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East County Thursday, Aug. 15, 2019 9 months ago

Quarter Forward

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Builders crave more space in Lakewood Ranch — for nearly 5,000 residences combined. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch has delivered on the demand.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Laura Cole has been working with, studying and analyzing master-planned communities nationwide for some 15 years, which has culminated in her current role overseeing the residential division of Lakewood Ranch as senior vice president of LWR Communities.

She headed marketing for a 4,000-acre project in Virginia, nationally known for its farm-to-table lifestyle. With the Urban Land Institute and a research firm, Robert Charles Lesser & Co., she has also studied why some master-planned communities thrive while others struggle.

"We don’t start by selling, we start by planning." —Laura Cole, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch

Her career has led her to a pair of must-dos for any master-planned community to succeed. One? Have patient owners with a long-term vision — not just investors who make decisions based on short-term returns. That’s how a community can weather economic cycles and help homeowners retain value in downturns. The second factor is to stay at least one step ahead of what residents — and by extension, homebuilders — want, by planning for growth and making sure infrastructure, such as roads, services and amenities, is in place support it.

That second must-do led Cole and Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch to take a big step earlier this year: start preparing for residential growth in the mostly vacant northeast section, east of Lorraine Road between state roads 70 and 64. “We thought we would open up that area much later,” Cole says.

But as several successful communities on the northwest side of Lakewood Ranch began selling out, builders came to SMR asking for more land. “We weren’t actively marketing that property,” Cole says, but with high housing demand, there was no replacement for those sold-out communities, and SMR accelerated its plans.

The first move to open that land to more homes was to get approval from Manatee County commissioners to modify entitlements for that quadrant. In an early June vote, commissioners approved a proposal to increase the residential land while decreasing retail, office and light industrial square footage. The number of single-family detached units in the new, approved plan is nearly double now, at 10,000.

Cole emphasizes that the follow-the-market move to sell more land for more homes isn’t done in a vacuum without considering the larger impact. “We don’t start by selling, we start by planning,” she says.

That includes figuring out everything from roadways, trails and shopping centers to serve residents to setting aside land for new schools  — all while ensuring the new development will fit into the community when it’s completely built out.

That kind of advance planning is a big selling point for builders, both those new to and familiar with Lakewood Ranch.

Taylor Morrison will bring a new community, Azario Lakewood Ranch, to Lakewood Ranch.

One builder, West Palm Beach-based Kolter Group, will make its Lakewood Ranch debut in the northeast quadrant with Cresswind, a branded 55+ community. Kolter has seven other Cresswind neighborhoods in the Southeast, including Port St. Lucie; outside Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; and Charleston, S.C.

Cresswind Lakewood Ranch, like some of its sister communities, is a baby-chaser: selling to newish grandparents who have young grandchildren in Lakewood Ranch or nearby, Kolter Spokesman John Manrique says. The Cresswind model emphasizes lifestyle, including pickleball courts, yoga fields and art studios.

In Lakewood Ranch specifically, the Cresswind community is planned at some 650 homes, with prices likely from the low $300s to the $600s, Manrique says. Models should be ready by the fall.

Another community in the northeast quadrant, planned at around 675 homes, comes from D.R. Horton, the largest homebuilder in the country. The community, Solera, includes a high-end amenity center, and some houses will back up to lakes or conservation areas. Models are expected to be open in early 2020.

Taylor Morrison, another top 10 national builder, has one of the largest stakes in the northeast quadrant with its Azario Lakewood Ranch community. It includes two neighborhoods: Esplanade at Azario Lakewood Ranch, a signature Esplanade resort lifestyle and golf neighborhood, and Park East at Azario, a single-family home neighborhood. Homes and models could be open by early 2020. “This is an exciting opportunity for us to capitalize on our well-received Esplanade brand,” says Cammie Longenécker, president of Taylor Morrison Southwest Florida Division. The builder’s original Lakewood Ranch Esplanade development is off Rangeland Parkway.

Cole, meanwhile, continues to push for Lakewood Ranch to remain ahead of the growth. Although half of Lakewood Ranch’s new residents are from Florida, the other half is no longer from primarily New York, New Jersey and the Northeast. Lakewood Ranch transplants from California, Dallas and even Atlanta are all on the rise, Cole says, and “picking up steam” is Washington, D.C.

“We’re always looking at the bigger picture,” Cole says. “We’re always asking if what we’re doing now fits in the puzzle of what it’s going to be when we’re finished.”

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