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Just a few short years ago, it seemed like we were all tooling around town in our Hummers and Escalades. But the world has changed. Last summer’s stratospheric gas prices and a growing awareness of (make that terror about) global climate change forced many of us to rethink our love affair with the car. Luckily, our region is a walker’s paradise. The nice weather sure helps. And there are plenty of neighborhoods—even out in the burbs—that make it easy for residents to ditch their cars and get around on foot to shops, restaurants, parks, schools and other amenities. Here, we look at 10 of the best.
COLLEGE PARK, DAVIS
This leafy downtown neighborhood—actually just a single U-shaped street directly across from the main entrance to UC Davis—is the most prestigious address in town. It looks like a set from an Andy Hardy movie, with its wide, well-tended lawns and gracious, old homes. The university’s chancellor lives here, in a 10,000-square-foot house that frequently hosts important people and big events. (Arnold Schwarzenegger visited recently; so did the president of Chile.) Some days, it seems like half the town and three-quarters of the student body are here, either riding their bikes, walking their dogs or playing Frisbee in the big grassy area formed by the loop. Central Davis’ shops and restaurants are less than a mile away.
• Real estate: About 30 houses, all built in the late ’30s and early ’40s in a pastiche of styles: Tudor, Colonial, Craftsman, Spanish and Mission. Houses rarely turn over; when they do, they fetch eye-popping prices. (One sold last year for $1.6 million.)
• Hip hangout: Central Park farmers market
• Good to know: Most of the houses have guest cottages out back; some residents rent them out to students.
• Meet a walker: Leslie Tuel—When she was a child growing up in Davis’ El Macero neighborhood, Leslie Tuel used to dream about living in College Park. “I went to the junior high school nearby, and on my lunch break I would walk over and pretend I lived here,” she says. In July 2008, her dream came true: Tuel and her husband, Houston, moved into a 3,300-square-foot College Park house. The reality is as good as the fantasy. Twice a day, Tuel, a real estate agent, walks her dog around the neighborhood. “It’s like a field trip,” she says. “People are friendly. We all know each other’s dogs’ names.” She can walk to Davis’ famed farmers market, as well as to downtown restaurants and cafes, and her office is a three-minute drive away. The neighborhood, she says, is perfect for socializing. Once a year, residents get together in the park for the College Park Barbecue, a potluck with tiki torches and a fire pit. And this past Christmas, Tuel hosted a Christmas caroling party, renting a horse-drawn wagon to ferry her guests around the block.
POVERTY RIDGE, SACRAMENTO
This tree-shaded midtown neighborhood, built on a gentle rise near the spot where T Street meets 21st, gets its colorful name from the Gold Rush days, when the city’s poor would flock here during heavy rains to escape the floodwaters. It’s just a hop, skip and a jump to the Capitol and downtown state buildings, where many Poverty Ridge residents work. Locals can walk to light rail, the newish Safeway on 19th Street and the historic E. K. McClatchy Library, once home to members of the newspaper clan and now a neighborhood gathering spot.
• Real estate: Nineteenth-century mansions sit cheek-by-jowl with modest turn-of-the-century bungalows, midcentury apartment buildings, and 21st-millennium lofts and town houses. Prices range from $300,000 to a million-plus.
• Hip hangout: Tulí Bistro
• Good to know: Author Joan Didion lived here as a teen.
• Meet a walker: Alex Ives—In 2008, Poverty Ridge resident Alex Ives made a promise to herself: to drive 500 fewer miles than she had the year before. An avid walker, she exceeded her goal, driving 700 miles less (and putting fewer than 5,000 miles on her car). She’s not an environmentalist, she points out: “I just don’t see any point in driving.” Ives, a musician, walks to lunch every day with her artist husband, John, and she does most of her daily living on foot, hoofing it to the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Peet’s, Beer’s Books, Tower Theatre, the post office on Alhambra and the Sunday farmers market under the freeway. On her daily four-mile trek, this self-proclaimed busybody likes to check out what her neighbors have done to their homes and yards. She never tires of the route or the routine: “There are always cats to visit and people standing outside to chat with.”
HIDDEN VALLEY, GRANITE BAY
Granite Bay’s oldest development, this woodsy neighborhood of 162 houses was built from the 1950s to the 1970s. Modest, middle-class ranches, not McMansions, are the rule here. The place has a laid-back, small-town vibe. There are no streetlights or sidewalks, but there are miles of dirt trails for walking, biking and horseback riding. Residents tend to be sporty and outdoorsy; many keep a canoe in the backyard for boating on one of the neighborhood’s five lakes. Oak Lake is the biggest draw, with a clubhouse and sand beach for swimming, and it hosts community events such as an Easter egg hunt, a Fourth of July picnic and kids parade, and a end-of-summer barbecue called Chuck Wagon. The biggest drawback to living in Hidden Valley: You have to drive for just about everything, including a gallon of milk. (But Raley’s is only five minutes away on busy Auburn Folsom Road.)
