WPI Wire, Vol. 10, No. 2 - Summer 1996

Developing the legacy of Howard Hughes

On a 22,500-acre tract in the Nevada desert, a metropolis of the future is emerging from the red and gray sandstone hills. Gerry Robbins '69 is one of the architects of Summerlin, a model community being built in the Las Vegas Valley. With a projected population of 160,000, it is the fastest-growing master-planned community in the U.S., and also one of the largest.

Robbins, who majored in civil engineering at WPI and earned master's degrees in landscape architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois, is manager of detailed planning for the development. Summerlin is not only his job, but also his home. Robbins, his wife, Lynda, and their two children reside in one of the 5,000 completed homes.

The history of Summerlin dates back to 1954, when mysterious millionaire Howard Hughes acquired the vacant tract through a deal with the federal government. Hughes envisioned a private airport with grounds for testing his helicopters and planes. Some say Hughes used the land to his advantage by threatening to move his lucrative Hughes Aircraft Co. out of Culver City, Calif., in order to gain favors from that city. At any rate, the land was still untouched when Hughes died in 1976 without a will. Complex legal battles over his vast estate left "Husite" (Hughes' site) in limbo for many years.

The ownership group that was entrusted with disposition of Hughes' legacy renamed the Nevada site "Summerlin," which was Hughes's maternal grandmother's name, and directed that it be developed "in an orderly manner." In 1987, The Howard Hughes Corp., Summerlin's parent company, began construction. The first units were competed in 1991.

Summerlin is located 10 miles northwest of Las Vegas, which is now the fastest-growing urban area in the U.S. With a population that now exceeds one million, Las Vegas is reeling from the impact of an estimated 6,900 newcomers per month. The area receives only four inches of rain a year, and some predict Las Vegas will run out of water by 2030.

The ecological prudence of Summerlin's developers has gained attention among planners and city officials. Recent articles in Urban Land and Landscape Architecture tout Summerlin as a model for desert cities, citing its sensitive treatment of the arid environment and its long-range appeal to a diverse housing market.

The Hughes Foundation charter preserves 20 to 25 percent of Summerlin's acreage as open space, to "protect the ecological balance and to preserve the rugged beauty and southwestern character of the land." Ornamental plantings are a mix of indigenous and imported desert species, including mesquite, desert willow and Texas sage. Drought-tolerant Arizona ash trees shade the streets, instead of water-guzzling trees that are popular in other regions.

The stereotyped image of a housing development, with endless rows of identical houses situated on perpendicular streets, does not fit Summerlin. Robbins favors the concept of "scripted space," which follows the natural topography of the landscape, rather than imposing an artificial grid pattern. The master plan calls for 30 different villages, each with a unique character, to be phased in over several decades. Schools, parks and neighborhood centers are built into each village. A network of curvilinear roads and trails connect the villages with business and retail centers that provide shopping and cultural facilities.

"A planned community is not for everyone," says Robbins. "Some individuals don't like the regularity of it. But many people appreciate the aesthetics and the security of knowing what's going to happen next. For example, you know your neighbor is not going to put up a pink and purple house."

Robbins and his family like their new hometown. They enjoy the amenities, which include a library, cultural center, recreational facilities and a residents' newsletter called Summerlines. Gerry and Lynda help with the youth basketball league, and the kids enjoy community activities such as ice cream festivals, hoe-downs, and even a "snow day" with man-made snow. Gerry has a short walk to his office in the village center, and long vistas into the rugged hills and spacious skies. "I never thought I would adapt to the desert," says Robbins, who grew up in Worcester. "But after a few years, you come to love it."


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