Bucking the trend, a Houston project goes golf-less.

By Elena Marcheso Moreno

When Midway Cos. was negotiating the purchase of 600 acres of prime land north of Houston, the developer had the opportunity to also acquire another 350 acres located in a flood plain. Many developers gazing at the acreage would have had visions of manicured greens. Not Midway. Instead the Houston-based firm decided to turn the parcel into a nature preserve to enhance its adjacent new-home community.

?Suburban Houston just doesn?t need another golf course community,? says Jimmy Pappas, executive vice president for Midway Residential, a division of the firm. He?d recently conducted an informal market study for another housing development in the city and concluded that golf courses were no longer the draw they had been four or five years ago for move-up and higher income households.

?I personally talked to hundreds of people,? says Pappas, whose research confirmed that a golf course was not likely to make the Spring Trails project stand out. ?Golf courses are not something everyone will enjoy, but instead are considered a diversion that is likely to mean that Dad will be gone for five hours over the weekend.?

The baby boomer demographic pushed the demand for golf courses all over the country, but in the late 1990s, the supply grew faster, according to housing market analyst John Burns of Irvine, Calif. And that is particularly so in Texas. ?In Houston it has been easy to get permits to build, and land has been affordable.? Thus, Burns says, ?Golf properties there were overbuilt in the last decade.? Indeed, within a 50-mile radius of the city are 159 private and public courses, or roughly 15 per county.

Natural setting

In his survey, Pappas found that prospective buyers were uniformly interested in more natural features such as woods and lakes. In fact, they were willing to pay a greater premium for properties with views of natural features than they were for parcels lining a fairway. So, he reasoned, why pay to develop a course?

Expensive to build, golf courses are often in wetlands or flood plains and require substantial imports of soil. ?But a natural feature basically left in its original state is a cost-effective amenity,? says Burns, who expects to see more such projects soon in Houston and elsewhere.

Located east of I-45 about 22 miles north of downtown, Spring Trails is in an area of the city largely overlooked by builders. As developer of one of the first planned communities in the area, Midway opted to offer a compelling premium product, says Pappas. He opted to devote one-third of the land to water features, parks, trails, and other natural spaces.

?It is unusual to set aside so much open area, and offering it as green space for hiking and biking trails gives us a marketing advantage,? he says. In addition to the large swath of green space to the southwest side of the site, there is a natural stream bed and wetlands feature that meanders along the central region of the site, offering even more ?nature front? parcels that will command greater premiums. Disrupting the heavily wooded natural areas as little as possible, Midway has created 6-foot-wide paths and cleared some underbrush for picnic areas. All of the open space will be conveyed to the homeowners association, along with deed restrictions that it be maintained in its natural state.

Spring Trails is not the first major project in the metro area to market natural amenities. Less than 15 miles away is The Woodlands, a two-decades-old community still under development, where the vast woodlands setting has been preserved. But the natural look hasn?t taken off in Houston as it has in other markets. Burns believes that in the current marketplace, the amenity shift is likely to be a big draw. Likewise, Max Hoyt, executive vice president of the Greater Houston Builders Association, expects the golf-less project to be a trend setter in this region.

The developer designed a package of amenities to attract families, first-time homeowners, and move-up buyers to Spring Trails. Recreation centers, pools with cabanas, tennis courts, and playgrounds are the prime features.

Neighborhood motif

Plans call for homes to be built in 16 to 18 neighborhoods within Spring Trails over seven years. Each neighborhood will have its own character, depending largely on the builders and the lots sizes. The intention is for all homes in a single neighborhood to be constructed within one year by two participating builders. All of the housing will be single-family, ranging from small houses on small lots for first-time and entry-level buyers to much larger homes on spacious lots.

As many as eight builders are likely to purchase land in the initial phase of the development process, and finished lots will be transferred to two of them in May and June. So far Perry Homes and David Powers Homes have signed on to build in the community, and Pappas says negotiations are under way with three regional and national builders. The first home models should be completed in late summer, with a grand opening scheduled for late September.

Perry will build about 30 homes each year on 55-foot-wide lots that will sell for $120,000 to $140,000, and another 30 homes on 65-foot-wide lots for a sales price of $150,000 to $200,000. Spring Trails lots sizes range up to 80-foot widths, and Midway expect prices to reach above $350,000.

Perry, based in Houston, was attracted by the large nature preserve and isn?t worried that the community is in direct competition with The Woodlands. The builder anticipates that the closer proximity of Spring Trails to the city and the development?s more affordable pricing will give the builders an edge.

Hoyt agrees. According to him, 29,000 new homes will be built in Houston this year, and Spring Trails is in an area that will be growing rapidly.

?Elena Marcheso Moreno is based in McLean, Va.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, June 2002