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No Community is an Island: Tributary and the Young & the Restless.
  
 
by Rick Mildner and Brian Canin

 

The suburbs: New Urbanism’s new frontier?

In 1978, a visitor passing through the concourses of Atlanta's shiny new Hartsfield International Airport could not avoid exposure to Chamber of Commerce posters pronouncing the city's brash promise of the future: “Atlanta, City Without Limits.”

Downtown Atlanta.
Downtown Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo courtesy Atlanta Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
 

Atlanta had it all, and plenty of it—land, water, transportation, and suburban governments eager to welcome the transferees who were flocking to the self-proclaimed capital of the New South.

Now, some 30 years later, the Atlanta Metropolitan Statistical Area still affords plenty of land for new communities, but most of it stretches 25 to 40 miles from the city's center.  Gripped by unusually dry weather, the city's water sources are stressed.  Interstate highways that span 14 lanes in many places cannot spare residents from some of the longest commute times in the nation.  And while tolerant of growth, suburban municipalities cannot offer the cultural and recreational amenities of intown Atlanta.

Nevertheless, Atlanta continues to grow.  The city has been adding 50,000 new jobs per year and is a magnet for the highly-prized 25- to 34-year-old, college-educated demographic known as “The Young & Restless.”

A 2006 New York Times analysis of data compiled by chambers of commerce and the U.S. Census Bureau showed that Atlanta's Y&R population increased 46 percent from 1990 to 2000, and accounted for 9 percent of the metro area's total at the close of the century.  People who were aged 25 to 34 between 1990 and 2000 were largely members of Generation X.

Sweetwater Creek State Park.
Sweetwater Creek State Park.
Photo courtesy Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
 
 

While some of Atlanta's Y&R gains came at the expense of cities nationwide (notable among them are New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia) the city came by much of its young population the old-fashioned way—it bred them, educated them, and has held them with a growing economy and an active lifestyle.  A substantial portion are the children of the young transferees who flocked to Atlanta in the 1970s and 80s.

Atlanta has always been skilled at redefining itself, and these young people have been welcomed with a wealth of fresh intown housing options that include skyline-altering condo towers, mixed-use developments on reclaimed industrial sites, and new infill housing in inner-city neighborhoods.

Active, young Atlantans, who form a—and possibly the—significant demographic for Atlanta housing, value what Atlanta's intown neighborhoods have to offer: pedestrian orientation, authentic architecture, convenient access to employment centers and recreation, and perhaps most importantly, the sense of community they associate with small towns.  But as they begin to form families, personal security, home size, and family finances grow in importance.  Consequently, many Generation X Atlantans find themselves less willing to pioneer transitional intown neighborhoods and unable to afford a home of their liking in established and desirable intown neighborhoods where single-family detached home prices often start well over $750,000.

Tributary's Founders Park.
Tributary's Founders Park at the entry of the Village offers wireless Internet access, among other amenities.
Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
 

Why not the suburbs?

People who can't find what they want in an urban setting look to the suburbs.  But there, new development has largely adhered to timeworn design themes: auto-oriented neighborhoods with beige-box homes and predictable, centrally located amenities.  The few suburban Atlanta communities that have embraced live/shop/play ideals and traditional neighborhood development are located far beyond the gravitational pull of the center city's business districts and entertainment attractions.  And even some of these sport starting prices of $600,000, well above what most Atlantans would term “affordable.”

By 2003, the growing importance of Gen X buyers and the apparent lack of a community meeting their affordability and lifestyle requirements had revealed an opportunity in Atlanta's housing market that has since become Tributary, a new community with a small town atmosphere and a variety of housing and neighborhood choices designed especially for Gen X individuals, couples, and families.  Launching Tributary required us to answer four questions:

  1. Can New Urbanism principles be applied to a popularly priced community in a suburban setting?
  2. Which specific attributes would Gen X buyers demand of an intown neighborhood in the suburbs?
  3. Could the particular 1,475-acre site that we had identified in Atlanta's close-in, underdeveloped westside suburbs be transformed into such a community?
  4. How would such a community be marketed to a Gen X audience?

Are New Urbanism and affordability mutually exclusive?

