Developing the Path Less Taken
Corporate land development can offer a satisfyingand lucrativecareer option for landscape architects.
By Gary W. Cramer
Although land development can be a relatively lonely career
path for landscape architects to tread, changing from private practice to
corporate work suits some. It was the "best thing that ever happened to me,"
says Dennis L. Church, asla,
director of community development with the southwest Florida-based Bonita Bay
Group land developers. "For me, it was a career evolution. There are many
advantages to being the client versus the consultant."
For Church, the career change was more a matter of
survivalor natural selectionthan of convictions. In the 1980s, he worked for
several Florida landscape architecture firms while studying landscape
architecture at the University of Florida. But in 1990, six months after
earning his bachelor’s degree, he became a victim of the recession when his
employer at the time, a residential design/build firm, laid him off. In short
order, Church joined the land development world as a planner for Westinghouse
Communities, for which he eventually led the design and design review process
of an entire Florida community, the 2,400-acre Pelican Landing in Bonita
Next up for Church was four years on the consulting side of
land development with Wilson Miller Barton and Peek, which includes community
and regional planning across much of Florida among its concentrations. "I felt
that working for Wilson Miller would expose me to a wider variety of projects
and professional development opportunities, as opposed to working on just one
project with Westinghouse," Church says. While rising to the level of vice
president for planning and landscape architecture, Church became Wilson
Miller’s client service manager for its biggest client and his current
employer, the Bonita Bay Group (TBBG),
which has opened seven master-planned, golf- and environment-themed communities
in the Naples area and has more in the works.
Church joined TBBG
in 1997 to manage the planning and design process for all of the group’s
community projects and due-diligence activities for corporate acquisitions.
Like Church, two other TBBG
landscape architects in management had been consultants on TBBG projects before joining the
groupa fact that hints that this kind of career change is more common in
building-boom areas like Florida than in less-trendy and less-populated
The financial benefits to his career path are notable: "I am
making more money now than I could have ever expected out of the traditional
landscape architecture practitioner role, except probably for some owners of
larger landscape architecture firms," Church says. "I suspect that it is more
often the people who have broad-based perception, communication, and management
skills who make the change than the extremely talented designers whose passion
and focus is the process of design."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2004 National Occupational
Employment and Wage Estimates back up Church’s sentiment. The estimates
indicate a mean annual wage of $58,310 for landscape architects nationwide
versus $87,090 for management occupations as a whole.
But beyond the lure of the paycheck, the variety of duties
that a designer-turned-developer finds on his or her platter may be a draw.
Although none of them cover the gamut of possible tasks, the five landscape
architects who are counted among TBBG’s
1,400 employees see to master planning, reviewing designs, permitting,
implementing landscape plans, managing consulting engineers and other
specialists, and designing amenities for existing and in-the-works communities.
Some other, very targeted chores include expanding the group’s business
interests into new locations and tending to various aspects of its community
relations, promotional, and internal staff operations.
"Sometimes I miss the artistic and intellectual exercise of
actually sitting down and designing," Church says, "but I have the same sense
of accomplishment when I am able to walk or drive through our communities as if
I had done the design myself. I wish the landscape architecture educational
institutionsand asla for that
matterwould give this side of the industry more emphasis. Like it or not,
developers are the people who create our built environment. If more of them are
informed with the background that a landscape architecture education provides,
it is more likely that the built world can be more beautiful, functional, and
sensitive to the environment and context."
Steven Kellenberg, an author and practitioner of
master-planned community and new town-planning projects, says that designers
who are interested in development should welcome intense exposure to developer
clients and be conscious of chances to showcase their leadership traits when
consulting for them. And if the designer joins the developer, he or she should
be ready to deal with a heavier organizational structure. The good news for
those who remain in private practice is that after career changers switch to
development, "they often hire back the firm they came from," says Kellenberg,
who is a principal with edaw in
Irvine, California, and a member of the Urban Land Institute’s (uli’s) leadership group.
