Can a Sustainable Town Be Built From Scratch in the Middle of Nowhere?

A controversial proposal seeks to help revive Southern California's troubled Salton Sea.

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Travertine Point

Its developers are holding it up as one of the greenest, most sustainable plans for a new town development, but it's also being attacked by environmental groups for its unlikely – and historically unlucky – location. The project is a proposed brand new town that aims to eventually house about 37,000 people, their jobs and the commercial activity to sustain their economy, all overlooking the northwest shores of the deeply troubled Salton Sea in the Colorado Desert of Southern California, the largest body of water in the state.

Travertine Point, as the project's known, has been in the works since 2005 and represents some of the most progressive ideas in urban planning, town design and environmental sustainability. But at roughly 20 miles from the communities neighboring Palm Springs, how far away this project is from the rest of the populated parts of the Coachella Valley is equally as concerning as how close it is to the Salton Sea, an accidental lake that has slowly devolved into a toxic, smelly and potentially deadly body of less and less water.

The fate of the Salton Sea has long been up in the air, which makes the prospect of creating a city on its shores a gamble. But long-simmering restoration plans are now looking toward development – and even controversial projects like Travertine Point – to help generate some of the likely multi-billion dollar cost of bringing the sea back to life.

"We think it’s the most sustainable community that’s been planned and approved by any county in California right now," says Paul Quill, who's representing Federated Insurance, the developer of the project.

Travertine Point is planned to be a mixed-use town of more than 16,000 homes, 5 million square-feet of commercial space, a network of low-speed streets, accessible parks and a design that aspires toward self-containment. It's proposed to be phased in over 35 years, with certain job creation requirements pegged to each phase of new housing development. Quill argues that the plan is a vast improvement compared to how development typically occurs in the area.

"It’s a new town, it's hub and spoke. It's not just 40-acre subdivision after 40-acre subdivision of single family homes that dump out onto arterials," Quill says. "This is a well integrated, well thought-out plan."

The developers have managed to convince Riverside County, which approved the project in February.

"We were very rigorous with these applicants, far moreso than we were with any other project the county's processed because we were quite skeptical, to be frank," says Matt Straite of the Riverside County Planning Department. "We really set the bar very high for this project."

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That translates into requiring more density in the nearly 5,000-acre site, putting an emphasis on reducing car trips for residents' daily needs, and calling for stricter job creation goals. The first phase of development requires 355,000 square-feet of commercial and mixed-use space to be built in conjunction with the first batch of about 3,200 homes. Another 827,000 square-feet of commercial space is required in the next phase.

"It's incumbent on the applicant to assure that those jobs are there," Straite says. "If they have to build the building for free and give it away to make sure those jobs are there, hell, even if they have to subsidize those jobs, it's their responsibility to make sure those jobs are in place and functioning."

The plan is widely seen as forward-thinking. Its choice of location, less so. Soon after the project was approved, a lawsuit was filed jointly by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity alleging that the project is out of place and if built would have severely negative impacts on natural and cultural resources in the area.

"There are aspects of the project that, if the project were located in a different area, would be somewhat progressive. Out here it just doesn’t make sense," says Erin Chalmers, an attorney representing the Sierra Club. "My client is certainly skeptical of whether this project makes sense or will ever make sense."

In addition to being located next to sensitive wildlands and protected areas, the site of the proposed project is in a part of California with a strong Native American heritage. The nearby Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians have partnered with Federated Insurance on the project, but the Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity worry it doesn't do enough to buffer the proposed city from its natural surroundings.

If you pull over off the side of state highway 86S, hop a fence and climb up a small hill, you can look down upon the proposed future site of Travertine Point. The vast Salton Sea stretches out from this point near its northern tip. The land right up against the water is now mainly agricultural, and large plots of citrus and palm groves can be seen far into the distance. The small farming towns that sprinkle the land out here are wildly different from the gated golf estates just about 20 miles north in La Quinta, Palm Desert, and Palm Springs. Looking down on this land, it's difficult to imagine the development of the north replacing the wide farms that fill this seaside section of the valley.

A major concern about the idea of making such a transition in this location is the mostly failed residential developments of the past that now litter the shores of the Sea – mistakes few want to see repeated.

"There's something like 30,000 unbuilt but approved lots around the Salton Sea," says Chalmers. "We're just not sure what is so different now that's going to make people want to move to this area, especially given the current problems of the Salton Sea."

