Living in the Pocket

by Talk Business & Politics ([email protected]) 478 views 

When Falls Church, Virginia, architect Mark Turner was commissioned to design and build a housing development just a stone’s throw from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, he looked to the past for inspiration. He ultimately settled on the area’s agricultural history as a muse.

The end result sits at 812 N.E. A St., less than a mile from the downtown Bentonville square. Christened the Black Apple, the development pays homage to the region’s history as one of the country’s top apple growers. Not only is the project named after a cultivar of apple that originated in the sprawling orchards that once dominated Benton County in the mid-19th century, each of the 11 standalone homes has a front porch that harkens back to an old farmhouse with other design elements borrowed from crop silos and barns.

 But touches of agrarian nostalgia aside, Black Apple is no throwback. In fact, not only has the recently completed development brought a new-wave housing philosophy to town — one that happens to be in lockstep with the urban, cultural hub that downtown Bentonville has morphed into in the past few years — experts and city planners alike say it has a legitimate role to play in the continued urbanization of the area.


An Idea Takes Root

The idea for Black Apple took root when Christy Walton, the daughter-in-law of Sam Walton, happened upon a book titled “Pocket Neighborhoods: Creating Small Scale Community in a Large Scale World,” by nationally renowned Seattle architect Ross Chapin.

 In the book, Chapin details his vision for the pocket neighborhood — a term the architect himself coined in 1995. In essence, a pocket neighborhood is meant to provide an alternative way of life to the one that has come to dominate the United States post-World War II when Americans abandoned urban life in droves for the suburbs. In Chapin’s opinion, suburban living is rife with pitfalls that serve to isolate people from one another. For instance, at the end of the workday, it’s all too easy to pull into your garage, go into your house or fenced-in yard, and never have to interact with your neighbors at all, he writes.

 Conversely, a pocket neighborhood is designed to promote neighborly interaction. To that end, clusters of small, “beautifully designed” homes (12 to 16 houses at the most) are built in close proximity to one another on a small parcel of land, which is tucked into an already existing neighborhood. Facing one another, the homes surround a central green space or common area. “Designed for people, not cars,” as Chapin puts it, parking spaces and mailboxes are positioned so that residents have the potential to run into each other during their comings and goings.

 “Before long, neighbors get to know each other and provide for each other the kind of support systems that family members across town, state or country cannot,” Chapin writes. “It is the opportunities for informal interaction that allow people to get to know their neighbors and these interactions that provide the roots for true communities to flourish.”

 None of Chapin’s notions are exactly new, and in his book he draws comparisons to historic housing developments with similar attributes, such as the “garden cities” built in England at the end of the 1800s and the “bungalow courts” created in Pasadena, California, in 1909.

 While still the exception not the rule, pocket neighborhoods have cropped up in a handful of areas throughout the country in communities in Massachusetts, Arizona, Indiana and Oregon.

Arkansas is now on that list.


Bentonville’s Black Apple

After discovering his work, Walton pegged Turner as the person to bring pocket neighborhood living to Bentonville.

“All of the credit goes to her [Walton] for being the catalyst of it,” says Turner, who founded the Falls Church, Virginia-based design-build firm GreenSpur. Although Turner and his team had designed concepts for pocket neighborhoods in the past, this was the first opportunity they’d had to bring a concept to fruition. That’s where an enthusiastic backer like Walton comes in handy. Indeed, it’s often difficult for developers to secure the financing they need to build a pocket neighborhood.

 “For the banks it’s an anomaly as far as square footages and land,” explains Turner. “And so it doesn’t really fit into a box that real estate lending falls into, so a lot of projects will get teed up and then the developer will have a tough time getting financing for it because there is nothing equivalent to it in the marketplace.”

 Walton’s financial support provided Turner a refreshing level of creative freedom, he says. The result? Eleven homes that range from 850 SF to 1,750 SF overlooking Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Residents need only walk through a key-coded gate and in a few steps they’re on the part of the 37-mile Razorback Regional Greenway pedestrian/bicycle trail that backs up to the museum.

 The houses come in three different variations: the “Solo,” the “Silo” and the “Southern”. The Solo, a one-bedroom (850-SF) was designed with either a singleton or a couple with no children in mind, Turner says, while the two-bedroom “Southern” (1,280 SF) and the three-bedroom “Silo” (1,750 SF) are geared more toward families with kids.

 Turner bills the design style of the homes as “modern-agrarian”. Inside, the architect managed to straddle the line between modern and rustic by combining sleek, white cabinetry and built-in storage spaces with rustic touches, such as wood and metal finishes that include butcher-block countertops, sliding barn doors and built-in desks made from reclaimed wood. For the latter, he turned to the Rogers-based company EcoVet, where craftsman — mostly veterans — create solid wood furniture from the beds of reclaimed semi-trailers.

