Master-planned communities are inching their way into the Atlantic provinces, giving developers the opportunity to not only create properties and buildings, but community values too
From the ground up
Calling from his office in Europe, Donald Marr’s excitement about his new development streams through the phone line. “Even though we’ve been keeping it quiet, this is a very, very big story for Nova Scotia and Atlantic Canada,” he says.
Marr, managing principal of Terra Firma Development Corporation, and his brother, Bradley, president of the company, are building a new community in rural N.S.: Forest Lakes Country Club. Originally from Fredericton, the brothers have become established developers in residential resort communities: master-planned developments with ornate homes, lush landscapes and enticing amenities. They were looking to get out of the spiralling European real estate market when a plot of land in N.S. caught their eye. Thinking nothing of it at first, they realized it was an opportunity with huge potential — and a reason to come home. “The more we looked, the more we liked,” says Marr. “There’s nothing like this in Atlantic Canada really.” They started assembling the land in 2007 and have been working on it ever since.
Upon completion, up to 2,700 homes will span the 1,700-acre site nestled between Ardoise and Mount Uniacke, N.S. in the municipality of West Hants. Located between the picturesque Annapolis Valley and the City of Halifax, the community will encircle an 18-hole golf course. The property includes a network of trails for horseback riding, hiking and bicycling, and a boathouse area that will transform into an ice-skating paradise in the winter. The development will also accommodate a village centre with small shops and a farmer’s market, along with condominiums and apartments. A family entertainment centre is in the works, complete with an indoor water park, bowling alley, laser tag, gymnasium, fitness centre, small food court and other activities, all topped off with a hotel.
Construction is well underway at Forest Lakes. The roads are in place, the welcome lodge and several model homes are built and the golf course is under construction. The first residents are expected to move in between May and October 2016; the whole project should be completed in about 12 years. The homes will range in price from $300,000 to nearly $5 million, but Marr assures there is something for everyone at Forest Lakes, from duplexes to stylish cottages and estate homes.
Terra Firma and their partnering companies have mostly been marketing Forest Lakes to international buyers. They have a large portion of English, Irish and German buyers, along with some from Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Many residents will be year-round occupants, others will use the properties as second, even third or fourth homes. When finished, Forest Lakes will be the highest populated area within the municipality of West Hants, with an estimated 8,000 to 10,000 residents. “We weren’t coming to Nova Scotia to create another subdivision, the typical type of property you find everywhere,” says Marr. “We needed to be unique.”
Marr emphasizes that Forest Lakes will be an inclusive development, open to all buyers and visitors. “We emphasize clean and green, open spaces, inclusive development, encouraging people to get to know their neighbours and maybe get the kids back out in the forest a little bit, instead of in front of their devices.” Part of the plan is to incorporate tourism in Forest Lakes’ economy. “We want people to stop in and buy their groceries, to enjoy the family entertainment,” says Marr. “The kids may go in the family entertainment centre, mom at fitness or the spa and dad playing golf, people out canoeing and utilizing the trails. That’ll spur on more business in the area.”
With construction sailing smoothly, Terra Firma will have successfully built a community. But how will they build a sense of community? “We develop a sense of community by community activities and events that we hold out there and encouraging people to come together,” says Marr. “We’ll be looking forward to encouraging the Friday night bonfire where the parents go down with the kids and get to know each other again.”
Forest Lakes has made local newspapers a few times, but is not nearly as well known as it perhaps should be considering its size and potential economic impact. “Based on experience, it’s important for us to not come out screaming from the rooftops early on … not to raise false expectations. The strategy for us has worked wonderfully,” says Marr. “When people come to visit — and we do encourage people to do so — everyone says ‘wow, we didn’t know this was happening out here’.”
A whole new world
You’ve probably heard of Danny Williams’ master-planned community, if not by its official name (Galway) then by one of its many nicknames: Dannyland, Afdanistan, Dantopia. Pitched at one of the highest elevations in the St. John’s region and ideally located at the intersection of four of the province’s largest and fastest-growing municipalities (St. John’s, Mount Pearl, Paradise and Conception Bay South), Galway will comprise an industrial park, a retail area and a residential section. The name is a nod to Williams’ mother (it’s her maiden name) and the province’s ties to Ireland.