Tributary's Park Court homes.
Tributary's Park Court homes in the Village front parks with sidewalks but no streets.
Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
 
 

The close of World War II marked a turning point in U.S. housing.  America had mobilized 16 million people for military service during the war.  As they returned home, long-delayed family formation began in earnest.  To meet skyrocketing demand for housing, the technology of mass production, perfected during the war, was applied to home construction.  Builders specialized in a few designs and a few styles, but on a grand scale.  In the post-war era of residential development, affordability, availability, and automobiles were victorious.  Community character was a casualty.

Traditional neighborhood development has sought to reclaim community character through the reintroduction of those design elements that were sacrificed to affordability.  But must affordability now be sacrificed to achieve a sense of place even when the place is in the suburbs?

Like a chorus, a community is an amalgam of different voices in harmony, distinct but complementary.  The classic American neighborhoods prize both homes and streetscape.  They distinguish between private spaces and public spaces, but bring them into contact with one another.  They create opportunities for neighborliness inside and outside the home.

In theory, the elements that give classic American neighborhoods much of their character—human scale, tree-lined sidewalks, and green spaces, among them—should be more easily incorporated into suburban neighborhoods where greater land availability affords larger, less obstructed canvases on which to paint. In fact, however, transporting urban development to suburban locations has its complications:

  • Municipalities acclimated to large lot development may be justifiably suspicious of the smaller lot sizes characteristic of TND design.  They require assurances of quality.
  • Utilities, unaccustomed to dealing with curbsides encumbered by street trees, require a greater degree of coordination and support.
  • Suburban TND communities must alter the competitive equation.  It is financially impossible to add New Urbanism elements to a suburban—or any—development plan and compete on the basis of home size and price with lesser-amenitized surrounding neighborhoods.
  • Marketing approaches must be rethought. Typically, new-home communities identify their prospects as living within an eight-mile radius of the property.  That is not the case with the suburban TND community whose prospective buyers are likely to be living intown.

What do Gen X buyers want?

Tributary dog park.
Pooch Park is one of three off-leash dog parks already in place at Tributary.
Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
 

In the postwar period, people sought to put space between themselves and others—bigger houses on bigger lots for bigger families.  In 1970, 21 percent of households had five or more people, but today only 10 percent do.  During the same period, the average number of people per household decreased 18 percent from 3.14 to 2.57.  Households are smaller, and younger buyers are more concerned with quality than quantity.  As the New York Times reported in a 2006 story that profiled Tributary, “Younger buyers want better, not bigger.”

Gen Xers prize their standards and their standing within their peer group.  They will not accept being perceived as “selling out.”  It is important to retain neighborhood traits that make intown living attractive to them.  In our surveys of Gen X prospects for an intown community in the suburbs, they identified several community features as critical:

  • A location that affords relative convenience to valued entertainment and dining attractions and, most importantly, their existing social network
  • Authentic pre-1940s architecture
  • A walk-to-everything, small town community design that incorporates retail shopping and services in architecturally compatible centers
  • Gathering places
  • Streetscapes that show diversity of home designs and materials with inviting tree-canopied sidewalks

In addition, to lure these buyers to the suburbs, it would be necessary to provide amenities not readily available in intown neighborhoods:

  • A diverse selection of homes and types
  • Recreation that goes beyond the swim and tennis fare standard in suburban communities
  • A development plan and methodology that shows respect for the property and its environs
  • Green construction and green spaces
  • Advanced technology

Is the Tributary site up to the task?

Tributary activity center.
Neighbors enjoy a fire pit at neighborhood activity center.
Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
 
 

The site planned for Tributary has proven capable of satisfying all of the target market’s requirements.

The Location

Tributary’s location along Interstate 20 just eight miles west of Interstate 285 places it within 20 minutes of downtown Atlanta, 15 minutes of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and 30 minutes of three of Atlanta's other major employment centers.

Bordered by the Chattahoochee River on the south and Sweetwater Creek State Park on the north—and bisected by Sweetwater Creek itself—it offers countless opportunities for nature activities.  Several streams run around and through the property.  Its rugged terrain is heavily forested.  Ridgetops afford views of the Sweetwater Creek Basin, wooded conservation areas, and the downtown Atlanta skyline.

