Boeke specifically tasked Halprin and the rest of the team to devise an overall site plan, a schematic for the south end to include lot and utility layouts, and detailed plans for demonstration homes. According to historian of landscape design Kathleen John-Alder, memos from Boeke to Halprin also “called for the discreet accommodation of cars, and buildings clustered around preserved common land, which, Boeke argued, would distinguish the Sea Ranch from its ‘suburbanized” California competition.’ Above all, though, Boeke was a realist; he expected the design to ‘remain flexible’ and not ‘too explicit’ before market testing.”
To retain flexibility and even out cash flow, Oceanic would submit separate plats for each “unit” of the site according to the sequence of development. Each would be annexed to The Sea Ranch after approval by Sonoma County.
Boeke focused on the south end of the property for initial development efforts. According to John-Alder, “The environmental sensitivity of the southern area”—steep slopes to the east and wetlands dotting the western side—“necessitated a low density that both conveniently reduced cost and exploited the marketing potential of the beautiful setting. Density would then increase along with financial obligations as the project moved north, toward the river and town of Gualala. This fiscally shrewd buildup was to culminate in a pedestrian-friendly village. The Sea Ranch, Boeke observed, would evolve and ‘adapt itself to time, and change in the market, and change in need.’”
Studying Before Building
To understand how the Sea Ranch landscape worked, Halprin commissioned a series of studies: ecology and landscape, soil mapping, sun and wind patterns, a forest survey, fire risk, the watershed and the potential impact on it of runoff from roofs, paving and forest thinning.
Ecologist Richard Reynolds submitted a report on “Important environmental factors relevant to site planning on The Sea Ranch.” Reynolds recommended mitigating wind force by thickening existing cypress hedgerows, and planting new ones, especially in the north end, where the hedgerows were widely spaced.
Because the climate is cool and shade provision unnecessary, structures should be designed to maximize passive solar by means of southern orientation and specific roof pitches. The drainage plan should redistribute water evenly over the land rather than concentrate in one place. Engineering obstructions to the natural watershed should be minimal.
The Master Plan
The team met for over a year, translating the findings into development concepts, site plans and structure designs. Lots for single-family homes were carefully tucked into the wind protection of the cypress hedgerows and placed away from the bluff edge at an angle to the shore, leaving meadows open and enabling all to have ocean views.
The narrow and treeless land at the extreme southern end was planned for a series of condominiums, organized around wind-protected courtyards. Here the architecture would reinforce natural landforms rather than blend into them. Lots on the eastern slopes were sited so housing didn’t extrude beyond the forest edge to reduce its visual impact.
Because curb-and-gutter infrastructure would interfere with the sheeting of runoff, it would only be used to prevent erosion on steep slopes. There would be no streetlights to disturb nocturnal wildlife.
Real estate attorney and team member Reverdy Johnson developed “Covenants, Conditions and Restrictions” to translate planning concepts into reality from the standpoint of land use regulation, whether public under zoning and subdivision ordinances, or private by way of restrictive covenants. These CC&Rs, in 50 pages of provisions, established The Sea Ranch Association of homeowners, the Design Committee for architectural review, and the commons as owned by all association members.
Encounters with Reality
After this initial planning effort, and considerable investment by Oceanic in infrastructure and model housing, sales of lots were brisk. The stars seemed aligned for a smooth build out. Boeke began to cut costs by switching from consultants to in-house planning and design staff.
Halprin did his last plans for Oceanic in 1966. Boeke left the project in 1969 to explore new towns for Bechtel, but not before the master planning concepts began to give way. Housing sites crept into grasslands, onto the bluffs and out of the forest, maximizing views for some and lot sale profits for Oceanic.
Condominiums, which had been a central strategy for attaining financially- required densities without gobbling up land, disappeared from south end planning maps. The Halprin team’s 1964 “Development Plan of the Southern Portion,” covering 1,800 acres, included 141 acres for 846 condo units. By 1969, despite the instant architectural fame of Condominium One (1965), “The Sea Ranch Composite Map” for the southern half contained no lots specified for condos. The 1972 “Sea Ranch Composite Map” contained five condo sites for the higher-density north end, but none were built. Today The Sea Ranch has two condominiums containing 14 units.
“There was little market for condominiums,” real estate attorney Johnson explains. Condos were a new phenomenon on the market and had been built primarily in Southern California in a cheap fashion. “They weren’t associated with quality.”
Oceanic thought that other developers would buy land “to do the high-density stuff, clusters and condos,” Johnson explains. “That didn’t happen. So Oceanic was faced with selling single-family lots or doing the bricks-and-mortar themselves.” Oceanic tested the market by building clustered housing in Unit 29 in the early 1970s. “They had a hell of a time selling 29. It’s a lot simpler to sell a lot-with-a-view.”