Friday, May 18, 2012

Subdivisions go urban as housing growth shifts

Townhouses and single-family homes are sprouting on old industrial sites in the heart of Southern California cities. In Florida, developers are coveting foreclosed golf courses in urban centers to put up new subdivisions. Builders in Texas are going after available land even near landfills for residential and retail development.

Why are the giants of the building industry, the creators for decades of massive communities of cookie-cutter homes, cul-de-sacs and McMansions in far-flung suburbs, doing an about-face? Why are they suddenly building smaller neighborhoods in and close to cities on land more likely to be near a train station than a pig farm?

A housing industry slowly shaking off the worst economic conditions in decades is rethinking what type of housing to build and where to build it. It's a response to a new wave of home buyers who have no desire to live in traditional subdivisions far from urban amenities.

The nation's development patterns may be at a historic juncture as builders begin to reverse 60-year-old trends. They're shifting from giant communities on wide-open "greenfields" to compact "infill" housing in already-developed urban settings.

The market slowdown has given builders time to assess sweeping demographic changes that are transforming the way Americans want to live.

Young Millennials and older Baby Boomers are rejecting traditional suburban lifestyles in favor of urban living and shorter commutes. Many want to live near city centers so they can walk to work, shops and restaurants or take public transportation. They also prefer smaller homes because they're single or have no kids and don't want to spend their free time maintaining their homes.

"It's the kids (ages 18 to 32), the empty nesters (Baby Boomers with no kids at home)," says Chris Leinberger, president of Smart Growth America's LOCUS (Latin for "place"), a national coalition of real estate developers and investors who support urban developments that encourage walking over driving. "These two generations combined are more than half of the American population."

The housing bust of the last five years hit hardest in subdivisions in remote suburbs, drying up financing for such development. At the same time, gas prices soared and so did environmental consciousness, giving consumers pause about living in distant suburbs away from services, jobs and entertainment.

California couple Maurice Turner and his wife, Preet Bassi, used to rent in the center of Anaheim. When they decided to buy, they found their choices limited at first.

"The majority of homes were single-family homes in the suburbs or older homes and multi-story condos in the city," says Turner, administrative manager in a nearby city.

The 30-something professionals did not want to leave city neighborhoods and settle in a suburban subdivision. And they didn't want to live in a multi-story condo building.

That was about the time Brookfield Homes, a leading developer of huge suburban subdivisions, began Colony Park -- more than 500 single-family homes, townhouses and condominiums in Anaheim's Historic District on a site that once housed industrial warehouses. Many of the townhomes are across the street from restaurants, entertainment and other urban attractions.

Turner and Bassi now live in a three-story, 1,700-square-foot townhouse where they and their neighbors make "a conscious effort to spend less time in your car commuting and spend more time in your neighborhood with friends, neighbors, family," Turner says. "The urban environment was a big key to staying."

Growth patterns shift

Developers are listening because the market has spoken loud and clear.

Latest Census data show that population growth in fringe counties nearly stopped in the 12 months that ended July 1, 2011, and urban counties at the center of metro areas grew faster than the nation as a whole, a USA TODAY analysis found.

Central metro counties accounted for 94% of U.S. growth, compared with 85% just before the recession and housing bust.

A recent Case Western Reserve University study found that Cleveland's inner city is growing faster than its suburbs for the first time.

In January 2000, the highest price per square foot in the Washington, D.C., metro area was in the leafy suburb of Great Falls, Va., according to Zillow, a real estate research firm. Ten years later, townhouses in the hip and urban Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington were worth 70% more per square foot than property in Great Falls.

"These are the market signals we're getting throughout the country," Leinberger says. "The drivable suburban fringe is where the housing market collapsed -- 80% of the collapsed market was there. It's a classic case of the real estate industry overproducing."

Most major builders have created "urban" divisions in the past five years to scout for available land in already-developed parts of cities and closer suburbs -- even if it means former industrial and commercial sites or land that may require environmental cleanup.

This shift doesn't mean the end of sprawling suburban subdivisions in onetime cow pastures and corn fields, but it does signal a notable change that could alter the housing landscape for years to come.

