I. The Man
“Yeah, I’m a big fan of Lincoln,” admits James S. Backer, and the evidence seems to support his claim. A sketch of the 16th President greets guests in his office. A quote from the man welcomes visitors to the website of his company. If you ask him, both Daniel Day-Lewis and Sally Field “really captured the essence” of their characters in the recent film – and with his history degree from Stanford, he should probably know.
But it’s not through his knowledge of history that Backer is making his mark. Instead, James Backer – Jim, as he’s called by those who know him – is being recognized for the way that he’s shaping his own community today. After all, Backer is one of those rare individuals who can honestly say he’s helped build a city – from the ground up.
Backer is the founder and president of JSB Development, a real estate development company headquartered in Valencia. Among his impressive contributions to Santa Clarita is his involvement in the development of Valencia Town Center, Valencia Commerce Center, Centre Pointe Business Park, River Court, and Tourney Place – to name a few.
Backer has been shaping the Santa Clarita community for more than 28 years, but this city hasn’t always been his home. Though a native Californian by birth, Backer spent much of his early life in the Midwest; Omaha, Nebraska, was his childhood home.
“I had a lot of interest in art when I was growing up,” Backer says, reflecting on how his childhood experiences may have led him toward his current career. His drawing skill has come in handy, he says, considering the importance of design in his field. “We essentially try to buy dirt and create something that people want to buy or lease from it,” he jokes.
Backer has always enjoyed working with people, he says. From an early age, he tended toward positions that involved leadership or problem solving, including heading his high school newspaper and interning at the Senate while in college. But it wasn’t until late in his Stanford career that a fateful meeting with a university trustee, who happened to be the chief executive officer of the Newhall Land and Farming Company, placed Backer on the path toward a career in real estate development.
“We got to talking, and about a month later I was flying down here (to Southern California) after I graduated,” Backer says. When his parents asked him what he expected out of his journey, Backer prophesied correctly. “I think he’s gonna offer me a job,” he told them, “and I think I’m gonna take it.”
That job landed him in Santa Clarita in 1984, and he’s been a part of the community in one way or another ever since. During the course of his tenure at Newhall Land, Backer learned as much as he could about his industry as he helped the company gradually shape Valencia. There were other stops for Backer along the way, including extensive travels both domestically and abroad, an MBA program at UCLA, a two-year stay with another L.A.-based company, and a job overseeing a large project in Sacramento – but it all led up to one thing: the founding of his own company in 2000.
For the last 13 years, JSB Development has played a major part in bringing project after project to fruition, gradually forming the modern landscape of the Santa Clarita Valley. But Backer’s building of the community includes more than simply putting together brick and mortar. Backer has also been actively involved with a number of non-profits, including the SCV Education Foundation and the Foundation for Children’s Dental Health.
Whatever work he does in his career or for his community, Backer admits his Christian faith and love of family are what truly drive him. And, although his career and nonprofit work would seem to make him a busy man, Backer is especially devoted to spending time with his three kids.
“I get the pleasure of, you know, going on campouts with my son and coaching my son in baseball, and…trying to make sure (my daughter) gets to ride a horse once in a while,” Backer says with a laugh. “That’s the…the treat of life.”
And in Backer’s eyes, Santa Clarita is a rather unique place to raise a family. “I think people (in Santa Clarita) have a lot of focus on their kids, and…I think family is important out here,” he says. “It’s a pretty small community,” he adds, even going so far as to say that in some ways, the city has an almost-Midwestern feel.
But Santa Clarita, Backer is sure to point out, is also special for its California history. “This area has really participated in just about every California boom there’s been…gold, oil, railroads, the movies, freeways…” Backer says. “So, it’s got a very rich history, I think.”
And that’s where, for both Backer and the city, the past meets the present. The past meets the present because Backer always considers the history of the places in which his company builds.
“Real estate has nothing if not history,” Backer says, commenting on the appropriateness of his original degree. “Nothing. Real estate is all history.”
