Real Estate 2012
Real Estate Round-Up

Little boxes no more: Master planned communities go away from perfect lawns and golf courses to embrace the wild

Little boxes no more: Master planned communities go away from perfect lawns and golf courses to embrace the wild

News, Cross Creek Ranch
The developers of Cross Creek Ranch decided to go sustainable in its landscaping, land development and water usage. Wildflowers replaced standard carpet grass. Photo by Tom Fox/SWA Group
News, Cross Creek Ranch
The development is now ranked in the top 10 communities for new home sales in the Houston area.   Photo by Tom Fox/SWA Group
News, Cross Creek Ranch
The curves of the land’s natural creek had been straightened for efficiency’s sake, the grass was pounded into submission by cattle and the property was barren, without trees.  Photo by Tom Fox/SWA Group
News, Cross Creek Ranch
The community’s parks and picnic areas that do have Bermuda grass are watered with recycled gray water. Photo by Tom Fox/SWA Group
News, Cross Creek Ranch
News, Cross Creek Ranch
News, Cross Creek Ranch
News, Cross Creek Ranch

Mow the lawn. Water the lawn.

Mow the lawn. Water the lawn.

Now it’s time to plant those pansies so we can enjoy a little color for a couple of weeks before the petals fry to a crispy brown in Houston’s summer sun.

Meanwhile, an errant sprinkler soaks the pavement and water pours down the gutter.

 Living in Cross Creek Ranch has a natural feel. Residents there don’t feel like they are raping Mother Earth. 

For years, this has been the standard operating procedure for developers of many master planned communities in the Houston suburbs. But Cross Creek Ranch, a 3,200-acre community in Fulshear, has changed the way it’s always been.

The developers of Cross Creek Ranch decided to go sustainable in its landscaping, land development and water usage. Wildflowers replaced standard carpet grass. Living in Cross Creek Ranch has a natural feel. Residents there don’t feel like they are raping Mother Earth.

Call it astute marketing. Or call the developer environmentally concerned. But whatever the motive, people like it. Home buyers have responded.

Cross Creek Ranch is one of the hottest projects in town. Since its grand opening in 2009, during the depths of Houston’s housing downturn, Cross Creek Ranch has surged in popularity. With a very impressive showing for a newbie project, Cross Creek Ranch sold 200 homes in its first year of operation and has seen 250 new home sales in 2011.

The average home price came in at more than $300,000. It’s now ranked in the top 10 communities for new home sales in the Houston area. 

A Denuded Beginning

The Cross Creek Ranch acreage was worn-down pasture land in 2005 when Trendmaker Homes bought the ranch, located about 30 miles west of Houston. The curves of the land’s natural creek had been straightened for efficiency’s sake, the grass was pounded into submission by cattle and the property was barren, without trees. Sediment filled the creek, which didn’t support wildlife much anymore.

“The property was denuded by ranching. The site was hurting. It has really been degraded,” says Houston landscape architect Matt Baumgarten of the SWA Group.

Trendmaker and SWA devised a plan to restore the land, make it consistent with native vegetation and make the community a showplace for sustainability and sound ecology.

“The idea was to make the community about sustainable landscape,” Baumgarten says.

The banks of Flewellen Creek — redesigned to wind some three miles through the property — were restored with carefully plantings of native grasses and black willow trees. Native grasses that don’t have to be mowed and watered were planted. Trendmaker planted thousands of trees and spent millions on landscaping improvements. Huge wildflower displays — not manicured lawns — were designed on roadside acreage.

Fifty acres were converted into wetlands and reeds and grasses were planted. The wetlands act as a natural filtration system for what Baumgarten calls “water-polishing” that cleans the water and allows it to be recycled. The community’s parks and picnic areas that do have Bermuda grass are watered with recycled gray water.

Jump on the Bandwagon

The success of Cross Creek Ranch has been noticed.

“We’ve had other developers coming to us and saying: ‘That's what we want to do,' " Baumgarten says.

Around the nation, the new thinking is taking root: Master planned communities don’t have to be covered with lawns and golf courses.

Bishops Bay, a new community near Madison, Wis., has introduced a concept called “agricultural urbanism” and a considerable amount of land in the community will be devoted to growing fruits and vegetables. Water conservation and energy efficiency are important in Bishops Bay. The community’s plan was recognized for excellence last year by the National Association of Home Builders.

 Around the nation, the new thinking is taking root: Master planned communities don’t have to be covered with lawns and golf courses. 

On the north side of Houston, another developer, Holcomb Properties, is gaining attention with a careful environmental approach to developing the Falls at Imperial Oaks.

Holcomb Properties preserved the creek that runs through the property with planning that protects the land from erosion and maintains mature trees. The creek, previously unnamed, was christened Holly Creek.

The Falls at Imperial Oaks community, located near Interstate 45 and Rayford Road, was voted “Houston’s Best Community of the Year” in 2011 by the Greater Houston Builders Association.

Designing and developing environmentally friendly communities appears to be more than a passing marketing trend. In the pure terms of capitalism, these projects make money.

Trendmaker, the developers of Cross Creek Ranch, booked a tidy profit by developing the community. Trendmaker bought the 3,200-acre ranch for $56 million in 2005 and sold the remaining Cross Creek land for $125 million this spring.

Trendmaker sold Cross Creek Ranch to a group led by one of the oldest and most experienced land developers in Houston — Johnson Development.

Over the years, Johnson has developed dozens of communities in Houston, San Antonio and Atlanta, including Silverlake, Sienna Plantation, Riverstone and many more. Johnson doesn’t make many mistakes.

If Johnson Development is buying into the new green development trends at Cross Creek Ranch, it’s a solid bet for the future.

Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is founding editor of RealtyNewsReport.com.