ONARCHITECTURE- Things to come? Woodlands opens office downtown

On Wednesday, December 13, Gropen sign and display company employees Darrell Muler and King Scott were busy putting the finishing touches on The Woodlands' latest marketing move– a swanky new sales office across from the Mudhouse that gives Ryan Homes a run for their money marketing to downtown denizens.

What's the Woodlands? It's one of seven nearly identical Woodlands resort-style developments that Atlanta-based Dovetail Companies have been promoting in college towns in Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Texas. Located south of town on Sunset Avenue extended, the $60 million 300-unit condo resort community, which broke ground the day their sign went up, is being marketed almost exclusively to college students... and their parents.

The two- and three-bedroom condos will feature French doors opening to concrete reinforced balconies, perfect for undergrad hijinks. Kitchens boast granite counters, just the setting for whipping up a perfect mojito. And the 7,000-square-foot clubhouse holds a stadium-seating movie theater and state-of-the-art cardio and weight-lifting studio. There's even a tanning salon. This is clearly not the crash pad of college days gone by.

And for parental peace of mind, besides controlled access, some units have solid wood doors with insulated glass. Try kicking that in, frat guy! Add to that a putting green, a billiard room, two massive swimming pools with endless waterfalls, a few babes in bikinis... and The Woodlands sounds more like Fort Lauderdale in March than student housing.

According to sales manager Lisa Mattise, Woodlands construction will be first-class, featuring cedar and hardiplank siding, copper gutters, and extensive landscaping. "It's better than any other product we've offered," says Mattise. "The Charlottesville Woodlands is the only one with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances."

And how much will all this cost mom and dad? Mattise says the two-bedroom units are going for $214,900 and the three-bedrooms for $239,900. Leasing is also an option, with two-bedroom units priced at $625 a bed and three-bedroom units at $525 a bed.

"My friends who live on 14th Street pay $200 a month more than what I was quoted at the Woodlands," writes "Ginny" on the Hook's news blog. "I'm from Knoxville, and they built a Woodlands at the UT campus, and it has exploded."

Indeed, Mattise says that 143 condos were sold in 140 days at the Knoxville Woodlands, and they've already had "great interest" in the Charlottesville location. She adds that they plan to have 75 units available for incoming students in the fall of 2007, and 150 available by the end of the year. The ratio of sales to leasing runs about even.

With this fancy new sales office on the Mall (which actually has a model of the condos inside), the company appears poised to pitch the most luxurious accommodations a student could ever wish to regurgitate on. The question is: will the market gag on the promotion?

Atlanta-based developer Nathan Metzger and partner Coran Capshaw opened an off-site sales office on the Mall (where the Charlottesville Community Design Center is now) in 2003 when they were developing the Riverbend Apartments on Pantops and Walker Square in Fifeville. At the time, we were in the midst of a luxury apartment complex boom of sorts, as developers believed there was money to be made renting luxury units. Six upper-end complexes containing close to 1,300 units had been planned, built, or were under construction between 2002 and 2003– more units in one year than the previous 12– including Barclay Place on Georgetown Road, Lakeside on Avon Street, Carriage Hill on Pantops, Jefferson Ridge on Sunset Avenue extended, Stone Creek Village on Route 20 South, and Avemore on Stony Point Road in addition to Riverbend and Walker Square.

However, almost as soon as they were built, local developers began to worry.

"I think the market is way overbuilt– and getting worse," Metzger told the Hook in March 2004.

Even before that, developer Rip Cathcart, who built the first of the luxury developments–- Lakeside and Carriage Hill–- had his doubts. "Nobody would deny we're going to be in an overbuilt situation here," he said in the spring of 2003.

Those predictions turned out to be true. On the tail-end of a hot real estate market, developers began frantically converting their rental apartment complexes to condos. In fact, Cathcart says he sold 108 of his units at Carriage Hill in the last year, and he counts 11 such conversions of apartments to condos. Ironically, this trend during the last few years has turned the situation in 2003 upside down.

"The rental market, as far as landlords are concerned, has improved dramatically," says Cathcart today, explaining that condo conversions have lowered the inventory of rental properties, while the slowing real estate market has more people looking to rent. Cathcart says all his remaining rental properties are occupied, and the overall apartment occupancy rate now hovers around 98 percent. Meanwhile, although condo sales have been robust compared to residential sales, it's the developers trying to sell condos who are feeling the squeeze.

So how might The Woodlands fare? Of course, Mattise believes the units will go as fast as they did in Knoxville. Others find the "luxury student housing" idea hard to stomach.

"I've already decided to hate anybody who lives there," writes blogger Waldo Jaquith, prompting a small but fiery debate over the appropriateness of it all.

Developer Cathcart, who admits he doesn't know much about The Woodlands, says the student-buyer market may not have slowed as much as the non-student market, but he can't imagine The Woodlands is "going to go gangbusters."

Still, Cathcart thinks the idea of promoting the "kiddie-condo" strategy just might work. That's parents buying a small place where their kid and his friends can live for four years, then either keeping it as an investment or selling it to parents of incoming students), something Cathcart says has been going on in town for years.

And, of course, corporate developers like The Dovetail Companies and Ryan Homes, which are reluctant to take risks and fiercely protect their bottom lines (they wouldn't be corporations if they didn't), wouldn't be installing fancy sales offices on the Mall if their accountants and marketers didn't think the numbers added up. As recently reported, developers 0f a new community called Biscuit Run are planning to build a veritable city south of town, with 3,100 units planned. And widening Route 20 South to four lanes has been buzzed about too.

In fact, that part of town has already grown, with the Jefferson Ridge and Eagles Landing communities on Sunset Ave extended, and College Park/University Place over on Old Lynchburg/5th St. Extended. With The Woodlands and Biscuit Run on the way, those country roads could get mighty crowded.

Gropen sign and display company employee King Scott puts the finishing touches on The Woodlands' downtown sales office.


The Woodlands looks more like Fort Lauderdale in March than student housing.