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  NEW TOWNS
MARCH/APRIL 2008
 

Water World
A Pike Road, Ala., TND dives into a grand experiment and finds the water’s fine.

"How many new urban communities can you look at and say, 'This is as good as old town whatever'?" asks Steve Mouzon, AIA, town architect for The Waters in Pike Road, Ala., and the principal author -- through Placemakers -- of the TND's master plan. "I think we're figuring out some ways to do what we haven't done much of to date."

The Waters, which is built around 200-acre, manmade Lake Cameron 16 miles east of downtown Montgomery, is young chronologically speaking, but wise beyond its years in its willingness to experiment with architecture, building types and housing costs -- and already flouting conventional wisdom with its results.


The Chapel Hill meeting house at The Waters. Photo courtesy of The Waters.

Mouzon, who also is a principal of Miami-based New Urban Guild and Mouzon Design, brings a refreshing curiosity to his work with The Waters; his professional career has brought him to a point where he is willing to try almost anything just to see the result. What's happening at The Waters is an unfolding of a rich, organic architecture that is of the region yet not stale in its execution. "This has been a slow awakening for me," says Mouzon. "For 25 years I've been trying to figure this out, and I've noticed that whenever you go to a great place, it doesn't have every style in the world, it has an architecture of that place.

"For example, any American can tell you within one square mile on the face of this earth where a photo of the French Quarter was taken. They can do this because most things are edited out, there aren't mixed styles next to each other. Ditto Santa Fe. Ditto San Francisco. The greater the place, the easier you can nail down the architecture to a very small window on planet earth as to where it is. That is a characteristic of greatness -- you might say it's the gateway to greatness."

Mouzon began experimenting with The Waters' architecture, testing theories and applying what he'd learned in his travels. "I started with the question: What should the architecture of this place or region be? We feel it's possible to start a new living tradition here."

Somewhere along the way, Mouzon also began to adopt a willingness not to force what he thought he knew, but rather to let things evolve from the place. "It's easy to say we'll shove something down their throats, but by letting things loose a little bit, we're able to stumble onto some great things," he says. "We do some things that would be considered ill-advised. I say just try it once and see what happens."

The result is a diverse architecture that is grounded in context but full of small divergences. "There's nothing that's textbook correct -- and that is by design," says Mouzon. "Everything at The Waters is a little incorrect. We worked to get it pretty much correct, but haven't forced it because some of the 'mistakes' that have been made have turned into some of the discoveries. It's that hands-off approach that has turned up some fascinating stuff.

"I could walk down a street and show you 20 things I wouldn't have done. I can show you column after column after column that are not quite the way I would have done it, but it's that great variety and narrow range that are becoming the hallmark of greatness. Great variety gets it right, and the narrow range gives it character."

Not surprisingly, the neighborhood's builders' guild plays a role in the process. "It's not all that dissimilar from the ones you'd find elsewhere," says Mouzon. "Six to 10 builders at any given point, local builders doing smaller production building. But what makes them unique is the fact they've participated in their education on the basis of principle, as opposed to just style. I can pull anyone off a scaffold, and they can tell you a shocking amount of information about architecture and why they do what they do. Why is that? Because they've been educated on the principles so they deal with principles, rather than particulars. That makes them more nimble."



During the planning phase, Mouzon pushed for a full complement of building types, including live/work units and one-bedroom houses. He met resistance initially in the planning phase, but a few one-bedroom houses were constructed. They sold as quickly as the larger houses in the neighborhood.

Mouzon also wanted live/work units surrounding The Waters' central square. Again, initial resistance, but after conversations with local real estate agents, the owners discovered great interest in the product -- so much so that they "condominiumized" the units, and the commercial units sold out quickly. Oddly, the residential condos from that first project have not performed to expectations, so the next group of live/work units will be transformed into one-story commercial buildings with no residential. Still, the form of the central-square buildings remains intact.

Even in its adolescence, The Waters' is bucking conventional wisdom with regard to its support of local businesses. With few out-of-neighborhood visitors spending money in the town center, the businesses there are nonetheless thriving -- on local trade alone. That might not sound impressive until you look at the numbers, says Mouzon. "There are 100 rooftops supporting 10,000 square feet of commercial. The square footage isn't a big deal, but the ratio is. Conventional wisdom says it takes 1,000 rooftops to support a corner store. We have one-tenth that many supporting 10,000 square feet (six businesses) on the ground floor. There's some commercial now on the second levels, and they're looking to build more because of the demand."



The 1,250 acres that was to become The Waters started off on the right track but almost lost its footing. The property received a 1997 Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) design called Grangemoor, a plan that was ill-fated after the owners of that project ran into problems trying to figure out how to handle the necessary sewer infrastructure. They eventually sold the property to the owners of The Waters, Ed Welch and Dale Walker, who started to lean toward a conventional suburban development (CSD) approach.

In August 2003, Nathan Norris, a principal with PlaceMakers, met with the new owners and critiqued the CSD plan. Mouzon, who was the director of design for PlaceMakers at the time, joined the effort a few weeks later. When the owners asked Norris and Mouzon for their design approach, they worked quickly with Frank Green and Ann Daigle to develop a more sustainable urbanism for the site, designing a series of hamlets clustered around an artificial lake. Welch and Walker liked what they saw, asked for CAD drawings for the first two hamlets, and The Waters began to gain traction.

In 2004, Norris joined The Waters full-time as its director of marketing and sales, and real estate broker -- and development leaped into fast-forward. "The project was able to start quickly because we had no zoning," says Norris. "Now, we've been annexed by Pike Road and they adopted the SmartCode in 2005, so we're subject to that."



