Marywood neighbors cite hilltop development’s drawbacks

By Tina Richards

A proposed 40-unit housing tract slated to be built at the summit of Villareal Drive on the site of the Marywood Catholic School is wending its way through the City of Orange’s approval process and generating mounting alarm among neighbors who believe the project’s impacts on their community are being understated. 

The New Homes Company development is well within the site’s current R-l-6 zoning, and meets most of the tenets of the city’s general plan, but is not without issues.  Marywood neighbors who attended a July Design Review Committee (DRC) hearing objected to forty 3,800 to 4,400-sq.-ft. two-story “McMansions” squeezed onto the 16-acre parcel. 

Because the scope of the DRC is limited to signage, architectural  and landscaping design matters, residents who spoke at the meeting focused on lot sizes, 30-foot-tall roof lines, an exclusionary gate and non-conformance with existing single-story ranch homes on large lots. But of more concern to existing Marywood homeowners is the development’s impacts on traffic, the loss of the historical school/church buildings, and the unforeseen results of grading, digging and terracing 210,000 cubic yards of hilltop.

Not so solid ground
When the Marywood School was built in the 1960s, a 70-foot-deep canyon was filled in to provide level ground.  The fill was not compacted properly, and the earth is slowly slipping toward two city-owned reservoirs.  Signs of the movement are clearly visible in the school cafeteria, where the floor drops seven inches from one end to the other. 

New Homes is proposing to demolish all of the existing buildings, dig down 70 feet to the former canyon floor, and refill and recompact the hill.  Materials from the razed structures – concrete, rock, asphalt – would be used as fill, as would dirt moved from the top of the site to the bottom. The northern portion of the site would be lowered approximately 20 feet; the southern portion would be raised approximately 35 feet. 

Neighbors are not convinced that remodeling the hilltop to the extent proposed will not affect their properties.  “This developer’s plans put the stability of these hillside properties at significant risk,” says Marywood resident Terrie Warner.  “Nearby homeowners are in jeopardy of cracked foundations, split patio concrete, and ruined swimming pools.  And if our community ‘earns’ a reputation for soil issues and lot slippage, the market value of every home in the area will be damaged.”

Slip, sliding away
The school buildings themselves, some residents say, are enough to rethink the development.  While the chapel, auditorium, classrooms, and office buildings are not listed on the historic register, they do meet the criteria. Designed by Vincent Raney, a “significant post-World War II architect,” the grounds possess all the elements used to identify structures of “state and national distinction.”  That is, “integrity of location, design, setting, materials, workmanship, feeling and association.” There are no plans, however, to seek historical status for the site.  Instead, New Homes will mitigate the historical loss by removing all of the artifacts within the structures – artwork, mosaics, marble, light fixtures, steeple and cross, floral relief panels -- and offer them back to the Orange Diocese for preservation.  

Traffic congestion is the bugaboo of any proposed housing project, and while Marywood’s draft Environmental Impact Report indicates additional car trips will not over-tax Santiago Blvd., Terrie Warner disagrees. “The new traffic that comes with the builder’s proposed plan will put Santiago within two percent of capacity [estimated 2,559 daily car trips of a 2,600 capacity],” she reports. “So if only another 42 cars begin to travel this road daily instead of some other route, say for instance, when Tustin Avenue is backed up, then Santiago will exceed its capacity.  Even a modest reduction in the number of houses would offer a significant improvement in resulting traffic.”  

Drought, no doubt
While most Orange residents are complying with state mandates to cut water usage by 28 percent, the new development’s consumption of an estimated 20,000 to 24,000 gallons per day is considered “insignificant.”  New Homes notes in its draft EIR that the 28 percent reduction does not “prevent new housing, it just places restrictions on how it can be developed.” In deference to the drought, the project landscaping will consist of less turf, more drought tolerant plants, drip irrigation and smart controllers.  Houses will have low flow showerheads and toilets. 

New Homes also reports that when the Marywood School was operating, it used 53,000 gallons per day and conditional use permits remain in place today.  In other words, if the school were reopened, it would use twice the amount of water as that predicted for the 40-home tract.  Still, Orange residents who are collecting gray water to nourish their plants, using paper plates to avoid the dishwasher, and taking short, Navy-style showers may find their conservation efforts contradicted by the city’s willingness to accept new housing. “How about no building until the drought predicament stabilizes, and we are no longer on water use restrictions?” asks resident Craig Kelsey. “We will be adding 100-plus bodies already drawing on a depleted water reserve.”

The comment period for the draft EIR closed Aug. 3.  The Design Review Committee continued its public hearing on the project to a future date, as yet unannounced.