Infill development is in demand again
Published: Saturday, March 15, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 14, 2014 at 8:12 p.m.
After hunting houses and deciding to build a new home, Ron Cabrera and Cristina Whitehouse said the unbuilt lot they bought in The Sanctuary in northwest Gainesville was a rare find.
The acre-and-a-quarter lot is a lot larger than others they looked at in relative proximity to the University of Florida, where she is a postdoctoral fellow and he is a physician for UF Health. The lot has room for the larger home they are building for their family, which includes a 4-year-old son and a dog.
They can build a home with an open floor plan and more energy efficiency than is available in most existing homes and remain in the northwest part of town close to their favorite sandwich and doughnut shops, and Cabrera’s tennis connections.
“We kept asking Dale, ‘What’s wrong with this lot? Why is this still here?’ ” Whitehouse said.
Dale Kinsell is their home builder. As the co-owner of Barry Rutenberg and Associates, he has been seeking out remaining lots in established subdivisions as the availability of buildable lots in new developments dwindles and the demand to be closer to the center of Gainesville grows.
“As development moves farther from downtown, infill lots become popular again,” Kinsell said.
In addition to responding to buyer demand, the search for remaining lots is a response to what many area builders say is a diminishing supply of buildable lots as new home construction picks up while they wait for new developments to open for construction.
Much of the new home construction in Gainesville has been in developments that came online just before the housing crash and were quiet until the past couple of years, while new homes on the outskirts of town — mostly to the west — are going up in new phases of existing developments that already had approvals in place.
In the heart of the city, most new residential development in recent years has consisted of apartments in proximity to UF.
A 2012 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities singled out Gainesville as one of two medium-sized metros with the fastest-growing rates of residential infill development.
In comparing new residential construction between 2000-04 and 2005-09, the rate of infill in mostly built-out areas increased from 8 percent of new residential construction to 22 percent.
The nationwide rate in both periods was 21 percent, although the infill rate increased in 36 of the 51 largest metros in 2005-09.
Demographic changes are driving the trend toward multi-family housing or single-family homes on smaller lots in cities with increased infill, according to the EPA report.
Families that wait longer to have children and a growing number of empty-nest baby boomers mean fewer households with children and less demand for large backyards near good schools found in the suburbs. Higher gas prices are pushing more people to live closer to work and shopping.
The benefits are environmental — less air pollution from less driving — and fiscal, the report says. Infill takes advantage of previous investments in existing water, sewer and roads and avoids the cost of new infrastructure.
Steve Lachnicht, county growth management director, notes that infill means different things to different people. To some, it can mean building between existing development, while others adhere to a strict definition of building within city limits where something had been built before.
The EPA study looked at new construction in census blocks defined as fully developed.
Growth in apartments
Gainesville’s infill growth in 2005-09 coincided with a boom in large student apartment construction. In 2008 and 2009, eight new major complexes with 2,100 units were built. That led to a glut of apartments, and major complex construction stopped as occupancy and rental rates dropped. Smaller boutique apartment construction continued, particularly in University Heights east of campus.
Over the past couple years, more mid-sized complexes of 30 to 60 units have gone up in University Heights and around Innovation Square, with more in the planning stages.
Trimark Properties has been behind most of the new apartment construction in University Heights. The developer has built about one new apartment project per year since 2002, increasing to two per year in recent years.
Trimark currently is building one of its larger apartment communities — the 55-unit Savion Park — on the site of the former Compassionate Outreach Ministries church that was demolished in 2012.
Trimark also is renovating and building commercial infill projects for tech companies in and around Innovation Square after buying up old doctors’ offices over the past 15 years.
Trimark managing partner John Fleming said the developer is looking at a spot to build a four-story office or research building in Innovation Square and will break ground later this year on the Nimbus co-work space on the site of the Gainesville Dojo.
Fleming said a lot of Trimark’s apartments have been built around historic homes that the company renovates and rents. Trimark has bought about 30 homes.
Fleming said renovating a historic home to current code is not financially feasible, but building 18 apartments around a historic home generates enough income to make it work.
Rory Causseaux, CEO of the civil engineering firm Causseaux, Hewett and Walpole, said a lot of projects have chosen to go the easier route by repainting and renovating old buildings instead of bearing the cost of redeveloping the sites to current code.
“You have to fix the sins of the past when what you’re (demolishing) no longer meets today’s code, so there’s a little bit of punishment when it comes to redevelopment,” he said.
Return to pre-recession developments
City Planning and Development Services Director Steve Dush said most everything built in the city could be called infill.
Since October 2012, 188 new residential dwelling permits were pulled in the city and six new apartment permits, including four apartment buildings in the West 38 mixed-use development west of the Hilton UF Conference Center, where homes were demolished for the project.
Most of the new homes built in the city limits over the past couple of years have been in developments that started prior to the recession and had infrastructure in place, including Portofino, Weschester and Villas at 39th, where VetAmerica is building modular homes for veterans.
Robinshore has built 53 homes in Weschester over the past two years and has just one left to sell, President Adam Bolton said.
He said the company bought the lots for less than the previous developer had spent to prepare them and passed the savings on to home buyers.
Kinsell said he now is building homes on lots remaining in Woodfield, Pinehill Estates and Balmoral — subdivisions developed between 10 and 40 years ago with few lots remaining. About a third of his active projects are on what he considers infill lots.
The reasons the lots have remained undeveloped vary. Some were held as investments until the market recovered, as was the case with Cabrera and Whitehouse’s lot in The Sanctuary. In others, Kinsell said the developer moved on to newer developments, or the lots were more challenging to build on because of an unusual shape or a slope that required more fill dirt.
Given the costs and regulations to develop new subdivisions, Kinsell said, “it behooves us to finish building on lots that were previously developed. We’ve already got the infrastructure there and we’re not creating new infrastructure to build these new homes.”