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  NEW TOWNS
WINTER 2004
 

Texas Flower: HomeTown North Richland Hills

Destined to become the urban and civic focus of North Richland Hills, Texas, HomeTown North Richland Hills -- called simply "HomeTown" by the locals -- epitomizes what can be created when a progressive municipality and a visionary developer join forces.

Originally the location of Mangham Municipal Airport 9 miles northeast of downtown Fort Worth, the 300-acre grayfield site began its new life with a DPZ-led charrette in 1998. Construction began in 2000 on this community-approved project, which will include a mix of residential, commercial, athletic, and civic land uses oriented around three lakes -- all within comfortable walking distance of each other.

Although HomeTown is a marvel of stakeholder cooperation, systemic problems cropped up early on, says Bill Gietema, CEO of Arcadia Realty, the project developer. "We had three (mixed-use) buildings that were 87 percent leased and ready for construction on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001 -- we literally had building permits. But the day after 9/11, those lessees started calling and changing their minds. It's taken us three years to get back to where we were -- in terms of getting the buildings back online to pull permits. The pre-leasing is just getting started again."

In 2001, the first residential lot sales went through and Arcadia began the process of building homes. Using a builder education program devised by Memphis-based town architect Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, Arcadia was able to achieve its vision for proper site planning and architectural design. Overseen on-site by Arcadia's project manager, Dan Quinto, AIA, phases one and two are now complete.

Three hundred homes comprise these first two phases of construction and include a variety of single-family types, such as townhomes, garden homes, manor homes, and township homes, which are garden homes sited on 40x110-foot lots and targeted at childless households. Phase three is presently opening up for sales; eventually, an independent living option will be offered for retirees. "At build-out we'll have about 1,400 homes," says Gietema.



What makes these homes especially noteworthy is the state-of-the-art communications electronics behind the traditional facades. "This is truly neotraditional," says Gietema, noting that Hometown was recently awarded the "Community of the Year" award from the National Broadband Association. Every home has six strands of fiber optics running into it for virtually unlimited bandwidth. "The hardware to push that much information doesn't even exist yet," says Gietema.

The system currently features Video On Demand, which allows residents to access more than 3,000 movies from their TVs, then download and view them for less money than a rental store fee. Every home enjoys Internet access that's essentially twice the speed of a T1 line; in other words, it's fast. Really fast. Plans for 2005 include the introduction of Voiceover Internet Protocol (VOIP) that will allow residents to call anywhere in the world for the price of a local call.



Arcadia is taking steps to ensure that the wonders of home technology don't keep HomeTown residents indoors. "We've built a 28-acre linear lake park, which includes 20 acres of lakes, waterfalls and a fountain, plus an urban bosque -- a beautiful natural area," says Gietema. Other on-site recreational destinations include an ice skating complex and a municipal waterpark.

There is 340,000 square feet of retail space -- in a hybrid design -- connected to HomeTown's traditional main street. As for the main street itself, the first building is up, with an additional six -- offering office and residential over retail -- slated to begin construction in March 2005.

The city of North Richland Hills has also implemented a tax-increment financing program that will help to fund three new civic buildings on main street to the tune of $43 million. Soon residents will enjoy a new regional library, a health and fitness facility, and a conference and performing arts center.

But the headliner in Gietema's view is the HomeTown Elementary School, the first modern instance of an urban elementary school in Texas and the first school in decades to use a child-centric design philosophy. "The building and the site plan are based on how to benefit children in terms of their health, happiness, and enhanced learning rates," Gietema says.

Designed by Dallas-based HKS, the school prioritizes children, rather than SUV-driving parents, says Gietema. "It has a nice street edge, on-street parking, a philosopher's bosk, and classroom gardens. And they designated the required fire lane behind the building as the drop-off point for kids who are driven to school. That was a brilliant insight, since they estimate more than 50 percent of the kids will either walk or ride their bikes to school. It keeps the front of the building much more welcoming."

"In addition, the campus is wireless; every child is given a handheld PDA or a laptop that they can take anywhere on the school site to learn and interface with the world."



Gietema tells one particular story of city decision-making that should rescue every struggling urbanist from utter despair.

The city had two major arterial roads that crossed through the HomeTown site. At more than 65 feet wide and signed at 60 mph, "they were 'kid-killers,'" says Gietema, "so fast and hilly that you could actually catch air while driving them."

The arterials were partially built, with about 3/4 of a mile complete and another 1 1/2 miles yet to be done. "We actually reconfigured part of those arterials," he says. "We cut a median into part of one to create two 18-foot lanes and fronted homes on it where they would have been backed with masonry sound-barrier walls. In another portion we cut it down to an alley and backed new housing up against it. The portions we removed were either ground up and used as base for new roads, or used as fish habitat in the lake.

"By getting rid of those arterials, we were not only able to repair the existing neighborhood, we were able to eliminate about $5 million of negative infrastructure. We would have had several miles of intersecting, high-speed corridors; now we have two very lovely streets that are pedestrian-friendly and actually beautiful to drive along."

What makes this story so astonishing is how the city of North Richland Hills responded to Arcadia's plan of attack for the arterials. "It's one thing convincing a city to let you do a narrow street, but it's entirely different for them to let you radically change what was already on the ground and approved," says Gietema. "It shows a lot of courage and municipal wisdom.

"The city of North Richland Hills has been a great partner. Going back to 1998, we're at 51 consecutive unanimous votes together. Everything from the library and park boards -- to P&Z and City Council. It's not always smooth, but it's always polite and professional. We've always come up with compromises that make sense."

The partnership is paying off for Arcadia, too. Homes are selling at between 80 and 100 units per year, with home prices running about 30 percent higher than expected, says Gietema. "People are spending additional money on expanded porches, granny flats, and enhanced landscaping because they understand and want the traditional place we are building together"


HomeTown North Richland Hills at a Glance

Location: North Richland Hills, Texas
Size: 300 acres Developer: Arcadia Realty
Designer: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co.
Birthdate: 2000 Percent complete:
Residential 25%; Civic 0%; Main Street retail 25% in progress
Population: 250 occupied homes
Custom home prices: $450,000 to $600,000 Townhomes: $120,000 to $180,000

Getting there: HomeTown North Richland Hills lies 9 miles northeast of downtown Fort Worth, Texas. Visit www.hometownnrh.com to view a map and get driving directions. For more information, call 972.774.9110 or visit the web site.


Jason Miller is a new urbanist freelance writer, editor, photographer, and plan book publishing consultant based in St. Paul, Minn. Contact him at goodwords [at] juno.com or 651.646.7021.