Lonely utopia? Belvedere's first family digs its new digs
They lived for a decade in Africa and on an 11-acre farm in Vermont, so it should be no surprise that Kate White and Bret Harris would be willing to make another unusual – and some might say risky– decision on housing.
Did they pick a yurt in the Yucatan? No. Move to a kibbutz? No. How about a craftsman style three-bedroom in a brand new and massive Albemarle County subdivision? You guessed it! The couple and their two children were the first family to purchase– and move in to– a house in Belvedere, the planned 700-unit green development off Rio Road.
Their decision to become Belvedere's first family, they say, may actually be the most adventurous housing move they've ever made because of the risk they took: they signed the contract six months ago when Belvedere was nothing but a swath of barren earth. They moved in as the housing market– nationally and locally– was collapsing and as some of their friends and family warned they could end up alone in a neighborhood and surrounded not by happy neighbors and community amenities, as they'd imagined, but instead by red mud and a few partially finished houses if the developers and builders proved unable to follow through.
They ignored the naysayers and took the plunge anyway. On the day of our visit, although close to 20 houses are completed or rising, White and Harris have just one neighbor, although another six houses are under contract. That leaves 692 units to sell on the way to the planned 700, but White and Harris say they aren't afraid the naysayers will be proved right.
"We believe in the vision," says White, who adds that once she'd seen the Belvedere concept, she and Harris– who moved to Charlottesville from Vermont to be closer to family in D.C. and North Carolina– never considered another location.
The Belvedere concept is essentially New Urbanist: children encouraged to play outside and roam on bikes along narrow streets (to discourage speeding) and miles of walking and biking paths; houses close together to encourage interaction with neighbors; shared green spaces and play areas in place of large yards.
Each single-family unit– all considered energy efficient– features a garage with a second-floor accessory apartment to offset mortgage expense or to serve as a home office. Community amenities will include an organic garden, a village green with regularly scheduled family activities, and partnerships with other local organizations including SOCA, ACAC, and the nearby Fairview Swim and Tennis Club, which will bring a wealth of health and sports related activities and programs to the neighborhood.
It is not "co-housing" (a more communal lifestyle that has tried but failed to take hold within Charlottesville city limits or Albemarle's urban ring). Instead, Belvedere simply offers a "community lifestyle" and is (along with Old Trail in Crozet) one of the first to adhere closely to Albemarle's so-called Neighborhood Model, a set of development guidelines calling for high density housing, mixed-use zoning, shared green spaces, and community amenities within walking distance.
"It was the commitment to the children that really sold me," says White, a massage therapist and nature educator, who recalls a conversation with developer and builder Bob Hauser, the father of young twin girls.
"He said, 'I've made a lot of money, but that doesn't make me happy,'" White recalls. "He said, 'My children make me happy.' He'd been a developer for decades, and I was hearing the same things that came from my [fellow] environmental educators. I was impressed."
But at the same time as those promises of playgrounds, gardens, dog parks, and soccer fields were being made, the housing market was telling a different story. Homes– including those at in Belvedere– just weren't selling as they had been, the inventory of new homes in Albemarle County was skyrocketing, and home builders were going out of business.
Among those struggling builders: Church Hill Home Builders, one of the two approved Belvedere builders (along with Hauser Homes).
In late August, after rumors of the company's financial turmoil had swirled for several months, Church Hill owner Josh Goldschmidt announced that a Richmond-based firm, Eagle Construction, had stepped in to purchase most of Church Hill's unfinished Belvedere stock: 11 lots and two houses under construction. Goldschmidt and his partner, Jamie Spence, will continue to oversee the Belvedere projects as Eagle employees, though the Church Hill name will remain.
The rumors were unnerving to White and Harris, who blog about their new home at homeatbelvedere.blogspot.com. In fact, just before their scheduled closing, on July 31, they discovered 19 liens against the title (a record in Albemarle County, White wrote on the blog). But Church Hill successfully cleared the liens in time, and White and Harris moved in on schedule. They say both Stonehaus and Church Hill are in regular contact with them, reassuring them that it's business as usual.
White and Harris say that Belvedere, despite the bumps, is living up to their expectations.
"It's been great to be a part of the beginning and watch it unfold before our eyes," says White, who smiles as she adds, "except for the red mud all over the place."
Still, even the mud has its perks for White, who plans to teach nature classes, including tracking, once more houses are complete and more children have moved in. Every morning, she says, she finds new evidence that they've actually had neighbors all along– just not of the human variety. "There are," she says, " lots of fox, bird, turkey, deer."
While White and Harris are strong proponents of Belvedere, they are also aware of criticism that has been heaped– and heavily at times– on the development. In late September and early October last year, after the land was cleared, Belvedere burned brush and debris– a common practice for developers in rural areas but one that angered residents along Rio Road and in the adjacent Dunlora subdivision, who claimed they were awakening with smoke in their houses. Stonehaus defended the burn, which had been approved by the County, and denied that it signaled the development's failure to stay green.
Harris also says he's aware that the neighborhood has "been criticized for 'pretending to be green." For instance, while the houses are Earthcraft Certified– meaning they are at least 15 percent more efficient than the building codes require– they are not solar powered, and, if they were within Charlottesville city limits, they wouldn't meet the City's standards to receive the new tax credit for energy efficiency. [That tax credit, explained on page 15, requires a house to be 30 percent more efficient than code requires.]
Harris agrees that there are many ways Belvedere could have been even greener, but he says, "It would also be more expensive again." And already, it's not cheap. Single family houses range from the upper $300,000s to approximately $800,000– not a recipe for an economically diverse neighborhood. Harris, a software engineer who telecommutes to his job in D.C., says this, too, bothers him.
"It's a self-segregating community," Harris says. "That means we're going to miss some of the vitality and energy of peole who may not have a lot of money."
White, however, points out that townhouses under construction will go for about $300,000, and Eagle Construction may eventually offer smaller houses for less than the current prices.
Both White and Harris say they're not trying to claim that Belvedere is perfect– like anything else, they say, it's about trade-offs, something they learned in Vermont.
"We were always in our car driving places," says Harris. ""We started to question the sustainablity of trying to create a community out of various people who live 10-15 miles apart."
With Belvedere, they believe, they'll finally get community without isolation, and they're looking forward to having new neighbors.
"Belvedere couldn't have better advocates," says real estate agent Jim Duncan, who sold White and Harris their house. Duncan says interest in Belvedere remains high– in part due to their enthusiasm.
Harris smiles when asked whether he and White are Stonehaus' best salespeople for Belvedere.
"We're not doing it because we love Stonehaus," he says. "We want neighbors who share our values," says Harris. "We want that sustainablity."
"The houses in Belvedere are close together, a perk for White and Harris. "Being closer together forces that interaction," says Harris. "You gotta like people. It's not for hermits."
"It takes a lot of vision to be someone that moves in before things are built," says White, who along with husband Bret Harris and their children, 4-year-old Eleanor and 9-year-old William, were the first family to move into Belvedere this summer.