A Colorado developer's risk pays off as he creates a new model for affordability and design. By Carolyn Weber
The words affordable housing strike fear in the hearts of NIMBYs and conjure visions of bland beige starter houses. And for good reason: That's what most builders build. But developer Gene Myers, president of New Town Development, thinks that the building industry should be accountable for changing the face of affordable, and he's started with a creative, attractive, and, with any luck, lasting community called Belle Creek.
Myers's story began several years ago when seller Sam Gary, of Gary-William's Realty, approached the small, semi-custom builder about purchasing a 156-acre tract of land in Commerce City, Colo. There was a catch, though, as Gary had a definite vision for the property, which he outlined and included in the contract. The list required the good faith efforts of the buyer to provide a component of affordable housing and amenities that would ready the neighborhood for future social needs--childcare center, computer lab, recreation center, and charter school.
The deal was just what Myers, who had been considering returning to building more affordable homes, was looking for. "This presented an opportunity to carve a niche out of a deep market, rather than nibbling at a shallower market," Myers says. But delivering on Gary's vision was going to be a big challenge, so Myers expended the energy and money up front and closed only after he got the entitlements.
Located in the northeast quadrant of Denver, Commerce City is a high-growth area and a dividing line between residential and industrial areas. "It's a tough site," says Myers of the Belle Creek tract. "It's sandwiched between railroad tracks and a highway on one side and a gravel pit on the other." Working in his favor was that fact that Commerce City was looking to remake itself and very receptive to the builder's fresh take on development. The unified front of the two groups changed the entitlement process dramatically. "It was so streamlined and un-antagonistic, I never want to do it the old way again," Myers says. The process took just six months to get zoned and annexed and four months to get the first plat.
Myers didn't set out to be a new urbanist. "Our goal was to integrate different housing types and income levels, and we went in with our eyes and minds open to new development patterns," he says, "and new urbanism turned out to be a good solution." Commerce City was rewriting design guidelines anyway, so Myers and his team helped to develop some of the new codes. Twelve-foot-wide alleys with 20-foot-wide easements set a new design standard for the city. "We also got new 30-foot-wide streets instead of the standard 34 feet, and the city allowed us to up the density considerably, which was the key to making the numbers."
Creativity is the name of the game in a community where every unit is priced below $265,000. But even though Belle Creek is a TND and the housing is affordable, Myers says that his price per unit is comparable with his competitors.
The key to meeting the affordability requirements -51 percent of the units had to be priced for people earning 80 percent of the area's median family income of $62,000- was partnering with Rocky Mountain Mutual Housing. The nonprofit multifamily developer built the rental component of Belle Creek and was able to access channels of money that other builders couldn't.
A traditional neighborhood plan addressed the density issue, as well as Myers' social agenda. The blocks of apartments were not isolated, but rather dispersed in the community. "When you have a mixedincome community, there are built-in socio-economic boundaries," Myers says, "but the barriers come down through school and sports. Those are the venues through which true community can happen over time."
Myers deliberately avoids the "A" word and instead refers to Belle Creek as a mixed-income, mixed-use community. "It's just like a real town with all kinds of people and all kinds of houses." He is sincere in his belief that through design, developers can foster true community down the road. "If we design it right, we can pre-wire it for social interaction," he says. "But the final analysis will be up to the residents."
Home design is an integral part of the neighborhood appeal. The 13 single-family plans are straightforward, easy-to-build, box-on-box construction. "We used the savings from simple framing to elaborate on the details," says local architect Arlo Braun, who designed all the for-sale housing at Belle Creek. Taking a page from the vernacular of old Denver neighborhoods, he felt that front porches were critical to the new town architecture and provided each plan with a good-sized, well-detailed entry. "Gene calls them Chevrolet houses with Cadillac porches," notes Braun.
The architect paid careful attention to roof pitch to ensure that each was appropriate for the historically inspired styles. "The level, second-floor plate heights allowed us to use a hip roof or gable end, so the house could look Victorian in one case or like a Four Square in another," says Braun. Deep overhangs also add to the curb appeal, and raising the houses up a few feet gets them off the street and adds to the presence.
Of the 13 plans, just two are single-story, and one is a story-and-a-half. Myers knew there was a market for single-level living, and it helped in the absorption. "They're not that affordable to build, but they're important to the variety on the streetscape and the texture of the community," he remarks.
Research proved that the target market would be primarily young families with service- oriented jobs, and the builder hit that right on. The community has also attracted single parents, young couples, and even a more sophisticated buyer lured by the level of design. Myers did take a market risk by incorporating more expensive housing when there was no justification for anything over $200,000. He hadn't a clue that he would get people up to those prices. To his surprise, the larger lots were snapped up quickly. "People are making a conscious decision to be in this kind of community," Myers says, "and there are plenty of buyers willing to risk living next to a less-expensive house."
Belle Creek may not be exactly replicable, but there are lessons to take from its success. Myers' advice is to start by aligning with a willing municipality and help it achieve its vision. "They are the ones with the long vested interest," he says, "and you can have the perfect site, but if you don't have great cooperation you can't get there."
Resourceful financing was also a big part of the puzzle. "When you want to offer above-market amenities at below-market prices, something has to give," Myers says. "It has to be economically viable or it's not replicable in the future." He found belowmarket equity and community reinvestment act partners. "If you want to do it, there are creative ways to get it done," he says. "You don't have to build a house so cheap that no one wants it; there are other ways to trim costs."
Myers says that he'll make the same level of profit on this project that he does on his half million-dollar homes. "We now have more opportunity than we can deal with," he says. "This has opened so many doors for us and changed our company. We are usually hunting for land, but now they are coming to us."
Project: Belle Creek, Commerce City, Colo.; Size: 156.1 acres; Density: 5.96 units/acre; Total units: 931; Price: Single-family for-sale units, $178,900 to $264,900; Townhouse units, $162,900 to $188,500; Rental units, $550 to $900; Developer: Landcraft Communities, Highlands Ranch, Colo.; Builder: New Town Builders, Highlands Ranch; Architect/Land planner: Arlo Braun and Associates, Denver; Landscape architect: Nuszer Kopatz, Denver