism.
Defining and Measuring Sustainability
“The planning process for this project has been extensive and encouraging,” said developer Kevin Kelly as construction began. “Civano is a fundamentally new approach to community planning. The goals are to connect people to each other, and to their environment, instead of simply maximizing short-term profits by increasing building lot counts. All ‘sustainable’ planning principles require an analysis that incorporates the social, environmental, and economic impact of a development.”
A set of six quantifiable sustainability goals was set:
- Reduce home energy consumption by 50 percent over the 1995 model energy code.
- Reduce potable water consumption by 65 percent.
- Reduce internal vehicle miles driven by 40 percent.
- Create one job onsite for every two residences.
- Reduce landfill-destined solid waste.
- Provide 20 percent affordable housing.
Three documents guided the developers, in partnership with the City of Tucson, in implementing these sustainability goals: the Development Agreement, signed in 1992; the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the developer and city; and the Civano IMPACT System. The Development Agreement addressed energy conservation and sustainability goals, rights and responsibilities of parties, Civano infrastructure improvement and financing, and development rights.
The MOU began by stating, “The goal of the Civano project is to create a mixed-use community that attains the highest feasible standards of sustainability, resource conservation, and development of Arizona’s most abundant energy resource—solar—so that it becomes an international model for sustainable growth.” It also established the development process, monitoring and evaluation process (including reporting and periodic review by the master developer), strategies and responsibilities, specific procedures for implementation, master developer requirements, development and building plan review process, demonstration projects, and certification of compliance.
The Civano IMPACT System codified the annual review of Civano sustainability goals and accomplishments, setting performance targets, requirements, implementation responsibilities, and monitoring for:
Building Energy Demand
Reduce residential energy demand by 65 percent and commercial energy demand by 55 percent through improvements to building shell, heating, and cooling systems.
Building Energy Supply
Use onsite solar photovoltaic and/or solar thermal power generation, and comparable natural gas innovations to provide needed electric and thermal supplies.
Reduce potable water consumption significantly below metropolitan Tucson baseline levels; and use non-potable water, such as reclaimed water, greywater, or rainwater harvesting for landscape irrigation.
Solid Waste Recycling
Reduce landfill-destined waste beneath metropolitan Tucson baseline levels, establish an onsite recycling/composting center, recycle construction waste, and use recycled construction materials.
Improve air quality by reducing auto dependence through: 1) internal Civano circulation via walking, biking, electric cart, and other alternative energy-saving transportation methods; and 2) by reducing external vehicle miles traveled below metropolitan Tucson baseline levels.
Land Use Balance
Create one job within Civano for every two dwelling units.
The average wage of Civano jobs should enable employees to afford the average cost of Civano housing.
The 2010 IMPACT System Monitoring Report and the final annual Energy and Water Use in Tucson and Civano Report indicate that Civano meets or exceeds the building energy demand, building energy supply, water use, and housing affordability goals. The community did not meet the solid waste recycling goals for construction, though is meeting the goals for recycling of consumer waste. Architect Gallagher Witmer, author of the IMPACT System monitoring reports, concludes that Civano will meet the transportation and land-use balance goals only after buildout of the town center is complete.
Designing Civano: From Charrette to Specific Plan
From 1996 to 2000, the developers worked with more than two dozen consultants and organizations to formulate Civano’s design. The town plan itself was created at a three-day design charrette held in September 1996. Wayne Moody facilitated the charrette, which brought together New Urbanist designers Andrés Duany and Stefanos Polyzoides plus the developers, city representatives, and other stakeholders. Unlike other New Urbanist charrettes, however, Civano’s was comprised of public meetings for Civano “pioneers” and city officials interspersed by intense, closed-door design sessions that did not otherwise involve these stakeholders. Two separate site plans were developed by two different design teams—led Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company and Wayne Moody, respectively—and these were critiqued every few hours. A third team of designers (Moule & Polyzoides) worked specifically on the first neighborhood center, streetscapes and home designs, as well as the creation of individual architecture and planning elements for the differing house types. By 9 p.m. on the final night, according to Rollins, no acceptable design concept had emerged, and some participants wanted to finish design work from home. “But we weren’t allowed to leave, and by 3 a.m. the Civano site plan was blessed into existence by a tired but happy group,” Rollins says. Overnight, Stefanos Polyzoides and his team created a new, holistic plan that combined aspects of the two plans created by Duany and Moody, for Monday morning’s scheduled presentation to Tucson city officials.
Though no form-based code was developed following the process—or at any time—the charrette led, a year later, to the development of the Neighborhood 1 Specific Plan, which set forth three land uses or intensities within Civano’s first neighborhood: Neighborhood Edge District, Neighborhood General District, and Neighborhood Center District.
The Specific Plan—which was based on the concepts of building community, connection with the land, respect for climate, and generation—included the Development Design Guidelines, a phasing plan, a circulation plan, interpretations and variances, and visual representations of streets and street sections, parking, landscaping, parks, and trails. The entitlement work on Civano’s first neighborhood, however, occurred before the Specific Plan was adopted. “The ideas that were codified in the Specific Plan were promoted and advocated during the long civil engineering design and review period,” says Rayburn.
The Specific Plan’s introduction states, “Civano is about building community; about connecting with each other. The Civano plan is designed to encourage face-to-face meeting and interaction—gathering places, meeting areas, cafés, safe and livable streets where automobile traffic is encouraged to slow down, a fine-grain mix of uses, and the ability to reduce the time spent in an auto.”
