How To Create A Great Place To Live

Five communities around the country demonstrate ways to overcome common challenges and create attractive, appealing places to call home.

FEATURE: Forging Livable Communities


Safety: North Little Rock, Arkansas
Density: Arlington, Virginia
Education: Raleigh, North Carolina
Transit: Dallas, Texas
Greenspace: Bloomington, Indiana

"You know you’re in a livable community the moment you walk outside," says John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute. "Without really thinking about it, you feel safe, streets seem clean and walkable, you see other pedestrians, the streetscape is interesting, traffic is moving at a moderate pace. There’s no one particular quality, but you like being there."

What makes a community desirable to you or a buyer may vary, but the appeal of features such as safety, walkability combined with accessible transit, and good schools is almost universal. "Communities with these quality-of-life attributes have a tremendous civic asset," says Robert H. McNulty, president of Partners for Livable Communities.

Homeownership is a strong contributor to the economic vitality needed for a good quality of life, says NAR Chief Economist David Lereah. But problems such as high crime rates and overcrowded schools can deter consumers from buying homes in an area. If your community seems to be losing the livability battle, you can help turn things around. This month, as the National Association of REALTORS® and the country celebrate National Homeownership Month, REALTOR® Magazine went in search of communities that are approaching civic challenges in a way that enhances quality of life. These examples show how governments and citizens, including many real estate professionals, have worked together to make their communities a better place to live and sell real estate. Each livability challenge addressed—from gridlock to declining green space—offers tools for jumpstarting improvement in your area.

* Safety North Little Rock, Arkansas
* Density Arlington, Virginia
* Education Raleigh, North Carolina
* Transit Dallas, Texas
* Greenspace Bloomington, Indiana

See two more livability case studies—affordability in Breckenridge, Colo., and downtown revitalization in Chattanooga, Tenn.—Click here.

Safety: North Little Rock, Arkansas

Crime takes a holiday

For residents of the Argenta neighborhood in North Little Rock, Ark., walking out their front door once meant encountering gang members and drug deals. "It was one of those areas you just wanted to drive through quickly," recalls Joan Williams, a sales associate with McKimmey Associates,
REALTORS®, and later a resident of Argenta.

"The first time I walked through the district, police stopped and advised us to leave," says Rosemary Hamel, executive director of the Argenta Community Development Corp. Yet Hamel and the CDC saw vestiges of former glory in the turn-of-the-century cottages and stately homes. In 1993 Argenta CDC began to take the community back with enthusiastic support from the local property owners and funding and support from the city, the Local Initiatives Support Corp., the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corp., and the North Little Rock Community Development Agency. The CDC bought up deteriorating houses and vacant lots.

"We try never to buy just one house. We want to get control of the area so that we can bring stability to the neighborhood. By renovating one block at a time and helping homeowners move back in, we create a peer pressure to improve the neighborhood," says Hamel.

But peer pressure alone wasn’t enough to curb Argenta’s crime problem. Citizens organized crime watches, and police officers created a Citizen’s Police Academy to train residents on how to spot and report criminal activities.

Still, arrests mean little if criminals can post bond and be back in a local property the next day, says Paul Suskie, city attorney for North Little Rock. To solve this dilemma, Suskie hit upon the idea of combining criminal prosecutions with enforcement of civil offenses, such as fire and building code violations. This two-pronged approach—called SAFE, for support, abatement, fines, and enforcement—teams police officers with city inspectors to evict criminals for civil violations, board up homes to prevent wrongdoers from returning, and in some cases, condemn the deteriorating properties if owners don’t bring them up to code. Condemned properties are often sold to the CDC.

Since the city formalized this strategy with the passage of the Criminal Eviction Act of 2001, Suskie and his office have investigated more than 400 violations and filed more than 50 lawsuits against 167 properties. "By closing down the properties, we’ve been able to shut down criminal activities," says Suskie.

