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June 2006
Not-So-New Kid on the Block
By Susanne Deitzel

It’s no secret that Charlotte development has continued at a breakneck pace over the past few years. Residential and commercial projects appear to spontaneously spring into existence, while terms like “mixed use,” “smart growth,” and “new urbanism” forge their way into our regional lexicon.

But many folks may not realize that what was once vast farmland just north of Charlotte proper has been simmering with activity over the past several years. Now it appears that Cabarrus County, which embraces the cities of Concord, Harrisburg and Kannapolis, has reached the boiling point.

One community in particular, Mayfield Development’s Afton Village off Interstate 85 in Concord, is setting the stage for groundbreaking development ideas for both      residential and commercial buyers, not to mention fellow developers looking for a way to reconcile the many challenges of growing markets.

 

Laying the Foundation

Afton Village is like the new kid on the block; everyone wants to go play in his back yard. But, like most success stories that supposedly happened overnight, Afton Village has actually been a work-in-progress for several years. The development broke ground in 1998, but the project’s seeds of inspiration were planted much earlier.

David Mayfield, owner of Mayfield Development, resurrected the favorite themes of his childhood home in Myers Park and played out his love affair with the buildings of Boston, Georgetown, Charleston and Savannah, as well as many other cityscapes he has visited over his lengthy architecture and urban design career, in Afton Village’s 175-acre layout.

Classically trained in architecture, landscape architecture, urban design and engineering from North Carolina State University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Mayfield brings a decidedly erudite, yet passionate approach to Afton Village. Drawing upon his training, studied enthusiasm for the social implications of design and an unrestrained commitment to aesthetics, Mayfield laid the foundation of new regional development.

“The value inherent in historical neighborhoods is extremely rich,” Mayfield says,   “There is a lot to draw from, that to some is surprisingly relevant by today’s standards.”

Mayfield created a neighborhood design that borrows from Charleston’s tree-lined streets and wide sidewalks. His staff researched and painstakingly calculated a “conversational” distance and elevation for the large front porches. Visitors enjoy “new-old” concepts like carriage houses, bungalows and detached garages with alleyways. Architectural flourishes and totem touches of days past are unabashedly displayed by each of Afton Village’s carefully chosen custom builders.

Residential charm is only part of the picture. Afton Village is a mixed-use community of homes and businesses, outdoor plazas and greens, a YMCA and 60-acre park system, small restaurants and specialty shops, all precisely balanced to serve one another.

“Afton Village is the culmination of what has been a gradually developing process over the past 25 years,” Mayfield explains. “While living in Boston in the early ’80s, I connected with a classmate and we began creating our own concepts of community building and civic spaces. We started by converting old rooming houses and abandoned row houses in Boston into flats. Shortly thereafter we began building our own communities and homes, learning all the nuances of the trade along the way.”

Mayfield later moved back to Charlotte and worked on various projects, eventually teaming with former partner Jim Garrison on Afton Village. The sum total of this experience is a very powerful education in development and the forces that shape the way we live on an individual and collective scale, he says.

This continuing education, a composite of studying modern and classical architecture and civic design in literature, on well-photographed travels, and during the day-to-day demands of development, has aided the evolution of what is rapidly becoming its own study in design.

 

Framing It Out

Smart growth has become somewhat of a catchall term, commonly used as an antidote for NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) syndrome. While metro Charlotte and surrounding markets have benefited heartily from national corporate recognition and subsequent transplants, there is also a groundswell against urban sprawl and a chorus of “We don’t want to become another Atlanta!”

In terms of the industry, however, smart growth is an evolving discipline characterized by several fundamental observations: traditional neighborhoods developed for walkability and diversity; mixed-use districts offering a live/work zoning code; transit-supportive land use; good street design; eliminating sprawling parking lots; safe, enjoyable design features that lend themselves to community pride; and a cohesive administration of the environment to ensure community growth, value and environmental health.

“During the ’50s, housing really focused on moving away from the cities, their pollution and the traffic,” Mayfield explains. “Highways grew, auto sales went up, gas use increased, and before you knew it people were getting in their cars 14 times a day to get anything done.”

“Now, we are seeing a reemerging desire to reintegrate into the fabric of community,” he adds. “The package we offer sells historical neighborhood patterns rather than the familiar suburban version with its half-acre lots, and with that comes distinct advantages.”

There are also perils of becoming too nostalgic for the days of yore, says Kelli Stevens, Mayfield’s director of sales and leasing. A lot of developers overwork the idea of the quaint corner drug store. The laws of retail should not be ignored in the practical applications of traditional residential and mixed-use construction.

The process of acquiring, preparing and building Afton Village was fraught with challenges. When Mayfield originally analyzed the land, he realized the topography precluded strictly commercial applications, although the land was zoned “employment-based.”

