DAVID HILL HAS THEORIES. HERE'S ONE: A lot of us like to talk to people during the day who we recognize, and who recognize us, and who actually know us by name. Pretty simple, eh? Well, that theory explains a lot, not only about David Hill and his 36-year obsession with “interwoven” communities, but about where his $1 billion company perches in the industry sector flux called home building.
Twenty-one years ago this coming August, the company David Hill named after his father built a home in the middle of a 117-acre lot, a former horse farm that he'd bought from Harper Community College in northwest Chicago's Arlington Heights. The house went up in about 48 days—a two-bedroom, 1,890-square-foot model for 50-somethings who wanted to gently discourage their grown children from wearing out their welcome in the parental abode.
“It became a very good seller,” Hill shares from the phone in his car, snarled in South Busse Road traffic outside Chicago and headed for a business meeting one recent afternoon after office hours at his Rolling Meadows headquarters. “It was cutting edge.” (Ask him some other time what he thinks of cars.)
It was cutting edge. Demographics then was an intriguing but unproved field of study. The Baby Boom was amidst creating Detroit's mini-van market, and 401(k) mutual funds were an unheard of financial planning tool, and marketers could scarcely have imagined a cohort of 78 million spend-alikes on the verge of their retirement, as they are now. The term to describe a married-couple household, post child-rearing years—“empty nester”—was also unheard of in sociological and marketing circles. But there was David Hill, doing homes specifically designed to meet different people's living needs based on their evolving life stage, income, and community needs. What a concept.
Recently, we got to talking about defining moments, and that spurred him to reminisce about the instance that led to the construction of that first house on what became Lake Arlington Townes, an income-sorted, mixed-generational neighborhood of 680 homes finished in 1992.
'Til then, Hill's inclination was to go before zoning and planning boards and tell them what they wanted to hear about the income level of the buyers in projects he'd want to develop, and, without exactly going back on his word, he'd sneak in a belt of low-income housing as part of the community. “The market was ready for income-sorted, mixed-age neighborhoods of varying price points, products, and new densities,” Hill says. “The municipal planning and zoning community was not.” Another Hill theory: “You serve the municipality, then you serve the market; if you can't get past the first, you can't get to the second.”
This time, though, he put it all out there. He told the village board that Lake Arlington Townes was going to be a variety of high-quality homes for people of varying walks of life, varying generations, and varying means—and that one-day, the neighborhood would make everybody involved in its approval and funding very proud. Oddly enough, the village board gave it the go-ahead.
Fast-forward 17 years. Hill's reading, for the first time, Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities. He recognized his career's mission in her pages, and he recognized that he has more work to do. Infill, attached, and mixed-use may have found currency in today's home building world, but for Hill, it's always been about building 24/7 communities, an activity he admits is addictive.
For the part about Hill's plan to keep Kimball Hill doing what it does, see Lisa Marquis Jackson's “King of the Hill,” page 48.
We're excited this month to introduce new regular contributors who we believe will enrich your experience with the magazine each issue. The new line-up includes: the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies' Eric Belsky, whose “Big Picture” on page 25 will provide context and commentary on market trends and what to make of them; First Home Builders of Florida CFO Jamie Pirello offers great insight into finance issues in “Big Money,” page 76; and Bill Gloede unravels the opportunities and challenges of home technology for production builders in “Digital Home,” page 88.
Let me know what you think.