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VOL. 5, NO. 4 -- FALL 2003

In the Land of Sprawl, Pam Sessions Chooses the Walkable Road Less Traveled

In early May, covering a story for The Town Paper, I attended a Seaside Institute conference entitled "Marketing New Urban and Smart Growth Communities." (For specific details, see our Summer 2003 issue). On the second day, basking in the glow of fluorescent lights while the streets of Seaside were coming alive outside, Atlanta-based Hedgewood Properties' Sales Manager Fran Marty regaled the audience with tales from her company's infancy, in particular the persistence and foresight of its founder, Pam Sessions.

As the colorful anecdotes flowed, I began to mentally assemble them into a potential headline for a personality profile. This is what I came up with: "Rock and Roll Renaissance Mom Builds Town for Her Kids."

I need to go meet this person, I thought. So that's what I did.

As it turns out, it wasn't a very nice day. Certainly not ideal for strolling the unfinished streets of Vickery, Hedgewood's 237-acre showcase TND currently under construction in Atlanta's northern hinterlands. But as rain spattered off my windshield on my drive up Georgia 400, I wasn't especially worried about it. After all, I wasn't going there to do a piece on the neighborhood itself, the company's foray into mixed-use and compact development. I didn't need to measure densities or lot lines. I was more interested in what it is that leads a person to build such a place, especially someone who's spent 20 years building homes in the Sunbelt's capital of sprawl.

Granted, there's always been a difference between Hedgewood and the production builders who rule the city. While deep-pocketed competitors crank out largely undignified, suburban-styled product in ever-increasing quantities, Hedgewood has carefully built a brand around quality design and construction. But while this focus made for a logical evolution towards the finest in period architecture, it concerns houses rather than land planning. What, I wondered, led them to move from selling homes that suit our lifestyles to selling neighborhoods that serve our lives? Was I going to meet an idealistic dreamer or a savvy and pragmatic entrepreneur?

Pam Sessions, I discovered, is a little of both.

I guess it should have come as no surprise that Sessions is a committed mother, given the fact that she tends to mother her visitors, offering a drink immediately after a warm and relaxed handshake. In the course of our conversation, though, it became clear that this isn't just a part of her persona. Family, it seems, is at the heart of everything she does.

Consider this: Sessions' business partner is Don Donnelly, who just happens to be her husband. The company's headquarters sit on the same 23 acres as their family home. And those 23 acres, along with 214 more that surround them, are the site of their ambitious Vickery project. It's almost as though the lessons they've learned over the past 20 years have progressively come home. But why?

"We live in an area with a family focus," she says. "Families are drawn out here, and we just weren't satisfied with the choices that were available to us." She goes on to talk about the dearth of walking in Forsyth County - the absence of accessible amenities -- not because its residents don't value exercise or convenience but because the physical makeup of their environment makes it impossible.

"The dream of living in the country has a downside that maybe you don't realize until you've experienced it," she continues. "When people ask us 'How can you give up all this acreage and privacy?', I understand where they're coming from, having lived it myself. A rural-type setting is ideal for young children, but eventually they just want to be with other kids. You end up planning every event. You end up driving them everywhere."

So, after years of largely conventional homebuilding, she began conjuring up a more conducive environment. It was ultimately just coincidence that what was intuitively right for her growing children, and right for her family, just happened to have a name. Several names, actually: new urbanism, or neotraditional design, or traditional neighborhood development. The nomenclature didn't really matter. Sessions wasn't drawn to it as a planning fad or a market niche. She was simply looking for a more satisfying life. The fact that a notable segment of the market apparently agrees is just icing on the cake.

"We're just going on our own instincts," she mentions modestly. "We figured we couldn't be the only ones who feel this way . that we'd like to walk to a coffee shop or have our kids walk to school or to the YMCA. And so far, the market has responded with 'yes, thank you.'"

Based on expressed interest, Vickery seems destined to be a hit, even with just a few homes built and the civic and commercial amenities just colors on a master plan. But what really brought people around, she says, were the wide variety of choices and the integration of price points. It provided perspective rarely considered by the typical Atlanta single-family homebuyer.

Thinking back on this phenomenon, she offers, "People relate when it's on a personal level. You know, 'Do I want my [retired mother] to be able to live down the street? Yes, I do.'" This is no calculated emotional ploy. Independent of any targeted marketing initiative, three multi-generational families have already bought into the development.

Pam Sessions is living proof that new urbanism, though clearly a movement, is also just a collection of attributes that create great places to live and raise a family. An environment that people connect with -- deeply -- whether they've ever heard the term or not.

And the rock and roll part? Well, it turns out that Sessions sings in a band. One that includes her brother (no surprise there), who also operates a psychiatric office in a restored building on the family land. The band practices upstairs.

So, apparently, long before Vickery was ever even considered, the family's 23-acre homestead included mixed uses and adaptive restoration. Sounds like Pam Sessions has been a new urbanist -- whether she recognized it or not -- all along.

Scott Doyon is a principal with Civitatis, a communications and marketing group devoted exclusively to the well-conceived and lovable place. He can be reached at or by calling 404.372.5394.