The Controversy of the Master Developers
In 1997, Fannie Mae’s American Communities Fund became a 16 percent equity investor in Civano with a $3 million commitment that increased to $5 million by the time the development opened in April 1999. “The Fund invests in leading edge, catalytic developments that expand opportunities for homeownership and the revitalization of communities across the nation,” said American Communities Fund executive managing director Kenneth J. Bacon at the time. “Civano is truly a first of its kind, a bellwether in real estate development. Fannie Mae believes Civano is a worthy investment in America’s new generation of housing, and fully supports its innovative efforts to balance community and residential needs.”
It was the first step in Fannie Mae’s largely unanticipated move to become Civano’s sole developer. After the 1996 design charrette, David Butterfield and his Trust for Sustainable Development sold its interest in the Civano project to the operating partner, Case Enterprises. In 1998, the Fund bought out developer David Case, gaining a controlling ownership interest at 66 percent. In December 1999, Kevin Kelly (and his Civano Development Company) sold the remaining interest to Fannie Mae, giving the organization 100 percent ownership.
By the time Civano officially opened on April 16, 1999—an initial 70-acre, 195-home stage of the development was its first phase—an innovative neighborhood center, series of highly efficient model homes, and a thin-film photovoltaic manufacturing facility had been built. The grand opening was a celebrated event, bringing together hundreds of people, including Congressional representative Jim Kolbe, U.S. Department of Energy assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy Mark Ginsburg, and Arizona governor Jane Hull, who hailed Civano as “the poster child for better planning.”
Despite the fanfare, criticism of the project by outsiders continued: “Problems finding someone to develop the project, bankers’ reluctance to finance it, and the slow development and high cost of new solar energy technologies resulted in most of the solar elements being stripped away,” contends an Arizona Daily Star article published the day after the grand opening. The development was also knocked for its approach to site planning, as the articled noted “the ground has been scraped bare and leveled” and that other, smaller projects could just as easily meet Civano’s energy and water goals without city funding. Responding to the criticisms, Ginsberg agreed that smaller developments may use similar energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, but “Civano demonstrates how it can be done on a large scale,” saying that solar energy would be used more at Civano as the development matures—a prediction that has come true.
Shortly after the grand opening, Fannie Mae became the sole owner and master developer, as the Community of Civano, LLC, when it bought out Kevin Kelly. Though Fannie Mae’s financial investment kept the project alive, it also resulted in the slow devolution of Civano’s ideals. Planning and design director Rayburn worked to balance Civano’s guiding documents and original intent with the expectations of a growing, vocal residency and a master developer in Fannie Mae that demonstrated, with increasing frequency, that it was more interested in removing itself from the development process than ensuring Civano’s design lived up to its New Urbanist principles. Fannie Mae sought a partnership with Tucson-based developer Diamond Ventures—a move that was adamantly opposed by Civano residents, who wrote a white paper titled “Safeguarding Civano’s Destiny” in August 2000 that expressed their concern that Diamond Ventures would eliminate the energy and water standards as well as the traditional neighborhood planning. Based on resident input and the behind-the-scenes work of Rayburn to convince city council members to acknowledge the viability of Civano and its IMPACT System, the city denied the request to assign the land option for the remaining neighborhoods to Diamond Ventures.
At the same time, the developer extended its option to purchase the 316-acre parcel of land directly west of Civano, which was to become Civano’s fourth neighborhood, envisioned as homes surrounding a “sustainable” golf course and the other half of the town center. But with its failure to partner with Diamond Ventures, Fannie Mae did not move forward on the purchase and the land option expired.
In 1999, RGC Tucson, LLC defaulted on 60 single-family detached home contracts, resulting in lawsuits filed first by Fannie Mae and then by buyers left holding defaulted contracts, in some cases for more than a year. Though the suits were eventually settled, the RGC debacle fueled the fires of those who opposed Civano and may have kept real estate agents from promoting the project. The result was that, locally, Civano had an increasingly fractured reputation while nationally its status continued to soar.
By 2002, when residents formed the city-chartered Civano Neighbors neighborhood association, many homeowners believed that Fannie Mae wasn’t interested in meeting Civano’s guidelines, in theory or practice. Though in 2000 Rayburn instituted a neighbor’s advisory council and in 2001 attempted to bring Polyzoides out for a community-involved design charrette for Civano’s second and third neighborhoods, Fannie Mae only expressed a willingness to collaborate with neighbors when it was eager to obtain the neighborhood association’s support for the sale of the land to Pulte Homes, a process that began in late 2002.
The ultimate factor in defining Civano as a single neighborhood, plus a developing town center, was that sale. Though neighbors were not initially in favor of releasing the undeveloped lands to a national production builder, it was clear by June 2002—when Rayburn’s contract as manager of planning and design was terminated—that Fannie Mae would not sell to Civano’s remaining builders or local developers who would attempt to extend the first neighborhood’s New Urbanist design. Fannie Mae was interested in finding a single developer that would then take on the role of master developer. Following a neighborhood association-sponsored process involving a series of public meetings and consensus-reaching, private negotiations, and agreements between the neighborhood association, city, and Pulte’s Tucson Division, the neighborhood association issued a position statement in favor of the sale of the land to Pulte in March 2003. The sale was finalized in 2004.