 The commons building, which has a fully equipped kitchen space, was designed in the style of a traditional corncrib with a twist. In lieu of a traditional wooden-slatted wall, weathered barn wood is interspersed with horizontal mirrors creating the illusion of seeing through the building while at the same time reflecting the area’s natural surroundings. Two large farm tables fill the space, which opens outside to an outdoor fire pit.

 Turner says for this project it was important to him to incorporate what he learned about the area’s agricultural past into the design and construction of the buildings. “We think it’s important for a development like this to have a connection to the history of the place where it is,” he explains. “After all, a pocket neighborhood is an old way of looking at community. So, to me a pocket neighborhood that doesn’t tap into something in history doesn’t make sense.”

 Construction on the houses is fully complete and they’re currently on the market. Turner conjectures that two demographics might be especially drawn to the homes: Millennials and Baby Boomers.

“The data shows that both Millennials and Baby Boomers are drawn to urban cores and crave less maintenance,” he says. “So, you have these two large demographics both wanting similar things and the current housing models, huge houses out in the ‘burbs, don’t fulfill those desires.”

 On the flip side, Turners says he gets that the houses and the lifestyle philosophy Black Apple promotes won’t be for everyone. 

 “There are going to be some people who are just not going to be able to wrap their heads around living so close to their neighbors and not having a huge yard with a big fence, so we get that for a certain part of the population, this is not going to be for them.”


Flipping the Script

“Plenty of square footage.” “A huge backyard.” “Two-car garage.” “Privacy.” “Closets galore.” It’s a list of selling points that local real estate agents have deployed to sell homes in the area for decades. But to sell the Black Apple homes, the agents at the Rogers-based Limbird Real Estate Group, the firm marketing the property, have had to flip the script.

 Aside from the thoughtful design and architecture of the homes, they say their two biggest selling points are “lifestyle” and “location, location, location”. And indeed, with a world-renowned art museum filling in for “huge backyard” and a fast-evolving urban core within walking distance — one where the newest eateries and cafes can hold their own against the trendiest East and West Coast restaurants, not to mention a national film festival and newly revamped culinary school settling in — both selling points are befitting.

 “People who want to live in downtown Bentonville, they want to be involved with their community, they want to be active, and they want to be at the restaurants and the farmer’s market. They want to be a part of all of the things going on down here,” says Michelle Dearing, a Realtor with the Limbird Group.

 So far, Dearing says her biggest bites have been from vendors and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executives, who travel a great deal and are attracted to the low maintenance of the homes. In addition, there has been interest from buyers in the market for a second residence, she says.

With one contract already in the works for one of the homes, Dearing says she’s confident other interested buyers will follow suit. “I’ve held four open houses and of the people that come through, those that get it, they truly get it,” she says.

 However, what some potential buyers might not get is the price tag of the homes.

“I’m concerned about the price point,” says Tom Rife, founder of Rife and Co. Appraisers and Consultants. “The price point is very high on a per-square-foot basis.”

 The price of the homes range from $350,000 for the one-bedroom homes, $475,000 for the two-bedrooms and between $550,000 and $600,000 for the three-bedrooms.

 But Rife is the first to admit that the downtown Bentonville housing market is “hard to interpret.” “You never know what somebody is going to pay for something. If there is an emotional attachment, they’ll pay more,” he says, explaining that new construction in the area close to the downtown square has sold for $200 to $250 per SF.

 “I hope for the best,” he says. “Having a different option like Black Apple shows some innovation in the marketplace. It shows that not everybody wants the same thing, that some people are looking for a sense of place rather than the three-car garage on the front of the house that dominates the house.”

 For their parts, the agents at the Limbird Group say they’re aware they’ll have to work to communicate to clients that price per SF is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to gauging the value of the homes, and that quality of construction and materials and location are also important factors.


Missing Middle Housing

In addition to providing the downtown area’s housing stock with a new and unique option, experts say Black Apple has also played a role in plugging up a hole in the marketplace that’s existed for decades. Namely “missing middle housing,” housing that lies between single-family homes and apartments. Missing middle housing includes a range of multi-unit or “clustered” homes that help meet the growing demand for walkable urban living.

“For decades in Bentonville, either single-family homes or garden-style apartments were your only options,” says Troy Galloway, community and economic development director for the city of Bentonville.

 “When Black Apple was being planned in the very preliminary stages of construction, it gave a lot of other developers and builders in our community confidence to try some other housing styles, which also qualify as missing middle housing,” he adds. “So since that time, you’re seeing downtown developers and builders consider row homes, consider condos, consider different varieties of housing styles, densities and price points that otherwise were not being considered before.”

To that end, two upscale condominium developments have been built along Southeast A Street, just one block from the square — 210 Towers and American Flats. (The former are completed while the latter are still under construction.)

In addition, the Lamplighter Townhome development, just off the square at 219 N.W. A St., has also hit the market. According to Dearing, each of these dwellings, even the units under construction, is sold.