Long-Term Vision Yields Fully Planned Communities

Article excerpt

The Washington metro area is in the midst of its hottest real estate market ever. It's no secret to anyone that any available developable land seems to be undergoing construction. What was once farmland is rapidly being transformed into residential communities, suburban office parks, shopping malls and highways.

You may ask: How does such a huge project, which eventually will house hundreds, or even thousands, of families gets started?

It all begins when a developer buys a large tract of land.

Years ago, developers could acquire thousands of acres in the metropolitan area, relatively cheaply. No longer. Because of higher land prices, many of today's developments are on small parcels of a couple hundred acres or less.

Many of the area's largest developments are master planned communities, first launched in the 1960s. These are called planned urban developments, or PUDs.

Such developments include St. Charles, 23 miles southeast of Washington in Charles County, Md.; and Reston, 18 miles west of the capital, in Fairfax County.

The benefits of planned communities are many, proponents say. The homes have a consistent "look," so you will not find a purple house next to a brick Colonial. Zoning prohibits a hodgepodge of buildings in the neighborhood, such as a gas station plunked down next to a single-family house. Also, amenities are available, such as parks, ponds, biking trails, swimming pools, tennis courts, golf courses and community centers. These perks are financed and maintained by homeowners' fees paid out monthly, quarterly or annually.

St. Charles

"The whole purpose of master planned communities is to concentrate growth in certain areas and preserve large tracts of open space, thereby avoiding suburban sprawl," says Ed Kelly, president and chief operating officer at American Community Properties Trust, (ACPT), a diversified real estate organization and developer of St. Charles. Last fall, ACPT spun off from its parent company, Interstate General Co. (IGC).

In 1968, IGC's founder, Jim Wilson, acquired 6,500 acres of land, since expanded to 9,100 acres, in southern Maryland and began constructing the planned community of St. Charles. It was one of a handful of communities around the country that benefited from a government initiative in place at the time, known as the Department of Housing and Urban Development's "New Town" program. The first house at St. Charles was built in 1973.

Today, about 4,500 acres of St. Charles remain undeveloped, comprising more than 10,000 residential lots. A quarter of the land has been left for open space, including 17 lakes and a paved network of hiker-and-biker trails. Each neighborhood has a recreation center, swimming pool, tennis courts, tot lots and neighborhood schools. An 18-hole public golf course surrounds the newest neighborhood, Fairway Village. By 2035, St. Charles will be completed.

Once housing is built in planned communities, retail and service sectors tend to follow quickly. St. Charles, for example, boasts a major mall at its Towne Center. The retail center is the only regional mall in southern Maryland and is visited by more than 12 million shoppers a year. The town also has 40,000 residents, 11,000 housing units, 6,000 jobs and 4 million square feet of commercial and office space, according to Mr. Kelly.

Fairway Village, which eventually will have 3,300 housing units, features a mix of single-family homes, town houses and apartments. Typical home prices in St. Charles range from $120,000 to $140,000 for town houses and from $140,000 to $230,000 for single-family homes. A mix of major national and local builders has constructed homes in St. Charles, including Pulte, Ryland, Washington Homes and Ryan Homes. "The affordability of our homes has made St. Charles very accessible to a wide array of people," Mr. Kelly says. …