East side goes west

Emerson: The Rouse Co. is confident its new community will make home shoppers think of western Howard County, despite the east-side development's proximity to less upscale areas.

July 14, 2002|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

David Forester seems to be a matter-of-fact sort of fellow. Straightforward. No-nonsense. To the point.

As senior vice president and senior development director of the Howard Research and Development Corp., an affiliate of the Rouse Co., and the man who helped oversee the maturing of Columbia, he still feels wonderment and a tinge of hindsight when a new community comes to life.

Two weeks ago, while joining Emerson's first residents as they celebrated their move-in day, he gazed through their pristine kitchen window and said: "I priced all the lots, and I'm always amazed once you get in the house how you can see so much more. And then I think I should have gotten more for it."

Perhaps. But as Emerson, a 570-acre mixed-use community on the southeast fringe of Howard County just north of Laurel, opens its model park Saturday, the question persists: Can Rouse persuade potential homeowners to buy the concept that they are getting a slice of western Howard County lifestyle and a taste of Columbia, though they're locating in a territory not known for its upscale bloodlines?

Take a short drive past Emerson south along Gorman Road and you'll find a mobile home park. Five minutes away from Emerson's gateway is industrialized Route 1.

The property has Route 216 to the west and borders Interstate 95, which until last month was under consideration as a possible route for an experimental high-speed elevated train that would have connected Washington and Baltimore.

Is this really a place where you can expect buyers to happily purchase homes that sit on one-fifth- to one-third-acre lots and cost between $400,000 and $600,000?

Remember, this isn't the fabled farmland of the west or the prestige of Rouse's most expensive village, River Hill. In fact, the Columbia Council of the Columbia Association, for better or worse, balked at Rouse's proposal to add Emerson to its planned community and make it a part of the Kings Contrivance village.

But don't underestimate the power of Rouse.

"I have seen Rouse for 30 years, and that's a long time," said Harry L. "Chip" Lundy, president of the Williamsburg Group and one of eight builders in the model park. "I've seen them do amazing things compared to other developers."

Said Earl Robinson, sales and marketing manager for Ryland Homes: "What we believed when we went in here is that Rouse has the ability to create a market. They are one of the few developers who can.

"We believe the overall impression of Laurel will change in that area because of what the community will do. It will draw all of these expensive homes in there. It will be a totally different type of person who will be living in the area who moved from Montgomery County or Fairfax County who is going to change the whole area."

That is what Rouse is counting on.

Alton J. Scavo, senior vice president and director of community development for Rouse, said, "We're not in Route 1. We have 500 acres, and in a neighborhood that is very acceptable. It has already been well-received, and the model home park hasn't even opened yet. I feel really good about it."

First phase sold out

The 34-lot pre-construction first phase of Emerson, named for American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, is just about sold out, and builders are taking reservations on the second and third phases. By the time the project is completed over an eight-year period, it will have six neighborhoods with 400 single-family detached homes, 550 townhouses and 250 condominiums or rental units.

"It has been extraordinary considering that most folks haven't had anything to see," Robinson said. "The demand for a Rouse community is always hot. We have had a waiting list that is exceptionally large. For $400,000 to $500,000 homes, it is incredibly large. It's not like we are building $150,000 singles and there are a lot of people waiting. This is a waiting list for homes that could be $500,000; that is pretty unique."

Which just makes Scavo smile.

"Everybody said we wouldn't be able to get the lot prices. You wouldn't be able to get the home prices. All this nonsense. We've heard that too many times on other projects," Scavo said. "You're on the east side of Columbia. It's close to 95. Inevitably, we always underestimate the power of 95 in the consumer's mind. Interstate 95 is an amenity. It is an accessibility to work.

"We always fret over it in our own little minds about what is the impact. And the impact is always the same: outrageous acceptance by the consumer. They look at the community. They look at what they are getting. They look at the builders who are in the community. They look at the amenity packages and they see 95, and for them it's just a connection."

Forester agreed and said that with plans to extend Skylark Boulevard and Stephens Road - two main streets through Emerson - to Route 216, access to Columbia and Laurel as well as Washington will be easier.

`Key Property'

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