Galway, like Forest Lakes, will feature a golf course centrepiece, GlenDenning Golf Club. The community will be 2,100 acres and has a total build-out time of about 20 years with a price tag of up to $5 billion. Phase one will see the construction of 100 acres of each of the industrial, retail and residential components, expected to be finished in five to seven years. The development will have walking trails, a shopping area, community centres, parks, recreation facilities, schools, and sports centres. “I want families to feel very comfortable in Galway,” says Williams. “The ideal situation would be that you wouldn’t have to leave Galway in order to enjoy yourself and have a full and complete life.” Galway will be an inclusive, integrated community, Williams assures, with apartments, condominiums, single-family units as well as executivestyle homes. One of the best features of the development is the view. “The land is at the same level or even a bit higher than Cabot Tower on Signal Hill, so the panoramic vistas at the top of this property are spectacular,” says Williams. “Everything is being built around that.”
This development sprouted from Williams’ interest in developing golf courses. He went looking for a piece of land closer to St. John’s back in the 1990s and came across this site. He knew it was prime land for a development, but was unsure if St. John’s was ready for the project. While holding his title as Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, he left the project dormant, but when he was done with politics, he got to it almost immediately and has been working hard at it ever since. “I’m not a person who will sit idly by. I don’t think I’m ever going to be a guy who’s going to retire. When I finished up with politics — that was a very active life, 24/7 — I went into semiretirement,” says Williams. “I thought, ‘I need to be doing more and now’s the time to be doing this development’.”
Williams says this project is one that needs to happen. “The city needed a place to expand. I felt it really needed to be properly planned and done right so that’s why I said I’m gonna tackle it. I may never live to see the end of it but at least I’ll be here for the start of it.”
The waiting game
Both Forest Lakes and Galway are being built in phases, allowing for market fluctuations. One of these fluctuations is happening in Charlottetown right now, according to Ron Waite, general manager of Charlottetown Area Development Corporation. CADC is the developer of Southport Landing in Stratford, Prince Edward Island, a 17- acre site on the town’s last waterfrontdevelopable land. “We’ve put in the infrastructure, it’s raw land right now. All of the utilities are there but no actual development has happened on the property as of yet,” says Waite. “We went through record level developments over the last five years and the vacancy rates have climbed quite a bit, so there’s a general pulling back from the development community.”
The vision for Southport Landing is a pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use, high density development with walking trails, a waterside park, and large sidewalks with lots of greenspace. Waite says CADC and the town are looking to create something similar to Bishop’s Landing in Halifax — a sort of “mini downtown” for the Stratford area. However, interested developers have not been in sync with the town’s vision for the site and developers with the town’s vision have been hesitant. “We’ve been a little bit picky about what we do there and we are prepared to hold the land and wait for the right development.”
‘Selling a lifestyle’
Master-planned communities are popping up in towns and cities large and small. More and more, developers are looking to build places where people can live, work and play within the community’s boundaries. Neil Dawe, president of Tract Consulting Inc. (a firm that specializes in land use planning and landscape architecture), says the nature of development is changing. “We’re starting to see a shift away from R1 housing into a more integrated approach to planning,” says Dawe. “Developers are seeing the benefit of selling a lifestyle.”
Several other integrated developments are surfacing in Atlantic Canada, according to the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council’s 2014 Major Projects Inventory. Terramine Development Inc. is developing a community around the Fox Creek Golf Club in Dieppe, New Brunswick. Like Galway and Forest Lakes, the golf course is its focal point. Another big one in N.S. is The Parks of West Bedford, expecting to eventually hold a population of 20,000 people along with retail and commercial areas, trails, parks and hotels. In Newfoundland, the Pleasantville Residential Development is underway with 64 acres of mixeduse residential and commercial space.
The most important part of these developments, according to Dawe, is that their visions are not just developer-driven. “It needs to be a partnership between the community, its elected officials, the community residents and the developer,” says Dawe. “This trend is a good one but it really needs to be managed and the vision for the development has to run hand-inhand with the community’s vision for where it wants to go in the future.”