When planning for the 2,200-acre Plum Creek community began in the mid-1990s, the New Urbanism movement was in its infancy and the suburban Austin town of Kyle, Texas, had fewer than 4,000 residents. The sleepy ranching town 17 miles south of Austin might have seemed like an unlikely place to develop the region’s first traditional neighborhood development, but the combination of a visionary developer and planner coupled with a forward-thinking land-owner proved to be the right recipe for making the unlikely happen.
Fifteen years later, Plum Creek is home to over 1,400 households, Kyle’s population is fast approaching 30,000, and New Urbanism has made significant inroads establishing itself as a viable, desired, and valuable development model. The unlikely story of Plum Creek’s past success coupled with the exciting future of a project with over 1,400 acres still to be developed should serve as an interesting example for both private and public interests hoping to promote smart growth and New Urbanism in their own communities.
Developed by Benchmark Land Development, Inc., Plum Creek will ultimately include 8,700 residential units, several hundred acres of green space, over 600 acres of commercial, employment, and mixed-use property, a 70-acre town center, and a commuter rail station. Plum Creek has been designed in accordance with the principles of New Urbanism, including a mix of housing types, homes sited on a variety of lot sizes, garages accessed by rear alleys, and sidewalks and trails that emphasize pedestrian connectivity to open spaces, civic spaces, and neighborhood commercial districts.
The property now being developed into Plum Creek was formerly known as the Mountain City Ranch. The ranch property was assembled by San Antonio’s Richard Van Wyck Negley and his wife early in the 1900s and was used for grazing goats and cattle, cotton production, and recreation. Negley’s wife, Laura Burleson Negley, was the great grand daughter of General Edward Burleson, the second vice president of the Republic of Texas, and the man who helped found the cities of Austin and San Marcos. He also introduced the bill in 1848 to establish Hays County, in which Kyle is located. General Burleson’s son Edward Jr. was married to Emma Kyle, daughter of Fergus Kyle, the man who had founded the small central Texas town in 1880.
The heritage of the family in Hays County and central Texas is matched by the progressive role they have played in making it a better place for generations past, present, and future. The family’s continued involvement in the development of the region’s first New Urban community is a fitting evolution of that legacy. In 2006, the Hays Consolidated Independent School District dedicated the Laura Burleson Negley elementary, school which is located on a ten-acre site donated to the district in the heart of Plum Creek’s first phase. The yet undeveloped ranch property is held in trust by family members until it can be incorporated into future phases of development.
The willingness of the landowner to hold the balance of the property during the development life cycle helped make Plum Creek’s New Urbanism plan possible. Benchmark Land Development was able to buy land in 200-acre increments as opposed to buying 2,200 acres in total in 1997. The financial structure enabled the family to hire a developer willing to work with their property on a long-term development timeline. At the time the partnership was being made there were no other New Urban developments in the region to reference for sales velocity or market share. The market was untested, and Kyle had almost nothing to offer in terms of retail, service, and employment infrastructure. Despite this, the development team believed that by creating a great place so close to Austin, they would be able to make something extraordinary happen.
New urbanism provided the framework for the community design, and making the project affordable remained a driving force for the team. By developing in Kyle, the project would have a price advantage over Austin, and the goal of creating a place for a variety of people where home prices started in the $100,000s instead of the $400,000s remained primary throughout the planning and development process.
As is often the case for New Urbanism and smart growth communities, the desired lot sizes, street widths, mix of uses, and numerous other aspects proposed by the developer were not allowed under the City of Kyle’s existing residential subdivision code. Benchmark spent 18 months negotiating a detailed planned unit development (PUD) agreement with the city.
The scale of the project was as daunting to city leaders as the nuts and bolts of the proposed ordinances. Issues of particular concern were lot sizes, street widths, and zoning uses. The planning and development team spent considerable time working to educate city leaders about the benefits of walkable, mixed-use communities, the safety benefits of narrow streets and alleyways, the value of preserving open space and building tax base through density. Ironically, the town’s historic downtown features many of the desired design elements outlawed by the existing subdivision and development ordinances.
After months of protracted negotiations and in the interest of getting the project started, Benchmark agreed to several concessions, including increases in minimum lot and home size and street widths. For example, residential street widths of 26 feet were desired, but Benchmark agreed to 27 feet; collector streets of 36 feet instead of the desired 32; and boulevards of 40 feet (excluding median strips) instead of 36 feet. Private street widths and alley widths were also negotiated, along with parking ratios, density maximums for residential zoning categories, and height and use regulations for employment, light industrial, and commercial/mixed-use areas.
Over a decade into the development cycle, periodic ordinance changes are still being requested, some of which are approved by the city and several of which have been refused. Ultimately the Development Agreement with the city of Kyle, the two PUD ordinances, and the Partnership Agreement between the master developer and landowner were signed in 1997, and lot and home construction in the first phase began in 1999.
Throughout the period leading up to the start of construction, the planning and development team visited new traditional neighborhood developments around the country and conducted numerous focus group sessions with realtors, prospective home buyers, and area home builders to find out if a New Urban development would be accepted by the local market. There was clear focus group data that an alternative to conventional suburban development and cookie-cutter builder housing was strongly desired. Despite this, a year-long search failed to secure homebuilders for the project.
Benchmark, however, was ready to begin residential development in Plum Creek. In conjunction with land planning partner Bosse Compton (now TBG Partners), Benchmark created a detailed pattern book that detailed lot widths, setbacks, street designs, block dimensions, landscaping, and home design standards for the first phases of development. Armed with the pattern book and bolstered by the focus group data, Benchmark ultimately decided to create its own homebuilding company, license house plans from Looney Ricks Kiss, and to build the first blocks of homes.
New Urbanism at Plum Creek
Plum Creek employs a wide range of New Urbanist principles in its design:
As the development has progressed Benchmark has endeavored to mix additional New Urbanism design elements into each future section. The model home section includes a variety of lot sizes, housing types, pedestrian easements, open spaces, and a mixed-use component.
One benefit to developing a large-scale community is the ability to tour prospects through the existing neighborhoods. The mature trees and landscaping found in the first sections provides a sense of what blocks will look like in the not-too-distant future. People often remark how poorly most conventional developments age, and how charming Plum Creek’s early sections look today.
Homes at Plum Creek
The first homes at Plum Creek were attractive, unique, and affordable—sales velocity quickly surpassed expectations. This was particularly remarkable considering the lack of services available nearby and the somewhat complicated directions prospects followed to find the community. People were drawn to the distinct aspects of the home and community design, and the promise of future phases. With the quick success of Plum Creek Homes, several other homebuilders soon joined the ranks. By the end of 2001, five homebuilders were selling a diverse mix of housing types, sizes, and prices ranging from attached townhomes starting the mid-$90,000s to 3,500-square-foot custom homes facing a new public golf course priced at almost $300,000.
To maintain an engaging street scene, Benchmark approves each home elevation offered in Plum Creek and signs off, on a house-by-house basis, on each color scheme, elevation, and location within the block. To ensure variety, two homes of the same elevation or of similar colors cannot be located on adjacent or contiguous lots. Most early sections of the development contained a single home builder and lots of similar widths (lot widths ranged from 27.5 feet wide by 110 feet deep to 80 feet wide by 150 deep—lots averaged 45 feet wide by 120 feet deep). Early in the development process some lots were built with alley-loaded garages and some were built with detached garages on the back of lots accessed by driveways coming from the street. Ultimately the market acceptance and preference for alley-loaded product prompted the limited future use of front-loaded homes and lot design.
The initial success of the community was remarkable. In 2002, Plum Creek was the second-best selling community in the five-county Austin metro area, selling almost 300 new homes. Over the following years builder turnover has reduced the number and variety of plans offered, which has in turn reduced the number of new homes sold per year. In the last twelve months a new slate of builders and plans has been introduced to bring Plum Creek back to its ranking as a top-selling community.
As the community has matured, the number of resales per year has steadily increased. Despite the downturn in new home sales nationwide during 2007 and 2008, the resale market in Plum Creek has continued to gain strength. While less than three percent of total housing supply in Plum Creek is for sale at any given time, the number of days on-market has decreased while the price per square foot has increased.