The neighborhood association’s endorsement was not unanimously supported by the community, however. Rayburn criticized the organization for “letting Pulte off the hook” on land-use design and development agreement issues, even as the city applauded this new “collaborative” relationship which resulted in revisions to the Development Agreement and Civano IMPACT System in December 2003. “Pulte co-opted whatever chance there had been of some version of Civano moving into the second and third neighborhoods,” says Rayburn. “The ‘public process’ was just a show—and the neighborhood association was taken on a ride from day one.”
Over the following year, Pulte worked with the city and, to an ever-diminishing degree, the neighborhood association to revise the Civano Master Development Plan. The resulting Civano Master Planned Area Development was approved by city council in March 2005. By that time, the neighborhood association echoed Rayburn’s concerns, having seen Pulte’s site plan for neighborhoods two and three and being rebuffed by a new Pulte management team on a number of previous agreements. In February 2005, Civano Neighbors issued a position statement against the Civano Master PAD, noting a number of unresolved concerns ranging from public involvement to garage treatment. While several of the concerns were addressed in the final Master PAD, the neighborhood association withdrew its support, stating, “Civano Neighborhoods II and II—which Pulte calls Sierra Morado—may meet the energy and related requirements of the Civano IMPACT System, but from a design and New Urbanism perspective fall well short of the standards of Civano Neighborhood I.”
Civano town planner Stefanos Polyzoides agreed. “By diluting and frustrating an authentic New Urbanist project in Arizona,” he said in 2004, “[Pulte Homes is] buying ten more years of sprawl, business as usual practice. The public will not be able to demand the real thing, as long as they are not given the choice.”
As Rayburn later said, “What is left is the possibility of winning some battles, maybe.” Unfortunately for neighbors and Civano, other than meeting the energy, water efficiency, and affordable housing requirements, Pulte has otherwise constructed a subdivision of cul-de-sacs, non-native landscaping, fenced retention areas, and cookie-cutter houses. Though Pulte serves as the master developer, replacing Fannie Mae following the adoption of the Civano Master Planned Area Development in 2005, there is now relief among many Civano residents that the homebuilder’s subdivision—which borders Civano on the south and east sides—has a different name. It is a cautionary tale for neighborhood groups attempting to negotiate with large production builders, one in which the city failed to support neighbors and Civano’s guiding documents.
Neighborhood Center and Town Center: The Heart of Civano
Civano’s heart lies figuratively and literally in the community’s neighborhood center, a two-acre complex of commercial buildings and open-air courtyards and plazas designed by Moule & Polyzoides and constructed in the middle of the neighborhood. “Civano represents for New Urbanism one of the first projects where community-building initiatives, which focus on anti-sprawl, are being carried out in tandem with an environmentally ambitious design program,” says Polyzoides. “The overlap of social and environmental ideals that are the hallmark of Civano can be best isolated and understood in the design of its neighborhood center.”
Constructed prior to Civano’s grand opening, the neighborhood center initially housed a café, art gallery, offices, and the model home center. After the café and gallery closed in 2001 from a lack of business, various businesses used the office space, including the developer. The café space was converted to an HOA activity center and ultimately—just before Fannie Mae left the project—the round meeting hall and adjoining buildings were turned over to the HOA to be the public space they were designed for. “In its form, particularly the kiva-inspired cylinder and enclosed courtyard,” says Polyzoides, “it provides a place for the citizens of Civano to live in public.”
For several years, however, Fannie Mae’s onsite manager discouraged resident use of the community center, which the developer subdivided and attempted to sell as separate commercial condominiums. Considering the center’s wide patios, shallow amphitheater, lush landscaping, and distinct architecture highlighted by the meeting hall’s rich adobe brick and concrete block cooling tower, its lack of use as a civic center was frustrating. From 2004 through 2009, when Fannie Mae sold the neighborhood center to resident and Civano Nursery owner Les Shipley and his family, a number of editorials were written and neighbor meetings held to discuss bringing the neighborhood center back to the community.
Once the Shipleys purchased the neighborhood center, however, they immediately offered it for neighbor events and regular neighborhood use. The Shipleys actively marketed the neighborhood center and within months had landed an Italian restaurant, fitness center, hair salon, bicycle shop, and new office uses, including an optometrist. Though the restaurant lasted just one year—due in part to the downturn in the economy and in part to poor service—today the neighborhood center, combined with the HOA activity center in the rotunda, serves as the community’s central gathering place. “If we didn’t have this little community meeting space, there would be no community,” says Shipley. “There would be no coffee meetings, there would be no book club, there would be no teen night. There would be nothing.”
The neighborhood center is distinct not only because of its mix of services, but also because it was designed as an environmental technology showcase. The activity center (meeting hall) features adobe construction for thermal mass and a three-story cooling tower that can take advantage of evaporative cooling. The system is tied into the courtyard’s fountain. A mix of building construction materials—from straw bale to RASTRA recycled polystyrene-concrete to wood frame and stucco, along with passive solar siting, fosters efficiency and a unique architectural styling. The neighborhood center also features solar hot water heating, active solar photovoltaic panels, super-efficient windows, and recycled carpet. Like the rest of the neighborhood, it takes advantage of xeriscaping using native plants.
