In the St. Louis, Mo., suburb of St. Charles, a fledgling TND is already generating buzz for its skillful design, varied architecture and wide range of housing price points. These key factors are responsible for New Town at St. Charles' 412 home closings between March 2005 and 2006, and MarketGraphics recently naming it the best-selling development out of 17,280 communities in 16 states.
A view along North New Town Avenue. Photo courtesy of Whittaker Homes.
Like many new urban communities, New Town at St. Charles began with a dream. Developer Greg Whittaker, president of Whittaker Homes, based in St. Peters, Mo., had been taking his family to visit Seaside, Fla., since 1991. Although Whittaker's company had been building successful conventional suburban developments (CSDs) for decades, in 1996 he found himself realizing that "community" could be much more than an assemblage of houses. "I started thinking about creating a place like Seaside in which to live, work and raise my family back home in St. Charles," says Whittaker. "And I wanted to keep it affordable, where hopefully almost anybody could buy into it."
In 2002, Whittaker and his vice president and director of architecture, Tim Busse (who also serves as New Town's town architect), began touring developments across the country, such as Prospect in Longmont, Colo., and the Cotton District in Starkville, Miss. -- an extensive travel schedule that has included dozens of places and continues to this day. They brought back a wealth of information and photographs, and began to envision a new kind of neighborhood.
Planned and designed by Marina Khoury of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, New Town incorporates a careful mix of homes, a large town center and six neighborhood centers. The project's footprint is quite large; at 747 acres, it's one of the more sizable TNDs in the nation. At build-out -- which is estimated to take 10 to 15 years -- New Town will fully integrate roughly 5,700 residential units that range from diminutive courtyard cottages and senior cottages that start in the $120s, to stately custom homes with prices that top $1 million.
That price-point spread is proving to be a large part of New Town's appeal. How can Whittaker Homes deliver housing that is so attainable, while keeping the high-end buyer happy? Chalk it up to a perfect storm of a smart business plan, external factors and a company that knows how to take advantage of its regional savvy.
"Whittaker Homes has been in business for 30 years, and has been building 500 - 600 houses per year for the past 10 years," says Whittaker. "We had always built CSD, but we were very efficient. We developed our own lots, we have our own union labor of 350 - 400 employees in the field, and we have our own lumberyard, so we buy direct from materials manufacturers -- that's a huge way to control costs."
Whittaker Homes also claims an impressive list of in-house services, including:
• Architecture and engineering
• Customer service
• Closing, title and mortgage
"Because we keep about 75 percent of the trade in-house, we're set up to make it easier to keep our prices down," says Whittaker. "And we spend a lot of time in product development, keeping our houses simple, with straightforward detailing, but using good materials. Our development costs for New Town were more than a conventional development but not out of line. And land costs are relatively inexpensive here, at just under $1 per square foot."
Another twist to the land-development piece of the puzzle is the fact that Whittaker is not adding any profit in the land itself. "We just list that as a cost," says Whittaker. "Typically, you'll go buy a lot and make a certain return, and you put a mark-up on top of that. So we're able to keep it a lot more affordable than a typical development."
But even with the right tools and strategies at work, the company needed to develop additional skills for New Town, including bridge-building, live/work and commercial building construction, and park installation. "Our architecture and engineering department had to modify about 40 percent of our standard-model homes so that they would be appropriate for New Town," says Whittaker. So far, Whittaker Homes has built all the houses in New Town, but the firm recently sold several lots to other builders and people who want to hire their own contractor.
An experimental spirit pervades New Town at St. Charles; that spirit is bringing in new residents in droves. The first of 10 phases is nearing completion, a veritable cornucopia of housing types that include apartment mansions, rowhouses, cottages, single-family homes, live/work units and carriage houses. A loft project is in the design phase. "We try to have every type of housing product," says Whittaker.
An apartment mansion. Photo courtesy of Whittaker Homes.
The architecture draws on the St. Louis region. Since St. Charles is a textbook river town with more than a mile of historic district, the company enlisted Miami architect Steve Mouzon to do a "book of inspiration," which documented local architecture. In an effort to create a place that doesn't look like it was drawn by the same hand, Whittaker and Busse solicited ideas and designs from several other new urban architects and firms, too, including Victor Barrett, 180° Degree Studio, Bill Dennis, Lew Oliver, Busse himself, and others. All have influenced the direction the New Town buildings have taken, says Whittaker.
