By: John Wilbanks

Just coming off of the Fall ULI meeting in Los Angeles, where we once again were saturated with the latest in trends in Real Estate Development by excellent, well prepared speakers, our intent is to leverage this new infusion of knowledge in ways that will benefit our clients, before it simply finds its way into the deep recesses of our minds until the only thing we remember is the opening reception with Brian Wilson’s band blasting out the reminiscent sounds of the famed Beach Boys!

Actually, the opening reception was the perfect convergence of sights and sounds to launch the information filled, power packed meeting of the minds in the real estate industry. The juxtaposition of the Beach Boys songs – harkening us back to simpler times – and the intensely visual technology of the backdrop of the Nokia Plaza in “LA Live” – transporting us further into the future; created a tension comparable to the forces we now face in the new economy. Can we look to the past and re-capture the “good times” for our industry, do we abandon the past for an entirely new “normal” or is success going to be defined in new ways that balance the tensions between past and future?

Winston Churchill said “Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts”. So whether you have a history of great success or have experienced a significant failure in the downturn; take courage, trends are looking up and looking different. Here is a brief summary of trends professionals seemed to be agreeing on.

Overall consensus seems to be that on the national level the economy will remain flat. However, there are encouraging signs of growth in “niche” markets which for California seems to be most promising in the coastal and southern parts of the state.  In a broad sense, mixed-use projects, transit-oriented development, multi-family housing, senior housing and smaller infill projects seem to be the more active segments of the market. Sustainability, “green” features, renewable energy and energy conservation continue to play important roles in marketability and viability of projects across the spectrum.

While planned communities – land development done at a larger scale that allows for the creation of great neighborhoods and amenities,once dominating the landscape of real estate development – will continue to be viable, there is likely going to be a shift to a smaller scale model. A “mini-planned community” that can be located in the “inner ring” suburbs as infill. The perceived and legislative expectations for compact city growth are already impacting the political receptiveness of continued greenfield development (typically occurring at or beyond the existing city edge), making the larger scale planned community model something viable only for developers able to stay in it for the long haul. Locationally, the inner ring suburbs offer good promise because of the accessibility to existing services and amenities.

Walk-ability, the term used to describe the ease of being able to walk from home to services and amenities, is on the top of the list of desired community attributes.

Although planned communities have always touted the objective of creating great neighborhoods with great amenities and a sense of community, when it came down to it, it was about the house. Home buyers felt good about the safety and security of a master planned community, or the amenities, or the enhanced property values, but it was ultimately about the house, the floor plan, the finishes, the options, the upgrades, etc. As a firm who is in the business of “placemaking” – creating environments people enjoy – it is interesting to hear the shift in what home buyers now are looking for in a home.

Home buyers are now looking more for meaning than material. That is, it is the sense of meaning in the home, in the community, that matters more than whether they have granite counter tops.  Just recently at the San Luis Obispo Green Awards sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce, one of the award winners was Shea Homes Trilogy project. This idea of meaning versus material being a sought after feature was very evident when the Shea homes representative mentioned that buyers were choosing the solar renewable energy option over the granite counter tops in their new homes. He went on to say that with a community based web site the neighbors can track their energy use and it has created a friendly neighborhood competition in the community. So the homes provide meaning and purpose by supporting personal lifestyle choices.

Another trend is in the area of Neighborhood design. People are tired of the sameness from house to house in new neighborhoods. New neighborhoods are being designed to look as if they have developed over time and have been built by different builders, blending architectural styles and materials. In San Luis Obispo, the Serra Meadows project, being constructed by MD2 Communities, has not only strived to achieve this level of architectural diversity , but has made the focus of this new neighborhood one which represents the Quintessential San Luis Obispo home and neighborhood appearance. The result is a connection to the community of San Luis Obispo as a whole and the meaning that represents to those that desire to live there. A significant method of defining meaning in community is a connection to the history of the place, whether City, County or specific locale.

In a sense it seems obvious, yet it clearly will require a new way to think about the planning of our communities. Understanding how people want to (or don’t want to) connect with one another and where and how they obtain their sense of fulfillment and purpose should be paramount in community planning and neighborhood design.