Developer's neotraditional vision translates into riverfront homes

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Turner Simkins, the man behind one of the most ambitious real estate developments in the Southeast, is unsure why he's been asked to be the subject of a business story.

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Architecture models are inside the sales center for the Hammond's Ferry development.  Andrew Davis Tucker/Staff
Andrew Davis Tucker/Staff
Architecture models are inside the sales center for the Hammond's Ferry development.

"I don't think I follow the best business model," Mr. Simkins said, maneuvering his Ford Expedition through the busy construction zone of North Augusta's Hammond's Ferry project along the banks of the Savannah River.

Truth be told, there are easier ways to make a buck in real estate.

The 43-year-old developer could be bringing big-box stores to the suburbs or carving 100-acre tracts into 400 cookie-cutter homesites instead of toiling over a mixed-use, "neotraditional" neighborhood concept so radical that it forced North Augusta to rewrite its planning and zoning laws.

The project has generated a buzz locally and nationally because its sidewalks, narrow streets and compact homesites resemble a neighborhood built a century ago. As with similar neotraditional developments that have sprouted up in other parts of the country during the past 20 years, Hammond's Ferry is designed for people, not cars.

Named after the ferry service that operated on the river in the late 1700s, the 200-acre neighborhood will be linked to the city's urban trail system and will feature a shoreline park that will give North Augusta something it has lacked: public access to the river.

Nearly a dozen homes already have been sold at the site, but Hammond's Ferry is far from easy money for Mr. Simkins, his team and the project's backer, New York-based LeylandAlliance LLC.

The public-private venture between the city and LeylandAlliance represents nearly 20 years of planning, millions of dollars in investment and countless man-hours of meetings with government officials who had never worked on such a project.

None of that effort would have been required if officials and developers eschewed the neotraditional plan for a typical upscale neighborhood, where estate-size homes would sit on -acre tracts and only the most wealthy could afford a riverfront lot.

"It would've been a lot easier and a lot quicker" to do it that way, Mr. Simkins said, rounding a sharp corner that was designed specifically to slow down vehicle traffic. "We could be much further along at this point."

To know Mr. Simkins is to know he wouldn't want Hammond's Ferry developed any other way.

The Augusta native, who has a reputation for progressive development concepts such as the conservation-minded Bartram Trail community in Columbia County, would have begged to be the project manager had he not been offered the job in 2002.

"I could've (gone) to Atlanta like my friends and made a bunch of money," Mr. Simkins said. "But this thing was just ... so cool."

Town and country

Mr. Simkins has three young sons, Nat, Brennan and Christopher. The back seats of the Simkins family Expedition are littered with toys, including a Star Wars light saber that is jarred to life and emits an electronic whoosh every time the SUV hits a bump, which is often when Mr. Simkins drives on the unpaved section of the Hammond's Ferry tract.

On the front console are several books on Catholicism - the faith of his wife, Tara - that he is studying to take the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults at the Church of the Most Holy Trinity. By Easter, the lifelong Presbyterian will be a Catholic.

Mr. Simkins steers into the interior of what will be the Hammond's Ferry town center, passing illegal dump sites and several large holes created by clay miners when the property was used for brick and pottery manufacturing. The light saber kicks into overdrive as Mr. Simkins describes how the development's centerpiece will resemble a traditional town square, similar to the one etched in his memories from childhood visits to his grandparents' home in Covington, Ga.

In Augusta, a young Mr. Simkins and his brother, Hamp, would often walk from their family's Lombardy Court home to Daniel Village shopping center and catch a bus to Broad Street.

"I've always had something for the whole urban thing," he said. "I was always drawn to that."

The brothers would wander around the bustling commercial district but would usually wind up at Simkins Seed Co., the country store at 1129 Broad St. owned by their grandfather, Leroy Simkins Sr., a man who operated commercial ships on the Savannah River during his younger days.

If boyhood trips to his grandfather's store influenced Mr. Simkins' affinity for the city, then his appreciation for green space is likely attributed to his father, Leroy "Roy" Simkins Jr., who owns Simkins Land Co., an Augusta-based forestry and land-appraisal firm.

The elder Mr. Simkins, who grew up on the family farm in Beech Island, tried to give his city-reared children a taste of the outdoors through regular hunting and fishing excursions.

"Turner has always been a real sensitive guy," Roy Simkins said at his Macartan Street office. "He wasn't as excited about the hunting and fishing as the other children. I think he did it to humor me. But I also think, in a way, it may have had an effect on him."

Nature conservation and preservation have been a part of every neighborhood that Turner Simkins has developed since returning to Augusta nearly 10 years ago. The Hammond's Ferry project will feature a unique wetlands project that will turn the site's abandoned clay pits into a stormwater receptacle for the city and a nature park for residents.

"It's a really good example of urban restoration," said Dr. Gene Eidson, the president of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, a consultant on the project. "You're taking something that was a degraded area and turning it into a positive."

Such work is a far cry from where Mr. Simkins got his start in real estate development.