The neighborhood center is located within the Specific Plan’s Neighborhood Center District. It is surrounded by dense, single-family courtyard homes and live/work units—many of which required additional negotiation with the city or in some cases retrofitting to accommodate their commercial components, including the popular Civano Coffee House, which opened in 2010. Tom Doucette, owner of Doucette Communities, built the two-story live/work units that have housed such businesses as Ballet Rincon, Yoga House at Civano, Zona Gardens Bed & Breakfast, and the Inn at Civano. “The city made it so difficult to do the mixed-use in the neighborhood center,” says Doucette, “yet Civano’s plans clearly advocate mixed uses.”
Former resident Bruce Rhoades, who owned and operated Uno Bicycle Studio in the neighborhood center for three years before retiring, moved his business to Tucson from Colorado. He also expresses concerns about the city, though in his case the concern is “the amount of hoops you have to jump though just to get open—it’s a huge disappointment.” But he was pleased with the support he received from Civano residents and the Shipleys, particularly as he expanded his space with the increasing success of his custom bicycle business.
Civano-based businesses are not restricted to the neighborhood center. The neighborhood website listed over 90 businesses at one time, most home-based, though even here a mix of retail services—hair salon, massage therapy, skin care, bakery—are allowed. Additionally, a two-acre area of mixed-use zoned land on the southeast corner of Civano remains unbuilt, though previously Doucette hoped to build boutique-style, “high-design” leased housing above street-level retail, such as a coffee shop and fitness center. Civano otherwise does not offer any multifamily housing.
Each of the project’s four neighborhoods was envisioned to have a mixed-use neighborhood center, but at the core of the overall project was a 110-acre town center, a full circle of mixed-use, commercial, and light industrial uses bridging the east and west portions of the development along Houghton Road, a busy north-south arterial. A 55-acre town center on the east side of Houghton is still in the works and is included in the Civano Master Planned Area Development. Unfortunately, the land west of Houghton (initially planned as Neighborhood IV) was sold to a single-family residential home developer, and that subdivision—now under construction—has no plans for mixed uses other than a small, recreation-oriented community center. The first building constructed (in 1997) at the Civano town center was the Global Solar thin-film photovoltaic manufacturing facility. The 31,000-square-foot building was lauded as Arizona’s most energy-efficient industrial building when it opened. It features skylights equipped with mirrors that rotate to follow the sun and more than 20 other improvements over Model Energy Code standards, saving the tenant an estimated $46,000 per year in water and energy use.
The second building in the town center was not completed until 2010, and it was controversial not in its energy or water use, but in its service: a gas station. The Valero service station and “Corner Store” (now Circle K) on the northeast corner of Houghton and Drexel—the street on the neighborhood’s southern edge—meets the town center’s stringent environmental and design guidelines, but the irony of having a gas station anchoring a corner of a pedestrian-oriented community is not lost on Civano’s residents. Still, the station is Valero’s greenest in North America, and features solar hot water preheating, skylights and photocells, waterless facilities, reclaimed water for irrigation, xeriscaping, and an 11 kW photovoltaic system.
Representatives of the developer of Civano’s town center, Jump Enterprises, met with residents several times, communicating possibilities for the northern half of the town center, including a small-footprint grocery store. Along the southern, 22-acre half, Tucson Medical Center (TMC) plans to build the state’s greenest hospital, called Rincon Community Hospital at Civano. Initial indications are that the hospital will be a 90-bed, three-story building that will be designed to LEED-Silver certification standards. Originally slated to open in 2010, Tucson’s severe economic downturn from 2007-2012 forced TMC to delay the project. In early 2017, however, TMC opened the Rincon Health Campus, a two-story, 44,000-square foot medical office building featuring primary care, OB/GYN, pediatrics, lab and imaging services, and other healthcare services. The health campus brings an additional 60 jobs to Civano. The time frame for the full hospital buildout is still unknown.
Homes of a Desert Sensibility
In 1998, Civano was named one of five Partnership for Advancing Technology in Housing (PATH) national pilot developments, chosen because of its “highly innovative technologies as well as for new approaches for land planning and design [that allow it to] serve as a model for the U.S. residential construction industry,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In living up to this standard—and meeting the requirements of the Civano IMPACT System—Civano’s builders teamed up with Tucson Electric Power to take advantage of the utility’s Guaranteed Comfort program, which certifies individual homes based on such practices as duct sealing, insulation, air conditioning efficiency, and the like. Homes also feature solar hot water heating, low-e windows, low-flow water fixtures, and other resource-efficiency measures that resulted in the homes costing 10 percent to 15 percent more per square foot than a typical Tucson house, yet save homeowners 50 percent on electricity costs.
Civano also served as a national demonstration site for the American Lung Association’s Health House Project, the first nationwide program to provide consumers with a standard building practice and verification of a home’s performance relating to the minimization of indoor air pollution sources and energy consumption. The Health House criteria focused on moisture control, ventilation, and filtration. The two custom homes, which were completed in 1999, were tested and their performance verified; the design, construction, and verification processes were then made available to other Civano homebuilders.
At the 1999 grand opening, 17 model homes by five builders were available, ranging in price from $90,000 to more than $200,000. Though most homes used 2×6 traditional wood (or recycled steel) framing, others were constructed of structurally insulated panels, RASTRA block, or straw bale, averaging an efficiency rate of R-28 for walls and R-42 for roofs. Other typical systems incorporated into the homes include solar control glazing, architectural overhangs, and air handlers and ducts located inside the thermal envelope. Over the life of the project there have been eight builders, plus a number of custom homes.
