It has been said that the third time's a charm. And for 6,000 Westland Development Co. shareholders, the old adage held true. SunCal Cos. succeeded in landing a piece of historically significant New Mexico property, twice the size of Boston, that two previous bidders failed to close.

Just prior to 2007, heirs of the Atrisco Land Grant, west of Albuquerque, N.M., sold their shares in Westland Development Co.–a publicly held company established to manage the 57,000-acre land grant for the heirs–to community developer SunCal Cos. for more than $250 million.

SELLING OUT: The Astrisco Land Grant was one of only a few remaining Spanish land grants that was continously owned by heirs of the original settlers of the land. Photo: Courtesy Suncal Cos. Two investor groups–first, ANM Holding Group and then Rhodes Homes of Las Vegas–had contracted to buy the property during an open bidding process that began in 2005. But according to Will Steadman, SunCal's New Mexico division president, his company's expertise with large, long-term projects allowed it to create the best deal for Westland shareholders, paying $315 per share for 800,000 or so outstanding shares. Escrow closed on the transaction Dec. 7, 2006.

Time Has Come Located just five miles west from Albuquerque's urban core, SunCal analysis found promise of growth for the metropolitan west side. "We feel like this area is poised for growth, poised for economic development and that we are in a good position to bring new, high-quality jobs to the area," says Steadman.

During the recent boom years, New Mexico escaped appreciable notice as surrounding markets of Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Denver flourished. Now, as those markets struggle with affordability issues and oversupply, Hanley Wood Market Intelligence research forecasts that the Albuquerque market will notch an increase in home prices this year, with a median home price estimated at $192,200. At that price, the affordability ratio in Albuquerque would fall to 49 percent making it one of the most affordable major metro areas in the West.

At the same time, job growth and population growth both post steady increases with migration from Phoenix adding to the expansion. In 2006, job growth increased by 3.4 percent and is expected to continue at that rate during 2007.

Land Before Time

Money naturally made a big difference in SunCal's successful bid, but the deal was far more complex than just dollars for acres. Westland wished to preserve some of the legacies that illustrate the history of Spanish land grants and the establishment of Albuquerque and the American West.

SunCal agreed to contribute $1 million each year for the next 98 years to the Atrisco Heritage Foundation so that cultural and historical resources of the property will be preserved for future generations. Projects could include museums, continuing education, cultural programs, and scholarships. The developer made an initial $2 million payment to the trust upon closing.

In addition, the company is integrating cultural and environmental preservation into their land planning based on the fundamental urban planning principals detailed in the Laws of the Indies. By doing so, SunCal hopes to create a community reminiscent of the historical Spanish settlements of the 16th century. "The heritage is rich and deep," says Steadman. "It's something we are focused on and respectful of."

Initial steps toward creating an enhanced development plan within the site's master plan began with a five-day charrette for the initial 1,500 acres on April 2. The first area, known as The Lower Petroglyphs, is the lead element in the overall plan for the property.

Although it's still too soon for a community blueprint, the area is expected to include a variety of neighborhoods. Nationals already active in the market include Centex Corp., Pulte Homes, KB Home, D.R. Horton, and, most recently, Beazer Homes USA. But Steadman suspects the scale of SunCal's development could easily spark interest among others that have not yet focused on Albuquerque.

"I think we will bring a variety of builders into the mix. The nationals as well as some of our strong local and regional builders," says Steadman. "What we really plan to do is to take a look at the project as a whole and put together a very well thought out series of master planned communities."

–Lisa Marquis Jackson

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ, Los Angeles, CA.