The Housing Chronicles Blog: The Evolution of the Master-Planned Community

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Evolution of the Master-Planned Community

It wasn’t too long ago when the typical master-planned community was mostly a collection of separate subdivisions selling under a shared branded location, with some homes wrapped around a golf course or a water feature in order to offer views (and premiums).

If there was a retail component, it was generally located on the periphery, requiring residents on various cul-de-sacs to drive for even the shortest errand.  When people went out for walks, it was generally along paved sidewalks adjacent to neighborhood streets, and did little to encourage interaction among the residents.

Today, however, the typical master-planned community developer has replaced the golf course with open space and trails, created nostalgic town centers within walking distance of each home, and started producing regular events in order to foster more interaction among those who live there.

Somewhat ironically, it was the Great Recession, the housing bust and recovery which allowed many developers the luxury of time to re-think what a modern master-planned community could be. This time period also coincided with the aging of the millennial generation into their household-forming years, with many of them opting for novel and creative experiences, versus simply demanding more living space and a higher bedroom count.

Consequently, today’s most successful master plans focus on promoting a unique sense of place, with the actual living space sometimes almost viewed as a secondary consideration.

Another major change was greater product segmentation, with a few traditional single-family subdivisions of various home and lot sizes giving way to higher-density, single-family and multi-family options, both for younger residents as well as downsizing seniors wanting to live close to family and friends.  In some cases, today’s build-to-rent homes will eventually be converted for sale at the appropriate time, thus encouraging new renters to start developing local roots now instead of later.

Yet when bumping up against unyielding costs for land and improvements, developing an experiential community with ample open space alongside a wide mix of products creates its own mix of challenges to the bottom line.

Explains Tom Martin, Senior VP, Community Development of Newport Pacific Land Company, “I would say that our focus is not only on good place making and planning, but also on innovative products such as homes on small lots, cluster detached homes and townhomes.  This allows us to increase attainability thru density while achieving an acceptable residual to the land.”

In some cases, good place making can incorporate a common theme to be used throughout the community.

At the 199-acre Sterling Meadows master plan near Sacramento, CA, developer The True Life Companies chose music as a connector, especially at its 13.7-acre main park.

In addition to interior pathways designed to resemble a treble cleft (essential to reading music), musical notes and symbols are inlaid into the pavement on pathways, in plazas and in water play areas.  Even the community’s street names are tied to music, with the exception of one key street, which is named for a fallen military veteran of the local community.

In other cases, ensuring that the community blends into the surrounding environment is critical.  At the 1,600-acre Tesoro Viejo master plan north of Fresno, CA, views of the nearby Sierra Nevada foothills are given center stage, with one-quarter of the land allocated for natural open space, parks, areas for recreation and miles of trails. For community interaction, a resort-style clubhouse, amphitheater and large event lawn will be able to host a variety of live events.

The tradition-oriented Town Center, modeled after a typical small town’s Main Street, will include new stations for fire and police protection as well as the Welcome Center. Dubbed “The Hub,” the center will include a neighborhood coffee bar, food options and multi-use offices for daily use long after the last home has sold.

For more built-out environments, the challenge is how to transform a large swath of land which will still appear relatively seamless when completed.  In between the downtown area and a 30-acre harbor in Honolulu, HI, Howard Hughes Corp. is re-envisioning a former center for heavy industry and commercial fishing into the environmentally friendly Ward Village.  Here, cars are given a lesser priority than pedestrians, bikes and buses, encouraging a slower pace of life.

When completed, a central plaza with a Farmer’s Market, a future light rail stop, 4,000 residential units and over one million square feet of retail and commercial space – including scores of existing businesses – will allow locals to visit some of their long-favorite haunts in a re-envisioned place.  Others will simply call it home.

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