The ability of Plum Creek residents to move up and down within the neighborhood depending on their needs has demonstrated the importance of providing life-cycle housing. By the end of 2008, over 1,400 of the 2,000 planned dwellings in Phase I were occupied. Presently there are three builders (Bowen Family Homes, Meritage Homes, and KB Homes) offering 26 distinct home plans. Prices range from $145,000 for a 1,326-square-foot home to above $300,000 for a 3,400-square-foot home. The three builders staff four model homes in a new phase of the development that exemplifies the best design features of the community.
An Active Community
A strong homeowners association with a full time on-site manager helps regulate and monitor deed restrictions and community activities. An active and engaged group of volunteers promotes community life through a weekly e-newsletter, a monthly newsletter, and dozens of social activities, clubs, and events. A long-time Plum Creek resident also occupies a paid part-time position as the neighborhood’s community life director. The social infrastructure in Plum Creek is extensive and has created a tremendously loyal network of neighbors. The sense of community in Plum Creek is also reinforced by the developer’s decision to name streets after local people of interest. Maintaining a connection to area history seemed appropriate considering the significant role played by the landowners in settling the region.
A 2,700-square-foot community center overlooks the lake and features a large common room and kitchen that can be reserved and used by residents.
Landscaping, Parks and Open Space, and Environmental Features
The power of landscaping to influence placemaking has become increasingly apparent as the development team evaluates the early stages of development. Prior to the start of the project, the team created a landscape design template and plant list that utilized native and drought-tolerant plants. The guidelines prohibited the use of St. Augustine as a turf grass for lawns as it uses more water than Bermuda, Buffalo, or Zoisa. A list of appropriate street trees and yard trees, bushes, and shrubs is periodically updated by the development team and now by a volunteer landscape committee managed by the residents and the HOA.
The design of each section incorporates existing topography, trees, and views where applicable. As the property had been used for grazing and cotton production, few existing trees were on the site, and the team has made a special effort to retain them. In 2003, the developer spent over $70,000 relocating five mature oak trees within the development, for example.
A variety of parks and open spaces were designed throughout the neighborhoods. In the center of Phase I, a 30-acre lake is surrounded by an additional thirty acres of open space, with a trail system connecting the open space with the neighborhoods. Other open spaces include two large community parks and several smaller open spaces, including parks located along alleys in the middle of blocks. The larger community parks were each designed into existing groves of trees and include swimming pools, playscapes, picnic and barbque areas, and other programmed amenities.
The alleyway pocket parks are particularly well-used and are often left full of neighbors’ toys. An off-leash dog park is currently being planned by a resident committee, and groups of residents participate in the programming of most parks. Volunteer groups have begun planning and executing landscape and hardscape projects in under-programmed open areas. Most residences are located within two blocks of some sort of open space.
In addition to the use of native landscaping materials and the extensive planting of shade trees, several environmental features are incorporated at Plum Creek that either conserve resources or improve residents’ quality of life. Pervious concrete which absorbs rainwater and reduces runoff has been utilized in one of the parks, in pedestrian easements, and in portions of the hike and bike trail network. It is hoped that the city will allow the use of pervious concrete for all sidewalks in future phases. Each street has a planting strip or tree lawn on both sides between the front yard and back of curb. Street trees are planted every forty feet to shade the street and sidewalks.
The developer donated over 200 acres to a third-party golf course developer to utilize the flood zone surrounding the 30-acre lake. The public Plum Creek golf course utilizes reclaimed water provided by the city, as well.
Plum Creek’s design incorporates several traffic-calming devices. Medians, roundabouts, neck-downs, narrower rights-of-way, on-street parking, and large street trees help encourage slower vehicular traffic through the community. An interconnected street grid and collector streets that feature roundabouts help discourage cut-through traffic. Benchmark has also participated in the planning and financing of two major arterial roadways that bisect the project, and funded a center turn lane to a state road bordering the development.
Through the development of two new major intersections—FM 1626 and the expansion of Kohler’s Crossing—new access points have been created and several hundred acres of commercial property have been activated. Both roadways provide direct access to IH-35, the main north-south highway and most direct route to Austin and San Antonio. The FM 1626 project also included Hays County’s first grade-separated rail crossing over the Union Pacific railroad. Benchmark made significant financial and property contributions to the public-private partnerships that made these roadways possible ($3 million dollars and over 20 acres of right-of-way). To maintain pedestrian connectivity, Benchmark additionally designed and funded pedestrian underpasses beneath both FM 1626 and Kohler’s Crossing.
