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The Future of Housing in the Cardiff Highlands

How building up in a beachside community is helping change the status quo of suburban housing
Photo Credit: Ian Patzke
Field X Studio, bird's eye view

The F Street Residences are a rare new addition to Encinitas’ long-standing Highlands neighborhood, a suburban enclave of primarily single-family homes.

Photo Credit: Ian Patzke

It’s a brisk morning just before 8 o’clock in the Highlands, a slice of suburban calm that sits above the coastal Highway 101 in Encinitas. It’s barely humming with any kind of a.m. commute. Despite its quaint setting, this idyllic perch is a quick, one-block trek away from the transit, bars, restaurants, and retailers of the city’s downtown.

Close as it is to the action, the Highlands neighborhood takes pride and staunch ownership in its enduring suburban status, and its dwellers are wary of any new developments encroaching on that sacred, residential space—especially if views are at stake.

As I stand on the corner of F and Cornish, a Highlands resident saunters up with two curious dogs in tow. He’s called Encinitas home since the 1940s, and he’s happy to point out the patchwork of styles that have given the neighborhood its longevity and charm, including the library and two homes with deco- era, Egyptian motifs. But when asked what he thinks about the F Street Residences, the new, two-story townhomes on that aforementioned corner, he replies, “It’s double ugly.”

Field X Studio, townhome exterior

Each of Field X Studio’s four townhome units offers 2,100 square feet of living space spread across two floors and a basement.

Photo Credit: Ian Patzke

Taste is subjective, but it’s no secret that established beachside communities, like Encinitas, are resistant to topographic shifts—particularly when height and population density are involved. The question is how to mitigate the fear of change with the necessity of housing in these legacy communities.

Scott M. Maas is the principal architect at Field X Studio, the firm behind the F Street Residences. He concedes that there was accrued ambivalence from both the citizens and the city.

“The Highlands [is] the oldest neighborhood in the city, for sure, and you don’t see a lot of new projects there. It’s very old houses that have been there for a long time, and many people who live in those houses are multigenerational and don’t really like to see the change,” Maas explains.

That may be true for older parts, but the city of Encinitas has been working toward greater density with its revamp of the 1979 State Density Bonus Law in AB2345, which focuses on low-income housing projects and adds incentives for developments that create more units.

Field X Studio, townhome interior

The townhomes court sunlight from every possible angle.

Photo Credit: Ian Patzke

Though the F Street Residences’ four townhome units are not a low-income project, Maas adds, “What we did, the city wants to see. You know, it’s funny, in Encinitas, duplexes are density. Anywhere else, it’s not even close.”

Field X Studio is based in Cardiff-by-the-Sea and run by residents of North County. Since completing this inaugural build in 2022, Field X Studio has since added 10 projects to its roster, ranging from design to build and development.

Local residents can put away the pitchforks. The developers have worked to create a sense of place that aligns with the local culture. Maas, who grew up on the island of O’ahu and now calls Cardiff home, brings a sense of community sensitivity to each Field X Studio project, along with his nearly 20 years of experience as an architect.

“We saw the lack of quality in the development projects that were happening in North County and the way our city has kind of been shaped by out-of-town developers, and we thought, ‘Gosh, we live here. We do this. Let’s do it ourselves and it’ll be a great project,’” Maas says.

And it was—financially, municipally, and creatively. According to Zillow, one of the units sold in July of 2022 for $2.9 million. While far from affordable housing, the project helped pad the slim housing market, making way for multiple homeowners on a single lot. But is it density? Maas maps it out.

Field X Studio, townhome interior

The townhomes’ design echoes the clean, coastal charm that characterizes Encinitas. 

Photo Credit: Ian Patzke

“It’s literally a block to City Hall, a block to the train station, downtown. It’s a perfect place to put density, really. Frankly, it should be much more dense than it was,” Maas says. He adds, “It could have been six units,” as opposed to the final four. This compromise is a win-win for buyers of the airy, vertical homes and those leery of what density could bring.

The project is effective in both its necessity and efficiency of design. According to Field X Studio’s website, “each of the four units are two- stories plus basement and boast 2,100 [square feet] of living area,” which is laid out over a total of 10,000 square feet. Forget maximalism; this is maximizing. With density comes its own design challenges and innovations. Maas and his team got creative with the layout, creating living spaces on the basement and top floors, with a kitchen as the central, second-floor hub.

“You know, the challenge in a vertical space with one shared wall is light, in my view, so we had to make sure we got enough light in,” Maas says. An open stair detail allows sunshine to bleed through the entire space, even reaching the open-floor basement living quarters. Every floor has an ocean view, making the home feel more vast than most buildings capped by the city’s 22-foot height restrictions.

Field X Studio, townhome interior

Field X Studio, townhome interior

Photo Credit: Ian Patzke

Another boon for the project is the social element, with garden spaces within the complex and large, street-facing front decks that give a glimpse right onto the neighborhood streets. These streets can swell from abandoned to teeming with dog walkers or sunset watchers, depending on the time of day. “It is a social neighborhood,” says Maas, “That kind of interaction was really important in the design, as well.”

With a hybridization of coastal chill and modern curb appeal, these townhomes offer a much-needed alternative approach to construction in a time of land scarcity. Good use of square footage means the sky’s the limit.

By Danielle Allaire

Danielle is a freelance culture journalist focusing on music, food, wine, hospitality, and arts, and founder-playwright of Yeah No Yeah Theatre company, based in San Diego. Her work has been featured in FLAUNT, Filter Magazine, and San Diego Magazine. Born and raised in Maui, she still loves a good Mai Tai.

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