The importance of a 35 acre property for sale in the middle of the built-out suburbs

What are the stakes when a 35 acre horse farm is for sale in the middle of a mature and built-out suburbia?

Photo by Kaboompics .com on

In recent weeks, the Bolger family, which owns the Gladstone Ridge horse farm on Leask Lane in Wheaton, asked area homebuilders for bids to develop the property. And on Tuesday, the Forest Preserve District’s board voted unanimously to authorize district staff to pursue negotiations with the Bolger family to buy the horse farm.

While no purchase price has yet been determined, some recently developed subdivisions in the immediate vicinity have sold for between $275,000 and close to $500,000 an acre, suggesting that the Bolger family could expect to reap between about $10 million and $17 million for the land from a developer…

“We have not expressed an interest in selling the property to the Forest Preserve (District) and hope you are not of a mind to condemn our property,” she told commissioners. “Please value the rights of our private property and practice open communication.” Forest preserve districts use condemnation to purchase land through eminent domain…

Forest Preserve District officials haven’t yet said publicly if they would consider using condemnation powers to acquire the farm now if they are unable to reach an agreement with the Bolger family. And Wheaton officials said that they have not yet been approached by a developer seeking to develop the Bolgers’ land.

It sounds like the property could go two directions right now: (1) sale to a developer, who would likely build expensive residential units in an exclusive residential area, and (2) (forced?) sale to the Forest Preserve who has aggressively pursued property in DuPage County for decades.

More broadly, properties of this size do not come available often in suburbs that are older and largely built-out. Bigger properties tend to be emerge when redevelopment is a possibility. For example, just a few miles away in Naperville is a part of a large office park where a developer wanted to add several hundred residential units. Or, office parks in the I-90 corridor can become mixed-use properties.

This is different than noting decades ago that the last farms were disappearing from DuPage County. At that point, the farms disappeared to new subdivisions that continued the process of mass suburbanization. Redeveloping a horse farm or an office park or another large property now is different: it does not occur under conditions of mass construction, there are neighbors to the property who likely have concerns, and municipalities and other government agencies think carefully about what the next use for a property could be. The character of the nearby neighborhoods and communities are already established yet a sizable redevelopment could alter future experiences. In other words, when larger parcels of land are infrequent, the stakes for getting this right may be even higher.

When fast-growing suburbs like Plano face build-out

Plano, Texas has had incredible growth in recent decades to over 270,000 residents but it is nearing build-out:

Of that 8 percent, 6.6 percent — or 3,052 acres — is earmarked for commercial development. A mere 1 percent — or 428 acres — is left for housing…Buildout, to Plano Mayor Harry LaRosiliere, simply means “a new phase of the city’s life.”…

Instead of McMansions, Plano’s future housing could include more five- to 12-story high-rise buildings and mixed-use urban centers clustered around DART’s Parker Road Station, at Park Boulevard and Preston Road, and the Collin Creek Mall, according to the 2006 Urban Centers Study.

Apart from new development, efforts are also focused on revitalizing aging retail areas and neighborhoods, said LaRosiliere, noting the new Great Update Rebate program provides cash incentives to residents who update older homes.

Maintaining property values and retaining and attracting new businesses, he said, are critical to the city’s main sources of revenue: property and sales taxes.

Very interesting. For a while now, Plano has been known for its rapid growth and sprawling development with lots of big houses. Some choices facing the suburb moving forward (partly based on my own research on Naperville, another suburb that experienced rapid growth and is now facing build-out):

1. As is noted here, that rapid development led to money added to the city’s coffers and a slow-down in building would limit new income and possibly lead to budget problems in trying to keep up with an aging infrastructure. Keeping up with the costs for local services and amenities can prove tricky in suburban communities when residents continue to clamor for a relatively high quality of life.

2. What happens to a community when denser development is introduced? One way to do this is to build up but this may not be viewed favorably near single-family homes. Building taller can introduce very visible landmarks that may not mesh with the character of a single-family home community. In contrast, transit-oriented development is popular in many places and doesn’t have to be that tall.

3. Retrofitting older spaces can be cool and create new centers of activity. For example, older shopping malls can be reconfigured to be more mixed-use and walkable. However, this can also prove more costly for developers than building new buildings in more sprawling locations. Additionally, demolishing older buildings can lead to issues with neighbors.

Overall, this transition stage for suburbs between growth and build-out is relatively understudied. Many American suburbs have already faced this issue, particularly those founded before the post-World War II suburban boom, and have had a range of outcomes. Yet, many of the post-war suburbs are facing this issue and it is not necessarily an easy change.

