Real Estate News

Developers sell their strolls

Helen Peterman says she loves the concept of The Market Common, the development that promises to turn a barren section of the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base into a multitude of homes and shops, with beautiful parks and underground utilities, a paradise built for walking.

Yet Peterman could not believe Joe Antunovich, the architect on the project, when he tried to convince her at a recent City Council meeting that there would be enough parking on site because she does not think residents will leave their cars at home.

The village is being planned in a way to make it inviting for residents to walk around, and dozens of townhouses have first-floor storefronts to create a feeling of Main Street USA.

But as these types of townhouses and promises of walkable communities crop up across the Grand Strand and Brunswick County, N.C., mimicking a national trend, some experts warn it might take a long time before residents such as Peterman change their mindsets and behavior and leave the car at home.

"I want to believe that they're right; I want to give them every opportunity," said Peterman, the president of Windsorgate homeowners association on the former air base, which will soon see thousands of new homes. "But somehow in my heart of hearts I just see it being a nightmare. There's piano lessons and hairdresser appointments and soccer."

The Market Common is the largest of a dozen or so projects being built in the area that promote the "live/work/play" mantra - a place where you can do all three right in the same neighborhood. Some are as few as one or two units, and others as large as 40 or more.

They are scattered, some in the heart of cities, such as Conway, others on the periphery.

"Bit by bit these projects are being built in many, many American cities, but they're still being inserted into patterns where people are dependent upon driving," said Cliff Ellis, an associate professor in the department of planning and landscape architecture at Clemson University. "So they're not going to change behavior massively overnight."

The village that encourages walking and biking is the central theme to a popular city planning movement called new urbanism, and many smaller cities across the United States - and especially redevelopments of old military properties - are heading in that direction.

It creates the type of lifestyle that Wendy Arroyo, 18, said she loves. She and her family run a Mexican restaurant and general store in the spaces below their apartment in downtown Myrtle Beach, which they moved into three years ago.

"When you get up, you're not late to work," she said. "You don't waste gas - and you know how the gas prices are. I can get off work, go upstairs, take a shower and go out."

Joseph DiMento, a professor of law and society and urban planning at University of California at Irvine, said live-work settings will only work if they are done on a large scale, are laid out correctly, feel safe and create an interesting environment to walk through.

"Part of the challenge is how many minutes people will actually walk," DiMento said. "It's a very small number. People tend not to walk in this country even if things are supposedly, as described by the developers, convenient."

Small steps

As simple as the concept sounds - living, working and frolicking in a geographically small neighborhood - there are only a few places where that is possible on the Grand Strand, though some, such as properties in downtown Georgetown, have been around for a long time.

Developers Robin Roberts and Carol Cole are planning pricey lofts in downtown Myrtle Beach - an area now marked by empty storefronts, homeless services and blight. They are positive the designer apartments, dubbed Palmetto Lofts, will be a hit, even starting at $639,000.

They're counting on Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. to create a development right across the street on the former site of the Myrtle Beach Pavilion Amusement Park, so the people living in the lofts will be "right there in the middle of everything," said Cole, who works for Prudential Burroughs & Chapin.

"It's a fabulous concept and I think it's going to do really, really well," Cole said. "It's something just really cutting edge for this area."

Robin Crawford, 24, said she loved living in the Black Water development in Conway, which employed the live-work concept. The development, on Fourth Avenue, opened three years ago with six luxury apartments above seven stores.

Although Crawford could have walked the few blocks to her job at Conway National Bank, she generally drove, she said.

"I literally drove two blocks to work every day," she said. "I didn't want to walk. I would need my car at lunch, I would usually go out and eat lunch. There's periods of the day where you may need your car and you may not want to walk."

Dock Street Communities, which is constructing the townhouses at The Market Common, is also building a block of 40 units at a project called St. James Square at 38th Avenue North at Robert M. Grissom Parkway.

There are also 15 that have been built and sold in a development dubbed the Village Center in Sunset Beach, N.C. Another 18 are planned there.

Even though the design does not cut out all of the trips people must take in a day, it generally saves one or two.

Will it work?

Developers can push the live-work idea without proving that it will actually happen.

"They don't need to actually establish this scientifically, especially if you have a sympathetic council who wants development in their areas," DiMento said.

Indeed, Dan McCaffery, whose firm is developing The Market Common, which is expected to open in April, said it's his experience that shows him the concept will work.

"There's no way to predict human behavior," he said. "But historically the odds are with us."

People also need enough choices in the retail market to really make a difference on the number of times they use their car, DiMento said. If only a few of the shops they want or need to visit are within walking distance, they will have to drive to the ones that are not there.

"People won't change their stores immediately," he said. "They're not going to change their jobs because a job is near them."

Although Ellis said he is a "card-carrying member" of the new urbanist movement, he said there's no guarantee any single development will work.

"I don't necessarily think there's a long-enough track record to pronounce any final judgment," he said.

Whether people will really get out of their cars or not, they are buying into the concept, literally. Housing sales are moving along at a good clip, and The Market Common has leased 90 percent of its retail space, McCaffery said.

"I think it's because people are crying out for that sense of community," McCaffery said.

Experts say a five-minute walk also needs to be interesting or pleasant for people to take it.

"When you're walking in the streets of some of the great cities, it's part of the day," DiMento said. "Walking is a delight in certain areas. There's so much to look at. There's so many people to watch."

To that end, property tax money is being reinvested into The Market Common to beautify the property and make the walk interesting.

"The sidewalks are wide, there are plants, flowers, trees for shade, benches, water fountains," McCaffery said. "We're talking about pedestrian amenities. If you pay some respect to the pedestrian environment it's really the preferred way of getting around."

Sam Burns, who owns Dock Street Communities, said he knows there are skeptics out there who will cling tightly to their steering wheels, but he believes he can win them over.

"I understand people being skeptical and checking, people making sure I'm thinking straight," he said. "Reality just hasn't hit people because they don't believe it until they see it."

Piece by piece - and maybe eventually connected by a public transportation system - these live-work communities could form a new network along the Grand Strand.

"It might really work," Burns said. "It will never work if we don't build it."