Today, Argenta’s crime rate is one of the lowest in the city, with police incident calls dropping from 1,660 in 1994 to 754 in 2002. Dozens of first-time homebuyers live in the 12-block neighborhood. Property values increased an average of 37 percent between 1990 and 2000 to a median price of $53,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In 2000, Argenta CDC and North Little Rock law enforcement were urged by concerned members of the local Gardner Memorial United Methodist Church to turn their attention to renovating a "war zone" in nearby Mid-town. "One of the first houses we purchased in this area had been severely damaged by a Molotov cocktail," says Hamel. Within two years, the CDC had purchased and renovated 16 homes in Mid-town, and another 37 new or renovated homes are planned by the agency and Habitat for Humanity.

Mid-town is already seeing price increases, according to Williams. "New construction is selling in the low $80,000s, with the city offering a soft-second loan that’s forgiven in 10 years," she says. Williams sold her first home in the area to a stonemason renovating one of the area’s properties. Now eager buyers are purchasing homes before they’re even complete. "It’s a chain reaction," says Williams.

Tool: Livability Court

Livability means safety from violent crime, but smaller things—drunken parties, crumbling buildings, and barking dogs—can also threaten quality of life. Too often, these minor offenses are put on the back burner—but not in Charleston, S.C., thanks to the Livability Court. The court, which has its own dedicated judge and enforcement officers headed by Sgt. Dan Riccio, focuses solely on quality-of-life issues. Officers issue summonses and ensure that violators change their ways or face fines in a civil action. "We handle about 50 cases a month," says Riccio. "Our goal is to ‘cure’ these situations with consistency, uniformity, responsiveness, and enforcement." Downtown Charleston is a compact area that includes long-time residents, students from several nearby colleges, and second-home buyers." We had to find a way to resolve these livability problems," explains Ruthie Smythe, GRI, broker with Charleston’s Lane & Smythe. "The Livability Court has done a huge job of solving a problem that could have mushroomed and eventually prompted people to leave the Historic District." For more info: Click Charleston Clean City Commission, then Programs, then Enforcement.

Density: Arlington, Virginia

Growth without gridlock

Arlington County, in Northern Virginia, was just another declining first-ring suburb in the 1960s when the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Agency began planning the course of the Orange Line that would connect central Arlington to Washington, D.C. "The Rosslyn community was nothing but warehouses, pawnshops, and bordellos," says longtime Arlington resident Sharon Chamberlin, a sales associate with McEnearney Associates in Arlington.

Needing a way to pay for the rail, Arlington decided to increase its tax base by linking commercial redevelopment and transit. Development was centered in bull’s-eyes around each of the five rail stops along a three-mile commercial strip. To help ensure that commercial expansion didn’t endanger livability, the most intense commercial and retail uses of up to 300 feet were centered at the stations. Use then dropped off, first to mid-rise commercial and residential buildings and, within one-half mile, to bungalow neighborhoods, says Arlington Planning Director Robert Brosnan. The size of each strip was restricted and hasn’t changed significantly since the original 1972 plan, says Chris Zimmerman of the Arlington County Board. "You have to have a plan and stick to it. People need to be able to trust the plan."

Consequently, although this corridor has accommodated more than 30 million square feet of new development in the last decade, between 30 percent and 40 percent of the two square miles consists of two- and three-story buildings, says Dennis Leach, chairman of the Arlington County Board’s Transportation Advisory Committee and a senior associate at TransManagement Inc. in Washington.

Each station area has its own sector plan, says Brosnan. Basic zoning parameters are set, but the five-member county board has the flexibility to approve density bonuses and other modifications consistent with the adopted plans and in response to market need.

High-quality transit and the absence of parking near commuter stations have helped create an environment where cars aren’t critical for everyday life. Rosslyn residents own an average of 1.1 vehicles per household according to the 2000 Census, compared with 1.9 in the United States as a whole, as reported in National Household Travel Survey. Instead of driving, residents typically walk or take a bus to the train, according to a 2002 Washington Metro survey. "Between 1972 and 2002, Arlington added more than 11,000 housing units, 16 million square feet of office, and 950,000 square feet of retail, all without a significant increase in traffic congestion," says Leach.

Density has also given the county among the lowest property taxes in Northern Virginia. Although less than 7 percent of Arlington’s land area is high-density development, that area generates 70 percent of the county tax base, according to Creating Great Neighborhoods: Density in Your Community, produced by the Local Government Commission, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating livable communities. The report was sponsored by the National Association of REALTORS®.