It’s a point that is especially relevant, considering Backer’s plans to begin construction at one of the most historic locations in the Santa Clarita Valley.
II. The Plan – Canyon Country
In 1860, Thomas Mitchell became the first permanent white settler in Santa Clarita when he decided to call a ranch in Soledad Canyon his home. Today, standing by what’s known as the Vista Canyon site – a vast expanse of dust and ragged bushes, rabbits and the occasional roadrunner darting by – you can almost imagine Thomas and his wife, Martha, forging their way on the same unforgiving desert land. That is, if you can ignore the sound of the cars whizzing by on Highway 14 behind you.
You can also imagine, if you try hard enough, how the land will look as the massively ambitious Vista Canyon community; a development complete with homes, stores, hotels, a town center, a corporate campus, four miles of trails, a 10-acre park, a new Metrolink station, and a community garden – all of which are included in the JSB Development design.
It’s a plan that JSB Development has been working on for quite some time, but seeing that it becomes a reality has not always been simple. The process of acquiring the land took many years, Backer says – and even when the entire property had finally been purchased in 2006, the company’s plans for it were not yet fully cemented. In fact, Backer admits, his company’s original intentions for the land were not nearly as grand.
“Our initial plan for Vista Canyon was…just homes,” Backer says. “Homes and maybe a little park and some trails, and that was it.”
But when they presented their plans to the local residents, recalls Backer, he and his colleagues realized that Canyon Country residents were ready for something more.
“They said, ‘You know, what we really don’t have over here is, we just don’t have a center and we don’t have a place to eat and we’d like some more restaurants and we’d like a few shops closer to us,’” Backer explains. “They just said, ‘Hey, it’d just be nice if you kind of looked, you know, a little more broadly.’”
They did, and over time, the current Vista Canyon plan was born. But Backer says that the involvement of the community in the design of the development didn’t end there.
“There are probably – I don’t know – half a dozen to a dozen things that I can directly point to you in this plan that came directly from a meeting with the communities,” Backer says. “And we had almost 80 community meetings, in one form or another…(and) all of them involved Vista Canyon and what it was going to be and what it could become.”
One of the important suggestions of the community, explains Backer, had to do with the development’s overall look and feel. “They kept saying, in Canyon Country, ‘We want this to reflect our community,’” Backer recalls. And that meant something clear: a more rural design that honored the area’s pioneer history, rather than the Mediterranean style used in other developments, such as Valencia Town Center.
Other community suggestions led to the development of a road pattern that both directs commuter through traffic away from the rural Sand Canyon Road and leaves the adjacent Santa Clara River open to view. In fact, traffic and transportation considerations were one of the major issues JSB Development faced. That’s partly why the company, at the request of the City, agreed to take advantage of the development’s proximity to the Metrolink tracks by relocating the Via Princessa station to the development.
“A lot of what, you know, downtown L.A. and parts of L.A. are trying to do, they’re trying to create these – these centers around Metrolink stations,” Backer says. “Well, we get to create it from the ground up.”
But to paint the project as all about urban planning would be to ignore the obvious history of the site – something Backer would never do. That’s why he emphasizes the importance of measures such as keeping the graveyard overlooking the land, in which its early tenants rest, intact. Backer also hopes the community will make use of the planned River Education Center.
“(The Center is) kind of another way to, again, draw upon the history of the area and feature that,” Backer explains, “but give the community something that they can use forever, which is a meeting center, a meeting area.”
It’s just one of the many aspects of the plan that the company is hoping will both honor the past and be of additional use to the development’s future population. The project could be “shovel ready” as soon as this spring, Backer says, when it wraps up the few administrative and other tasks that remain uncompleted. And with the economic climate looking the way it does today, Backer believes that the time is right – that local residents are ready for Vista Canyon to arrive.
But the decision about when construction will begin may not be in the company’s hands at all.
III. The Potential Delay
“We were approved in May of 2011 by the City; we were sued in June of 2011,” Backer says.