After Mayfield made several presentations to the City of Concord clarifying his strong commitment to community building, zoning and annexation of the Afton Village land began to crystallize. There were uncomfortable instances from time to time when Mayfield had to take people to task for placing sales-oriented objectives over the bigger picture and remind them of that commitment to the community.

There were also issues with transcribing Mayfield’s ideas and attention to detail, and those of his builders, into the master plan. They scrutinized every decision, from roadway design to ensure pedestrian safety and neighborhood walkability, to the size and character of the Village Green and pedestrian plazas. They were determined to accommodate the best ideas and no standard was left unquestioned.

A water moratorium halted construction in early 2001, just as the plan was beginning to gain momentum. The problem was eventually resolved by the city, and then the events of 9-11 hit. Banks simply weren’t making decisions and everyone in the business was hanging in limbo. Partners came and went, and then in early 2004 Mayfield, on his own for the first time, was able to accelerate his original vision as Afton’s developer.

Since that time, momentum has again ramped up significantly, residential build-out is close to 50 percent and the retail component has begun to thrive. Both Afton Village residents and non-residents frequent the community’s anchor, the 11,000-member West Cabarrus YMCA, and often stop off to buy a latte at the neighboring coffee shop, hear a concert on the commercial plaza, watch a soccer game in the park, or enjoy a glass of wine on the patio of The Wine Room.

Many people find the boutique feel of the retail component quite appealing. Unfamiliar names like “Elizabeth’s Treasures” and “Gateway to Athens,” nudge shoppers away from the homogeny of big box stores, and the developer now has the luxury to turn away offers from bidders that don’t fit the formula.

“We are looking for compatible relationships that will complement our existing retail, as well as bring the most value to the community as a whole,” Stevens says.

In addition to selectivity, an inspired economy of space is demonstrated in Afton’s commercial space. Urban lofts will rest atop 90 percent of Afton Village’s commercial units.

“The residential lofts are a good solution on so many levels,” Mayfield says. “In maximizing our vertical space, we can increase the land value, keep lease rates competitive and provide a practical and aesthetically pleasing village center environment.”

Traditional, custom homebuilding and mixed-use commercial construction is more complex and expensive than conventional approaches. Mayfield and his team are constantly seeking innovative solutions to maintain architectural diversity while staying competitive.

Mayfield’s team is thankful that the competitive spirit is a little easier to summon these days than when they first broke ground. Both Mayfield and Stevens found that not having a tangible representation of the concept was their most formidable challenge back then. But after the first 10 adjacent lots were built on spec, interest grew, retail was seeded and Afton Village began to assert itself.

“Now, there is much more to look at,” Mayfield says. “We no longer have to show drawings and wave our hands in the air in explanation. Our time has arrived and the community is growing every day.”

 

Topping It Off

            Afton Village has sold several homes straight off its Web site, with nary a visit from the buyers. At one point, its largest lead source was word of mouth from out-of-town buyers, Stevens says. Marketing costs for Afton Village have significantly decreased, which leaves more room for civic improvements, allowing them to use money with a “show, don’t tell” philosophy.

From townhomes and single-family homes to retail space and lofts, the buzz is on. Mayfield attributes some of this to Afton Village’s diversity in terms of price points and product types. Homebuyers include single young professionals, mature families and empty nesters alike.

“Of course we can’t be all things to all people, but we want to be the best at what we have chosen to provide,” Mayfield says.

As Mayfield’s experience and portfolio have grown, so has his reputation. His approach to what he calls thoughtful, civic-minded development attracts national attention and he currently provides consulting services to developers and organizations across the country. He works on conservation friendly development solutions for The Conservation Fund and is the president and a founding member of the National Town Builders Association. Through these two organizations, Mayfield hopes to encourage a partnership to turn environmental considerations and green space preservation into developmental assets.

Mayfield is also a charter member of the Congress for New Urbanism, an organization seeking to provide sustainable development in an era of emerging growth. He regularly contracts with prominent landowners with names like Hershey Trust, Sundance and Rockefeller to build civic-minded legacies from their property holdings.

By any measure, Mayfield’s Afton Village is a good example of the potential of mixed-use communities and his expertise is a real asset to the area. In the face of transit issues, sprawl, big boxes, the economy and rising gas prices, close-knit communities make a lot of sense. The word is catching on. Afton Village set a record last year by doubling its residential sales. As of May of this year, sales have already surpassed last year’s figures.

“Recreation, retail, and residential developments have their own signatures,” Mayfield says. “But an organic relationship between them is a prescription that seems to answer a lot of what ails us.”

Susanne Deitzel is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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