Home prices reflect the desirability of this dense yet well-designed community. "Condos near Metro stations that were selling for $100,000 in 1994 are now going for $300,000," says Tom Meyer, broker-owner of Condo 1 Inc. in Falls Church, Va. "People want to live in Arlington," says Chamberlin.

Tool: Cottage zoning

At a time when a median new single-family home is 2,114 square feet, according to the National Association of Home Builders, a development concept that puts eight 1,000-square-foot units on three-quarters of an acre may seem like madness. But the Greenwood Avenue Cottages in Shoreline, Wash., combine a true sense of community with a size that fits singles and single-parent households. "In 1953, the average home was only 1,000 square feet," says Jim Soules, president of the Cottage Co., which developed the community and suggested the idea of a cottage housing code. The basic code is a supplement to residential zoning and incorporates such features as a common open area, square-footage limits, 25-foot height limitations, and parking for each unit away from entrances. The code not only increased density but also reflects the values of the residents, says Shoreline’s Assistant Planning Director Anna Kolousek. "The cottages provide a new benchmark for what is reasonable density in the community and open the way to increase Shoreline’s housing options," she says. For more info:

Education: Raleigh, North Carolina

Enriched learning

To help promote the synergy between quality education and quality of life, the city of Raleigh, N.C., brought new classrooms into a lower-income neighborhood near its historic City Market retail center. The Moore Square Museum Magnet Middle School opened in time for the 2002–03 school year.

The city had acquired the four-acre parcel as part of a larger Downtown East Redevelopment Area targeted for infill improvements. "It was fairly controversial to put a school downtown," acknowledges George Chapman, director of the Raleigh Planning Department. "Some of the city council wanted to see the site turned into a residential project." But the planning department believed that this public project could create a center of learning that would revitalize the neighborhood and lead to residential development. "The decision by the Wake County Commission to fund the Moore Square School was a commitment to bringing back the downtown," says Gordon Smith, chairman of the board of the nearby Exploris Museum, which often conducts joint programs with Moore.

"The school has definitely been a factor in bringing people downtown who’ve never even come in before," says Ann-Cabell Baum Andersen, a sales associate with White Oak Properties who sells and leases almost exclusively in the downtown area. Residential had already found its way back downtown in 1996 with the Cotton Mill warehouse condos. Currently, the downtown has more than 400 units completed and another 136 under construction. "An upscale, walkable lifestyle and location are the determining factors for downtown buyers," says Andersen. Two new subdivisions opening just north of the school are bringing in 200 additional families to the downtown area. "Residential is the key to livability in the downtown. If residential comes, it will draw businesses," says Chapman.

About one-third of Moore Square’s students live within a five-mile radius of the school. The remaining two-thirds come from throughout the county to take advantage of Moore’s connection to museums, such as the North Carolina Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural Sciences, as well as nearby businesses and government offices. For example, visiting artists from the Contemporary Museum worked with students to research Moore Square’s history, then helped them create photographs and drawings to tell the area’s story, says Cathy Bradley, Moore Square’s principal. Completed works were displayed in the front windows of local businesses. "Our students can walk to any of the museums in less than 15 minutes. That proximity makes the museum program feasible," says Bradley.

Just completing its second year in operation, Moore Square Magnet has been a success both for its students and for the downtown community. Downtown residents and businesses need to help ensure educated workforces for decades to come, says Margaret Mullen, president and CEO of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance. "The addition of the Moore Square school has helped ensure that future for downtown Raleigh," she says.