More unique than the builders, perhaps, is the range of home types that occur at Civano—a result not only of the Specific Plan and variety of homebuilders, but also of design work and advising to the builders provided by Moule & Polyzoides. KE&G, for example, built single-story, Craftsman-style bungalows with wide front porches, tile or metal roofs, and detached garages on alleys. The homes were modeled after historic bungalows near the University of Arizona. T.J. Bednar built Santa Fe-style homes with low curving walls, beehive fireplaces, and shared driveways in a barrio-style area, as well as Santa Fe variations of the KE&G bungalow once KE&G pulled out of the Tucson market. SolarBuilt constructed custom homes in Civano’s “Desert Country” area, defined in the Specific Plan as the Neighborhood Edge District. SolarBuilt homes apply principles of high thermal mass and passive solar energy collection to control interior temperature and reduce reliance on mechanical heating and cooling systems. The homes are primarily solar-powered, with photovoltaic systems, water harvesting systems, and a modern desert architecture. RGC courtyard homes incorporated structurally insulated panels into a vertical urban design. The homes, which bridge the neighborhood center with (moderately) less dense areas of the neighborhood, were completed by local builder MW2 after RGC went out of business.
In 2001, Doucette Communities began offering homes in Civano. Doucette acquired lots originally slated for RGC, First Homes, and KE&G. In their place, Doucette built new variations on the courtyard homes (ranging from 900 to 1,600 square feet), the live/work two-story homes around the neighborhood center, and the Sol models, which took their architectural cue from the flat-roofed Territorial style of historic homes found throughout Tucson. Now that those portions of the neighborhood are complete, Doucette offers clustered homes in the Civano Presidio—adjacent to the Civano Community School at the southern end of the neighborhood—and the Civano Orchards, Arizona ranch-style homes that front the wide pedestrian path along the neighborhood’s eastern edge. With the exception of the Presidio homes—which share driveways and have variable lot lines—all of the Doucette homes place garages on alleys or behind the home, and offer carriage home options.
Both ContraVest Properties and Voyager Homes offered single-family homes designed to meet specific design criteria. In the case of ContraVest, houses with a decidedly urban façade were built. The ContraVest homes are the only production residential units that do not include solar hot water. Voyager Homes built a series of single- and two-story homes around Mary Webber Park, the oval park that provides an unobstructed view from the neighborhood center to the Rincon Mountains to the east. Their architecture and siting is reminiscent of a walled Mexican town, with the park serving as a central commons.
The final production builder at Civano is Pepper-Viner Homes, controversial in both of its Civano locations. In the Desert Country area—a lower-density region of Civano modeled after the path-fronted Village Homes concept of Davis, California—the developer allowed the builder to front homes to the alleys rather than the paseos. Though the larger homes of modernist desert architecture are attractive and sold well, their siting was a point of contention for many neighbors. At Civano North Ridge, Pepper-Viner inherited a parcel that many believed would hold perhaps two dozen mini-estates. The Master Development Plan, however, allowed for up to 85 homes, and original North Ridge owner T.J. Bednar platted the land accordingly. Following a law suit filed by a resident, Bednar sold the land to Pepper-Viner. The city approved the plat, and Pepper-Viner built 75 homes, filling in a number of arroyos and dismissing the neighborhood’s New Urban street grid for a series of cul-de-sacs. What the homes lack in neotraditional design, however, they make up in resource efficiency, boasting the neighborhood’s most innovative and energy-efficient production homes—including a LEED Platinum-certified BASF high-performance demonstration home constructed in 2009.
While Civano was (and perhaps still is) arguably the most energy- and water-efficient mixed-use, master-planned development in the country, its custom homes take resource efficiency to an new level. The home of Rich and Susan Michal, for example, incorporates rammed earth walls, insulated block walls, a cooling tower, active and passive solar systems, an outdoor “cowboy” shower, greywater use, rainwater collection and reuse, passive solar orientation, super-efficient appliances, and an evaporative whole-house cooling system. At the time of its completion in 2005, the 1,750-square-foot house with sizable outdoor porches may have been the country’s most efficient on-grid home, resulting in a $113 per year total electric bill for heating and cooling for a family of five. Other custom homes incorporate straw bale, extensive photovoltaic systems, rainwater harvesting, locally produced adobe, and other features that enable them to far exceed IMPACT System requirements. Homeowners have also increased their resource efficiency over the years by adding photovoltaic systems (some as large as 12 kW) and participating in cistern raisings to harvest rainwater for irrigation.
“One of the glorious things about Civano phase 1,” says Rayburn in Inside the Civano Project, “is that the houses look like they belong in Tucson, [which] creates a sense of place.” Indeed, Civano’s often boldly colored homes seem to have grown from the landscape just as the mix of native landscaping has grown around them. Builders may have come and gone, but their legacy of a walkable community of distinct, resource-efficient homes remains.
Parks, Gardens, Trails, and Amenities
Brad Lancaster of the Permaculture Drylands Institute stated early in Civano’s development that builders either contribute to the degeneration of nature by paving over it, or to the regeneration of nature by working within an ecological system. “For instance,” he says, “90 percent of Tucson’s rainfall is either engineered to drain out of the county or lost through evaporation. I want to develop methods to retain our water to nourish vegetation and replenish the aquifer. If a design is not ecologically sound, then it seems unlikely to be able to maintain itself in the long run. However, if we mirror the patterns found in the natural environment, Civano can begin to design ecologically sound communities.”