• Real estate: Fewer than a dozen houses go on the market every year. In the go-go days, prices topped $1 mil; now you can snap one up for $600,000 or $700,000.
• Hip hangout: The bar at Hawks Restaurant
• Good to know: Horse-owning homeowners can pasture their horses for free on community land.
WASHINGTON, WEST SACRAMENTO
This gritty neighborhood is on the cusp of greatness. Located on the west bank of the Sacramento River, just a stone’s throw from Old Sac, Washington was once a prosperous Gold Rush town whose glory days, until recently, were long past. But a new gold rush is making this one of the region’s hottest infill neighborhoods. Developers are building here like mad; seemingly overnight, hip new housing projects are springing up next door to dilapidated Victorian cottages and weed-choked lots. Right now, Washington is largely a bedroom community; residents pretty much have to cross the I Street Bridge to downtown Sac to work and play. But CalSTRS recently moved into its new 14-story headquarters building here (part of the neighborhood’s Raley’s Landing Project), and restaurants, cafes and stores are on the drawing board. While Washington isn’t quite ready for its close-up, it looks poised to join Portland, Ore.’s Pearl District as a model of how planners can turn lemons into lemonade.
• Real estate: New lofts, town houses and high-density single-family-home developments, priced from the mid-$200,000s to the mid-$400,000s
• Hip hangout: Sal’s Tacos
• Good to know: Raley Field, home of the Sacramento River Cats, is just seven blocks away.
• Meet a walker: Levi Benkert— The child of missionaries, Levi Benkert had lived in 20 countries by the time he was 18. The American dream—living in the burbs, driving your car everywhere—was foreign to him. Instead, he and his wife, Jessie, longed for a distinctly urban life. So the 27-year-old Benkert, founder of the development firm LJ Urban, bought some land in West Sac’s Washington neighborhood and is now building Good, a 35-unit single-family “eco-urban” housing development. The Benkerts live with their three children in one of the first units: a three-story, 1,600-square-foot house built with recycled and sustainable materials. “The kids love it here,” says Benkert. “They can walk to the river and throw rocks.” On weekends, the family ambles over the I Street Bridge to the Railroad Museum in Old Sac; during the week, Benkert rides his bike to work at 20th and H in Sacramento’s midtown. Every other Tuesday, Benkert and his wife host Soup Night for the neighbors, and they’re planning a community garden. “People are looking for this kind of lifestyle,” Benkert says, noting that his company’s blog (ljurban.com) gets thousands of hits a week from as far away as England.
NATOMA STATION, FOLSOM
Residents of this suburban neighborhood on Folsom’s west side find it easy to get out in nature. There are plenty of sidewalks, ponds teeming with birds and wildlife, and easy access to the American River Bike Trail, which winds for miles through some of the region’s most beautiful terrain. Built about 20 years ago on the hill behind the Folsom Premium Outlets, it’s a model of the well-planned community. There’s an elementary school and several parks; a light rail station enables residents who work downtown to avoid clogged Highway 50 at rush hour. On nice days, the neighborhood is filled with kids on skateboards, teens WWT (Walking While Texting) and people strolling with their dogs. A group called the Folsom Dam Runners meets Saturdays and Sundays for runs around nearby Lake Natoma.
• Real estate: One- and two-story single-family homes sell from the low $400,000s to the high $500,000s.
• Hip hangout: Folsom Premium Outlets
• Good to know: The developer commissioned original art for the parks and main entrances to the neighborhood.
CLOS DU LAC, LOOMIS
This upscale, gated community was developed in the mid-’90s with an unusual conceit: It looks and feels like a Provençal village. There are close to 90 houses—both production and custom—on about 200 acres dotted with vineyards, olive groves and lakes. While residents have to hop into their cars for groceries and other necessities, life inside the gates is distinctly geared toward pedestrians. The circular main street is exactly one mile around—perfect for walkers who like to track their mileage—and there’s a centrally located community building with a meeting room, outdoor barbecue area and post office where neighbors chat while picking up their mail. Nature abounds, with hiking trails and three lakes, including one that offers catch-and-release fishing. Clos du Lac-ers get together for a multitude of events, including an Easter egg hunt, a Bastille Day party, a crush party in late September and monthly First Friday wine tastings.
• Real estate: Houses resemble French villas and farmhouses, and the front yards are planted with Cabernet Franc, Petite Sirah, Mourvèdre and Petit Verdot grapes. Home prices? Très cher (that’s “very expensive” for those of you who flunked introductory French): $800,000 and up. There still are a few 20-acre “estate” lots left.
