The Waters story took a very dark turn this week, but that never would have happened without bad advice finally heeded several years ago. The Waters' original landowner was a timber man by trade, but after he bought the land on which the Waters sits, he said: "these trees are too beautiful; I can't cut them." So he decided to develop the land instead.
Having never developed before, he wisely decided to seek out expertise from those who had. And so he asked for recommendations and settled on a development expert from Atlanta who had loads of experience under his belt. They hired us to do the pattern book and then the land plan shortly thereafter.
From the beginning, there was a problem: we were advocating building a traditional neighborhood, whereas the development expert on the team was pushing the patterns of conventional sprawl development. So although he was a really good guy, there was always an underlying tension.
"…why should I buy here?
The Waters is just across the street…"
After several years, and in spite of the success of the Waters, the development expert finally prevailed and convinced the landowner that "this New Urbanism stuff is OK, but lots of people want sprawl as well." So he persuaded the landowner to buy land across the street from the Waters and do a sprawl subdivision, complete with "wet noodle" cul-de-sacs, front-loaded lots, and nothing except houses. They called it Waterscapes. They. Never. Sold. One. Single. Lot. People would look at it, then say "why should I buy here? The Waters is just across the street." The land and infrastructure costs of Waterscapes hit the Waters landowner at the worst possible time (the Meltdown) and ended up taking him under. And let's be clear: the Waters did not fail because of the Waters, but because of Waterscapes. Between the subprime meltdown in 2007 and the big Meltdown in October 2008, the Waters was actually the great success story of the region. Most conventional developments were already shut down by then, but really great planners about to design in the Montgomery region were coming to the Waters to study what was done there.
…what is more dangerous than good guys with bad ideas?
The failure was really sad, because the original landowner is a really great guy, but for the couple hundred homeowners at the Waters, the sadness had only just begun. The remaining property was bought by a Birmingham development company that appears to know nothing about traditional neighborhoods, nor do they appear to want to learn the principles that helped the Waters generate 25 times the developed land value of the land all around it. Some of my developer colleagues in Alabama know them, and assert that they (like the original development expert) are really good guys. Which begs the question: what is more dangerous than good guys with bad ideas? It's much harder for most people to challenge a good guy than it is to challenge a slimeball.
…a complete betrayal of civic trust…
The new owners soon let the architectural quality standards begin to slip, which was not a big surprise. But it is fundamentally changing the character of the Waters in a bad way. People have built their homes at the Waters precisely because the architecture was better… and now that is slipping away.
What came recently, however was completely and unthinkably shocking. They have rammed through what can only be described as a complete betrayal of civic trust: they are taking Crescent Park and dividing it up for lakefront lots! From the first day I drew Crescent Park a decade ago, it was always intended to be not only the great civic park space of Lucas Point, but indeed, the center of all the hamlets of the Waters. It has always been shown on all drawings, the Waters website, etc., as a park.
To now divide that up for private lots… that's something so unthinkable it never entered my mind. And that fundamentally changes the character of the Waters as well. All because the developer has ignored the things that are known to work in traditional neighborhoods, treating the Waters instead like just another sprawl subdivision. They say on their website that they "view The Waters as the “crown jewel” of the investment group’s real estate assets". If so, then why aren't they interested in learning how the Waters got so good, and why it's so different from a regular subdivision?
…garages… mooning Lucas Point…
Beyond that, the ineptness of execution of the demise of Crescent Park is stunning. The center of Crescent Park was meant for an obelisk or other element that could be seen from distant hamlets, so I naturally lined an important street up with it. But because the lots front to the lake, that means that the view at the end of the street isn't a civic monument, but rather the back ends of the garages, which are effectively mooning Lucas Point! One of the basics of competent planning is getting fronts and backs of buildings arranged properly on the land. Not doing so reminds me of an old Southern adage that comes in several similar versions, the sanitized version of which is about "not knowing head from tail."
…the first pattern book with no patterns…
In the process, and to close the iron fist even tighter around future development of the Waters, the new developers informed the neighbors that they had gutted the pattern book last week, leaving it with little more than pretty pictures. It may well be the first pattern book with no patterns! So the decline in the quality of architecture is almost certain to continue. And in this week's meeting before the Town of Pike Road Planning Commission, they also demonstrated that they were going to disregard the SmartCode! The Planning Commission, calling it a "very complicated issue" nonetheless approved the developers' request to take the park. You can read all about it here.
… will they be able to muster themselves to the very difficult task of fighting for the dream of the Waters they believed in at the beginning?
Now comes the hard part: Southerners are for the most part friendly people, not given to public confrontations. The Waters neighbors have created a Neighbors United for the Waters group on Facebook, so that's a start. But will they be able to muster themselves to the very difficult task of fighting for the dream of the Waters they believed in at the beginning? Or will this place that once had so many great stories to tell be reduced to nothing more than just another subdivision by a bunch of reputed good guys with a bad idea? You really should stop by their Facebook page and offer a word or two of encouragement for the battle that's ahead for the neighbors at the Waters.
Jack Horner · The University of Mississippi - Ole Miss
We miss you, Steve, along with the leadership of Dale, Ed, Rusty, and Nathan - all quality people.
Just when you think you are taking a step forward, you take a step back. Thanks for sharing your story.
Here's the sad and even shocking part of the story. Everyone who sees this really should stop by the Neighbors United for the Waters page to encourage them for what's ahead! Here's the link: http://www.facebook.com/groups/224440590903890.
Steve, your thesis on the fall of The Waters is just as wrong as those that don't know the first thing about The Waters. Waterscapes, while a failure, did not bring down The Waters. There were two primary reasons:
1. The failure of Colonial Bank, which wiped out the liquidity of the owner; and.
2. The development of Welch Cove 1 year ahead of the collapse.
And by the way, the "Atlanta Developer" was not the decision maker on Waterscapes.
Not all mistakes are created equal. The former owner of the Waters made a mistake regarding timing of infrastructure/leveraging that could not be corrected once Colonial Bank failed. That was a mistake that did not directly compromise the character of the community. What it did was cause the bulk of the lots at the Waters to be sold to a new owner. The three most recent mistakes by the new developer are substantially worse mistakes because they directly undermine the character and quality of life at the Waters. First, they have abandoned the planning principles by removing Crescent Park in favor of private lots (for the reasons you stated). This was the only large flat area with a panoramic view of the county's largest lake. Second, they have abandoned the architectural principles as you stated. Third, by not being transparent or sensitive to the neighbors concerns they have caused neighbors, the development's most valuable sales referral machine, to stop referring friends.
Very sad story. It's been several years since I visited the Waters, but I've always considered it an exemplary project... Nothing worse than a Developer compromising a project with such a strong start! I hope the bad press and sentiment will sink in and convince the new Developer that they are making bad choices...!