If you think floor plans and a savvy marketing strategy don't matter in a hot real estate market, consider the tale of HarborView, an active adult, gated community in Port Washington, N.Y.
Here's a project that had everything going for it—golf course location, 33 acres on Long Island's prestigious Gold Coast, a state-of-the-art recreation complex, and a choice of townhomes, mid-rise condos, and luxury single-family villas. Presales started in the spring of 2000, but after a full year only 12 of 275 units had been sold. That's just one unit a month, not a track record that a developer, builder, or, most importantly, any lender would want.
HarborView was a joint venture between Terrabrook, one of the largest master planned community developers in the country, and Bernard Janowitz Construction Corp. of Roslyn Heights, N.Y. (Atlanta-based Terrabrook is the former Westbrook Partners, which bought the old Mobil Land Co.) Minneapolis-based GMAC Residential Funding was the lender.
It was GMAC that brought in marketing guru John Sims, president of Builder Marketing Services Co. in Long Valley, N.J. He, in turn, called in the additional troops needed to turn the project around.
“The folks at GMAC said, ‘Let's get to the bottom of this, straighten things out, and make it work,'” says Sims, whose first move was to hire La Jolla, Calif.–based Market-Scape Research & Consulting to conduct focus groups. “We wanted to understand what the local real estate market thought of the project,” says Sims. “We also wanted to talk to customers who had been interested in HarborView but hadn't bought. In doing our research, we found out that the active adult market in this area could afford anything they wanted. It wasn't a matter of money; it was a matter of product.”
The bottom line: Cost was not a factor, and the elevations were fine. It was the floor plans that just didn't work for these affluent, design-savvy empty-nesters.
So, with all the parties on board and ready for some retooling, Sims brought in Barton & Associates. The Norristown, Pa.–based architecture and planning firm had a great reputation for designing quality active adult communities. The firm ended up retooling the community by redesigning most of the product offerings. (The mid-rise condo building was modified somewhat by its original architect but basically stayed the same.)
The only hitch was that Barton & Associates had to use the foundation footprints that had already been approved by the town.
“The first thing we did was look at the stuff they started with and had a hard time selling,” says Greg Wissman, the principal architect on the project who has since left Barton & Associates to open his own firm. “You ask: How do you enter? What's the kitchen look like? You have to look at furnishability and corridor spaces. Basically, Design 101 says there are basic things that you have to do, especially with an active adult product. Our concern was: How can we go past that to improve upon what was obviously not selling?”
Take the $650,000 Essex, for example, one of the original villas. At 3,250 square feet, it had an awkward entry, stairs buried at the back of the house, a clumsy convergence of doors where the garage, master suite, and library entrances collided, a living room and dining room with cathedral ceilings, and a kitchen with a lopsided layout and little room for an eat-in table and chairs. “To make this house work, you need a kind of center-hall colonial plan,” says Wissman.