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What Goes Into a Master-Planned Community?

Designing master-planned communities is a huge undertaking one that requires a lot of different seats at the table to execute. Various elements are factored in to create what ultimately becomes a place where many will live and engage, including housing, commercial development, and amenities. While there is much that goes into designing master-planned communities, we will start with the basics.


Housing

Every master-planned community includes housing, but the key is to nail down what types of housing are needed in the area. Researching the community is pivotal, starting with broker/realtor statistics on the vacancy rate for various types of products, bedroom count, amenities, etc. Any factors which may significantly impact the overall available housing market must be considered as well, such as:


1. Are housing developments of any significant size in the planning or construction stage?

2. Are there significant employment opportunities coming into the market which may cause a surge in housing demand?

3. What are the land and housing values in comparison to other communities of comparable size in adjacent markets?


Creating a master-planned development with a major multi-family component starts with understanding the fabric of the surrounding community. There are very few scenarios where “build it and they will come,” is a wise undertaking. Even in very hot markets with ideal conditions, lack of planning can be a deathblow. Each market is unique, and a product which worked well in a similarly sized municipality may not move the needle at all even a few miles down the road.


When starting off, it is important to analyze the historical factors of the market and determine the appetite for housing types. Although these overlay conditions can be challenging, working in historical context can often provide vehicles for tax credits or incentives which may impact the overall financial viability of a project. It is important to note that tax credit projects can be finicky, and it is best to have a specialist on the team; funds for such projects have strict award and utilization guidelines.


Civic Engagement

The make/break of a master-planned development often comes down to the community leaders and the interest in propelling projects forward. Most municipalities have an array of tools to assist and staff dedicated to creating favorable conditions for large developments to be planned and constructed. One of the most successful approaches has been going to the city first and asking them, “What does your community need?”


Rather than formulating your own concept in a vacuum, ask the question and see where the conversation leads. It may not be the concept that you had initially planned, but if the local need is already there, why fight the current? A warm seat at the table is more valuable than any other factor.


Affordable is Viable

Right now, affordable housing should be considered essential in every market. Affordability doesn’t necessarily mean that the housing product is geared specifically toward low-income individuals; it can also apply to the idea that units can be created at a smaller scale to drive down costs for the average earner in a particular market. (What is considered affordable to one individual may be completely different for another.) Workforce, efficiency, student, studio housing there are a wide array of possibilities, and demand for affordable housing is rarely a problem.


An approach to affordability is to provide adjacent and varied sets of amenities which are utilized by greater development, offsetting the cost from any single tier or complex of housing. When it comes to amenities, simple is often better, keeping perspective on long-term viability and lifecycle costs. Also look beyond the borders of the development area to consider the walkable connections to the greater community nearby parks, shopping centers, restaurants, and public amenities.


Options for All

A range of affordability levels within a single master-planned area provides an opportunity for retaining residents within the community. If there are few housing options in the neighborhood, the odds are greatly increased that the limited demographic would sustain greater impact from changes to real estate markets over time. For example, a resident may begin with an affordable housing option, upgrade to a duplex, and eventually make a single-family purchase all in the same area. Humans are inherent creatures of habit, and if the area is properly planned, turnover will be mitigated by internal transactions, minimizing the need for external marketing.


It is important to note that each housing type should have a critical mass relative to the greater development. Having a handful of each product mixed together will work in a very high-demand environment, but most residents favor clusters of similar products to foster a sense of belonging.


Fill in the gaps that exist in the greater community; do the legwork to survey what’s on the market already and then provide the missing puzzle pieces. A common mistake is to target the exact hot product and duplicate the formula. Although this initially might be successful, the overall result is a saturated market for a single product type. Even a slight variation will provide a buffer to product burnout.


Amenities

When investing in signature amenities, take the time to step back and consider daily use, maintenance, and secondary life possibilities. Character upon entry to any development is important for establishing the vibe; however, a cascade fountain with carefully manicured landscaping is not only a significant initial expense but maintaining it over time is even more burdensome. Consider, instead, what the local environment wants to sustain. Cultivate common amenities between housing typologies to provide buffer while also encouraging communal interactions. Soft spaces provide runoff control, reduce microclimate impacts (such as heat island effect), and reduce the monotony of repetitive builds.


Isn’t this sacrificing valuable development area? Yes, but these interventions increase the value of the adjacent properties and the overall planned community. Depending on the municipality and the appetite for incentives, consider discussing with parks and recreation to incorporate these amenities into a broader park or trail network. Often there are funding sources available to build and maintain trail systems, which encourages pedestrian or bicycle connectivity in communities.


Convenience Counts

When a master plan reaches a critical mass and it’s no longer convenient to utilize adjacent commercial spaces, consider creating an edge generator or common core. When paired with other amenities, such as parks, trails, or primary vehicle thoroughfares, a bit of commercial property is a tremendous asset.


This type of commercial space should reflect the upper echelon of the overall master plan vision this will set the bar for perception of the total development. It may take more effort and cost to develop these amenity pads into a unique community element, but the long-term benefits will be worth the effort. An independent coffee shop or boutique market will create a unique perspective of the total development area, whereas a more generic chain restaurant or convenience store will potentially mitigate other efforts to create a stand-apart development.


The introduction of these unique elements will drive daily traffic from outside the master-planned area and also provide convenient amenities for the residents. This will serve a dual purpose to continually feed new prospective buyers into the area and retain those individuals who have already purchased, feeding the cycle of internal purchases.


Conclusion

Be prepared to be wrong. Master-planned developments take years to roll out and the conditions surrounding them will continue to change while initial phases are under construction. A bit of re-evaluation as the economic and market conditions evolve will ensure that the overall goals of the project stay on track.

As designers, we are often asked to look into our crystal ball to determine what projects and communities will look like in two, five or 10+ years. No amount of research, preparation, or planning can yield a future-proof model, but you can mitigate some of the risks involved.


Do not wait until you should be building. Proper planning takes time, along with zoning, infrastructure, marketing, and design. These all come at a cost to the project, but are negligible compared to missing the market peak. An experienced team will assist in building a master plan that accounts for these factors to help drive the success of your project.

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