The lawsuit he’s referring to was brought forth, in part, by both S.C.O.P.E., the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, and Friends of the Santa Clara River. Backer says that Lynne Plambeck, a self-described community activist who currently sits on the Newhall County Water District Board, was behind both organizations’ decisions to sue.
According to Backer, the lawsuit was enabled by CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act, which he says he believes is in need of reform. CEQA, Backer claims, has enabled S.C.O.P.E. to sue and delay many of what he believed were desirable Santa Clarita projects, allowing the organization to become what he calls “a de facto impediment to economic growth and quality development in Santa Clarita.” This, he says, has “an unfortunate and costly outcome for the community with no clear or apparent offsetting benefits.”
Among the complaints against the Vista Canyon plan are allegations that the development of the site would adversely affect the Santa Clara River. The Vista Canyon development would, for example, reduce the width of the floodplain – a claim that Backer admits is true, but says he believes is overblown, arguing that the floodplain would still be 800 feet across, almost twice the average width of the river throughout the eastern part of the Santa Clarita Valley. Meanwhile, Backer contends that JSB Development has taken a variety of measures to ensure it handles Vista Canyon’s land and resources responsibly, including the planned development of the project’s own water reclamation plant. This would be the first project-associated water reclamation plant in the city, which would essentially make the development water-neutral, Backer claims. But one of the complaints against the development actually alleges that the plant itself could produce adverse effects, such as adding chloride to the Santa Clara River, contributing to a problem for which the city has already been fined.
Backer also notes that the company has taken steps to address a multitude of other environmental concerns, including adjusting plans to accommodate local animal populations, as well as implementing measures to mitigate the impacts of traffic and energy consumption. “We have done everything within our power to minimize the footprint and the impact on the community by this development,” Backer stresses. “At the same time, we can’t apologize for the fact that there will be homes there, there will be businesses, they will use electricity, cars will drive there, they won’t all be electric…there are tradeoffs. It’s not a perfect world.”
Among those tradeoffs, Backer suggests, are a variety of other benefits for the area – including a decrease in commutes, an increase in available jobs (with an emphasis on corporate and professional jobs for the east side), and an overall boost to the local economy – all of which, he says, have the potential to actually improve the environment or the quality of life in the community as a whole.
But not everyone agrees. The suit, Backer says, revolves largely around a wide variety of issues regarding the thoroughness of the city’s EIR, alleging that it didn’t do enough to analyze the impacts of the development in the first place. If the court rules against Vista Canyon, the city would likely have to complete additional studies and consider adjustments – although Backer says the company would likely appeal.
“If they win, yeah – we’re not gonna go away. We’re gonna keep at it,” Backer says. But that would likely result in delays in the progress that could otherwise be made at the Vista Canyon site. The initial decision is expected some time in the middle of the year.
Typically, Backer says, he tries not to let things like the lawsuit upset him – he’s the kind of person who keeps things in perspective, not fretting over that which he is unable to control. “What I can do is spend my time on things that I think are important,” he notes.
But in the case of Vista Canyon, Backer’s frustration is difficult to hide. “Vista Canyon is an amazing project that was created with tremendous community input, with tremendous thought from my team, my consultants, my designers, and with tremendous commitment from us to make it the best project that we could,” Backer says. “And…to just go sue it, is to me, to just – you know – just throw it down the drain, and not to respect…what’s gone through.”
Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to decide whether or not the claims of Backer’s opponents are valid, and whether the company needs to take additional measures to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.
But, in Backer’s view, the stakes could hardly be higher. “I think a community is either living or dying – one of the two,” he says. “There’s no static. It either grows, it improves, or it dies…people leave, people move away, people don’t wanna invest there, they don’t wanna be there. So…I’m puttin’ my choice with the living crowd.”
Later, Backer simply adds, “(We’ll) do the best we can. That’s all we can do.”
For more information on Backer, JSB Development, or the company’s plans for Vista Canyon, visit www.jsbdev.com or www.vistacanyon.com.