"It's difficult sometimes, though, because we don't really have local architects that will do what we're doing," says Whittaker. "When I give tours to the local AIA chapter, they always ask why there aren't modern buildings. I say, because it won't sell as well, but we're open to including it.
"And because we're large enough, we're trying to encourage DPZ and other architects to bring us things to try out, because we have the luxury of being able to build a lot of different things."
At press time, New Town had closed 440 homes and completed half of its first neighborhood center, where a bookstore/café, a market, a restaurant and a handful of small kiosks have opened for business. "Last year we sold 40 live/works in there, and they're under construction now," says Whittaker. "We're hoping the kiosk business owners will move into the live/works when they're finished."
New Town is something of a big fish in a small pond for its region, where comparable projects can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And industry types are paying attention, says Kevin Klinkenberg, principal of 180° Degree Studio in Kansas City, Mo., which participated in all the New Town charrettes, provided urban design assistance and created a new office building that is currently being built.
"It's amazing what having a project of its caliber in our general region can do for urbanism of all kinds," Klinkenberg says. "People here in Kansas City are talking about it in the public and private sector; it's really created quite a buzz. Many otherwise knowledgeable real estate types have had their eyes opened by New Town, and now are looking with fresh eyes at their particular site/problem to see what it can teach them.
"Because the project has been so successful and is so well done, people are traveling to see it -- developers and others in the real estate industry who otherwise may not have paid attention to new urbanism all these years. Tim Busse and other Whittaker people have gone out and done presentations because people want to hear about it. That's exposed it to a lot of people who are outside the TND world, including a lot of people who do urban redevelopment.
"A lot of our municipalities come to us or others and say 'We want to do that.' Some have had exposure to TND before, but they're blown away by New Town."
New Town's great press hasn't changed the Whittaker Homes world at large -- "We're still a CSD developer," says Whittaker -- but the neighborhood has become a Midwest poster child for a better way to develop. Its progress and success are bragging points for Busse. "I'm proud of the way the community looks," he says. "It's never going to be pristine like Windsor (Florida); it has a scruffiness, a realness that we like. I think the architecture is good. We've distilled the houses down to their essence; we sweated the details. Small things add up to a place where the architecture is good but not overbearing. It has a really good feel to it."
When asked what challenges he faced while trying to realize his dream of New Town, Whittaker Homes president Greg Whittaker laughs. "There were a thousand problems!" he says. "It's about fi ve times more work than a typical subdivision because of all the details that have to be thought out and planned, compared to a normal CSD."
The firm has gone through two years of learning. They've created legal documents, floor plans, and worked through many of the questions and roadblocks that face new urban developers. And now it's time to pass that knowledge on to other first-timers.
Introducing "New Town in a Box," the collected information gleaned over two years of struggling to bring New Town out of the ground. The semi-custom package will be delivered in Word format, and will contain sample legal documents, covenants, about 30 popular floor plans from small villa cottages to custom homes, product recommendations, budgets and more. Whittaker plans to sell the product for $50,000 and up, depending on how much a customer wants to customize it.
"You can add certain products like a general store or a town hall, and you'll still have to meet with state attorneys for law compliance, but this will get you at least 80 percent of the way to where you need to be," Whittaker says. "If I'd had this information three years ago, I would have written a check very quickly, because of the time and energy it would have saved."
New Town in a Box will be available in fall 2006. Keep your eyes on whittakerhomes.com for an announcement of its release.
Location: St. Charles, Mo.
Size: 747 acres
Designer: Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company
Developer: Whittaker Homes
Groundbreaking: October 2003
Percent complete: 10 percent
Population: +/- 1,000
Apt. mansions: $140s - $170s
Carriage houses: TBD
Cottages: Start in the $200s
Courtyard cottages: Start in the $120s
Custom homes: From the $400s to $1 million+ Live/work units: $325s - $570s
Rowhouses: $150s - $280s
Senior courtyards: $120s - $200s
Single-family: $220s - $500s
Commercial space: +/- 500,000 square feet
Getting there: From downtown St. Louis, take I-70 west to I-270 north to Highway 370 west. Turn north on New Town Boulevard and go 1.5 miles to the community on the right.
For more information, visit www.newtownatstcharles.com or call 636.949.2700.