Where It's Easy Being Green
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Water flowing over a large limestone sign alerts motorists to The Palisades' main entrance off N.C. 49 on Lake Wylie.
But they have to drive three miles on Grand Palisades Parkway to see the first house.
The Palisades is an alternative to the traditional subdivision. It's a place where nature is embraced, where trees rule, where wildlife habitats are nurtured.
More than seven miles of rustic walking trails will weave through about 30 neighborhoods carved from the forest, connecting homes with parks and amenities ranging from a golf course to an equestrian center.
Rhein Medall Communities was confident an eco-friendly housing development would play well in Charlotte when it broke ground there in 2004, but even its experts underestimated demand.
The Next Big Thing at The Palisades is a sooner-than-anticipated second phase: 400 more lots to sustain momentum as the 365-lot first phase is built out.
"We're one year ahead of projections and a year behind where we need to be," said Jim Medall, president of Rhein Medall Communities.
The project also underscores the power of the high-end market in growing southwest Charlotte.
Because an environmentally sensitive community doesn't fit standard subdivision guidelines, regulatory approval is taking longer that expected, Medall said.
In the Palisades, for example, planners believe "seep" berms will slow water flow and help ensure that natural drainage patterns are followed. Regulators on the other hand prefer more widely used retention ponds.
Medall believes it still will take 10 years as predicted to complete the development, but the size and value should exceed projections.
The number of houses is expected to reach about 2,500, surpassing earlier projections of about 2,000. And the value of the development likely will hit $1.5 billion, up from initial estimates of $670 million.
First-phase houses sold from about $300,000 to about $1.8 million. Prices for some second-phase custom houses will start at $3 million, and some undeveloped lots are listed for $300,000 to $400,000.
During the 12 months ending in the third quarter, The Palisades had one of the market's top closing rates for houses selling for more than $329,000.
Housing analyst Chuck Graham of Newton Graham Consultants said homeowners closed on contracts and completed the purchase of 126 houses in The Palisades at an average price of $517,000. Many sold in the framing stage or earlier, he said.
Two other communities -- both in the south Charlotte market -- sold at higher rate than The Palisades, but at a considerably lower average price.
Marketwide, the median price for a new single-family home during that period was $203,500, Graham said.
"What's fascinating is that The Palisades could garner that share in southwest Charlotte," Graham said. "The whole definition of what it means to live in south Charlotte is changing."
He said the southwest led all other housing corridors in single-family building permits in the third quarter.
Medall said the developer has acquired more land and expects to expand The Palisades from an initial 1,500 acres to 1,700 or 1,800 acres.
He anticipates sales of about 200 lots a year.
What is the attraction?
"We love the trails; it's kind of like being in the country, but you aren't," said Beatrice Staub, who lives in The Palisades' Ashton Oaks gated neighborhood with her husband, Patrick, 10-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.
The family "went way our of our boundaries" to move there from Dilworth in April, she said.
Staub sees the community as a safe environment where the children can use the sports facilities and the family can enjoy an active lifestyle.
Amenities in place or planned include a country club, golf course, tennis/sports complex, soccer complex, equestrian center, Episcopal school and village center.
Housing consultant Graham, who has been in Charlotte since 1981, said, "I've never seen this collection of amenities in a single community before." The clustering allows homeowners "to build more time in their lives," he said.
Tim Svedlund, who has lived in a custom house at The Palisades for about two months, said he moved there from northeast Charlotte for the lifestyle, the builder and the location.
The community -- about 12 miles from uptown Charlotte -- is closer to his business in South Carolina, he said.
The Grand Palisades Parkway entrance off N.C. 49 surprised him on the first visit. Seeing no houses, he thought he was in the wrong place and turned around.
That will change.
Medall said houses will be developed along the parkway closer to N.C. 49 in future phases.
Also on N.C. 49 near the entrance, Crescent Resources and Harris Teeter plan a 15-acre town center to be anchored by a 48,000-square-foot supermarket.
Nearly 200 families are living in The Palisades, and about 100 houses are under construction in four neighborhoods.
The second phase will reflect one of the region's biggest trends in housing: empty nesters seeking to live near their children and grandchildren.
Medall said homeownership in The Palisades is about 50 percent empty nesters and about 50 percent families.
In the second phase, empty nesters will get more attention.
Ryland Homes is targeting them with houses that have first-floor master suites in Whispering Pines. Arcadia Homes plans seven $1 million range empty nester patio homes in Tree Tops.
With plenty of land to be developed, Medall said he has flexibility to adjust the product ratio to meet demand.
The developer will keep individual neighborhoods small to create a sense of community and prevent homeowners from feeling disconnected within a massive subdivision.
Twelve neighborhoods are opening in the second phase.
Medall said an architectural review committee oversees builders' housing designs and materials selections to encourage variety and determine suitability for an environmentally friendly development.
Most Phase 3 construction likely will start in late 2008 -- unless it, too, comes out ahead of projections.
Phase 2 Developments
1. High Cliff 2. Montage
3. Tree Tops
5. The Ranch
6. Bear Creek
7. Eagles Landing
9. Briar Cliff
11. Dove Hill
12. Whispering Pines
Amenities at The Palisades
--Private Nicklaus Design golf course.
--Golf and country club.
--Tim Wilkison Signature Sports complex, host of 2006 Championships At The Palisades tennis professional tournament.
--Rustic trail system, open space, bike paths.
--Soccer complex to be ready for play in summer.
--Palisades Episcopal School to open in fall in temporary location.
--Equestrian center with 20-stall barn to be started soon and open in 2007.
--10,000-square-foot village center of shop space and possible convenience grocery to be available to retail tenants in the fall.
Audubon International, a nonprofit organization that helps developers plan and build environmentally sensitive communities, certified The Palisades in July as a Gold Audubon International Signature Sanctuary.It was one of only five worldwide be certified for both its golf course and residential neighborhoods.
Here are some of the environmental features adopted there:
--Setting aside mandatory 35-foot tree protection areas in rear yards.
--Ensuring natural drainage patterns are followed in reducing water velocity and protecting watersheds.
--Developing no more than 50 acres a time within each drainage area.
--Creating buffer zones near creeks that feed into Lake Wylie and leaving 100-foot natural buffers between homes, golf course and lake perimeters.
--Requiring all lawns and the golf course fairway to be planted with Bermuda grass, a hardy variety that requires less irrigation, fertilizers and herbicides than fescues.
--Limiting the amount of managed turf on the 180-acre golf course to fewer than 60 acres to conserve water and reduce fertilizers and pesticides.
--Devoting about 30 percent of the acreage to open space. Lake Wylie
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services