Downtown Ladera Ranch looks like Main Street in a small but thriving city. Under blue skies, the sidewalks are crowded with window-shoppers, browsing boutiques. There are park benches from which to watch people-and time-go by.
But Ladera's largest retail area, which will be completed over the next four years, exists only as a computer-animated video. The marketing tool, aimed at emphasizing lifestyle in the South Orange County master-planned community, portrays what is yet to be built.
A growing number of Southern California developers have moved beyond brochures and maps to sell new homes. Through a series of high-tech, high-touch kiosks, some Southland developers have begun marketing communities through galleries that seem more like museums.
Increasingly, technology is changing traditional ways of buying a home, from online sales on a Web site to virtual walk-throughs of homes on a computer to finding real estate agents over the Internet. Multimedia studios, used to supplement model tours, represent the latest tool that some large-scale developers have embraced to attract new buyers already accustomed to home theaters and Palm Pilots.
"Our home shoppers and buyers understand technology, and want technology," said Anne Marie Moiso, Ladera's director of marketing, who led the effort to build the $3-million project. "If we did something conventional, where you see static displays and a topography map, then we have lost one of our major selling points for Ladera."
Amid dim lights and soft music, Ladera visitors can view a trio of 10-foot video screens. On one, residents are shown in sepia tones enjoying a picnic, while on another residents enjoy the walking, hiking and biking trails. On a third, prospective buyers can view a five-minute film of the planned downtown area, from a street-level perspective, along with animated maps of Ladera.
Other kiosks tout the community's benefits. A bank of television monitors shows Ladera families describing, in their own words, the intranet allowing residents to send each other e-mail and to create digital bulletin boards. A display demonstrates how new homeowners can have their computers, televisions and appliances linked together.
What prospective buyers won't find in the sales theater is any video clip of Ladera's homes. Traditional model homes still fill that need.
Exiting the exhibit on a recent Saturday after watching a multimedia tour on hiking and biking trails, Nabs Carlson said he hoped to move to Ladera.
"It gets you excited about the possibilities, and the lifestyle this [development] will create, rather than simply hearing about the housing," said Carlson, 33, a marketing manager at an Irvine retailer.
Lisa Belland, 35, an Aliso Viejo resident who works at an Internet media company and was looking for a larger home said: "I think it's good, if you have time to stand there and watch. I found it helpful to know about the community here."
But others merely grabbed information about homes for sale and headed toward the models without viewing the kiosks. "I only spent 30 seconds in there," said one man who zipped out of the gallery with a flier listing new homes that he found at the entrance. "I have twins and a wife in the car."
Similar information centers are being used at other new home sites where developers can spread the costs across thousands of units.
In Valencia, in north Los Angeles County, for example, visitors use touch-screen computers that replicate a map to learn about parks, schools and shopping. Vignettes on recreational activities also can be viewed on television monitors. In Playa Vista, near Marina del Rey, a more than 6,000-square-foot visitor center is expected to open in July. Home shoppers will be able to view a virtual tour of the development on a projection screen, and they can trace their location by a lighted path on a scale model placed in front of the screen.
Visitors will find a number of touch-screen computers in the center, as well as 21 multimedia and static displays, each with a separate theme-such as Playa Vista's history, design and landscaping-before taking a tram to the model homes.
"What we tried to do inside of the visitors' center is to communicate what's different about Playa Vista and how it came about," said Ken Agid, who handles marketing for the site. One of the biggest challenges, he said, was to make sure that the message was not obscured by the gizmos.
For more than a year, Ladera developers worked on a concept that was influenced by cutting-edge retail sites in San Francisco, such as Niketown, Sony Metreon and Levi Strauss & Co. to shape their design. They came back with an interactive design that requires visitors to push a button to get information.
"I don't think any client has gone as far as Ladera," said John Greer, a principal at the La Jolla Group of San Diego, which was one of the center's key designers and has designed other centers in Southern California. For example, some video was shot by installing cameras in a biker's headgear and using a helicopter for overhead shots.
"Typically, multimedia is a secondary thought, just pretty pictures and a map. But Ladera flipped the thinking. They said, 'Let's push the envelope and let the experience drive everything else."'
So far, the center, which opened in late March, has attracted more than a quarter of the visitors coming to Ladera-more than double the number of the site's initial sales center, which contained little gadgetry, Moiso said. And the new gallery has generated interest from developers in Australia and South America, she said.
But among visitors, the center elicited mixed opinions. Some home shoppers said the digital displays, lacking details about schools and other community services, seemed incomplete.
"It wasn't detailed enough," said Nikia Hyman, 26, an engineer at an Irvine firm who is on a waiting list to purchase a home in Ladera. Her friend, Yolanda Malone, whose Ladera house is under construction, found the high-tech center's "impersonal" nature appeared to clash with the small-town feeling the developers were trying to replicate.
Some visitors only glanced at the videos, preferring to stick to their home shopping task, or look at a more traditional topography map.
"We know what we're looking for, so we don't need to spend a lot of time watching a program like that," said Kelly Wang of Tustin.
Others were more blunt about their experience. Heading toward the gallery's exit, Wayne Hitchcock, along with his wife, Candace, spent more than 15 minutes walking around the center but were surprised so little attention was given to new home designs.
"This is nice fluff, but where's the substance, the meat?" said Hitchcock, a director at an aerospace company, who lives in Yorba Linda and is nearing retirement. "The first thing I look for is what models and floor plans are available."
Holding up a brochure that contained details about the homes, Hitchcock said with a grin, "This was the best thing I found."