Future Lies in Flexibility for MPCs

Future Lies in Flexibility for MPCs

Urban Land Institute
by Lew Sichelman
October 24, 2012

  • Flexibility is needed going forward for master planned communities.
  • “Traditional” families only make up about 15 percent of the potential market.
  • Food trucks, community gardens are desired over golf courses.


A few years ago, a developer might have called the police if a food truck parked near their community center. If a homeowner turned his backyard into a farm, the community association probably would have objected. Now, mobile dining and urban agriculture are two of the ways forward-thinking developers are welcoming vendors and gardeners through amenity packages. These edible community features were among a number of examples that can be incorporated into master planned communities that were advanced at the ULI Fall Meeting in Denver October 18.

The chairs of ULI’s residential and community development councils shared their members’ best thinking about what it will take to succeed.

Agriculture is supplanting golf courses as a must-have amenity, according to Randal Jackson, president of The Planning Center/DC&E, a consulting firm with headquarters in Santa Ana, Calif. And developers don’t have to devote a lot of land to create a few community plots, panelists said. Builders can also offer storage sheds, arbors, greenhouses, and vegetable beds as options.

Another food-themed topic was mobile dining. Food trucks are helping to energize many downtown markets at lunch time, and they can do the same at master planned communities, the panelists said. Food trucks are not just for lunch time, either, but can be appealing in the late afternoon or any other regularly scheduled time.

“Creative retail is a wonderful thing,” said Theresa Frankiewicz, vice president of community development at Crown Community Development of Naperville, Ill.

Another way that developers can be creative and flexible is by offering a variety of lots and home sizes. Should they build bigger houses on small lots? Smaller houses on big lots? Yes, according to the panelists, who pointed out that flexibility is key. “If you’re trying to go after traditional families,” said Vogel, whose firm operates in 20 markets nationwide, “you are going after only 15 percent of the market.”

However, while small appears to be popular, at least right now, Jackson pointed out that many buyers crave extra space, which  they can lease out when times are tough but can use when their parents become too old to live on their own or when a child moves back in. Sometimes, the planner said, it’s just an extra room, which husbands might call the “man cave” but wives think of as their “mother-in-law’s future home.”

Terence Russell, chief executive of FrontDoor Communities in Atlanta, pointed out that when builders strip something out of their houses, buyers often put those features right back in. But Frankiewicz, the Illinois developer, wondered if building big houses is sustainable. They’re hot now because mortgage rates are low, she said, but they may not be so easy to sell once rates trend back up.

If flexible building is better, so are flexible communities that “re-mix” uses. Instead of segregating uses – multi-family over here, commercial over there – the panelists suggested integrating commercial, retail and residential into a single, cohesive unit. “Isolated is not an alternative anymore,” said land broker Vogel.

Flexibility may also be required to fund needed infrastructure for cash-strapped projects. How about asking your contractors to be your advance team, and pay them back bit-by-bit as each house is sold, suggested Steven LaTerra, managing director and principal at Paradigm Private Equity Holdings in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Or, if the local government can’t afford roads and sidewalks, which benefit your community, instead of waiting until the funding is available, why not lend the government the money, to be repaid in future budget cycles, offered Greg Vogel, chief executive officer of the Land Advisors Organization, a national land brokerage firm headquartered in Scottsdale.

While master planned communities may have experienced a rough patch in the U.S., they are adapting to the new normal along with the rest of the building industry.