New urbanism drives real estate recovery

Strict design principles put Florida town in high demand

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Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Jul. 29, 2011

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Strict design principles put Florida town in high demand

Steve Bergsman
Inman News™

Jean Ann Brock was kind enough to show her Rosemary Beach, Fla., house, which had just gone on the market for $6.45 million. It was good timing. The housing collapse and recession had hit the Florida Panhandle Gulf Coast like a hurricane, dismantling housing prices by more than 50 percent.

The coastline between Rosemary Beach westward along Scenic Route 30A to the town of Seaside was littered with for-sale signs and new developments that were more sand than structures. Pensacola, the big city in the region, saw prices drop 12.5 percent in April as compared to the year before, with the average home price standing at $93,000, according to Zillow.com.

The story Brock told me was personal, about having one child left to bring up and having one vacation home too many. But Brock, who attained a kind of notoriety in the planned community of Rosemary Beach with the first tear-down (remove the existing home and erect bigger and better) was from a homebuilding family, Highland Homes in Dallas, and certainly knew how to time markets. And the Rosemary Beach market had in the spring of 2011 begun to stabilize.

In 2010, Rosemary Beach had sales of $49.7 million, up 111 percent from 2009, according to Linda Miller, a broker with Rosemary Beach Realty. The rush of activity left the Rosemary Beach firm with 25 percent less inventory than the year before, a far cry from what was going on outside the community.

Real estate is always about location, location, location, but that doesn't mean much on a ground level. Seemingly, any beachfront or near-beachfront location from Pensacola to Panama City should be worth its weight in fine-grain, white sand, but that's not necessarily true.

I biked the eight miles from Rosemary Beach, a planned "new urbanism" community, to Seaside, the original new urbanism town on the Panhandle and the location for the movie "The Truman Show." Everything in between was a kind of development nightmare, gargantuan but ugly homes, unfinished projects, cheaply built condo towers -- all made manifestly worse by a real lack of zoning. If prices dropped 50 percent and still were declining because of foreclosures and short sales, I could definitely understand.

Quality wasn't about money spent, because there were some very expensive disasters of design on the Gulf of Mexico coast. However, real quality, in terms of strict zoning, planning and design, and the concept of new urbanism, buffered the effects of the recession and translated into quicker market stabilization.

I took a quick ride through Seaside, which was busy with tourists, but I stayed in Rosemary Beach as a guest, so I got to understand it better. I also got to walk it with a couple of Realtors.

According to Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the designers first of Seaside and then of Rosemary Beach, new urbanism is defined as neighborhoods that are compact, mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly; districts of appropriate location and character; and corridors that are functional and beautiful (that) can integrate natural environments and man-made communities into a sustainable whole."

Sure, that's a lot of gobbly-gook, but I saw the concept played out in the almost totally built-out community of Rosemary Beach (first established in 1995). It was a dense community of cottages and vacation homes and walkable streets interspersed with common areas, greens, parks, swimming pools, etc., surrounding a city-like interior of shops, restaurants, coffee bars and small office space. Above the ground floor was loft space. All of this built along a gorgeous Gulf of Mexico shoreline.

As someone told me while I was there, Duany and Plater-Zyberk looked back on Seaside, figured out what worked best there, included it at Rosemary Beach, and dropped what didn't work.

This is not to say there weren't stress points on the concept. Originally, the housing was more cottage-style, which is a kind of intensely functional home of limited size. However, the housing boom bubbled through Rosemary Beach. Cheap credit meant people could borrow much more to build bigger, and even in the highly zoned Rosemary Beach, larger homes began squeezing lots and going higher.

Then, of course, came the recession and prices declined by about 30 percent from peak with a handful of foreclosures. On top of all that came the British Petroleum oil spill in 2010.

Many of the Rosemary Beach homes are put into a rental pool, which means the community functions as its own little resort. I spoke with Ken Gifford, president and chief operating officer of Rosemary Beach Holdings LLC, about the oil spill. The former Sheraton hotel executive shook his head and said, "Last summer was a nightmare. I would rather have gone through a couple of hurricanes."

Was Rosemary Beach awash in oil and tar? The irony was, it sat too far away from the spill and experienced almost no physical effects. "One Sunday, one of the workers told me there were tar balls on the beach, but I never saw it," Gifford said.

A year later, Rosemary Beach was on the mend. When I was there in the spring, nine homes were under construction. I walked into a 4,000-square-foot, very beautiful house that had recently come to market. The agent, Karen Otten of Rosemary Beach Realty, told me the Alice Beach-style property had originally been listed at $1.995 million, but after two months the price was lowered slightly to $1.947 million. Not exactly a giveaway, but perhaps still a little nervousness about the market.

On my last night in Rosemary Beach, I was having dinner with Gifford and a group of others. When someone asked him about the economic health of his community, he smiled broadly, hinting someone had put a bid on the Jean Ann Brock house -- at near full price. It hadn't been on the market 24 hours.

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