Product Council Insight: Outlook for Master-Planned Communities

Originally posted in ULI

Members of ULI’s Master-Planned Communities Council discuss factors that homebuyers look for in communities; ways that developers are partnering to enhance access to retail, health care, education, and other services; strategies for fostering a sense of community among residents; and other trends.

What aspects of a master-planned community [MPC] are important to today’s consumers?

Beth Callender: Connectivity is key, both within the community and to what is surrounding the community. The principles of traditional neighborhood design, such as having houses front parks and green space, are still highly desirable. People are looking for integrated uses—like a coffee shop, a bike shop, and small retail uses—within walking distance of home. The challenge for developers is how to make mixed use pencil [out] from an economic point of view. Also, most of the communities that I’m working on have fewer traditional family buyers. Some innovations like homes designed to accommodate intergenerational living are a start, but there is a lot more to be explored in terms of creating diverse housing in community design.

Heidi Majerik: There’s a trend toward MPCs using an urban form in suburban locations. They provide a pedestrian-friendly environment and have services close to people’s homes, with walkable access to retail, civic uses like schools and churches and libraries, and recreation. In suburban MPCs all over the country, homes are being set on alleys; and instead of having garages in front, there is a sidewalk and a porch, which create opportunities for social engagement.

Bob Sharpe: With the workday [lengthening] and time at home shrinking for many, being able to come home, unplug, and get access to everything you need quickly, affordably, and close to home is becoming more important to consumers than ever before. Both soft and hard amenities that make consumers’ lives easier and more enjoyable, cater to a wide cross section of buyers, and facilitate families’ spending more time together are important. There is a new emphasis on creating shared spaces that appeal across demographics, like coffee shops and cafés, libraries, and other public places, where people can be “alone and together” at the same time and work individually or collaborate.

Debra Dremann: MPC stands for master-planned community, but I think that we’re now entering the age when developers have to think about providing master-planned convenience. The latest research suggests that access to neighborhood retail services and health care is starting to be at the top of homebuyers’ lists, and the clubhouse and pool are going lower on the list. So the communities that our company is looking for are much more mixed-use, providing convenient retail services from day one, even if we’re starting with only 10,000 or 20,000 square feet [930 to 1,860 sq m] of retail.

Peter Dennehy: The most important amenities are schools, parks that everybody can use, and walking and biking trails and paths. The best thing an MPC can have is a good new school. It doesn’t have to be public; in certain markets, it could be a charter or a private school. Beyond those things, most projects are still providing active recreation centers—typically a pool and some social spaces—if they have enough units [to warrant their inclusion].

How are MPC developers working to provide better access to resources such as education and health care?

Majerik: There are many different models to deliver education. Public/private partnerships, tax [increment] financing, school bonds, and charter schools are some of the ways MPCs can work with their communities to provide educational opportunities.

Dennehy: I’ve seen examples of projects around the country that have partnered with a YMCA, daycare center, or charter school. In Florida, near Rosemary Beach, HomeFed Corporation is developing a community around a new charter school on site. Playa Vista in Los Angeles partnered with the Los Angeles Unified School District to build a charter school. Playa Vista also sold land to a nonprofit organization that’s building a retirement home on site.

Sharpe: The [local] school system is one of the most important amenities for first-time and move-up homebuyers. Providing school and library sites, construction expertise, and financial and political support [is one] of the ways to add value to your community by enhancing educational quality. At Rancho Sahuarita, we have been involved with efforts to enhance the quality of education support through the development of new schools, programs, and communications. We are an active participant in Sahuarita Wins, a collaborative effort to bring together business and community leaders around education, and we are currently chairing a PAC [political action committee] to support propositions 421 and 422 to fund school operations. We also partner with the school district on many programming initiatives.

Dremann: One acquisition we’re in the process of planning is Babcock Ranch in Florida. We’re working on a health and wellness center that will have not only a fitness component, but also a social gathering place and a medical component. We’re working to partner with a local hospital that would occupy that space on day one. It might initially be open three days a week; and as the community grows, it would start adding medical specialists. In terms of education, since we’re in a greenfield environment, we could have bused kids over 40 to 55 minutes away. Instead, we’re working to partner with a local university and the local public school district, giving the district storefront school space within what will eventually be a commercial multiuse building. The university will work with the public school system to come up with a customized K–12 curriculum, as well as undergraduate degree courses on its own satellite campus within the community. It will become a magnet school on day one, even before the permanent facilities for the primary school are built.

How are MPCs helping foster a sense of community among residents?

