CONSTRAINED BY ITS GEOGRAPHY—ocean on the west, Mexico on the south, desert and mountains on the east, and a military base on the north—the San Diego housing market presents some obstacles for builders.

So when Centex Homes planned to foray into building condominiums, San Diego division president Jay Kerr knew he would have to try something new—and take some big risks in the process.

“It's like the soldier in the Army who gets a medal when coming back from the war,” Kerr says. “It's not being brave. It's what needs to be done.”

Taking risks meant competing in a market ripe with experienced competition.

“Someone here sold a 300-unit tower in a weekend,” Kerr says. “We had to figure out how to leverage everything we had.”

In what he dubbed a “lightbulb moment,” Kerr says, the builder turned to its sister company, Centex Construction, which built Cinderella's Castle at Walt Disney World, the Miami International Airport, Texas Stadium, the James Madison Library of Congress, and NASA Mission Control in Houston, among other instantly recognizable buildings. Who better to help the single-family builder learn the intricacies of designing, engineering, permitting, and building high-rise, multifamily towers? “The next thing we know, we have this incredible synergy to do infill.” Centex Homes would handle the planning, sales, and marketing of the new communities while Centex Construction would build them.

HIP DIGS: Centex's condo sales center boasts a modern decor to attract young, urban buyers. PHOTO: JOHN BAILEY Their first projects, Element and Nexis, are small at 64 and 77 units, respectively, and are representative of Centex's overall business strategy, says Kerr—a toe in the surf to test the water before they dive in with a 34-story tower.

“The Centex way is to be conservative and thoughtful and build for longevity,” Kerr notes. “We don't run fast and light like some of our competitors.”

FOOTHOLD NEEDED To establish its presence in a crowded market, Centex needed a sales center that would reflect the upscale, urban focus of Element and Nexis—and one that would engage a technologically savvy, childless buyer demographic—without having models for them to tour. Element is scheduled for completion in the first quarter of 2006; Nexis should follow in the summer.

Their solution was 930 Market, a 5,000-square-foot space once occupied by a used restaurant supply store. (The space is now divided between the sales center and the offices of Centex Construction; they share a conference room.)