Community building: Hammond's Ferry houses new designs

From one of the higher rooftops in the developing Hammond's Ferry community in North Augusta, project director Turner Simkins can see the completed structures of the development's first phase, the turned earth and rough dirt roads for the next phases, the Savannah River, the Confederate powderworks smokestack and the Bon Air Hotel.

He also believes he can see a new future, inspired by the past.

Hammond's Ferry is the area's most formal foray into new urbanist design.

New urbanism looks at architecture as extending beyond the parameters of single homes or businesses, instead focusing on communities with an emphasis on easy navigation, either by mass transit or by foot.

The communities are designed so the lines between commercial and residential blur, and neighborhoods are developed based on residential diversity.

It's not unusual to see a small starter home snuggled up to a larger house. The first such communities began in the early 1980s and the most famous examples are Seaside, the Florida panhandle community featured in the film The Truman Show , and the central Florida town of Celebration built by the Disney corporation.

While other developments in the Augusta area, such as Northridge in Columbia County, have experimented with new urbanism, Hammond's Ferry is the first to embrace the idea. Already, businesses have opened in what will become a secondary commercial core, and construction continues despite the slump in the housing market.

Mr. Simkins began his career working on more traditional real estate projects, but said he found himself favoring new urbanist ideas.

"Very few architecture schools even teach this," he said. "There are really only a few of them. People are just not trained to build communities anymore."

Mike Watkins was trained as an architect and for nearly 20 years worked as a designer of communities for Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., one of the first new urbanist development companies, responsible for both Seaside and Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md., where he still lives. He said designing these communities means answering questions people neglected to ask for much of the 20th century.

"Now they are asking," he said. "They are asking what if we designed a place where children could walk to school, or you could hang out on the front porch or chat with your neighbor?"

He said the principle in mind is community out the front door and privacy out the back.

"It's about offering choice."

On a warm October afternoon, Hammond's Ferry resident Walker Posey walks from his house to Manuel's Bread Cafe, one of two open businesses in the neighborhood. It's a walk he says he makes about 10 times a week.

He said having a sidewalk cafe in walking distance not only encourages his patronage, but also his participation in the community.

"It encourages you to interact," said Mr. Posey, who has lived in Hammond's Ferry since June. "I was concerned about being so close to people. It's a positive, but it could be a negative as well. But so far, I've had no problems with it."

Mr. Posey said he was attracted to the ideals of new urbanism long before he found his house. The North Augusta native said his move into the community was a long time coming.

"I had actually been looking in here since they began developing it," he said. "I've wanted to be here since the ground was broken."

Asked whether he worried about the prospect of more people crowding the development's intentionally narrow streets, Mr. Posey said he looked forward to the expansion plans.

"I mean, that's really what it's all about," he said. "The people."

Although priced well above local median prices, with small starter homes for about $300,000 and high-end houses with a river view topping $1 million, Mr. Simkins said the new urbanist ideas seem to serve as a powerful marketing tool.

"But it isn't a gimmick," he said. "It's not like having face painting here every weekend, like the guy in the gorilla suit outside the car wash. I would hope that the best marketing tool we have is the people who live here."

The completion of all three phases is targeted for 2015, with the commercial "town center" core going up next and then a secondary residential area.

Mr. Simkins said the volatility of the real estate market favors the slow and steady.

"I mean, fortunately or unfortunately, we're in a market that won't let us grow too fast," he said. "It's something that you do see, though, in places like resorts where they have gotten too big for their britches."

Mr. Watkins said that emphasis on slow and steady growth is the right approach.

Although new urbanist projects are often derided as manufactured, he believes the communities attract those searching for a sense of residential belonging. He also noted that new urbanism isn't really new at all.

"Isn't that how North Augusta started?" he asked. "Wasn't it a planned development, built because of the city across the river? This is just the same, only 100 years or so later."

Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or steven.uhles@augustachronicle.com.

NEW URBANISM CONCEPTS

According to Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, two of the founders of the Congress for the New Urbanism, an authentic new urbanist neighborhood contains elements such as:

- A discernible center.

- Most dwellings within a five-minute walk of the center.

- A variety of dwelling types so that young and old, singles and families, poor and wealthy may live together.

- A network of connected streets that disperse traffic.

- Buildings in the neighborhood center placed close to the street, creating a well-defined outdoor room.

Source: NewUrbanNews.com