At 2,500 acres, Sweetwater Creek State Park is home to the 215-acre George Sparks Reservoir, a popular site for fishing, canoeing, and kayaking.  Sweetwater Creek itself includes a four-mile run of rapids that bump up to class 5.  There are fishing docks, playgrounds, picnic sites, and nine miles of woodland trails that wind along streams and past the Civil War ruins of the New Manchester Manufacturing Company's textile mills, then climb rocky bluffs to provide views of the creek's shoals.  All trails are interconnected throughout Tributary.

Prior to the start of development, Tributary ownership donated 500 acres of the site to Sweetwater Creek State Park (bringing the park’s total acreage to the current 2,500) and 13 historic sites on the property to a trust created and managed by the City of Douglasville.

Tributary site plan.
  The site plan for Tributary, a 1,475-acre mixed-used community 20 minutes from downtown Atlanta. Click image for larger view.
Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
 

The Master Plan

The size of the Tributary site allows for a truly mixed-use master plan integrating and interconnecting a range of residential neighborhoods, a village center with boutique retailers, a town center for national retailers, a supermarket-anchored community center, and a park of commerce with mid-rise office buildings.

  • Residential. Tributary is planned to have metro Atlanta's largest concentration of home sites developed within the village concept.  A substantial portion of the home designs will reflect the classic architecture of America's great neighborhoods.  Other portions will reflect a more contemporary architectural style and neighborhood atmosphere.
  • Village Center. At completion, Tributary could have nearly 500,000 square feet of commercial space in a 65-acre Village Center, the first phase of which is currently under construction.  Plans call for a walkable Main Street lined with retail shops, an area that will accommodate a supermarket and a “big box” retailer, office space, and approximately 400 residential units.
  • The Tributary Park of Commerce, where the Red Cross of America has opened its new LEED-certified regional headquarters, will feature up to 1.5 million square feet of low- and mid-rise office buildings.

The variety of housing types permits buyers to view Tributary as a community in which they can raise families through several stages of the family life cycle.

Easily the largest residential component is the Village, where single-family, detached homes are priced from the mid-$200’s to more than $1 million.  Townhomes in the Village are priced from the low-$200’s.  In addition, there are “Park Court” homes that front enclosed parks rather than streets, a configuration ideal for parents of young children.

Tributary townhomes.
Elevations of townhomes at the Village are consistent with those of detached single-family homes.
Photo courtesy Douglasville Development, LLC.
 
 

“River Homes” feature more typical suburban designs with front or side-entry garages on larger home sites, many on cul-de-sacs and built on basements, and priced from the mid-$200’s to the $500’s.

“Ridge Homes” are custom homes on estate-sized sites.  Many afford dramatic ridgetop views.

The Village is the Gen X touchstone of Tributary.  Like intown neighborhoods, it is pedestrian-oriented.  Almost all homes (except those on the perimeter of the property) feature alley-fed garages so streetscapes showcase the people spaces of homes rather than auto spaces.  All homes feature usable “rocking chair” front porches that introduce residents to their neighbors.  All are built on elevated pads that create a 24-inch pedestal on which the home rests.  The three-tiered streetscape rises from the street to tree-lined sidewalks to front porch.  Individual landscaping lightly separates the public space of the sidewalk from the private space of the porch.

Like intown neighborhoods, Village homes are not price-segregated.  They look right together even when a $250,000 home sits beside a $500,000 home.  Each elevation is based on a photo of an actual pre-1940s home submitted by its builder to the town architect.

Green Space & Construction

Gen X buyers are cause-oriented.  They want to do the right thing, especially if the right thing will lower the operating expense of their home, add to its value, and create a healthier living environment for their families.

Tributary represents the largest commitment to green building in Atlanta and one of the largest in America.  All of its nearly 3,000 homes—single-family detached, townhomes, and multi-family—are being built to the exacting specifications of the EarthCraft House™ program of the Southface Energy Institute and the Greater Atlanta Home Builders Association.

Tributary's village center.
  Tributary's village center, now under construction, features a mix of shops, boutiques, and small offices within walking distance of Village residents. Click image for larger view.
Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
 

EarthCraft House is a voluntary builder program dedicated to energy-efficient and environmentally friendly home design and construction.  EarthCraft House-certified builders must meet the program's stringent requirements in heating/ventilation/air conditioning systems, ductwork, attic insulation, erosion control, exterior cladding, and window and door openings, among others.

