Jax expert: This is how a developer keeps communities relevant

Wednesday, Nov. 8
Published by the
Jacksonville Business Journal
By Derek Gilliam, Reporter

As homebuilding continues to ramp up along the First Coast, large master-planned communities — particularly in Northern St. Johns County — are in some cases hitting their second or third phase of development.

How does a developer keep a community relevant more than a decade after the first home was built?

They hire civil engineers, landscape architects and designers that shape a vision for the project.

Steve Lovett, a principal with professional design firm Ervin Lovett & Miller, has worked on more than 50 master-planned communities, including Northern St. Johns County's Shearwater, Rivertown and Nocatee.

He recently discussed the topic of master-planned communities with the Jacksonville Business Journal.

What is a master-planned community and what are the goals when designing one? 

Master planning in general is just a process by which you ensure that you are making good decisions and creating value. A master-plan, whether it’s for a commercial redevelopment project like Sawgrass Village or a very large master-planned community like Shearwater in St. Johns County, it’s very important that all of the elements are considered together, so that you are creating the greatest possible value.

Really, a master-planned community implies the fact that it is comprehensively planned, intentionally. A large master-planned project is going to take several years, sometimes even longer, so we intentionally contemplate the configuration and alignment of the infrastructure: how a project might be phased, how value is created through design of the community. The creation of open spaces. All of that, if well designed, can increase value.

What is the firm’s philosophy when undertaking a master planned community?

Our philosophy is that we always start with the site. Early in my career, I was doing work in some really unique places and had some great mentors. A site is not like a prototype. Nobody wants to live in a prototype. These are places where people are raising families and creating life-long memories. So, what we do should represent something that is unique to itself. We look at each project and we look at each piece of property as completely unique to itself. We identify the greatest natural assets of any piece of property and preserve those, so that ultimately when a project is completed, it will still have the greatest manifestation of those assets possible.

For instance, Shearwater on County Road 210. Its landscape is beautiful, quintessential North Florida pine woods landscape, with some really wonderful pockets of wetland and conservation areas, really natural edges. And it has access to Trout Creek. Really the story of Shearwater is of open space and connectivity and celebrating the natural landscape. One of the things that is great about planning is we as designers have the ability and opportunity to put people where we want them and to show them what we want them to see. Rather than backing up a bunch of lots, up to a bunch of natural edges, we brought the main entry and spine road along those natural edges. 

With residential master-planned communities that can take more than a decade before they are fully built out, how do you create a timeless quality to ensure future sales even as trends change?

Designing with the intention that the project will adapt. Future undeveloped parcels need to be planned to adapt to what the market may be at the time. The community’s amenities and recreation facilities should adapt to as trends change. One of the things that we are very pleased with, is that a lot of our projects are timeless because we have set them up in such a way that the infrastructure supports the development in a really authentic way. We don’t want to typecast any community in any vintage or period in time. We aim for that three generations from now, the architecture is still relevant. It’s really a matter of fundamentals and conscious, intentional planning.

What do you see happening in the future in the master-planned community space in the future?

I think we have an opportunity here in North Florida to look at master-planned communities from a different lens then we have in the past. Different things are important. It used to be that there was a golf community in every residential community. Golf has become saturated in large measure. We look at those things that really attract and retain families. We want a master-planned community to be something that performs ecologically as well as economically. The preservation of these conservation areas, not just for appearances, but also for the value of a community.

A trend now is the idea of being able to live healthier. The ability for people to be able to walk and engage with nature will continue to be important. We have incorporated in most of our communities multi-use trails. It enables people to experience their community in a whole different way. There’s also a movement in terms of fresh foods and gardens and this whole notion from Farm to Table. We are starting to see a need for space where people can grow their own food. Really, suburban development, which has in the past been looked at as a pretty consumptive, car-dependent lifestyle. I think that’s being replaced by a more thoughtful and intelligent way of planning where we celebrate a property's greatest natural assets.