Sunday, August 3, 2008

Early Morning Real Estate Tips

Since my most recent run in with achilles tendonitis has pretty much ended my long-time tradition of long Saturday or Sunday morning runs, I have often taken to getting up early and going for a walk with whichever one of the kids wakes up first on the weekend. Lately, it has been little Aaron, who is always a good partner for a walk around town, whether awake or asleep.

While walking Saturday, I was struck by the number of improvements and additions that have been made to the residential neighborhoods of Watkinsville. Despite the fact that we review and approve these projects as a city council, sometimes it is tough to see the forest for the trees. So Sunday morning I decided to take some photos and illustrate the trend and discuss it a bit here. All told, when one steps back, the total investment in existing neighborhoods in Watkinsville is well into the millions of dollars and is the equivalent of several stand alone neighborhoods.

There have been essentially two varieties of residential reinvestment in Watkinsville -- renovations and infill development. Renovations are just that -- someone moves into a home and makes it over, increasing property values and updating what is often an historic home. Infill development is when someone buys a lot (or several lots) and builds either a new home or several homes on that lot, depending on what the zoning allows. If you're interested in a smart real estate play in a down market, read on and take a look at the demand for context sensitive homes along many of Watkinsville's most highly regarded streets.

The Big Picture

There are two things about Watkinsville that have made renovations and infill a different animal than in other areas. For one thing, we have numerous large, vacant lots that appear ready for homes. Sunday morning I walked past at least six lots that could accomodate one (and in some cases two) traditional homes. The one pictured below is on South Main Street, across from the Golden Pantry.

Watkinsville also has a very eclectic style. Unlike Madison, we don't have all historic homes. Unlike Five Points in Athens, it's not all bungalows. In fact, I have always found the architectural variety of Watkinsville one of its most endearing traits. If you're going to build in Watkinsville, we aren't going to require an antebellum home, although we do have standards, especially along our historic and scenic corridors that we identified in the Your Watkinsville visioning process several years ago. But a benefit to infill development is the fact that homes are built over time and help give a neighborhood an established feel, rather than the uniformity that often occurs when all the homes are built in a 1-2 year period.

Much has been made in recent years of the improvements to Watkinsville's older commercial buildings and downtown district (including Ashford Manor and the Chappelle Gallery, which still feature residential uses but also have commercial uses), and rightly so. However, just as significantly (and less noticeable), has been the revitalization that has occured in some of Watkinsville's established neighborhoods over the past four years. Lets look at a few specific areas that have seen the most investment and then we'll see where this trend might go next.

Simonton Bridge/Whitehall Corridor: Several of the historic homes on Simonton Bridge Road have been improved in recent years, and in the past two years the home at the corner of 2nd and Simonton Bridge has been renovated spectacularly (see red home pictured). A new Southern Living home is also under construction between 2nd and 3rd street (pictured). Several other large lots remain on this road that would make wonderful home sites. At the edge of the city, five Southern Living style homes are going in on a parcel that use to house some overgrown brush and a trailer. Numerous other owners along Simonton Bridge take wonderful care of modest but historic homes with enormous character. Not surprisingly, Simonton Bridge, along with South Main and Jackson, were recognized as the favorite three streets of city residents during our visioning process.

2nd Street: This short stretch of road between Simonton Bridge and Barnett Shoals has seen the addition of one spectacular new home (stone house pictured) on a former wooded lot and a great renovation of a small bungalow. These efforts have really changed the character of the street. Along with the eclectic Chapel on the corner and cousin Mack's charming brick cottage, 2nd street is now second to none in terms of charm in Watkinsville. If the Memorial Baptist Church parsonage is ever restored, this will be an amazing little road.

3rd Street: Several wonderful renovations have taken place along 3rd Street, including the restoration of very different styles of homes. Just off 3rd Street sits Pecan Bluff, the only multi-family infill in Watkinsville. When complete, Pecan Bluff will be a standout development. Also pictured here are a board and batten cottage that has seen significant improvements and a brick craftsman cottage flanked by two magnificent Deodora Cedars that has been restored in recent years.

Harden Hill: Harden Hill is one of the oldest roads in the area, being the former stagecoach route between Watkinsville and Madison. Today, it has a wide variety of homes. One is currently being renovated and others have been added through the years. There is currently at least one historic home on Harden Hill that would be a great candidate for renovation.

Jackson Street: The grand dame of Watkinsville, with its low traffic count, beautiful trees and stunning homes. Recent years have seen a beautiful cottage added on what were once two vacant lots (pictured) and renovations to many of the homes on this wonderful street that is a short walk from downtown. A few homes remain on Jackson that could be improved, but many have been improved and sold in recent years, or have been sold and await new owners (and improvements).

S. Main Street: Most of the old homes on South Main remain, and lets hope that never changes. Developers have acquired lots (one tore down an existing home without a permit and still hopes to "upzone" the property), and several other homes were essentially "demolished by neglect" before the city passed an ordinance banning this practice in historic neighborhoods. There has been one neat home squeezed onto South Main -- lets hope there are a few more homes added in coming years on vacant lots on this historic corridor, and that property owners continue to care for the existing homes with the respect they deserve.

What's Next?

So, more importantly, where are the next areas where this trend may continue? The common threads of all these areas appear to be mature landscaping and tree canopy, empty lots, some historic housing stock, proximity to downtown, and a variety of housing styles. These are all themes that the Watkinsville City Council has noticed and is seeking to encourage with infrastructure investments like street trees, sidewalks, and historic preservation.

Streets that might move in this direction in the future include New High Shoals Road within the city limits (one home pictured below), Spring Circle, Barnett Shoals, Lee Street, and perhaps even Water Street (historic cottage pictured), depending on what happens with potential commercial in that area. Another critical factor would be the potential addition of sidewalks along South Main St. and New High Shoals and along Simonton Bridge to provide better pedestrian access to downtown areas.

Another town with some unique housing stock and the potential to see a similar impact is North High Shoals, especially with the new school coming next year and the scenic Apalachee River a short walk from downtown.

All that said, I shoudn't gloss over the challenges of infill redevelopment. Long-time neighbors are often skeptical of new homes at best, and many developers attempt to reach to far and over densify lots that they paid too much for. However, I'm convinced that healthy infill development is an important part of the future of Watkinsville, as long as it can be accomplished while preserving our historic homes and the character of our city. What do you think?


Jmac said...

Great post.

I particularly love the perspective shot of your son and the Mountain Dew bottle.

The Wife and I were very impressed by Jackson Street during out time looking.

Brian said...

Jmac-- both Dew and my son often bring a smile to my face.