Redeveloping work sites

Land: There's not enough for homebuilders, who are clearing old commercial properties to make room for condos and large single-family homes.

May 16, 2004|By Anne Lauren Henslee | Anne Lauren Henslee,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A growing number of homebuilders are seeking out abandoned commercial properties for residential subdivisions as demand for housing continues to surge.

The process of constructing homes in places once occupied by such things as hospitals or rock quarries is pricier and more complicated than converting the farmlands that builders prefer. But dwindling available land and zoning restrictions aimed at curbing sprawl are pushing more builders to give a second look at property they once would have ignored.

In Harford County, Fallston Crossing is one of the latest subdivisions where new homes are sprouting up just off the commercial strip of Belair Road in the shadow of used-car lots and service stations.

A few years ago, the property housed Fallston General Hospital. Now it's an abandoned commercial lot with few prospects, according to developers. By next year, it is to have 101 three-story, single-family homes with an average price in the mid-$400,000s.

"I think everybody thought they might take that building, rehab it and use it for a nursing home or something like that," said H. Allen Fyle Jr., president of Fallston-based LIN-MAR Homes, which is custom-building half of the Fallston Crossing project.

Redevelopment includes tearing down the structure and putting in new roads, as well as water and sewer lines to accommodate the residential plan.

The property was already zoned for residential development, allowing an easier progression for developers. Most political leaders are not interested in rezoning commercial land for housing, because businesses often provide more tax revenue and jobs to local governments. But if the commercial property is not viable for businesses anymore, local leaders are considering homes as an option to protect green space elsewhere.

"Sometimes it provides a good transition between other commercial property and residential sites," said Anthony McClune, deputy director of planning and zoning for Harford County. "Properties zoned for business are inside the development envelope served by water and sewer, so those are the areas that are appropriate for development and are consistent with the master plan. We would rather see them revitalized than be run-down."

Members of the National Association of Home Builders and area builders say similar commercial conversions are occurring across the country, especially in areas where zoning limits have whittled the land available for new construction. Most jurisdictions have worked to restrict construction on open parcels because of residents' concern about crowded schools, roads and other infrastructure.

"You have to be creative and you have to be very flexible in this market today," Fyle said. "You're going to find a ton of infill development in years to come."

Two homebuilders

Consumers seem to be interested in such developments even if they're in the midst of a commercial zone. In Fallston Crossing, for example, builders are creating a neighborhood setting for the development behind the commercial whirl of Belair Road's restaurants and shopping centers.

Less than a year into the Fallston Crossing project, LIN-MAR has contracts on six of the seven homes of phase one that are either built or in construction. Barry Andrews Homes also is building part of the development.

Susan Stroud Parker and her husband, Jimmy, were among the first to move into Fallston Crossing. Despite the early-morning sounds of construction crews nearby, they are enjoying their first custom-built home.

"I'm used to living in close quarters with other residential and commercial properties," said Parker, a transplant from Annapolis and a lobbyist for the Home Builders Association of Maryland. "I also like living in a neo-traditional type of neighborhood, with narrow streets and houses that are clustered together, so there is an economy of land use."

Besides persuading consumers to live in such nontraditional settings, builders have other challenges in converting land that formerly served commercial tenants.

"When you're developing a farm or forest, there's really not much there in the ground," said George Rathlev, land acquisitions manager for Beazer Homes, which has two redevelopment sites under contract in Maryland. "But if you're ... not the first guy there ... there's everything in the ground. There's water lines, sewer lines, gas, electric, telephone, building foundations. You have to be very much aware that the ground is full of things you don't normally expect to find."

Beazer plans to redevelop the former Greenspring Quarry in Baltimore County. The site is zoned for residential and commercial use, so Beazer plans to build more than 500 condominiums and 83 single-family homes along a 360-foot-deep lake. The company has teamed with another builder to construct a 125-room hotel, 62,000 square feet of retail space and 287,000 square feet of office space on land that is nothing more than rock and trees now. Prices will range between the high $200,000s and $500,000.

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