The McMansion years

As a youth, Mr. Simkins wanted to be a writer, going so far as freelancing for The Augusta Chronicle in the 1980s. His interest had shifted to law by the time he graduated from Washington & Lee University in Virginia with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and English. A brief internship at a large Atlanta law firm ended his flirtation with the legal profession.

"I hated it," he said. "It wasn't for me."

As he contemplated his next move, he asked his father for a job.

"I was in a dazed-and-confused world," Mr. Simkins recalled over lunch at Blue Sky Kitchen. "I was trying to get my professional bearings."

His father did not offer employment but gave him advice that turned out to be more valuable. He told his son to go to work for a developer because he could get exposure to everything from marketing and sales to land acquisitions and construction. That way, he could find out what he liked best.

With a referral from his father, the young Mr. Simkins knocked on the door of Bob Sierra, the storied Florida developer whose partnership with golf legend Jack Nicklaus has resulted in some of the nation's ritziest and best-known golf communities.

"I finally pestered him into giving me a job," Mr. Simkins said.

It took awhile before he worked his way to the construction zone.

"Someone recognized I could write fairly well, so they made me the marketing director," he said. "The whole time, I was telling them I was interested in development, the dirt side."

Mr. Simkins spent 11 years at Nicklaus-Sierra Development Corp., working on major projects such as Bear Creek Golf Club in Temecula, Calif., and the Country Club of the South in suburban Atlanta.

During the latter part of his tenure with the firm, Mr. Simkins became captivated by the neotraditional, or "new urbanism," movement that was gaining national attention thanks to developments such as Seaside, Fla. (where the Jim Carrey movie The Truman Show was filmed).

As an avid golfer, Mr. Simkins enjoyed his work with Nicklaus-Sierra; however, he said the suburban model that the developments followed didn't stir his passion the way his current projects do.

Still, he remains proud of his past work and considers Mr. Sierra his mentor.

"He taught me everything I know," Mr. Simkins said

Despite Mr. Simkins' self-deprecating remarks about his acumen as a capitalist, he is very much the astute businessman, his old boss says.

"He has that unique quality of being a pretty good marketer who also knows how to control a dime," Mr. Sierra said in a phone interview from his offices in Tampa, Fla. "That's an unusual trait in business."

Learning the ropes of real estate was one of the many things that happened while Mr. Simkins was with Nicklaus-Sierra. He also fell in love. And he almost died.

Coming home

The roots of Mr. Simkins' marriage to Tara Rice can be traced to a Thanksgiving party at The Partridge Inn in 1990.

He was working out of Nicklaus-Sierra's Tampa office. She was in law school at the University of Georgia. Both were home for the holidays.

"We were destined to cross paths sooner or later," Mr. Simkins said. The two had known of each other through acquaintances. "We just sort of hit it off."

Their courtship evolved into a long-distance engagement after he was sent to Southern California to work on the Bear Creek development while Ms. Rice finished law school. Mr. Simkins jokingly refers to their 1993 marriage as an "Asian wedding."

"We saw so little of each other, it was like marrying two people who never met," he said.

Not long after the honeymoon, Mr. Simkins talked his bosses into letting him take over the Country Club of the South project in Alpharetta so he could be closer to his wife, who then was employed at an Atlanta law firm.

Their marriage was tested early. On Father's Day 1997, they were driving up Peachtree Road in Buckhead on their way to brunch when they were T-boned on the driver's side. It was a sunny day, the roads weren't crowded and the driver who hit them wasn't intoxicated.

"It was just an accident," Mr. Simkins said.

The couple were injured, and Mr. Simkins nearly died at the scene from severe trauma that shattered his sternum and broke seven vertebrae in his neck and back. He was an invalid for several months and, after recovery, underwent many more months of physical therapy.

The near-tragic event changed the couple's outlook on life.

"I know it sounds like a Hallmark card," Mr. Simkins said, "but it did strengthen our marriage."

They also took the accident as a sign to come home.

The new style

Ms. Simkins went to work for Hull, Towill, Norman, Barrett & Salley, where her father, Patrick Rice, is a partner.

Mr. Simkins went to Blanchard and Calhoun, one of Augusta's oldest and largest real estate firms, where he found someone willing to take a chance on neotraditional development concepts that had never been done in the city.

"He showed us how to look at the development process maybe a little differently than in the past," President Thomas M. "Tommy" Blanchard Jr. said. "It was a good day for us when he came back to town."

The Simkins-Blanchard partnership led to the development of Columbia County's Northridge, Tudor Branch and Bartram Trail subdivisions.

Bartram Trail is most noteworthy. There, Mr. Simkins drew from his Nicklaus-Sierra experience to essentially create a neotraditional version of a golf course community, with craftsman-style bungalows replacing palatial McMansions, and grandiose backyards giving way to public parks and greenbelts.

Homes have sold briskly at all three neighborhoods, while other area developers work to incorporate neotraditionalism into their projects.

"All the old-timers told us it wouldn't work," Mr. Simkins said. "But it is, and they're starting to change their model."

