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American Society of Landscape Architects

 

February 2006 Issue

Developing the Path Less Taken
Corporate land development can offer a satisfying—and lucrative—career option for landscape architects.

By Gary W. Cramer

Developing the Path Less Taken James Yang/Images.com

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 survival—or natural selection—than 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 Springs.

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 group—a 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 regions.

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 institutions—and asla for that matter—would 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 estate/agribusiness/energy firm.

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 accomplish—like potentially hiring them—their 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 educational credits.

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 developer—rising 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 Florida—as 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 crossing—a 5-foot-high by 20-foot-wide passage under a major road—built 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 professionally."

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