Civano began by setting aside 33 percent of the community for natural and enhanced open space, defined predominantly by a central spine of linked open spaces that channel water into the center of the neighborhood for onsite stormwater management. The central greenway links the neighborhood center to a large grassy park and adjacent pool and then the school on the south. To the east, the elliptical Mary Webber Park provides a viewshed toward Saguaro National Park and the Rincon Mountains beyond. Another pool, smaller grassy park, and tennis court are located just north of the neighborhood center. Pocket parks and natural areas are nestled throughout the community, particularly along the north and eastern edges of the development, where a series of arroyos that run to Pantano Wash are located. The neighborhood’s proximity to the wash—a wide, dry riverbed that runs only after heavy rainstorms—serves as a highway for wildlife, and it is not uncommon to see packs of javelina and coyotes, as well as bobcats, ringtails, snakes, and a stunning variety of birds among the lush landscaping of the neighborhood.
Civano’s landscaping is often its first accolade, and the vitality is intentional. Before Civano broke ground, Les Shipley and his sons moved from Victoria, British Columbia, where he had retired as a successful horticulturalist. The Trust for Sustainable Development’s David Butterfield recruited Shipley to develop a new method for salvaging mature trees and cactus, and Shipley began by taking plant classes at Pima Community College. His first job was to salvage native mesquites, palo verdes, and cacti. Prior to their arrival, transplanted native species had a 50 percent survival rate. Over several years, Shipley and his sons perfected new methods of salvaging desert trees that included hand-digging the root ball and boxing the trees, resulting in a 90 percent success rate.
Having mature native trees is “vital to the Civano philosophy,” says Shipley. “It’s the balancing of human needs with the natural environment. That’s why we can’t disregard the value of preserving these precious resources.” Shipley and his family salvaged and replanted over 8,000 palo verde and mesquite and 3,000 barrel cactus and saguaro, many 100 years old. Civano is home to more than 2,100 trees in the 1.2 million square feet of the common areas and rights-of-way alone, including a mesquite bosque in the central greenway. The Shipleys founded Civano Nursery, located at the main entrance to Civano at Houghton and Seven Generations Boulevard. The nursery and garden center offers native and near-native stock as well as classes on xeriscaping and desert gardening as part of the nursery’s ongoing workshop and demonstration programs.
Civano’s native landscaping is also the product of comprehensive landscape guidelines implemented under the homeowners’ association. The guidelines provide a list of allowable native and near-native plans while restricting a wide variety of plants that, with enough water, would grow in Civano but do not meet Sonoran desert character.
Other environmental features include a wide pedestrian and bicycle path that skirts the neighborhood along Pantano Wash; a series of paseos that run through the central greenway and throughout the Desert Country area; HOA-managed community gardens with plots available to rent, complete with irrigation; a tot lot; and wide, densely landscaped medians with sloping curbs, allowing runoff to collect in the medians and percolate into the soil while watering the plants. All common spaces and most homes are irrigated with reclaimed city water, as well.
Civano Community School: The Greenest Grade School in America
In January 2008, the 66-student Civano Community School was named the “Greenest Grade School in America” by Ellen DeGeneres. It was selected from among more than 3,000 schools that participated in the “Go Green with All Small & Mighty” contest. The school, which was founded in 1999 as a public charter school in the Vail School District, was awarded $50,000—money set aside to build a school kitchen “so that we can make lunches with food grown in our organic garden,” says Pam Bateman, then schoolmarm. The kitchen and attached pavilion—which uses trusses salvaged prior to the demolition of a big box store in Tucson, thanks to the collaborative efforts of Civano residents—were completed in 2011. Once temporarily housed in one of the ALA Health Houses, the 3,910-square-foot school moved into its energy-efficient permanent location on the south side of Civano in 2003. The shared-grade (K-1, 2-3, and 4-5) public school features extensive daylighting created in part by donated windows that provide a distinct if not funky collage, thermal massing, an 2 kW solar photovoltaic system donated by Tucson Electric Power, learning gardens, rainwater harvesting, xeriscaping, comprehensive recycling, and a wealth of other environmental features that also serve as hands-on educational opportunities for students.
“Civano Community School is rooted in the concept of community—a community of learners encompassing students, family, and staff,” reads the school philosophy. “We are centered around a child-initiated approach to learning and committed to the progress of all members.” Just as the neighborhood center serves to foster community at Civano, the school likewise supports community, both by involving parents in its experiential-based curriculum and by providing the school for community meetings. Each day begins with “community time,” bringing together students in a sharing of information and energy representative of the school’s unique, place-based learning model.
“We took a huge risk when we opened this school,” says superintendent Calvin Baker. “It was 180 degrees from what other districts were doing.” Civano Community School embodies the neighborhood school model, in which schools are an active part of the community—in design and function—rather than a sprawling campus placed on leftover land.
The Civano Middle School recently opened across the street in a resource-efficient building, as well. Like the grade school, which was also designed by architect Phil Swaim, it takes advantage of daylighting so that electrical lighting is not needed on most days. Other features include rainwater and air-conditioning condensate harvesting, reclaimed water use for irrigation and secondary plumbing (toilets), recycled denim insulation, low-VOC paints and adhesives, high-efficiency HVAC system with heat recovery, and onsite stormwater retention without a basin. During construction 90 percent of the waste was recycled, and prior to construction the architect met with students to help design the building. “The students really get it,” says Phil Swaim. “It’s a part of the way they live.”