Dennehy: Programming. Not every community is big enough to offer programming. But a great example is the Pavilion Park MPC in Irvine, California, which integrated the welcome center into a central community hub that has a bike repair shop, a community greenhouse, and an indoor/outdoor kitchen/dining area. So over time it’s going to function more for residents and less for selling new homes.

Majerik: That goes back to the trend I mentioned of MPCs taking an urban form, with the porch on the street and sidewalks. In the traditional suburban model, where there is no habitable space on the front of the house, there’s a lot more emphasis on the private backyard. For MPCs following an urban form, the front porch becomes a semiprivate space that engages with the public realm. That creates opportunities for spontaneous engagement. MPCs are also doing a lot around programming to foster community among residents.

How significant is the trend toward incorporating agriculture?

Callender: There’s an increasing focus on amenities that bring people with similar interests together, like dog parks and community gardens. Golf is definitely waning.

Majerik: All across the United States, there is an emphasis on local food production, so it’s important to think about how each MPC can assist its residents in growing their own food, whether it’s providing garden beds and community gardens in parks, using edible landscaping in parks, or incorporating small-scale farms.

Dennehy: MPCs with community gardens and farming are more and more common. We’re working on an MPC in San Diego that’s going to include a working farm. The residents won’t be growing the food; the owners will lease [the farm] to a professional farmer. But it’s within a short walking distance from the community’s proposed neighborhood school, so people will be able to access it easily. The intention is that the farmer would run education programs and holiday events. There’s a trend toward incorporating a café early in the community’s life, placing it in the community center to create a sense of place. It activates the welcome center and makes it a community spot from day one.

What are some best practices for handling transportation issues, such as automobile traffic, parking, public transit, and bicycling?

Dremann: In one new community that we’re working on, we’re working to put in place an electric autonomous vehicle system from day one. We’re in the process of making sure that all of our parking areas have charging stations to accommodate those. That community is slated to break ground next year and open in 2017. In another community, we’re working with the county on making sure that we’ve got appropriate bus transit stops. Multiple-use walking and biking trails, sidewalks, and great walkability overall are still very important for any MPC.

Callender: Some MPCs are implementing the Car2go car-sharing service and incorporating charging stations for the electric vehicles. Others are providing golf carts for people to drive within the community. A couple of the clients I’m working with are looking at providing a shuttle service to key public transit points. Younger couples will often prefer to own one car instead of two: the person who commutes uses the car, and the second person can take transit and/or walk or bike and use a Car2go for longer distances. MPCs and developers need to be thinking of how to embrace the trend toward the emerging share economy.

Majerik: We’re still trying to work with cities on transportation best practices. There are some success stories—like the Denver metro area, for instance, where the Regional Transportation District has a very large multijurisdictional light-rail project underway. But specific to MPCs, municipalities are still requiring developers to design roads that are too wide for the adjacent land use. Also, MPC developers need to be thinking about how driverless cars are going to [affect] home design. Say that people start using shared driverless cars, which are stored on site lots. Are we making sure that our detached or semiattached garages can be easily transformed into a habitable space? Do they have the right telecommunications capabilities and water and sewer hookups?

What other trends are you aware of?

Sharpe: New amenities include indoor play spaces, soft-surface trail systems, artificial-turf greenways, three- and six-hole golf courses, programming for baby boomers not wanting to live in age-restricted communities, an emphasis on yoga and other mat sports, and [fitness] boot camps. We are also seeing more sand entry beaches; canoe, kayak, and paddleboat or paddle board rentals; “outdoor living rooms” with barbecue areas and comfortable seating; fire pits; and splash pads for toddlers. Co-workspaces that support the idea of being “alone together” can provide an amenity for telecommuters and incoming millennials, who want to work and socialize. Multigenerational housing opportunities allow many boomers to live with their boomerang kids (and grandkids). Also, homes that provide flex spaces that can adapt as a family grows can also serve as a way to help finance a home if some of the rooms are rented, i.e., AirBnB.

Callender: MPC developers are incorporating more hybrid spaces. The concept of having single-purpose facilities, like a clubhouse or a welcome center, is morphing. A town center area might have a coffee shop that is also a lending library and a welcome center. Amenities should be accessible and usable by multiple groups of people. Many developers have been working hard on the school issue: how do you take a school site that has playfields and basketball courts and maybe a gym that’s unused [during] certain hours of the day or week and allow residents access to make it a community hub?

Dremann: You can’t overlook the importance of health and wellness. People are trying to be healthier, and MPCs can make it easy for them to make healthy choices within their community, having access to the great outdoors, fresh and local produce, and great health care and education. Great multiuse trails, pedestrian ways, social gathering places, and sidewalks are still very important to all of our planning efforts.

Ron Nyren is a freelance architecture and urban planning writer based in the San Francisco Bay area.

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