James Backer and Steve Valenziano were standing before the City of Santa Clarita, making a presentation. They had preliminary drawings, a development team, and a plan for a new residential neighborhood in the California community. There was just one problem: the city didn’t want another typical development.
“When we interviewed residents and interacted with city officials, we discovered that people really needed service providers,” Valenziano says. “There was nowhere to go for dinner, nowhere to go shopping, no hotels, and few jobs. People were driving 30 miles to Los Angeles for work and play.” Backer and Valenziano rethought their development and instead created plans for Vista Canyon, a lively hub that combines living, work, shopping, and recreational spaces on the city’s east side.
Backer knows a thing or two about city planning. He has worked in the valley for three decades and was involved in developing the master plan for the community of Valencia. He started JSB Development in 2000 and calls himself a “developer of new projects” who finds creative ways to turn unused land into valuable property. Valenziano, a consultant with a deep background in commercial brokerage and real estate, joined Backer in 2005 to partner specifically on Vista Canyon.
Prior to 2005, a friend approached Backer about a 40-acre parcel of land. Upon further examination, Backer discovered problems: the property was close to the freeway but lacked access, and it was surrounded by a dense collection of homes and schools. Backer tried to make the best of the situation and move forward with development, but he needed more entry points from surrounding land. The deal went to escrow but failed when other deals for adjacent land never materialized.
That’s when Valenziano came aboard. Convinced his colleague had a viable project, the consultant helped acquire the adjacent land, eventually achieving a total property size of 100 acres. Then the duo met with the city and discovered its need for services. “This whole idea has always just kind of evolved naturally,” Valenziano says. “That fits the project because we want it to be sensitive. We want it to fit the needs of the community.”
Some previous problems—such as limited access—disappeared on the second go-round. The city approached Backer and Valenziano about moving a Metrolink station to their site. The commuter rail will connect at Vista Canyon, which will provide more services and parking options for commuters. Additionally, the train station will anchor the walkable and transit-oriented village.
The expanded 185-acre community will include seven parks and four miles of pedestrian, cycling, and equestrian trails. On the eastern side, Backer and Valenziano have planned multifamily apartments, townhomes, and courtyard homes. A town center with a pedestrian-friendly main street will house office space with ground-level retail, and Vista Square will offer a mix of restaurants, boutiques, specialty markets, hotels, open-air theaters, and other businesses.
“This development has become what the city was looking for,” Backer says, adding that Santa Clarita was overloaded with amenities on its west side. During the approval process, JSB hosted or attended more than 80 community forums to solicit feedback. They uncovered many concerns, including those from residents who drive 10 miles to patronize drug stores, restaurants, and retailers across town. Vista Canyon provides much-needed balance, and its developers expect their project to generate 4,000 new jobs, $100 million in wages, and $5 million in tax revenue.
“This development has become what the city was looking for.”
James Backer, Development Partner
Another important element of Vista Canyon is its River Education & Community Center, through which JSB will preserve and share the land’s history. “The valley has deep roots that date back before the turn of the century, and we don’t want to lose that,” Backer says. The land, settled by gold prospector Thomas Mitchell in the 1860s, was home to Santa Clarita’s first school. It still contains ancient oak trees and a historic cemetery. The site also includes a stretch of the Santa Clara River, which is dry most of the year. The Vista Canyon Bridge will span the river, creating Vista Canyon’s entry point.
The transit-focused, integrated project is truly a walkable community—a throwback to the days of Main Street America. It’s designed on a grid to minimize road impact. It connects all the way to downtown Los Angeles via Metrolink. Residents can walk to their jobs. Neighbors have spaces where they can interact. “We want it to be a special place,” Valenziano says. “We want Vista Canyon to have a positive impact.”
JSB is also working to build sustainable elements into the project. The very design of Vista Canyon will discourage and limit automobile use, and solar products, sun orientation, efficient systems, and water-conservation practices will further limit carbon emissions by almost 30 percent. Additionally, Vista Canyon will use only recycled water, supplied by a privately financed, new reclaimed-water factory with an output expected to exceed residential and commercial demand. The City of Santa Clarita will operate the reclamation plant and sell excess water to a local provider. Without the efforts of chief entitlement officer Glenn Adamick, Backer says, the water factory and the innumerable complexities of the Vista Canyon project would not have been possible.
Despite the potential, projects of this size are difficult. Vista Canyon has been in the making since 2004, and JSB is finally collaborating with architects to design the development’s key buildings while working to attract like-minded retail companies. The job is putting Backer and Valenziano’s 50 years of combined experience to the test. “It’s been a wild ride,” Backer says. “It takes the full combination of all our consultants and partners to get something of this magnitude off the ground.”
Vista Canyon’s part of Santa Clarita has been farmed and occupied since 1860. Now, 154 years later, the development is becoming the land’s first permanent settlement. But first, JSB will have to clear a final hurdle. Although the city council approved Vista Canyon in 2011, and though JSB has been hard at work cleaning up and relocating existing structures, the project has been sued under the California Environmental Quality Act—par for the course for a California project of such size. As Backer and Valenziano defend their project in court, they’re hoping to break ground in late 2014 or early 2015.