Creating Community From and Beyond Design
“With all its technological advancements, the most important element of Civano is its sense of community,” says David Case. That sense of community is evident both in design and in the wide variety of social activities and events that occur at Civano. At the Annual Community Celebration in May 1998, to provide a design example, many of the neighborhood’s streets were dedicated to residents of Tucson who dedicated their lives to improving the community. George Brookbank Place reminds residents of the urban horticulturalist who, for more than 50 years, brought the science of desert botany to the residents of Tucson by teaching desert gardening. Joseph Parella Lane honors the police officer who dedicated his services to helping low-income Tucson neighborhoods become drug-free. Cele Peterson Lane pays tribute to the motivated Tucson businesswoman who advocated civic pride and improvement for more than 60 years.
While design fosters community in other ways—the running joke at Civano is that it takes an hour to check your mail at the curbside mailbox cluster because of all the neighbors out on their front porches along the way—neighbors have been active in communication throughout project development. In October 2002, the first issue of The Town Crier—the community newspaper supported by the neighborhood association—was published. During its 15-year run, through print and then online editions, the paper was the leading source of regular information, mailed to every home and business within the community. The volunteer-run newspaper featured news, editorials, reviews, and events.
The neighbors’ website was created as soon as homeowners began gathering, even before breaking ground on their homes. Located from 2002 to 2017 at civanoneighbors.com, the website featured an active discussion forum, calendar of events, historic neighborhood information, links to guiding documents and design guidelines, business and resident directory, opportunities for purchasing Civano merchandise (with proceeds benefiting the neighborhood association), real estate and rental listings, and the Civano Resource Exchange, a listing of services, equipment, and the like loaned for free, neighbor to neighbor. Unfortunately, the website content was lost during server transition and its information is no longer available online. Neighborhood Facebook groups have done their best to replace the dedicated website.
Over the last 20 years residents have conducted a variety of events, ranging from weekly book club and card game gatherings to monthly potlucks and a speaker series. Larger annual events—such as the Civano Picnic and Earth Day Celebration, Spring Arts & Crafts Fair and Quilt Raffle, and Independence Day Parade—are managed by neighbor volunteers and often sponsored by local businesses. Impromptu gatherings are just as common: bonfires and sing-alongs in the community garden, wine tastings, campouts in Mary Webber Park, and lining the streets with luminaries before Christmas, to name just a few.
Finally, the neighborhood association spawned several ongoing working groups, though none as active as the Aging in Community organization, which for more than a dozen years provided free medical equipment, services such as driving for doctors’ visits, and at-home assistance on a volunteer basis to the neighborhood’s elderly.
Conclusion: A Model for Building a Livable Community
While designers and activists continue to debate whether Civano is truly a New Urbanist community due to its minimal transit (limited bus service began only in late 2012) and slowly evolving commercial components, few can debate its authentic sense of place and community. Despite its rocky development and the comings and goings of developers and builders, the neighborhood continues to serve as a model for community-wide, quantifiable sustainable development. Nearly all of the homes are built and only the small mixed-use parcel adjacent to the school and the town center await buildout. Once those are completed the community is likely to come closer to reaching its comprehensive sustainability goals, including onsite jobs and air pollution reduction.
At the 1999 grand opening, developer Kevin Kelly said, “We are proud that Civano has become the model for building a livable community for the coming century. Civano has been a group effort from the very beginning, involving the community, government, private business, academicians, and experts in planning and environmental engineering to create a classic town setting that meets residents’ economic and social needs, in balance with the natural surroundings.” Twenty years later, his statement holds true.
What was the largest obstacle to obtaining project approval or buy-in, and how was it overcome?
Obtaining approval and buy-in from the City of Tucson. This was a complex public/private partnership. So much of what Civano attempted to do, and in some cases was required to do by the terms of its Development Agreement with the City of Tucson, was untested; especially at the scale of Civano and with the mandate of being “affordable.” The resource conservation goal methodologies, and the New Urbanist planning concepts we used did not have—at that time—a body of codified success and standards that reviewing agencies could turn to. We were, in effect, asking dedicated civil servants to step well outside their experience and training and to take risks: something that does not come naturally to governmental entities, and especially review agencies. We overcame this by being persistent; by being consistent in what we said and promised and what we did. Eventually, we could point to actual built examples of what we had been promoting, and show successful implementation. Things got a bit easier after that. Having said that, Civano suffered from a disconnect between a city government that created complex and innovative development demands for the project, and then proceeded to review them by established rules.
What is an unexpected delight or success from the project?
Meeting and working so closely with Stefano Polyzoides and other New Urbanist designers. Hosting hundreds and hundreds of visitors to Civano who always went away inspired to go back to their communities and struggle for their own versions of sustainability and a return to human-scaled development.
What hasn’t lived up to expectations or has required unanticipated change?
Not a one-sentence, or one-paragraph, or one-page answer. I will just pick one thing: the lack of coordination among key documents: CC&Rs, Specific Plan, and Design Guidelines. They were all created under time pressure and were not coordinated, and that lack continues to cause problems in fulfilling Civano’s objectives. The failure to create a full “form-based code” is included in this comment.
What continues to challenge or surprise you with the project?
Whatever the history, whatever the things achieved or not achieved, when I look out on the project and see how the community is growing and evolving—the architecture that speaks of its place in the Sonoran Desert, the lush landscape, and the social activity going on everywhere—I realize that all the academic talk is merely secondary commentary of the reality of this vibrant community.