Mixed-Use and Commercial Development
Benchmark believes that the mixed-use attributes of Plum Creek’s plan make the project more financially viable, attractive to suburban homebuyers, and sustainable in the long run. Though commercial development interest has been slowly building over the past decade, it appears that Plum Creek has reached the tipping point. Over two dozen businesses already call Plum Creek home and many more are now actively looking at buying or leasing space in the project. The completion of FM 1626 and explosive regional population growth have made the intersection of FM 1626 and I-35 a major employment area. A 110- bed hospital and over two-million square feet of retail development are now under development less than a mile from Plum Creek’s primary entrance.
In 2008, Benchmark engaged the commercial brokerage firm of Oxford Commercial to help sell the project’s commercial property. The Oxford team also represents the commercial property in Austin’s well-known New Urban redevelopment, Mueller. Finding planning, marketing, engineering, and brokerage partners who understand the intricacies of New Urbanism is critical.
Plum Creek’s first phase includes a small commercial center called Plum Creek Square. It is home to the Lucky Cup coffee shop, Curves Gym, an insurance agent, salon, dance and music school, a clothing retailer, the HOA’s management office, and a small mixed-practice healthcare center. It is a unique attribute that many residents can walk to their healthcare provider’s office. Plum Creek Square’s 3,000-square-foot buildings were designed around a stand of large, mature oak trees and an existing Sears and Roebuck kit house that had been home to the ranch’s foreman.
Also in the center of the first phase is the 16,000-square-foot Rocking Horse Academy childcare facility, which sits adjacent to the Laura Burleson Negley Elementary School. Children are able to walk to both, and before- and after-school care is provided by the Rockinghorse Academy. Additionally, the Fellowship of Plum Creek church holds two services each Sunday in the Rockinghorse Academy.
A second village center is planned for the intersection of Kohler’s Crossing and FM 2770, adjacent to the new model homes. Planned uses include offices and retail space, the Fellowship of Plum Creek church, and the locally-owned Harrell Funeral Home. Several smaller commercial lots remain scattered throughout the first phase, including a large area of mixed-use property fronting FM 1626 between Kohler’s Crossing and the Union Pacific railroad overpass.
In 2008, Plum Creek broke ground on the first commercial component of its town center. In 2003, a ten-acre parcel was donated to the Hays Consolidated School District for a thousand-seat performing arts center. This facility is intended to serve as the civic anchor for the town center. Now dubbed the Uptown District, Plum Creek’s town center will see its first commercial occupant, an Austin Regional Clinic and 15,000 square feet of for-lease retail space, open in the spring of 2009. Future blocks will include mixed-use multifamily development, restaurants, retail and office uses, the central administration offices of the local school district, a new City of Kyle library, and urban civic space in the form of plazas and an amphitheatre. A lake that provides aesthetic appeal as well as regional water retention occupies the hard corner of FM 1626 and Kohler’s Crossing—reinforcing Benchmark’s long-standing commitment of making open space a core component of the development.
In 2007, the city and Plum Creek teamed up to bring the value-added manufacturer RSI to Plum Creek. RSI brought seventy high-paying jobs from Austin, lured to Kyle through an aggressive economic development platform promoted by the city. Kyle bought the property from Plum Creek and effectively gave it to RSI. A 2007 Economic Development Strategic Plan commissioned by the City of Kyle calls for the creation of a significant regional employment center, and Plum Creek is positioned to become just that. Benchmark continues to work with Kyle to bring employers and higher education providers to the community.
A 100-acre employment campus site has been designated within the project. A future commuter rail station has also been identified. It will connect Plum Creek to Austin and San Antonio.
Future phases of development will likely include a wider mix of housing types. Though most of Plum Creek’s residents work in Austin, many have started home-based businesses, or telecommute at least one day per week. Residents have already articulated the value of shaving car trips from their daily routine and realize that living in a mixed-use community provides value.
With over a thousand acres left to develop, Benchmark believes the future is brighter than ever for Plum Creek. Over a million new residents are expected to move to central Texas in the coming decades, and Plum Creek is actively making a place for them to live, work, shop, and play.
For more information, visit the Plum Creek website at www.PlumCreekTX.com.
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