Sometimes landscape architects who have made the switch are
accused of forgetting where they came from and of just looking at a project’s
bottom line, says Tom Ryan, asla,
head of the Housing and Community Design Professional Practice Network for asla and principal with Ryan Associates
in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "But I don’t think that’s well founded," he
explains. "You don’t go into the design field unless you have a passion for it
in the first place." Besides which, he adds, it’s a good thing for traditional
designers that the client base in land development gets "seeded" with trained
landscape architects: "Inevitably, they are strong advocates for what we do,
and they ‘get it.’ I know a lot of people who’ve [made the switch for a while]
and have then gone back to a practice. It isn’t a one-way door. It can be part
of a career path, and you can influence projects a lot of different ways."
The landscape architect at the highest level in the Bonita
Bay Group is senior vice president Susan Hebel Watts, asla, who manages the group’s Development Services Division,
including club and home-owner’s association operations, sales and marketing,
planning and development, and human resources.
For Watts, who earned her mla
from the University of Illinois, the transition happened more than 25 years
ago. With her degree in hand, she first taught landscape architecture at the
University of Arizona and served on an urban design task force for Pima County,
Arizona. Through a task-force connection, she was hired to head up the Tucson
office of the Planning Center, a California-based land planning/landscape
architecture firm, and to serve on its board of directors. One of the firm’s
major clients was Westinghouse Communities of Arizona, which she later joined.
A subsequent transfer to Westinghouse’s Florida headquarters eventually led to
her initial position with TBBG in
1998 as vice president and general manager of two of the group’s communities.
In between that job and her present duties with TBBG, she was president for real estate with a Florida real
Watts is a frequent speaker on real estate trends and a
member of the American Planning Association (apa)
and the uli. She is enough of "a
landscape architect at heart" that she still speaks appreciatively of her ties
to asla and the benefits of
working with landscape architect consultants to TBBG projects. "I think at first there may have been some
feeling among my design colleagues that I was ‘copping out’ by leaving the
world of ‘pure and beautiful design,’" she says. "But, as time progressed and
they saw what I could accomplishlike potentially hiring themtheir perceptions
changed. Luckily for me, I’ve always worked for very respectable developers, so
I haven’t had comments about [going over to] the ‘dark side.’"
As a broad profession for which problem solving related to
land is a key to success, Watts says landscape architecture can naturally segue
to work in land development, provided "you gain a little bit [of knowledge]
every year over the course of your career" about such topics as market
research, sales, and how people interact in a community.
Beyond learning through experience, over time, Watts has
attended seminars and special classes to develop skills related to negotiation,
business management, and financial matters. In a similar vein, Church cites
attendance at numerous uli,
environmental permitting, and real estate development seminars among his
The duties of TBBG’s
other consultant-turned-client, Mitch A. Hutchcraft, asla, a regional vice president, include financial oversight
of the group’s communities and business interests in Florida’s Hendry County
and coordination of all project aspects from acquisition to construction and
sales. Hutchcraft joined TBBG in
2001 after stints with other Florida-based concerns: as senior planner and
landscape architect for Bowyer-Singleton & Associates, a civil engineering
firm; as executive vice president for VanasseDaylor, a land development
consulting operation; and as director of planning for the Barron Collier
Company, based in Naples with land holdings devoted to agriculture, minerals,
and real estate development nationally. "As a consultant, you are only exposed
to a small portion of [the overall project], but as a community developer, you
get the whole perspective," he says. "The truth is, you still have the
opportunity to participate in the design process...[but getting] to see the
whole continuum is more at-
tractive. Plus, developers are dealing with much larger
volumes of dollars than traditional practitioners, and there’s more of an
entrepreneurial spirit working with a developerrising and falling with the
success of projects."
The learning curve involved in transitioning from job to job
was "more of an evolution than a big curve," Hutchcraft adds. "I’ve always
looked for projects that allow me to be as broad based as possible. You pick up
something different every day, so it’s a continuous curve. Ultimately, the
product is something we’ve designed and placed on the land, [so having learned]
the process of design gives us a big advantage as community developers to
process and synthesize different bits of information."