Tool: Charter school funding

As parents and communities debate the merits of school choice, smaller class size, and annual testing to improve their children’s public education, the nearly 3,000 charter schools in the United States ( are going their own way. These schools are seeking freedom from traditional school constraints in exchange for increased accountability in student performance. For this freedom, charter schools often sacrifice the financial security of public education institutions. Although state and local governments provide per-pupil operating funds to charter schools, only seven states offer a funding stream for their facilities. Now, the Local Initiatives Support Corp.’s Educational Facilities Financing Center offers charter schools a better chance. Initially funded with a $17 million commitment from the Walton Family Foundation, the LISC program will work cooperatively with state and local sources to match funding for charter school facilities, says Deputy Director Elise Balboni. The program, which should begin offering low-interest loans and grants to pilot projects in mid-2004, will also act as a clearinghouse for best practices in school facilities development. "We hope that providing this seed money will produce financing mechanisms that can be replicated throughout the country and help increase the availability of public school choices in low-income communities," says Balboni. For more info: Search "Charter School Funding"

Transit: Dallas, Texas

Alternative to the auto

For many Americans, the freedom to jump in the car and go is a key component of livability. But as residents of the 75 largest cities lose more time each year to traffic congestion (an average of 26 hours a year in 2001, compared with seven hours in 1982, according to the Texas Transportation Institute) even car-centric cities such as Dallas have recognized the need for an alternative.

"We had rail lines, but we’d paved them over decades ago and opted for a low-density model that depended on cars. But you can only put so many cars in the corridor," says Jack Wierzenski, director of economic development and planning for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).

The city’s initial moves to rail were far from painless, says Michael Campbell, manager of the Dallas City Center office for Keller Williams Realty, who was a member of the DART board for six years. "There was a lot of NIMBYism and a reluctance by municipalities in surrounding cities to participate," recalls Campbell.

Today, the 44 miles of DART rail lines support more than 17 million passenger trips a year. Strategies such as adding extra evening trains to malls during holidays and positioning stops near entertainment and sports venues have helped DART become more than just a way to get to work. "The light rail and the expanded bus system have also opened up our city to more jobs and made it more inviting to come downtown. A trip that takes 45 minutes to drive can now be done in 20 minutes by train," says Jeff Updike, ABR®, e-PRO, an associate with Virginia Cook,
REALTORS®. The company is the exclusive marketer of luxury townhouses built near DART.

"I’ve done a lot of business in Europe and admire those dense cities with their excellent transit," says Ken Hughes, president of UC Urban and developer of Dallas’s Mockingbird Station, a prime example of a mixed-use, transit-oriented development.

Part of the challenge faced by Mockingbird was getting lenders to see the value of proximity to transit, says Hughes, who began planning the project in 1995. "There were no comparables, and we couldn’t get lenders to recognize that what we were proposing warranted higher rents than neighborhood garden apartments." Times have changed. A September 2002 study by North Texas University found that between 1997 and 2001, median values of residential properties near DART rail stations increased 32.1 percent, compared with 19.5 percent for other Dallas metro properties. Office property values rose 24.7 percent near transit versus 11.5 percent for non-DART properties.

These days, developers embrace DART’s value. Before the Plano station opened in 2002, the city began working to ensure that the station became an asset. "We wanted to make it a destination and provide a catalyst for downtown renovation," says Frank Turner, executive director of Plano’s development business center.

A creative deal with DART allowed Plano to use money designated for infrastructure improvements to assemble 3.6 acres of land adjacent to the station and lease it to a developer on a 70-year lease. The ground rent for the mixed-use Eastside Village Project I was discounted during the first two years of construction, then indexed to the property’s net operating income. Heights were limited to three and four stories with zero setbacks to encourage walking. The project was so successful, a second phase was initiated before the first was complete. Together the two projects add 465 apartments and 40,000 square feet of retail to Plano’s downtown.

Tool: Transit mortgages

The high cost of operating a car—an average of 20 percent of family income, according to the Surface Transportation Policy Project (—makes proximity to transit a way to help buyers afford a higher priced home. That premise is the basis behind the Smart Commute Initiative from Fannie Mae. "We estimate that an individual can save $200 a month using transit instead of driving. That may allow a homebuyer to qualify for approximately $12,500 more for a home purchase," says Michelle Desiderio, product manager for the program. Launched in 2003, Smart Commute offers lenders and homebuyers a single credit amount ($200 monthly for one commuter, $250 for a two-worker household) and loan-to-value ratios of 97 percent. Borrowers must live within one-quarter mile of transit, which can be rail, bus, or in one pilot program in Delaware, a state-sponsored car pool. "Since we began a pilot Smart Commute program in the Twin Cities in May 2001, we’ve helped 24 buyers borrow more than $3 million toward home purchases," says Missy Thompson, a real estate broker who’s now director of Fannie Mae’s Minnesota Partnership Office in St. Paul. "It’s a very tight housing market here, so anything sales associates can do to stretch ratios can make a big difference." For more info:

