The ritzy agrihood in Hawaii

The proposal to convert the closed golf course at Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Club into a multi-use development with homes, a community farm and other features is part of an accelerating global trend in the development of what the Urban Land Institute calls “agrihoods.”

ULI, a nonprofit education and research institute that focuses on the use of land to enhance the total environment, said the decline of interest in golf and the increase in abandoned farmland are driving the trend toward communities that are built around a community farm.

True Life has proposed Ahwatukee Farms, which includes single-family homes, a 5-acre farm, a Montessori school, farmers’ market and a café.

There are about 200 agrihoods in the U.S., ranging from communities like Agritopia in Gilbert to an exotic 1,500-unit in the Hawaiian island of Kauai built by Scottsdale-based DMB Associates, whose portfolio in the Valley includes Verrado in the West Valley, Eastmark in east Mesa and DC Ranch in Scottsdale.

Called Kukuui’la, the DMB development’s “gardens offer vacation-home owners a chance to get their hands dirty while picking fresh decorative flowers and tropical produce that’s also used at local restaurants,” ULI said.

It isn’t cheap. The bungalows at Kukuui’la start at $1.6 million and, ironically, the resort includes a Tom Weiskopf-designed golf course.

“We spent a fraction of our amenities budget on the farm, but it was clear to us very early on that we had hit a nerve,” says Brent Herrington, DMB’s executive vice president.

Kukuui’la is an exception in terms of golf course-equipped agrihoods.

ULI magazine reported last year, “The idea of building residential developments in the United States around golf courses is being rethought as demand for golf facilities continues to fade.”

It quoted the National Golf Foundation as stating that “ 2013 was the eighth-consecutive year that golf course closures outpaced openings, with 158 closures and 14 openings.”

“The total decline in golfers since 2006 has been roughly 4 million. Following a 40 percent growth in golf in the United States from 1986 through 2005, a period when more than 4,500 courses opened, 643 18-hole courses have closed since 2006, according to the NGF,” the Institute said.

One reason is generational.

ULI quotes Matt Powell, an analyst for SportsOneSource: “Millennials do not appear to be [taking up] the game. It takes too much time and expense to play and to buy the equipment … Older people are going to continue to play, but there will be fewer of them.

“With the recession, a lot of people saw their retirements, their nest eggs, diminish, so they will have to work longer. If they’re working longer, they don’t have the time to play golf.

“And if they’re trying to accumulate money for retirement, they probably won’t have the money to play golf.”

Ed McMahon, a ULI senior fellow, said, “When developers figured out that golf courses helped them sell houses at premium prices, the rush to develop golf course communities was on. They could get 10 to 25 percent more for a house than (for) an exact house not next to a golf course.”

But now, “developers are looking for amenity options other than building golf courses,” said Florida golf course architect Bobby Weed.

“Developers drove the industry to the heights it achieved by building 400-plus golf courses a year. Now, we’re closing more than we’re opening.”

Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers, a major home builder throughout the Valley of the Sun, is sticking with a golf strategy, but updating it to appeal to the whole family, ULI said.

The institute quotes David Richey, president of Toll Brothers’ Golf and Country Club Division, explaining why his company is actually buying golf course communities that fell into bankruptcy before most planned homes were even built.

“Today, golf events are important, but you’ve got to have events for all the other people in the family. Food and beverage, fitness, and wellness programs are all part of the mix. There is no lack of people who want to live on a golf course fairway where you have a million-dollar view and you don’t have to maintain it.”

Bobby Weed Golf Design repurposes clubs by reducing courses from 18 to 9 holes.

“There is often tremendous political and emotional resistance to removing a golf course completely. A partial conversion circumvents that resistance,” Bobby Weed executive Chris Monti told ULI.

But not all agrihoods are replacing golf courses. Many also are springing up on deserted farmland.

McMahon tracks about 200 agrihoods, where residential development coexists with farmland.

“Twenty years ago, there were maybe five or 10, and they were often called ‘conservation communities,’ developments where green space wasn’t an afterthought,” McMahon said.

Many of those developments are far larger than Ahwatukee Farms.

About 50 miles from downtown Chicago, Serosun Farms will offer 114 single-family homes costing $700,000 to $2 million” on a site that devotes 160 acres—about 75 percent of the entire planned community—to farmland. The Ahwatukee Lakes golf course is 104 acres.

Serosun Farms homes are selling three to six times the $235,000 median price of houses in the surrounding community of Hampshire, Illinois.

“All of a sudden, agrihoods have become a hot commodity in residential development,” McMahon said, noting that “for both flavor and health reasons, more people are seeking out locally grown food.”

People are also drawn to the authenticity these communities can provide, McMahon said. Activities based around the farm can build a greater sense of community, which some new developments lack.

“There’s a harkening back to the way we used to live, or how neighborhoods used to be,” said Monica Olsen, spokeswoman for Serenbe, an established agrihood in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia.

“We’ve forgotten how to have community,” she said. “People are looking to be reconnected.”

Many farmers also like the trend, ULI states.

“They can sell land for profit, yet are spared from watching former farmland completely covered by single-family homes and cul-de-sacs,” the institute reported.

Developers like agrihoods, too, because they can be less expensive to build, and a farm is a feature that sets the community apart, ULI  said, adding, “A farm or a garden may be a better amenity than a golf course.”

In their heyday, people bought homes in golf course communities because they liked the open views of the fairway—not necessarily because they planned on golfing a lot, McMahon said. Farms offer plenty of open views as well, yet come with a vastly different business model than a golf course.

The Cannery in Davis, California, calls itself that state’s “first farm-to-table new home community.”

Homes being built on that 100-acre site sell from $545,000 to more than $1 million.

Its website pitches the community this way:

“Chat with neighbors on the porch. Make meals with vegetables you picked today. Solar power your home. Walk to the store that sells fruits grown locally. Picnic in the park. Bike to town. Watch the kids grow up healthy. Wake up where the sun smiles over a wide, green landscape. Nourish your life.”

Jeff Cohn, president/CEO of a development company bearing his name, said agrihoods demonstrate that “sometimes, the best way to move forward is to take a page from the past.”

“If you look at the field 10 or 15 years ago, the focus was very much on sustainability from a ‘planet’ perspective,” he added.

“Now, from our perspective, the focus has shifted to making a more tangible impact, specifically on human health. It started through a more pragmatic look at new construction, with regards to air quality and the materials we used, to now really focusing on creating a healthy community with a high quality of life, not just physically, but also emotionally.

“We now have a clearer understanding of what contributes to being happy and healthy where you live.”

–AFN news services contributed to this report. 

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