From a placemaking perspective, The Waters gets almost everything right. It saves about half its total acreage for public use. It already boasts an impressive list of amenities, including a marina, beach, boathouse, tennis courts, basketball court, meeting house, YMCA, bank, corner market and dentist. The community is actively seeking a school project.

As for housing-type mix, this TND is a poster child for integration. "We probably have the broadest range of house types in close proximity to each other," says Norris. "Only about 110 houses are occupied, but of those, the least expensive home (a one-bedroom dwelling) was $158,000 and the most expensive is $1.5 million. The smallest dwelling unit is 762 square feet; the largest is about 8,000 square feet."

Montgomery is not a production builders' market, and that can be a two-edged sword, says Norris. "The blessing is that's how we got the variety we did and the one-bedroom houses. The challenge is that it's difficult for a custom builder to build as quickly and efficiently as a production builder. So we're three years into the project and have only 110 houses. There wasn't a house available to sell 'til last year -- they couldn't build them fast enough."

The Waters' current design calls for about 2,500 lots. So far, the first hamlet, Lucas Point, has completed infrastructure and over 80 percent of the lots have been sold; infrastructure construction has begun on the second Hamlet, Welch Cove. "We expect Welch Cove to open next year or late this year," says Norris.



"We've been impacted by the real estate downturn, yes, but not that much," says Norris.

"While our sales are up, we believe that we would enjoy better sales if the inventory in our region had not grown by 25 percent in 2007, despite a 10 percent decline in overall sales in the region. Currently, we have about 18 families who are waiting to sell their existing homes elsewhere before they buy here."

The Montgomery area is not a huge market or a second-home market, so it's commonplace for homes to stay on the market longer before selling. Norris says 60 annual home sales is an acceptable pace.

For the time being, the neighborhood's builders -- fully half of whom live in The Waters itself -- are reducing their inventory of spec houses and focusing more on custom homes. Even in the face of an economic and construction slowdown, though, life is good at The Waters. The neighborhood is helping to spawn similar efforts, such as DPZ's Hampstead and Dover Kohl's Hudson, both in Montgomery. The Waters' owners, Welch and Walker, live immediately adjacent to the site and are more than financially invested in its success. Every member of The Waters' development team lives in the neighborhood, too; they help to drive the project forward as The Waters continues to mature and develop into a fully executed community. "We have very spirited debates, but we also have a neighborhood that everybody cares about," says Norris.


Sidebar: A Word from the Wise
By Jason Miller

If you’re reading about The Waters as someone who’s about to dip a toe into new urban development, Nathan Norris, director of marketing and design for The Waters, has a few quick tips for you.

• Understand what it takes to save the trees. Executing a plan that calls for the preservation of existing trees can be a challenge. “The only way you’re going to save the trees in our region is to hire someone full-time to guard them [during the construction phase],” says Norris. “Don’t assume that your contractors or subcontractors will understand the ins and outs of tree preservation.”

• Curbs and gutters matter. Resist the temptation to skip the installation of curb and gutter if you are building in prairie or “gumbo” soil. Curbless streets are charming in many ways, but without curbs, people stray off the road, and the resulting dirt and gravel creates maintenance headaches.

• Control your builders. If your builders are reluctant from the outset to select the plans you know will work from a design perspective, build in a six-month delay to accommodate the design-approval process.

• Price your lots properly. “If you want to have a wide range of lot sizes, subsidize the big lots, rather than charging twice as much as lots half their size,” says Norris. “If you don’t do this, you’ll effectively erase most of your larger lots from your plan, because it’s likely your buyers won’t bite on them. Instead, bump up the price on your smaller lots.”

• Expect delays if you incorporate aggressively shallow lots. When it comes to lot depths, recognize the ramifications of aggressively shallow lots. Some lots at The Waters are as shallow as 40 feet, with many in the 60- to 80-foot range. While many of these lots have wonderful homes and happy homeowners today, it took a long time to generate the house plans that were right for those lots. Thus, allow for more time in the development process if you incorporate shallow lot depths.

• Don’t shout. Whisper. “A ‘whisper’ marketing campaign is usually more effective than a ‘big bang’ approach when you are the first TND in your region,” says Norris. “Spread the news of your TND by word of mouth, rather than announcing it with both guns blazing. This enables you to ‘qualify’ interested parties; i.e., get them in a room and explain why your homes and lots are smaller, why mixed-use, why the architecture, etc. Don’t let them ‘self-serve,’ or they’ll assume everything to come will be exactly what they’re currently seeing.”


Sidebar: The Waters at a Glance

Location: Pike Road, Ala.
Size: 1,250 acres
Designer: PlaceMakers
Developer: Ed Welch, Dale Walker
Groundbreaking: 2005
Percent complete: 5%
Population: +/- 300
Single-family: $158,000 to $1,500,000
Live/work units: $150,000 to $490,000
Townhouses/flats: $219,900 to $289,000
Courtyards: $525,000 to $600,000
Side yards: $248,000 to $415,000
Carriage homes: $199,000 to $325,000
Brownstones: $825,000 to $1,200,000
Mansions: $800,000 to $1,500,000

Getting There: From Montgomery, take I-85 northbound to Exit 16 (Waugh/Cecil exit); turn right off exit. Go to stop sign and turn left onto U.S. 80 East. one-third mile and turn right onto Marler Road (Montgomery County 107). 2.1 miles and turn left onto Avenue of The Waters. Continue approximately 1 mile to Bridge Street. Waters Sales Office is on the right, facing the square.

For more information, visit www.thewatersal.com or call 334.272.3200.