Simpler center, smaller houses for SC development

Hammond’s Ferry cuts costs while trying to preserve essential features.

A grand Classically-inspired City Hall was completed last July on a hill in Hammond’s Ferry, a 200-acre traditional neighborhood development (TND) overlooking the Savannah River in North Augusta, South Carolina. The $22 million, 64,000 sq. ft. building — whose top floor boasts a panoramic area for weddings and community — is the pride of the 21,000-person city.

But the City of North Augusta and developer LeylandAlliance are now looking for ways to avoid such costly outlays. A planned town center a short distance down the slope from City Hall has been scaled back. Homebuilding is shifting toward rentals and toward smaller, lower-priced for-sale houses.

Like many new urban developments, Hammond’s Ferry, where 86 houses, condo units, and apartments have been built since groundbreaking in 2005, is adjusting to today’s economic constraints.

Architect Mike Watkins has replanned the town center — called Riverfront Center — with the aim of bringing down its infrastructure costs. “The prior design was estimated at $15 million, while the new Watkins plan is estimated at $10 million,” says Stephanie Livolsi of LeylandAlliance. The center’s development costs will be shared by Leyland and the City, which teamed up to create Hammond’s Ferry on land assembled by the City.

The revised town center plan responds more closely to topography, avoiding the substantial expense of cutting and filling that the previous, denser scheme required. Less soil will be moved. A two-story parking deck has been eliminated. Watkins reorganized the design in a way that adds 338 public parking spaces, mostly on the interiors of blocks, and maximizes the parking lots’ efficiency.

“The urbanism or pedestrian frontage that shapes the blocks and contains the parking remains intact,” Watkins emphasizes. “No public lots will be exposed to the public realm, except one that’s under a bosque of trees, which will be detailed like a plaza.”

Riverfront Center is to get under way this year, financed with the help of tax-exempt bonds issued by the City. At the start the center will contain approximately 25,000 sq. ft. of retail — approximately a third of the space that may eventually be built. ”You make the 25,000 square feet look and feel like a lot more retail by having small operators,” Watkins observes.  

“If we have five or six or seven good food venues, we can have something worthwhile,” says LeylandAlliance President Steve Maun. He believes the center at will attract people primarily because of its riverfront setting and its food. Max Reim of the Montreal-based consulting firm Live Work Learn Play “was careful not to plan more retail than could be supported,” Maun says.

Smaller houses, more rentals
Spec houses in Hammond’s Ferry averaged $500,000 in the fall of 2007, partly because the economy was strong but also because “some builders were overreaching,” says Leyland Vice President Giovanni Palladino. That has since changed. Spec houses of about 1,800 sq. ft. have recently been selling for roughly $300,000 to $320,000, and Leyland has brought in a builder who specializes in “workforce” housing.

The design review process has been made less difficult for builders. “We’re still looking for the same details and materials, but we’re more lenient on side and rear elevations,” says town architect Richard Fletcher.

The first of the “New Economy Homes” at Hammond’s Ferry, starting construction early this year (see January-February New Urban News), will be 1,736 sq. ft. These houses — designed by Marianne Cusato in collaboration with Mark LaLiberté and Fernando Pagés Ruiz — are “designed to be efficient both to build and to maintain over time,” Livolsi says.

Builder David Blair says it’s been challenging in some respects to construct houses on small lots in Hammond Ferry. “There’s no room for port-a-lets and [individual] dumpsters,” he says. The difficulties have been eased through stratagems such as sharing of dumpsters.

The number of housing units to be built in Hammond’s Ferry — between 800 and 1,250 — hasn’t changed in response to the depressed economy, but a larger portion will be rental. LeylandAlliance Executive Vice President Howard Kaufman says apartments will be financed through the Federal Housing Administration’s Section 221(d)(4) program, which writes mortgages for up to 90 percent of the cost.

Rental housing is to be built above ground-floor retail. This is easier to finance than for-sale housing over retail, Kaufman says. Hammond’s Ferry is now expected to be completed in 2017, at least two years behind the original development timetable of eight to 10 years.

Lively neighborhood center
What’s been built so far, following a master plan by Dover, Kohl & Partners, has a sociable feeling, New Urban News found during a visit in November. Houses with front porches stand close together in the first neighborhood, where there is a tiny but lively neighborhood center anchored by Manuel’s Bread Café. The high-quality café draws customers from throughout the Augusta region.

A deeply discounted rent helped entice Manuel Verney-Carron to establish the café — his first, after years of operating a bakery — in a 1,300 sq. ft. space, which spills outward with sidewalk dining. The café also operates a community garden, subject of a commentary in the Dec. 2009 New Urban News.
On the November weekend we visited, vendors were selling food items and jewelry on the sidewalks. Other vendors were hosting a barbecue in a nearby small park. In the evening, musicians played in a bandstand in another park not far away.

One of Hammond’s Ferry’s greatest successes has been in overcoming polluted soil conditions from brick manufacturing decades ago. Clay pits left over from the brickmaking operation have been transformed into 25 acres of properly functioning wetlands. “We planted 3,000 aquatic plants,” scientist Oscar Flite says with satisfaction.

A public park in the wetland area will become an “urban ecology park,” says Tanya Strickland, the city’s environmental coordinator. A series of ponds supports salamanders, fish, and 109 species of birds. The wildlife also includes alligators — nine of them at last count.

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