In 1999, Mr. Simkins became a partner in the purchase of the old J.B. White building downtown along with Clay and Braye Boardman and Julian Roberts III. The still-vacant building is a constant source of questions among those who remember the group's plan to turn it into a high-end apartment building.

Mr. Simkins said that he and the other investors are too busy with other projects to focus on the White building and that the group is negotiating with Atlanta investors who are interested in sticking with the plan to convert the 83,000-square-foot structure into upscale apartments.

"We just want to see it get done, whether it's us or somebody else doing it," he said.

Mr. Simkins has made time to serve on boards such as the Augusta Canal Authority and volunteer through organizations such as the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy.

Though he has become one of the city's civically active young business leaders and his family has political experience (Roy Simkins, a Goldwater Republican, represented Richmond County in the state Legislature in the 1960s), Mr. Simkins said he has no time for such pursuits - at the moment.

"I've got this job," he said.

Gargantuan project

When Hammond's Ferry is fully built out a decade from now, it promises to be nothing less than a national case study in new urbanism and the most celebrated residential real estate project in the Augusta-Aiken area.

"This eclipses everything else I do," Mr. Simkins said. "It's a gargantuan project."

The neighborhood very much follows the original North Augusta town plan drawn by Charles Boeckh in 1891. Boeckh's vision of a riverfront city was never realized because the low-lying area was prone to flooding until dams were built upstream during the 1950s.

"This property was just sitting here derelict," Mr. Simkins said. "It deserved to be treated better."

North Augusta leaders began discussing riverfront development in the 1980s, but actual progress was not made until the 1990s, when developer Carl Sanders successfully petitioned the federal government to remove flood-level restrictions that allowed homes to be built on the ground instead of stilts.

A flurry of high-end riverfront development, including Mr. Sanders' River North, the Landing at River Club and Campbell Town Landing, began springing up around the Hammond's Ferry tract that North Augusta city officials were piecing together.

The city was turned on to the neotraditional concept by South Carolina developer Vince Graham, who had gained attention for his I'on and Lady's Island developments near Charleston. Mr. Graham hooked city officials up with LeylandAlliance, which has experience in public-private developments, and Mr. Simkins, whom he had met through mutual friends.

"Turner is just your basic all-around great guy. He's a Renaissance man," Mr. Graham said. "He has a lot of passion for the concept and what they are doing. That's what it takes to build a place like this."

Making history

North Augusta city leaders say there's little doubt that Hammond's Ferry will sell out. Recently retired City Administrator Charles Martin, who worked with the riverfront development since its inception, calls the project the "cornerstone for the future of North Augusta."

"It will be our anchor," he said.

Mr. Simkins said he sees himself eventually living in the neighborhood he has spent so much time developing.

For now, home is on Gardner Street near the Hill section of town ("A 7-iron from Harrisburg," Mr. Simkins said.) where the faint sounds of folk and bluegrass guitar can be heard at night.

"He plays a mean guitar," Mr. Graham said.

Like many amateur pickers, Mr. Simkins fantasizes of being onstage in the limelight.

"I guess I have a secret ambition that I'll be able to dedicate more time to the guitar and write wonderful songs," he said.

It's hard to say whether Nathaniel Turner Simkins will be remembered for his music. He's much more likely to be remembered as a local pioneer of new urbanism and the man who pulled the strings on the region's most progressive development.

Of course, you wouldn't think that to hear his words.

"I haven't hit any home runs yet," Mr. Simkins said in a final interview at his office. "Maybe a couple of singles."

The statement leaves you unsure of something: Is he being modest, or does he know his best is yet to come?

Reach Damon Cline at (706) 823-3486 or damon.cline@augustachronicle.com.

NATHANIEL TURNER SIMKINS

Title: Project manager and vice president, North Augusta Riverfront Co. (Hammond's Ferry); vice president, Blanchard and Calhoun Real Estate Co.


Born: Nov. 13, 1963, Augusta


Education: Washington & Lee University, bachelors' degrees in philosophy and English, 1987


Career: Nicklaus/Sierra Development Corp., 1988-98; Blanchard and Calhoun, 1998-present; North Augusta Riverfront Co., 2002-present


Family: Wife, Tara; sons Nathaniel, 7, Brennan, 5, and Christopher, 4


Civic: Board member of the Savannah River Banking Co., Augusta Canal Authority, Augusta Tomorrow, Central Savannah River Land Trust and the Activities Council of Thomson; past board member of the Southeastern Natural Sciences Academy, Gertrude Herbert Institute of Art and Main Street Augusta


Hobbies: Golf, guitar, outdoor activities

HAMMOND'S FERRY

Developer: North Augusta Riverfront Co. (a partnership between North Augusta and New York-based LeylandAlliance LLC)


Location: Along the Savannah River in North Augusta between Georgia Avenue and Riverview Park


Acreage: 200 (100 developable; remainder will be preserved as public green space and parks)


Homesites: 800 to 1,000


Land use: Single-family homes, townhomes, condominiums, apartments, offices, restaurants and small retail stores


Project start date: 2005 (initial studies began in the late 1990s)


Project completion date: 2015 (estimated)


Web site: www.hammondsferry.com


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