Builders constructing denser, more urban developments in the suburbs

USA Today reports that more builders are constructing denser suburban subdivisions:

The nation’s development patterns may be at a historic juncture as builders begin to reverse 60-year-old trends. They’re shifting from giant communities on wide-open “greenfields” to compact “infill” housing in already-developed urban settings…

“It’s the kids (ages 18 to 32), the empty nesters (Baby Boomers with no kids at home),” says Chris Leinberger, president of Smart Growth America’s LOCUS (Latin for “place”), a national coalition of real estate developers and investors who support urban developments that encourage walking over driving. “These two generations combined are more than half of the American population.”…

Most major builders have created “urban” divisions in the past five years to scout for available land in already-developed parts of cities and closer suburbs — even if it means former industrial and commercial sites or land that may require environmental cleanup…

Even traditional communities built on greenfields are transforming. In Southern California’s Inland Empire, an area where housing prices are lower and appeal to first-time buyers, Brookfield is building Edenglen in Ontario. The homes are built on smaller lots — 4,500 square feet instead of the more conventional 7,200 square feet — and priced from $200,000 to $300,000.

This phenomenon has been noted by a number of commentators in recent years though I wonder if it will last.

A few other consequences of this for suburbs:

1. How will existing suburban residents respond to dense, infill projects? I would guess that a good number of suburbanites would object to these dense projects being built near them, spoiling their neighborhoods.

2. Related to the first question about NIMBYism, how will these new developments change the character of existing suburbs? If a community is used to wide suburban streets and big lots, narrow lots and denser housing could change things.

3. This article hints at this but this could also be a product of the age of many American suburbs. Outside of the suburban fringe or exurbs, many suburbs not have at least a few decades of history and perhaps little to no open land (reaching build-out). If these suburbs want to continue to grow (boosting revenues and fees as well as prestige), infill development might be the only choice.

4. This article makes a common claim: certain generations (emerging adults and baby boomers) desire more urban kinds of housing. However, I wonder if it less about generational differences and more about the changing structure of American households. Is the increasing number of single households (which might be located more in these generations) really driving this? If so, this would be have bigger effects as the American suburbs have traditionally been communities build around family life and child-rearing.

McMansions and sprawl in New Jersey

Humorous maps seem to be all the rage (does it all go back to the Jesusland map of 2004)? A new map of New Jersey has an interesting label for Central Jersey:

A colorful map of New Jersey that went viral on Facebook on Tuesday has offended some while amusing others. It labels some areas of the state with racial stereotypes, but designates the Hudson County area as “HIPSTERS.” South of Hudson, the label is “POOR MINORITIES.” Central Jersey gets labels like “MCMANSIONS” and “LAWYERS DRIVING HYBRIDS.”…

An article on a Westfield news website credits the design to a 22-year-old Rutgers graduate who says he works for the state Department of Environmental Protection and also “works with the Geographic Information Systems, making maps of preserves and researching resource conservation.”

He says that he’s talked to people all over the state, so he has the experience to know what’s what.

To be clear, there are actually two areas in central New Jersey that involve McMansions: one is labeled “executives living in McMansions driving Mercedes-Benzes” and other is labeled “McMansions!!” Is this the best kind of exposure for a government employee these days? I wonder if anyone will object to the McMansion label – would even the people who live there object?

New Jersey is often equated with McMansions. However, I do think that the blanket reference doesn’t necessarily refer to the particular homes but rather refers to a larger process of sprawl that many people associate with New Jersey. This spread of sprawl is summarized in this October 2010 story:

A report released in July by Rowan and Rutgers Universities found that, after comparing aerial photos of the state, the years from 1986 to 2007 were New Jersey’s most sprawling period, when unprotected land was developed most rapidly.

When development ground to a halt in mid-2007 as the housing market collapsed, New Jersey had more acres of subdivisions and shopping malls than it had of upland forests and was down to its last million acres of developable land, according to the report, called “Changing Landscapes in the Garden State.”

Two-thirds of the land developed in New Jersey from 2002 to 2007 became “low-density, large-lot” residential properties, swallowing farmland, wetlands and unprotected forest, the report found. Preservationists and some developers say that the building of large single-family homes on oversize lots cannot continue at that rate, even if the housing market recovers.

This sounds like the challenge many built-out suburbs are facing: how does one do development when there is very little or no remaining open land? Redevelopment and building up might become popular options.