How do you define and measure success?
In my own terms, and in the case of Civano, I would say:
1. Was there an honest attempt to meet the goals set? Yes.
2. Did the project take the evolving discussion on and practice of sustainable development forward? Yes.
3. Does it continue to show what any and all vibrant entities demonstrate growth and evolution around core realities? Yes.
4. Can I look back on the time and effort I put into this thing, without shying away from the hard parts of the things that may have happened, and be glad? Yes.
Bateman, Pam. “Civano Community School Expansion.” The Town Crier. Civano Neighbors Neighborhood Association. October/November 2010.
Beal, Tom. “Civano: New Urban life Civano is eco-living.” Arizona Daily Star. June 30, 2002.
Buntin, Simmons B. “Civano: The Dark and the Light.” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. Fall/Winter 2004.
Buntin, Simmons B. “The Town That Wouldn’t Be? Civano and the Rise and Fall of New Urbanism in the American Southwest.” Presentation to the University of Colorado Denver College of Architecture and Planning. September 25, 2005.
Burchell, Joe. “4-3 council vote approves $7 million for solar village.” Arizona Daily Star. July 2, 1996.
Burchell, Joe. “City promises more funds to Civano builder.” Arizona Daily Star. June 25, 1997.
Burchell, Joe. “‘Future community’ is now.” Arizona Daily Star. April 17, 1999.
Bustamante, Mary. “Civano school is greenest in the land (and $50K richer).” Tucson Citizen. January 19, 2008.
CivanoNeighbors.com. Civano Neighbors Neighborhood Association. Accessed weekly from December 2003 through November 2011.
Civano Development Company. “Civano Neighborhood 1 Overview.” n-d.
Civano Development Company. “Civano: Discover. Explore. Enjoy. Grow.” Marketing Brochure. n-d.
“Civano Provides Sustainable Alternatives.” FieldWorks. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. March/April 2001.
Curd, Sally. “Kids: It’s easy being green.” Tucson Citizen. April 22, 2008.
Davis, Tony. “Don Diamond negotiating for share of Civano.” Arizona Daily Star. July 12, 2000.
Doucette, Tom (Owner, Doucette Communities). Interview with Simmons Buntin. November 2, 2011.
Editors. “Civano: remote but vital.” Arizona Daily Star. April 21, 1999.
Gregory, Daniel and Peter O. Whitely. “Best New Community: Civano.” Sunset. January 2004.
Grubbs, Nicole R. “Civano lots can’t hold business traffic flow.” Arizona Daily Star. May 31, 2003.
Haggerty, Colleen, and Lynn Hudson. “PATH National Pilot Civano Opens First Sustainable Neighborhood Homes . . . Tucson Community to be the Nation’s Largest Sustainable Living Development.” Press Release. U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. April 19, 1999.
Heltsley, Ernie. “Onlookers’ cheers greet Civano sale.” Arizona Daily Star. July 25, 1996.
Holeman, Tim. “Letter RE: Valero #1665 Civano Development, Tucson, Arizona.” Letter to Scott Lantz, Commercial Areas Working Group, Civano Neighbors Neighborhood Association, from Valero Retail Holdings, Inc. December 7, 2009.
Juarez, Jr., Macario. “The best-laid plans.” Arizona Daily Star. February 18, 2001.
Juarez, Jr., Macario. “Civano looks to others for help.” Arizona Daily Star. October 20, 2001.
Juarez, Jr., Macario. “Future worries Civano residents.” Arizona Daily Star. August 15, 2000.
Machelor, Patty. “‘A better way to live’ proves irresistible.” Arizona Daily Star. February 2, 2007.
Nichols, Al. “Energy and Water Use in Tucson and Civano: January 2007 – December 2007.” Al Nichols Engineering, Inc., Pulte Homes, and City of Tucson. July 10, 2008.
Nichols, C. Alan and Jason A. Laros. Inside the Civano Project: A Case Study of Large-Scale Sustainable Neighborhood Development. McGraw-Hill. 2010. 299 pp.
Pallack, Becky. “Pulte steps in at Civano.” Arizona Daily Star. January 6, 2004.
Pepper-Viner Homes. “Green Building: Pepper-Viner Has Gone Green!” Accessed at www.pepperviner.com/green-building.asp on November 4, 2011.
Rayburn, Lee (former Director of Design and Planning, Civano Development Company). Interview with Simmons Buntin. November 3 and 21, 2011.
Rhoades, Bruce (Uno Bicycle Studio Owner). Interview with Simmons Buntin. November 4, 2011.
Rollins, Paul. “Birthing Civano… the Design Charrette.” The Town Crier. Civano Neighbors Neighborhood Association. September 2005.
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Swaim, Phil (Principle, Swaim Associates). Interview with Simmons Buntin. November 23, 2011.
Swedlund, Eric. “Civano to add state’s 1st ‘green’ hospital.” Arizona Daily Star. November 28, 2006.
Vail.k12.az.us/~civano. Civano Community School. Accessed in October and November 2011.
Vail School District. “Civano Community School.” Brochure. n-d.
Witmer, Gallagher. “IMPACT System Monitoring Report #16 – 2010.” Pulte Homes and City of Tucson. October 4, 2011.
Header photo of Civano by Simmons B. Buntin.