"There has been a huge shift, particularly in the last 10 years," says Marie York, president of real estate consulting York Solutions in Palm Beach County, Fla., and a board member of the American Planning Association. "There's an emphasis on walkability, an emphasis on health, an emphasis on commuting by bicycle ... a shift away from blatant consumerism and the McMansion model."

The shift is not temporary, says Gregory Vilkin, managing principal and president of MacFarlane Partners, a San Francisco-based real estate investment company building 170 units on the site of former parking lots and auto repair shops in South Lake Union, a new urban project in Seattle.

Vilkin headed one of the nation's largest urban redevelopments while at the helm of Forest City Enterprises' residential real estate division: Stapleton, a cluster of neighborhoods built on 7.5 square miles on the site of the old Stapleton International Airport in Denver. Developers built 11 units per acre compared with four per acre in traditional suburban subdivisions.

"I reject the premise that (the shift) is just because of the recession," Vilkin says. "It's no longer the American dream to own a plot of land with a house on it and two cars in the driveway."

Adds Leinberger: "This is a structural change, not a cyclical downturn."

Moving toward the center

Whether it's temporary or a seminal moment in the nation's development history, the housing bust and recession have prompted developers to set their sights inward. When property values drop, so does investment. And because values dropped the most on the outer edges of metro areas, developers are paying attention to sites they never considered before.

"It makes you not look at these large properties on the edge of the Earth anymore," says Denise Gammon, president of the communities division of Florida-based Kitson & Partners. "There's a dramatic shift going on."

Gammon also worked on Stapleton, and Kitson hired her to develop their infill business. In Tampa, the company is building Bay Pines, which will have multi-family housing, hotel, grocery store and shops on 60 acres that once was the site of a mobile home park.

"It's an area of Tampa that hasn't seen new housing in 25 years," she says. "The conventional model is obsolete. People are looking for something different."

In California, KB Home built Primera Terra at Playa Vista, near Marina Del Rey, on the site of an old Hughes Aircraft site. The condos highlight energy efficiency, proximity to shops, parks and schools, and prices under $600,000 (no garages).

"It has drawn an incredible number of people," says Steve Ruffner, president of KB Home Southern California. "People are very interested in technology in a home that's not only good for the environment but saves them ownership costs --Energy Star, solar."

Executives of Dallas-based Huffines Communities sensed a revolution was afoot after attending a builders' show in Orlando in 2005 when they realized that investors were the dominant buyers of suburban housing -- not consumers.

The company had nine so-called "master-planned communities" in the works that would go up on undeveloped land in outer suburbia.

"We sold six and kept three," says Robert Kembel, Huffines president. The company redeployed its capital to redeveloping sites in cities. "If people prefer to live closer to the jobs center, the pricing you can command is higher and there's less competition," Kembel says.

Huffines is developing Viridian, 5,000 units on a 2,300-acre site in a flood plain near a landfill in Arlington, Texas. The project required lengthy and costly cleanup and wetlands restoration measures.

"Developers who have the patience to go to the city or county and negotiate public-private partnerships to help mitigate huge costs, those are the guys who win," Kembel says.

No time for big yards

Suburbia is changing, too.

Established suburbs such as Virginia's Fairfax County, outside Washington, D.C., are building town centers that combine residential and retail on greenfields. Rapid transit lines are expanding through Tysons Corner, site of two shopping malls and headquarters of major corporations. Plans are for dense, high-rise development.

Even traditional communities built on greenfields are transforming. In Southern California's Inland Empire, an area where housing prices are lower and appeal to first-time buyers, Brookfield is building Edenglen in Ontario. The homes are built on smaller lots -- 4,500 square feet instead of the more conventional 7,200 square feet -- and priced from $200,000 to $300,000.

"We've seen a lot of single females, single males, couples without kids," says Carina Hathaway, vice president of marketing. "They don't really have time to maintain huge yards."

But Kembel predicts infill development is the wave of the future. Military bases that have shuttered offer huge opportunities, and so do old subdivisions built when sprawling suburbia was born in the 1950s and 1960s, he says.

"For the first time in history, Americans have stopped pushing development to the edge," says Robert Lang, professor of urban affairs at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and author of Megapolitan America. "The shift is from the old crabgrass frontier to the new Main Street."

by Haya El Nasser - May. 15, 2012 04:03 PM USA Today

Subdivisions go urban as housing growth shifts

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