History lesson: Inside designing home landscape plans

Wayne Johnson
Share this article:

Some years back, before I became an independently-wealthy newspaper columnist and author, I worked for a landscape architectural firm. Besides designing landscape plans for the homes of the rich, plans that when implemented cost more than the entire GDP of Bosnia, the firm created land plans. We generally focused on single-family subdivision design and this was my area of expertise.
Although real estate lot layout may sound like something you could learn in the Complete Idiot’s Guide to Subdivision Design, there were quite a few details to consider, such as zoning regulations, topography, lot size, front yard, side yard, and rear-yard setbacks, percentage of a lot that could be covered by a house, open space, all of which were set by the village or city.
Some villages even specified roofline transitions, which means they didn’t want to see a two-story next to a single story. There had to be a split-level in between. On the other side was the developer/builder who wanted as many lots as possible. They’d have lots stacked on top of each other if they could, with each lot being able to accommodate as many of their decahedron-shaped models as possible, while constructing them for the least amount of cash. They would use recycled toilet paper if they could get away with it. In one instance in Hoffman Estates a developer got snippy with the mayor, which sent a phalanx of inspectors out to the model area. The inspectors discovered that one of the models extended six inches too far into a side yard; the builder was forced to move the entire house.
There was one guy who came in with a 40-plus-acre mostly-wooded parcel. He went along with our suggestion to save the trees, which would cost him a few lots. A co-worker and I spent two days precisely noting the location, size, and religious orientation of every last tree on the site. Many trees were 48 inches or more in diameter. Using our marked up print as a template, my boss drew up a site plan saving all but the youngest trees and those which were druids. He showed it to the developer and told him the lot count. The developer was silent for a few seconds, then said, “(Bleep) the trees.” It was on to a new layout. Our two days in the field went down the porcelain receptacle along with the trees.
I was the official lot-squeezer in our company. My first opportunity to execute a squeeze play came when I heard the boss swearing to himself in his office. About two minutes later he appeared at my drafting table with an armload of rolled up papers, drawings, maps, and designs and plopped it all down in front of me. “I keep losing lots,” he said, “so see what you can do.” I did and got the specified number without having any mired in the swamp. From then on whenever he was having lot troubles, he’d pass the job to me. I’d squeeze the lots so tightly, they’d be popping off the vellum sheet, begging for mercy, or, maybe just some Vaseline.
We gave one developer a nicely planned layout. “I need three more lots,” he said. I asked him, “If I get four more, can I have one?” He let out a low chuckle and went on to another subject. I got him his four lots anyway.
Last on my bucket list before I left the company was to get a street named after me somewhere in the then-known universe. We’d all tried in the past, but cities generally had their own ideas for street names, such as naming them after dead fire chief’s dogs or various insect larvae. I was working on a townhouse development where the main street took a U-shaped route. The city liked the developer’s idea of Old English street names, so I took the opportunity to name the main thoroughfare Waynesford Drive. “Waynesford” meaning “wagon crossing” in Old English but actually meaning, “guy who tries to sneak in his own name for a street.” It made it into city plat books. Unfortunately, the developer decided he’d rather sell tacos and pulled out of the deal. About 20 years ago I drove past the property to see what had become of it. Someone else had developed it into single-family detached homes, but there on the main drag were street signs with my original name. I was immortalized if only in what was left of my own mind.
All development deals are signed and sealed between the village and builders prior to, almost as an afterthought, they hold a public hearing. With concerned looks on their faces, officials listen intently to complaints from irate citizens, then proceed with the project as planned. If citizens are angry because a fertilizer plant or a Trump hotel (virtually identical) is going up adjacent to their properties, they’re told they should have viewed the zoning map and long range city plan before they bought their homes. Both were easily accessible by dislodging the third cinder block to the left of the boiler in the village hall basement
If you are in the market for a new home, keep the following in mind: Most developers were used car dealers in their past lives.

Leave a Reply