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Strong Communities From 'Soft' Programs

March 29, 1998|LEW SICHELMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

WASHINGTON — In their quest to create appealing communities, more and more home builders are adding a "soft" infrastructure of programs and amenities that will hold their projects together long after they move on.

These developers not only put in the sewers, streets and sidewalks--the "hard" infrastructure that is the backbone of every housing development--but also the clubs, leagues and events that become a community's heart and soul.

"I never heard the term 'soft infrastructure' until a year ago. Now, I hear it everywhere I go," said Randall Lewis, executive vice president with Upland-based Lewis Homes.

"There's a growing recognition that the soft stuff is really what allows us to build the kind of communities our customers deserve."

The driving forces behind new home sales today are uses and activities, according to V.R. "Pete" Halter, a marketing strategist from Atlanta.

"The house is simply the price of admission. If the place doesn't feel right, [home buyers] are not going to live there."

Added Lewis: "People are buying neighborhood, and that means more now than it used to. Now it means things that make a community.

Lewis Homes has been developing soft infrastructure programs in its Southland communities for more than two years, Lewis said, "but we think we got it right in Rancho Cucamonga," where the home builder has focused on the schools.

The company created the Terra Vista Children's Forum, a loose-knit group of Lewis employees, school principals, city officials and PTA members.

The forum meets six times a year to grapple with the question, "What can we do for the kids in the community?"

Answers so far have included:

* Apartment donations. "We always have a few vacant apartments in our complexes," Lewis said, "and we wondered if there was a way the schools could take advantage of them."

"We donated one apartment each to three schools; they found a tenant and collected the rent. Our only condition was that the money had to be spent in the school."

To date, the schools have generated from $15,000 to $20,000 in revenue from the apartments, Lewis said.

* Filling some small wish lists from the schools. "Beatup typewriters, old file cabinets," Lewis said.

* Creating partnerships between the schools and businesses. "If you get all As, you get free appetizers at a local restaurant," he said.

"We try to be a facilitator, like hosting a job fair in empty space in a commercial center, rather than a big donor," Lewis said.

Trails and Parks

Large master-planned developments with hundreds or thousands of acres, dozens of builders and lots of money are the clear leaders in the "soft infrastructure" movement, thanks to their interpretive trails, sports leagues, small neighborhood parks, sheltered bus stops and volunteer programs.

These relatively inexpensive amenities tend to bring people together, and are the reason why master-planned projects tend to sell at a better rate than their smaller rivals, even during bad times. "The successful [communities] are more about sociology than topology," Halter said. "They sell place, not product."

But Halter and others believe that the same theory applies no matter how big--or small--the project. What's more, they say it doesn't take big bucks, or even extra bucks, to build in a soft infrastructure.

The key is research. Builders "must do their homework," said research specialist John Schleimer of Market Perspectives in Roseville, Calif. "They need to know what their buyers think is important."

Schleimer has just finished tabulating a survey of 500 recent new home buyers in five master-planned communities in Florida, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and California about their amenity preferences. The results were somewhat surprising.

The top-rated hard-cost amenities are fairly inexpensive paved bike paths, walking trails and community parks. The lowest-rated big-ticket features are golf courses, which are expensive to build and operate.

That doesn't mean that people's interest in golf is on the wane. It isn't. It is still a very powerful draw. Nevertheless, only a third of those who live in golf course communities actually play the game.

And while there is little doubt that having a course right outside the back door enhances housing values, the courses are costly for developers to build and for home owners to maintain.

Set of Rules

Celebration, the successful Disney community in Orlando, kept things simple. "We didn't ignore the golf course; it's important to people in Florida," says Disney's Charles Adams. "But we built only a basic clubhouse with a basic snack bar."

Still, even though golf is considered king practically everywhere, Adams said that Celebration's trails are its most important amenity, not golf.

Moreover, the community doesn't even have a big, full-feature swimming pool. It offers an interactive water fountain where kids can walk in, over and around bursts of water.

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