Created unintentionally in 1905 when the rupture of a dike brought water from the Colorado River to this below-sea level sink, the Sea gradually became a popular recreation area that once rivaled Yosemite National Park for attendance levels. Around mid-century, its shores were developed into a number of resort towns, including Desert Shores, Salton Sea Beach and Salton City, each on the Western shore and just a few miles south of the proposed Travertine Point site.

Driving through these little towns, it's hard not to get a creepy, post-apocalyptic feeling. There's still people living here – nearly 4,000 in Salton City, according to the 2010 Census – but so much of the land on these small asphalt streets is empty and abandoned. Burned out trailers pockmark these towns, and despite a vast network of roads carving through Salton City, the majority of the blocks they create are empty but for one or two homes.

These shoreline resort towns have declined over the years in conjunction with the slow demise of the Salton Sea itself. Despite its unintended creation, the Sea has been maintained by water contributions from various sources over the years, including some Colorado River water but mainly agricultural runoff from the farms that fill in the valley around the Sea. Over time, this runoff water has greatly increased the salinity of the Sea, making it nearly 25 percent saltier than ocean water. This salinity coupled with the extremely high temperatures of the desert cause regular mass die-offs of the few species of fish still able to survive here. Hundreds of thousands of fish have been observed to succumb to these die-offs in a single day. Their rotting corpses and the hot sun produce a stench that can be overwhelming.

"Hopefully you were lucky enough that nothing happened when you were here," says John Kariotis, of the West Shores Salton Sea Growth Association and a longtime resident of Salton City. I assure him that my recent trip was apparently a lucky one. "Good, good," he says. "I'm glad."

He knows the problems of the Sea firsthand. Though he concedes that the thought of 37,000 people moving to a new city regularly blasted with the odors of dead fish is probably not an attractive selling point, he says Travertine Point can be part of the solution.

"Everybody around here wants the project to happen. We see that, yes, it is a funding mechanism to restore the sea," Kariotis says.

Infrastructure financing districts tied into the project's plan would help contribute money to a multi-billion dollar restoration plan [PDF] being pushed by the Salton Sea Authority. The plan encourages even more development around the sea, up to 250,000 homes, and the development of a renewable energy sector in the area, especially near the geothermal resources at the south end of the sea. The Travertine Point plan is relying on the growing renewable energy sector to provide the jobs and justification for the city's development.

Restoring the Salton Sea is really about more than jobs, though. Because of the high nutrient and chemical content of the runoff that feeds the Sea, the soil at its shallow bottom would be highly toxic if allowed to dry into dust.

"If it dries up, everybody in the whole Coachella Valley is affected," says Kariotis. "It would make Three Mile Island look like nothing."

Quill says the environmental threat and the sheer amount of people that would be affected by such a problem virtually guarantee that it wouldn't be politically feasible for the Sea to be left to dry. He says projects like Travertine Point can help to provide some of the funding to help get those restoration plans going, and Riverside County tends to agree.

Michael O'Connor, executive director of the Salton Sea Authority, is also hopeful that projects like Travertine Point will be able to help spur restoration efforts.

"It helps to have critical mass being built," O'Connor says. "There's a great many ways the sea needs to be restored and no one thing can probably do it."

Chalmers counters that the challenge of restoring the sea is so large and time consuming that building a city on its shores with only the hope that it will be restored is too much of a gamble.

"The Sierra Club is skeptical that this will ever pencil out. This seems to be based more on, frankly, kind of a wild optimism rather than reality as far as we can tell," Chalmers says. "But if the Salton Sea does get restored some day, then this area might grow and the Sierra Club recognizes that."

Despite this skepticism, Chalmers says his client is not out to kill the project. They are hoping their lawsuit will bring about "specific and enforceable mitigation measures" to prevent Travertine Point from having too negative an impact on its surroundings. A settlement conference is scheduled for later this month. If the case does go to litigation, it could be in courts within a year, Chalmers says.

This prospect is not much of a concern for the developers, according to Quill. He's not expecting to break ground on the project for at least four and as many as 10 years.

"We're not in a hurry. We have time to work with them, we have time to deal with them, we have time to get through the courts, everything," Quill says.

"We believe that we can be a catalyst for Salton Sea restoration efforts that we think need to occur," Quill says. "Both the way we've designed this community and the way we've created this plan is really a model for the kind of edge development that should be happening in California going into the future."

Photo credits: Nate Berg. Top image: Travertine Point.

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.