Greenspace: Bloomington, Indiana

For the love of green
More than 1 million acres of farmland are developed each year, according to the American Farmland Trust. And although the specter of sprawl is most often associated with mega-cities, the loss of greenspace is just as much a threat to livability in smaller communities such as Bloomington, Ind.

Made famous in the 1979 film "Breaking Away," the city of 70,000 residents and 38,000 Indiana University students had seen its privately held greenspace decline from 6,132 acres in 1993 to 4,564 acres a decade later. At that rate, in 30 years, Bloomington would have no open land left outside parks and the university campus. But with an annual park greenspace acquisition budget of only $50,000, creativity was needed, says Bloomington’s Planning Director Tom Micuda.

In 1995, the city updated its zoning ordinances and began requiring that residential planned unit developments set aside 35 percent of all land as open space. Set-aside lands often become permanent conservation easements that prohibit development on the acreage in perpetuity. Today, more than 2,161 acres of open space is administered by the Department of Parks and Recreation, says Steve Cotter, natural resources manager for the park district.

The program does benefit the community’s livability, but it also creates hurdles for new development, says John West, CRB, of F.C. Tucker/OBR, REALTORS®. It makes project approval slower because you have to have multiple hearings and negotiate with the planning department. "We’d be better off if we had a mutually agreed equation," he says.

Nevertheless, preserving greenspace is important, says West. "Bloomington is a place where people like to live because of its beauty and outdoor recreation. It’s terribly important now that practitioners get involved in envisioning how the community should grow over the next 20 years. It’s much easier to get it right now than to try to fix it later."

Both greenspace and recreation are being served by another ambitious Bloomington project, the Alternative Transportation and Greenways System Plan. Conceived in 2001, this 10-year initiative will eventually link all parts of the city with more than 25 miles of biking trails. Much of the usage will be recreational, but the city’s long-term goal is to encourage commuting and short-term shopping trips by bike or foot, says Micuda. "Bloomington is still compact enough that cycling is an option. According to a 1995 survey, 40 percent of all trips are less than two miles. If our citizens had a safe, attractive alternative to driving, they might be willing to take that five-minute walk or half-mile bike ride to do errands."

The cornerstone of the project is a three-mile segment of the trail that will follow the course of the CSX Rail Corridor and incorporate a largely unused switchyard as a recreational and arts destination. "When this section is completed, it will run right through the center of town, past the city hall and the convention center. It will really provide a viable transportation alternative," says Cotter.

"There’s a tremendous potential for new housing and commercial space that connect to and are enhanced by the trail," says Jim Regester, GRI, broker-owner of RE/MAX Realty Professionals and a member of the Bloomington Economic Development Corp. "Currently properties turn their backs to the railroad. With a 17-block greenway, I can foresee restaurants opening up to face the space and residential and office properties using it as an extension of their outdoor space."

Tool: Brownfields rejuvenation

The acres of brownfields in the United States not only harm community livability but also offer a prime alternative to development of open land. Now with the help of loans and grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, communities can transform their blighted areas into homes, parks, and businesses. Through the Brownfields Assessment, Revolving Loan, and Cleanup Grant programs, the EPA helps local governments with loans of up to $400,000 per community over five years to help pay for the assessment and cleanup planning of brownfields. Grants of up to $200,000 are also available for cleanup efforts. In San Francisco, a $40,000 assessment grant was the first step in helping the Port of San Francisco transform the Rincon Park site near the Bay Bridge into a viable part of the community. After a $10 million redevelopment, the site and two adjacent acres donated by Gap Inc. are now home to two restaurants and a community park. "The hope is that this funding will help communities overcome the fear of contamination and put these sites to productive use," says Mike Gifford, brownfields project manager, EPA Region 5.

A Home You Can Afford, REALTOR® Magazine Online
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