Although builders have flexibility in selecting the EarthCraft approaches best suited to their homes, they must submit a worksheet stating which measures they plan to incorporate.  These include but are not limited to site planning, energy-efficient building envelope and systems, energy-efficient appliances and lighting, resource-efficient design and building materials, waste management, indoor air quality, and efficient indoor water use.  The worksheet is detailed and must be verified by an EarthCraft House inspector.

Tree-lined, five-foot sidewalks grace both sides of every street in every neighborhood. They shape community fellowship by linking residents to each other and to recreational amenities and gathering places.

More than 35 percent of Tributary's 1,475 acres will be dedicated to green space and recreation. 

Recreation: Nature, Fitness, Athletics & Extreme Sports

The Tributary master plan takes a unique approach to recreation, dispersing opportunities throughout the community to make them more accessible to all residents rather than concentrating them all in one central area.  All recreational amenities are open to all residents. A full-time activities director and staff orchestrate a stream of community events.

  • Tributary pool and activity center.
    Swimming pools and other features like clubhouses, fitness centers, and playground are located at Tributary's multiple neighborhood activity centers.
    Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
     
    Neighborhood activity centers offer a variety of facilities such as fitness centers, swimming pools, clubhouses, basketball courts, and playgrounds.  The first two have opened in the Village and River Banks neighborhoods.
  • Community recreation centers include a 16-court tennis center with clubhouse and pro shop and sports fields.
  • Neighborhood parks include contemplative areas, dog parks, and playgrounds as well as several out-of-the-ordinary parks such as bocce ball and a skate park where tweens and teens can show their stuff.   There is a neighborhood park within a seven-minute walk of every home—one for every 50 to 75 homes.
  • A mountain biking trail by professional trail designer Mike Riter is one of the only dedicated trails in a residential community in the U.S.  The rigorous three-mile course presents a 30-minute challenge to experienced bikers and a 90-minute training exercise for beginners, rewarding both with dramatic views of Sweetwater Creek State Park.
  • An outdoor adventure center, to be built overlooking Sweetwater Creek, will serve as the jumping off point for hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing, and kayaking.
Tributary home interior.
Tributary homes feature modern, open, and "wired" interiors for tech-savvy Gen X families.
Photo courtesy WSB-TV Atlanta.
 
 

Technology & Connectivity

Gen Xers are prolific and proficient users of technology who regard it as a necessity, not a luxury.  Tributary’s fiber optic network delivers an economical communications bundle with local and long-distance telephone, high-speed Internet access, email, and cable television with premium channels, the cost of which is included in homeowners association dues.  Residents are kept abreast of community activities by browsing the community Intranet.  Neighborhood activity centers and several parks afford password-protected wireless Internet access.

Having structured our offering, we were faced with one final question:

How do you convince the Gen-X buyer?

People buy homes when their lives change, and nothing motivates a home purchase as powerfully as the introduction of children into the family.  The number of Gen Xers beginning families is what makes them an attractive market.  But Gen Xers are psychographically different buyers—self-assuredly hip, unwilling to sell out, and skeptical.  Gregarious, they travel in packs.  Quality driven, they insist on authenticity. They welcome diversity.

They are especially unlike their Baby Boomer parents in their media habits.  Traditionally, new home marketing campaigns have relied on newspapers, outdoor media, and to a lesser degree, magazines.  In Atlanta, where Realtor presence and influence has been strong, agent outreach programs have also been important.

But Gen Xers have altered the marketing landscape.  They don’t read newspapers; they get their information online.  And they don’t rely on outsiders—like real estate agents—to do their research; they do that online and within their peer group.  Once they have found their home on their terms, they will engage a real estate agent to represent them in the purchase.

Tributary's Outdoor Adventure Center.
At the Outdoor Adventure Center planned for the banks of Sweetwater Creek, residents will be able to rent kayaks, bicycles, and fishing equipment.
Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
 

Because Gen Xers eschew print media, we saw the need to launch Tributary with intrusive radio advertising that could seek out our prospective buyers well beyond the eight-mile radius that typically feeds new home communities, and to speak to them in their language and on their terms. (Listen to the radio spots: SUV Living and OTP vs. ITP.)

