At the entrance to Palmilla, in Palm Springs, Calif., a grove of slender palm trees stretches toward the sky. Steel tree sculptures intermingle with the living ones, and water flows over a red wall with cutouts that create shadow patterns in the powerful sunlight. The artsy design tells the story of this upscale community in the desert, where patio homes with infinity pools look out on man-made lakes.

One of the biggest design statements in new-home communities today is the sense of arrival. The traditional wing walls and rows of planted annuals are considered passé by an increasing number of builders and developers, even in middle-class markets. Instead, they're creating long entry boulevards, deconstructing name walls, and investing in soft, inviting landscapes with mature trees and native plants guaranteed to age gracefully.

“Builders are spending more money to make entryways distinctive,” says landscape architect Tom Kopf, of DTJ Design, in Boulder, Colo., the landscape and planning firm that designed Palmilla's entrance for RJT Homes. “If you build the typical entry wall, you spend maybe $50,000. But if it doesn't stand out, you've wasted the money. When builders spend more to create a story that brings the marketing concept together, they have a competitive advantage.”

ICONIC: Palmilla's entranceway makes a design statement with sculptures and palms. Au Naturale Newland Communities, based in La Jolla, Calif., certainly sees value in that approach. “There's been a whole lot of change in how we address entries,” says southeast regional president Don Whyte. “There's a lot less focus on barriers and a lot more focus on the natural.” Gone are the days when entrances were designed in a boardroom. Now, the company often photographs memorable landscape features, such as a stately oak, and brings the entry road past the tree. A well-tended forest makes a more sophisticated entrance than a drive-by wall, Whyte says, because it creates an edge that's warm and beckons people into the community. “It tells people that someone is taking special care to keep this community nice,” he says. “We see the leading up to the entryway as very important. It needs to tie in with the neighborhood and deliver consistency of message.”

An olive-tree orchard announces the rustic Italian theme of Belcara, a move-up community by Taylor Woodrow in Newport Beach, Calif. “We're doing a lot of softscape and big trees that will stand the test of time,” says marketing director Barbara Stowers. “Belcara means beloved in Italian. You have to fall in love with a home before you want to buy it. We're trying to create a hill town or village concept and are pulling the theme through from the landscape architecture to the [home's] architecture and interior merchandizing.”

Signage walls, too, are deferring to their natural and historical settings. Tallyn's Reach, a new-home project in Aurora, Colo., was once a stop on the stagecoach line and takes its name from the original landowner's daughter. DTJ Design drew on that history to create an outdoor character for the community, where homes start at $250,000. Its name is mounted on a crumbling wall that looks like a remnant foundation. And the mile-long entry road meanders through Ponderosa pines and native prairie perennials to the community building, which resembles a ranch house. “The worst thing about flanking entry walls is that they're such a miniscule part of the arrival sequence,” Kopf says. “You establish something interesting at the entry and carry it all the way through the project, or at least to another key location.”

FLOURISH: Builders spared no expense in creating enticing entryways at Ladera Ranch, above, and Fishhawk Ranch, at right. Kopf recommends at least 3- and 4-inch-caliper deciduous trees for entryways, and 12- to 14-foot-tall evergreens. Installed, the larger trees are double the price of smaller specimens, Kopf notes, but landscaping is generally less expensive than big masonry walls, which run about $40 per face foot.

A Sense Of History EDAW, another landscape architecture and planning firm with offices across the country, also uses trees in master planned communities to create character and surprise. Principal Steve Kellenberg thinks that approach is a little more interesting than the status-oriented, highly crafted portals of some luxury communities, which set up expectations that often aren't delivered.

“We try to use principles of town building to strike a resonant note with buyers, something that's an authentic expression of the history of the region, that feels natural,” says Kellenberg, of the Irvine, Calif., office of EDAW. “Maybe the symbols that tell you you're moving into this place are subtle. Maybe it's the fencing, or some pilasters, or a street that has a ceremonial park down the middle, as was seen in the early 1920s,” he says. Kellenberg notes that the classic, older neighborhoods got better as they aged. Even as the architecture became a bit dated, the trees would arch over extra-wide parkways, creating shade and shadows.

In place of a big, formal entry, Kellenberg suggests planting large specimen trees with 50-foot crowns along the primary entry sequence, then dropping the same tree species into key locations around the community. “It's amazing how you can give a neighborhood a sense of permanence and history,” he says.

By using these techniques, Kellenberg says builders can achieve a 12 percent to 14 percent higher value per square foot in retail sales at a 5 percent higher cost. “If everyone does it, it doesn't work,” he says. “But generally, a lot of builders are designing to the lowest common denominator. The values-based buyer is willing to pay that extra price.”

The Name Game It's hard to overestimate the value of a well-designed community entrance. But a good name is also worth a thousand words. It's the least expensive way to brand and market a community, says David Miles, president of Milesbrand, in Denver. “People are going to say the name for free, so if you have one that resonates, breaks through the clutter, and invites investigation, then you're spending your money very wisely. If you have a me-too name, you're not getting a full return on your investment.”

Milesbrand aspires to monikers that go beyond the proverbial Stone Gate and Lakewood Farms, seeking out words that don't necessarily sound like real estate. For example, he says the name Trail Mark, for a Denver community set against a mountain with footpaths, was a marketing success, compared to the mundane—and incongruous—Chatfield Green the developer had dreamed up.

“Oscar Wilde had a saying that an idea that doesn't make you nervous can hardly be called an idea at all,” Miles says. “I think names are like that. They should make you a little uncomfortable in the beginning because you're not used to hearing that name.” But not too uncomfortable. It can't be intimidating or hard to pronounce, says Lee Ballard, president of Name One, in Mars Hill, N.C. “You wouldn't choose a name that's not approachable, not warm,” he says. “People shouldn't stumble over it.”

When builders have done their homework and have the right story to tell, the name adds prestige. And the rest is up to the ear. “There's a flow you get used to in this business,” Ballard adds. “You know when something is euphonic and when it's not.”