MENTION PHOENIX TO JUST about anyone in the home building industry and you're likely to hear talk of a red-hot market, albeit one that praises efficiency over aesthetics, subdivisions over neighborhoods, profit over charm. The all-rooftops-and-garages label could apply to any number of sprawling suburbs, but it's a refrain that's consistently heard in connection with Phoenix, an area of the country that's seen tremendous growth in the last 25 years.
You can be sure that all those less-than-positive platitudes were on the minds of the folks at DMB Associates when the development company looked at turning 8,800 acres on the outskirts of Phoenix into a community that would eventually boast 9,500 homes, 325 acres of parks, and 4 million square feet of commercial space. It's called Verrado, and it's located about 25 miles west of Phoenix in the farming town of Buckeye, Ariz.
“Early on, we realized that we had an unbelievable opportunity with this piece of land,” says JT El-bracht, director of community design at Verrado. “We were in the West Valley growth corridor, with freeway access and some of the most spectacular mountains as background. We also had a flexible set of entitlements. We were hard-pressed to mess all that up. We knew what we didn't want to be—and that was the same dreary, lifeless suburban sprawl that's plagued Phoenix over the last 20 to 30 years.”
DMB and the crew of planners and architects it hired to help refine the vision of Verrado also knew about something they had seen work in some of the developer's earlier projects, namely at DC Ranch in Scottsdale, Ariz., and at Ladera Ranch in Orange County, Calif. Putting in community amenities up front, insisting on rigorous design guidelines for builders, and partnering with local constituencies for schools and other essential services cost a lot of money but was worth it in the end.
“People really want certain attributes of neighborhood and town where they live,” says Steve Kellenberg, a principal at San Francisco–based EDAW, the planning firm that worked with DMB to come up with the master plan. “That's really the art of what we've been trying to do at Verrado, to rediscover the qualitative aspects of small-town living but do it in an environment with major public, high-velocity builders at affordable prices. There's a part of the market that's starved for something more town-like. Verrado provides a lifestyle opportunity as well as multiple housing types, so we're getting segments of demand in the marketplace that no one else is meeting.” In other words, doing the right thing makes the best business sense.
The town-building principles that Verrado followed are creating district cores and centers of activity; neighborhoods organized around town features; connectivity through broader “icon” streets with double rows of trees; diversity of product type; and plenty of parks. Every street at Verrado has been planned to tell a story. “It's not just street after street with the same boring housing, “ says Kellenberg. “Every street leads someplace special.”
“Using town-building principles gave us the widest spread of housing opportunities, from apartments, townhouses, and single-family houses to big custom lots, which means we can reach our fingers into almost every market segment,” says Elbracht. “That's a good thing when you're trying to move through 8,800 acres.”
Design Concepts At the center of Verrado, located on the former testing grounds of the Caterpillar Tractor Co., is the pedestrian-friendly Main Street District with rental lofts and apartments as well as office, retail, and entertainment spaces. Phase 1, which opened to the public last January, consists of 1,145 acres radiating out from this District. It will include approximately 2,040 dwellings in distinct, tree-lined neighborhoods: town, park, golf, and foothills. Currently, there are eight builders working at Verrado: Ashton Woods Homes, Cachet Homes, Frank Residential, Monterey Homes, Engle Homes, the P.B. Bell Cos., Pulte Homes, and T.W. Lewis.
Not surprisingly, design guidelines for these builders were strict. “We didn't want to have all tan and beige stucco homes with red tile roofs,” says Kellenberg. “Craftsman, Cottage, Ranch, Monterey, and Spanish Colonial were all part of the town-building heritage of this region. We reintroduced these historical architectural styles and asked the builders to utilize multiple housing styles within each of their product enclaves. That was asking quite a bit, but what really got the builders excited was when we said that we wanted the styles to be authentically expressed through architecture.”
Dale Gardon of Dale Gardon Design in Scottsdale had a major hand in coming up with the design guidelines (and executed all of the public buildings along Main Street) as did William Hezmalhalch Architects of Santa Ana, Calif. There are 14 housing types at Verrado; diversity is helped along by smaller building parcels.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ.