Determination Prevails

After a decade, Joel Embry finally sees his dream of building a walkable town becoming a reality. Challenges such as financing and approvals often put new urbanist projects on hold for years, but few developers have persisted as long as Joel Embry. He began efforts to build a traditional neighborhood development (TND) in 1988. Ten years later, after numerous partners and potential financial deals, many of which fell by the wayside, Embry finally broke ground on 106-acre Amelia Park in Fernandina Beach, Florida, in January 1998. As of early March, 1999, model homes are complete, and the market response has been positive. “We sold half of the first phase (66 lots) in three months,” Embry says. “We’re way ahead of where we thought we would be.” Embry’s introduction to TND was Seaside, Florida, which he visited regularly in the 1980s. He was looking at developing a “ multigenerational” community with significant housing for senior citizens. “My consultant and I were talking about ways to accommodate the special needs of older residents, and the pedestrian accessibility of Seaside struck me like a bolt of lightning,” he says. Embry traveled to Miami two weeks later to hire Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who designed Seaside. They planned a TND for Embry on a 600-acre property (a different site from Amelia Park’s current location). When the real estate market collapsed in 1989, Embry’s financial partners lost interest in the project, and it died. “In 1992 I was fortunate to find a very eager seller of the land on which we are now doing Amelia Park,” Embry explains. The purchase price was $17,000/acre on land appraised at $30,000/acre — a beautiful deal, but Embry did not know the difficulties ahead. Duany and Plater-Zyberk designed a TND on the current site. Embry found five equity partners in 1992, and the planned unit development (PUD) approvals for Amelia Park went smoothly. When Embry sought construction financing, the project ground to a halt. “In early 1993, all of the doors were slammed in my face,” he says. Embry went to the Kemper Financial Services, the financier that pulled out of the 600-acre project, and got the support of a vice president, Bob Butler. Butler suggested a way for Amelia Park to become eligible for bond financing through designation as a community development district. This approval process took 18 months, and the designation was obtained. Then Butler became ill with cancer, died, and the project lost its main backer at Kemper. “The presold bonds were no longer presold,” Embry says. “We took the bonds to the open market through two different underwriters, but they could not move them… They used the word ‘exotic’ to describe the plan.” Pressure to abandon the TND concept In early 1996, as the bond financing option fell through, many developers expressed interest in building the project as a conventional suburban development. Three of Embry’s five partners wanted to forget the TND idea. Embry argued against abandoning the TND, and had the support of two partners, which was enough to retain control. In May of 1996, a developer, Case Enterprises, was close to providing financing for Amelia Park. In another disappointing turn for Embry, Case decided to instead develop a much larger TND in Tucson, Arizona (called Civano, now under construction). For the next year, Embry hung on, until a break came in 1997. New partners, Michael Antonopoulos and William Howell, provided necessary equity to buy out the disgruntled former partners and secure financing for construction. First Union provided a $2.5 million loan to pay for the infrastructure in the first phase and refinance the loan on 60 acres of land. Brylen Homes was selected as the builder of the first phase. Gaining momentum, Amelia Park is now moving forward quickly. The developers have found a joint venture partner, Schultz Investment Company, to build the town center, which will contain 70,000 square feet of retail with offices and residential units above. Michael Dunlap of Jacksonville, an architect sympathetic to the New Urbanism, has been selected to design the buildings. The town center will have frontage on a major arterial road, which will bring in shoppers from throughout Fernandina Beach. Bringing in shoppers hold retail and specialty stores, attracting a wider clientele. Embry figures that shoppers will go to Wal-Mart (a quarter mile away) or nearby shopping centers for bulk purchases and visit Amelia Park to patronize owner-operated stores. Retail consultant Robert Gibbs concludes that the city is underserved by the kind of retail stores that will occupy Amelia Park. Embry’s original dream of building housing for senior citizens is moving forward, too, even though Amelia Park is not marketed as a retirement community. The first buyers have included singles, families with children, and retirees. But Amelia Park will include a range of housing options and services designed to accommodate senior citizens. Embry has an agreement in principle with a national health care provider to create a “ telemedicine” service in the community, which involves health monitoring via voice, video, and data transmission over high-speed communications lines to home personal computers. Also, the developers are negotiating with assisted living providers to build a small facility within Amelia Park to offer to visit nursing services to residents in their homes. “It’s an electronic house call aligned with the visiting nurse coming to you, rather than you moving to an assisted living facility,” Embry explains. If Amelia Park continues to succeed, Embry hopes to use the project as a springboard for Hometown Neighborhoods, a consulting firm set up to help other developers navigate the challenges of building a TND. Embry says the key to implementing a TND is a willingness to adopt practical solutions without compromising basic principles. “If developers are not interested in improving the quality of people’s lives and don’t have a strong personal commitment to maintaining standards, they probably should build a conventional subdivision,” he says.