The TBBG trio
notes that dealing with large volumes of information smoothly is a must in
Floridaas complex community development projects tend to go from the paper
stage to buildout much faster there than in most states. In this rapid-fire
climate, Church says that a large portion of his work beyond being the point
person on land acquisition "is site analysis, then developing a theme for the
community and expressing that through the built environment and natural
environment. It’s not me sitting down with a marker and tissue [and designing],
but sitting with consultants and orchestrating [their designs]."
A member of the American Institute of Certified Planners and
the apa, Church says that because
asla "is not addressing the
development side of the industry to any meaningful degree, the uli is the group we spend more effort
on. I think asla could get more
participation if they recognized the number of landscape architects who have
developers as a core business or who are developers."
Thematic programming for the communities, each of which is
marketed with a different spin on the amenities and activities that new
residents can enjoy, is also
in Church’s bailiwick. For instance, the original Bonita Bay
community in North Naples is a low-density development (3,300 residences in
neighborhoods and high-rise condominiums anticipated upon build-out of 2,400
acres) incorporating Gulf Coast ecosystems. The Mediterra community (950 residences
planned for 1,697 acres), also in North Naples and featuring two Tom Fazio golf
courses, is being developed as a gated enclave of villas and single-family
homes with a Mediterranean theme. Some of the group’s other properties offer "a
traditional country club community" or "Caribbean flair" or "a green
community," according to corporate fact sheets.
Beyond the buzzwords, landscape architects are likely to be
attracted to TBBG for its
demonstrated adherence to the principles of sustainable development, even for
projects involving scales and costs at which other developers might blanch.
"The ownership values the landscape, and the price points of our communities
allow us to do very nice work," Church says. For example, Church planned a
riverside community center for the Verandah development along the Orange River
in a manner that preserved hundreds of oak trees and sabal palms. He is also
overseeing the implementation of a 4-mile wildlife corridor through TBBG’s ongoing 1,115-acre Twin Eagles
development in North Naples. As a result of a private/public partnership with TBBG, the project plans include the
first wildlife road crossinga 5-foot-high by 20-foot-wide passage under a
major roadbuilt by Florida’s Collier County. An environmental stewardship plan
for Twin Eagles that is tied to the wildlife corridor aims to rehydrate some
400 acres of formerly drained wetlands.
Although it is through the Collier Audubon Society that one
may hear the most about the Twin Eagles project, TBBG’s marketing is replete with references to its
sensitivity in terms of land use, environmental preservation, natural flow way
restoration, and water conservation efforts. The marketing ties these efforts
to the "social infrastructure" of the group’s communities. And the Mediterra
community won a 2005 Florida asla
chapter Award of Excellence in the open space category for its overall blending
of environmental and artistic design elements across 1,090 acres of greenways,
streetscapes, parks, restored wetlands, hammocks, and natural areas.
While a developer who has a landscape architecture degree
might not always address a site’s environmental aspects as well as he or she
would without the financial constraints involved, there’s a much better chance
that those aspects will be considered, according to Ryan. "The more that
landscape architecture is seen as a valuable background to do other things, the
less the environmental battles will have to be fought," he says. "Landscape
architects have a unique view of how land and design come together...and are
uniquely effective in the permitting arena. They can make good managers from
that standpoint and can take an engineered solution and transform it into a
design solution." Development careers can allow people with design backgrounds
to bring types of projects to the light of day that they would not get to work
on otherwise, he adds.
Watts cites this blending of practical matters with
aesthetics as a plus when working on master-planned communities. "If you do a
project of 20 or 30 acres you can feel good, but we can walk around communities
totaling nearly 10,000 acres with 20,000 people who live there and love it,"
she says. "To be able to work on sites of the magnitude that we do, each unique
in its market attributes and size, it’s very challenging, fun, and satisfying
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