Radio spots present Tributary as a solution to transporting kids to activities, spousal relationships, and the Gen X third-rail issue—moving to the suburbs or OTP (outside the Perimeter).  The spots were designed to drive traffic to a website—www.TributaryGA.com—rich in content, flash, video, music, and lifestyle and streetscape photography.

Since Gen Xers are skeptical of promises, it was critical that we launch with key amenities in place and others underway. The first neighborhood, the Village, opened with its centerpiece gathering places—Founders Park and the neighborhood activity center—finished and ready to enjoy.  In addition, several neighborhood parks were close to completion and we had begun work on the tennis center.  When we opened the River Banks neighborhood nine months later, its neighborhood activity center was already underway and several neighborhood parks were also available. 

Gen Xers place a premium on individuality.  To showcase the broad selection of available housing styles and floor plans, we opened with seven decorated models in the Village, added five more when we opened River Banks, and two more when we introduced the Village townhomes.

Selling to Gen Xers is an art, an advanced form of soft-selling that borders on enabling discovery.  Stay in touch, but don’t push.  Keep them interested.  They want to be wanted; they don’t want to be sold.  Marketing materials must read and look modern as if they were written and designed by someone their age.  They must see themselves in ads, brochures and displays as they want to be seen—casual, cool, and caring.

Did it work?

Tributary home porch.
Homes in the village are built on elevated pads to give the appearance of crawlspaces that characterize Southern homes.
Photo courtesy Douglassville Development, LLC.
 
 

Within six months of its launch, Tributary had established itself as the most talked-about new home community in Atlanta, and one of the best-selling. The marketing campaign was successfully driving traffic and the product was selling itself.  Within a year, it was the best-selling community in its price range, a position it has held despite the recent softening of the Atlanta housing market.

“Smart growth” is the catchphrase among community planners, but too often it’s the planner telling the buyer what’s smart.  That isn’t how the marketplace works, especially with the generation that now drives residential development.  Listening is paramount.

Advocates for New Urbanism and smart growth who are anxious to see their ideas advanced must recognize the important role that affordability plays in the home purchase and the importance of the suburbs to affordable housing.  Transporting New Urbanism and green building concepts to suburban locations is achievable, but it requires a methodical approach to market research, property development, product development, and marketing—an approach that is working at Tributary for “the Young & the Restless” and beyond.

  

Rick Mildner is Heneral Manager & Chief Operating Officer of Douglasville Development, developer of Tributary at New Manchester.  He has been engaged in real estate since 1979, having served as president of operating divisions of several national builders and chief development officer of several master-planned communities in Florida and Georgia.

Brian Canin is President of Orlando-based Canin Associates, Inc., a 26-year-old firm whose urban planning, landscape architecture, and architectural design studios focus on the planning and design of resorts, new towns, villages, town centers, and mixed-used developments.
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Resources.
 
 

Chattahoochee River Information

City of Douglasville, Georgia

EarthCraft House Program

Quality Growth Atlanta

Sweetwater State Park

Tributary
  

 
     

 
Tributary Community Summary

  • 1,475 acres incorporates range of residential neighborhoods, village center, town center, supermaket-anchored community center, and commerce park with mid-rise office buildings
  • Neighborhoods include Village homes (1,400 single-family detached homes and townhomes on alleys), River homes (900 suburuban homes with front- or side-entry garages on larger sites), Ridge homes (200 custom-style homes on large sites), and multifamily homes (number to be determined)
  • Retail includes village center (100,000 square feet services and small offices), town center (300,000 square feet regional retail and office space), and community center (75,000 square feet with supermarket)
  • Commercial includes up to 1.5 million square feet of low- and mid-rise office buildings
  • Approximately 35% of Tributary's acreage is dedicated to green space and recreation
  • More than 500 acres of original property were deeed to adjacent Sweetwater State Creek Park
  • 13 historical sites, including portions of homes and remains of a mill from the Civil War community of New Manchester, deeded to City of Douglasville

 

    
  
 
   
    
  
 
   

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