• Hip hangout: Coffee House at The Flower Farm Inn
• Good to know: The homeowners association sells the community’s grapes to winemakers in Napa and the foothills; the proceeds help keep HOA dues down.
MCKINLEY PARK, SACRAMENTO
This pedestrian-friendly neighborhood on the western edge of East Sacramento may be urban, but it has the heart of a village. Residents find it easy to walk or bike to the area’s many independent restaurants, cafes and retailers; midtown is just a short stroll away. The jewel of the ’hood: the 32-acre park itself, home to a library, duck pond, rose garden, garden and arts center, tennis courts, soccer and baseball fields, swimming pool and überpopular 1.1-mile running track. (Back in the ’90s, then-President Bill Clinton famously jogged on the track during a trip to Sacramento.)
• Real estate: A mixture of bungalows and Tudor, Craftsman and Mediterranean Revival-style houses built in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s. You’ve heard of the Fabulous Forties? Residents laughingly refer to less glitzy McKinley Park as the Thrifty Thirties. Still, houses here sell from about $400,000 to more than $1 million—even in this shaky economy.
• Hip hangout: Big Spoon Yogurt
• Good to know: Fourth of July block parties are popular; the park attracts thousands with a Pops in the Park concert in June.
• Meet a walker: Jean Winchell—Before moving to McKinley Park 11 years ago, Jean Winchell lived on Garden Highway—just possibly the region’s least walkable neighborhood. At the time, she didn’t mind all the driving into town, and she didn’t particularly want to move into “the city.” Her husband, Buzz, talked her into it. Is she ever glad he did. “Walking has changed my life,” says Winchell, a freelance seamstress and mother of three nearly grown girls who logs six to eight miles a day in the neighborhood. She walks just about everywhere: bank, library, coffeehouse, supermarket, friends’ houses, you name it. She also laps the park for exercise—both for herself and for the benefit of her two dogs, an 8-year-old German shepherd and 14-year-old golden retriever. “I love the excitement and energy at the park,” she says. “It’s lovely. I don’t even mind the homeless people. It’s very colorful, our park.”
FAIR OAKS VILLAGE, FAIR OAKS
This charming older neighborhood, near where Fair Oaks Boulevard meets Sunrise, has the feel of a bygone era. Free-range chickens roam the winding streets, and residents smile and wave to one another as they walk to the cafe or the old-fashioned hardware store. This artsy community supports several art galleries, and Second Saturday Artwalk is a big draw. Two small parks—Plaza Park and Village Park—are home to a number of community events, including Spring Fest in May, the Chicken Festival in September, summer concerts and Theatre Under the Stars, held at an outdoor amphitheater in Plaza Park.
• Real estate: Everything from old farmhouses and tiny cottages to mansions on the bluffs overlooking the American River, with prices ranging from $300,000 to a couple mil.
• Hip hangout: Sunflower Drive-in
• Good to know: Chickens, not cars, have the right of way on the village streets.
LINCOLN CROSSING, LINCOLN
This master-planned community in hilly, rural Lincoln is as American as the Brady Bunch. Thanks to the CC&Rs, the lawns are immaculately manicured, the homes trim and tidy. Kids have the run of the subdivision, and walkers and joggers get their exercise on a path that loops around the development. Lincoln Crossing has its own elementary school; Lincoln High is within walking distance. The development also has a public golf course and a recreation center with game room and swimming pool, and the homeowners association fosters a sense of community with holiday decorating contests and parties. The neighborhood provides an old-fashioned sense of security; parents here feel safe letting their kids walk to the nearby Starbucks or Target.
• Real estate: Bargains abound in this 4-year-old subdivision. Houses that once fetched $700,000 are now selling for about $320,000. Prices range from a low of $200,000 to a high in the $400,000s.
• Hip hangout: The rec center
• Good to know: Chain restaurants (Mimi’s Cafe, Panda Express) are the norm.
SUN CITY, ROSEVILLE
This is an “active adult” community—residents must be at least 55 years old to buy here. But don’t, for God’s sake, call them old. They’re too busy walking, golfing, biking, hiking and generally having fun to get old. Smaller and flatter than its Sun City counterpart in Lincoln, this 1,200-acre development was designed to get residents out of their cars. Many walk or bike to Timber Creek Lodge, which has a fitness center, indoor and outdoor pools, tennis courts and a restaurant. There also are three golf courses and several lakes. Those who don’t want to walk use their electric-battery-operated golf carts to get around Sun City. (The carts are licensed for use on the streets inside the development.)
• Real estate: More than 3,000 single-story production homes; prices range from $250,000 to $650,000
• Hip hangout: Timbers Restaurant for Friday-night dinner and dancing
• Good to know: There’s golf-cart parking throughout the development, and many houses come with golf-cart garages.