Southern Lifestyle Development Co., the developer of the popular Villages at River Ranch community in Lafayette, plans on spreading its wings across southeast Louisiana.
Southern has opened a downtown office in Baton Rouge with the intent of using it as the home base for developments stretching all the way to St. Tammany Parish, said Robert Daigle, who co-founded Southern Lifestyle Development in 1997.
“Our take on the overall Baton Rouge market and the contiguous areas is just phenomenally good,” Daigle said. “But the barriers to entry are tough. It’s hard to get things approved, and it has taken longer than what we thought.”
Over the past few years, the company concentrated on its home base of Acadiana and moved into north Louisiana.
But in recent weeks, Southern Lifestyle has announced two developments in metro Baton Rouge: The Settlement on Shoecreek, a nearly 700-unit traditional neighborhood development in Central, and Conway Plantation, a Gonzales development that will have nearly 950 single-family homes plus another 20 acres of apartment buildings. Construction on both is set to begin in the summer or fall, with the build-out taking several years.
Prescott Bailey, area president for Southern Lifestyle, said the company is looking for more land to develop in the Baton Rouge area. There are active negotiations underway with landowners to build more communities in the area.
“We anticipate a good, strong run here,” Bailey said. “We would like to be one of the largest residential developers around here.”
While the homes in River Ranch have a price point of about $250 per square foot, steps have been taken with the design of homes in Shoecreek and Conway Plantation to keep the prices down to about $150 a square foot, Bailey said.
Over nearly 18 years, Southern Lifestyle has developed nearly 3,000 lots in communities stretching from Lafayette and Lake Charles to Bossier City and Monroe.
Plans are to develop more than 1,000 lots in 2015, and Bailey said based on the current backlog of projects, the total for 2016 should beat this year’s numbers.
Southern Lifestyle began in Lafayette’s River Ranch community, a groundbreaking traditional neighborhood development, or TND.
TNDs are complete mixed-use neighborhoods that use traditional town planning principles. These principles include walkable communities, with a mix of housing types to accommodate a range of residents — from young people just entering the job market to families with children to active seniors.
“It’s not a new concept,” Bailey said. “You go to any old city, and you see where the baker would live above his shop and people would walk to work. People walked everywhere, but we got away from it with the car.”
Daigle, an attorney who did a bit of work in development and construction, became interested in TNDs through his friend, landscape architect Steve Oubre. Oubre was interested in the new urbanist community of Seaside, Florida. Oubre, of Architects Southwest in Lafayette, has gone on to be involved in a host of TND projects across Louisiana, from River Ranch to the Willow Grove TND in Baton Rouge to the Village at Magnolia Square in Central.
“Steve drank the Kool-Aid really early on about TNDs,” Daigle said. “When we would get together for lunch or coffee, we would say that someone in Lafayette needed to do one of these things.”
When a 256-acre site between Bayou Vermilion and Kaliste Saloom Road became available, Daigle said it was obvious that should be the site for a TND. River Ranch had a difficult birth, with threats of lawsuits from neighbors who were concerned about having a commercial development in their backyard.
After a compromise was reached, Daigle and the other developers had to get scores of zoning waivers from the city-parish to make their community happen.
River Ranch now has about 750 housing units in which about 3,000 people live.
“The public understanding of what we do is greater than when we started River Ranch,” Daigle said. “The general public likes it and appreciates it for what it is. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately for us, not many developers are willing to do the things to make a TND work. It’s much more capital-intensive if done correctly.”
To make a TND work, all of the amenities, such as parks, bike paths, jogging trails and retail centers, need to be operating when the first residences start to open.
That can be an issue because while selling lots to builders or homeowners is profitable for a developer, putting in a public amenity like a park isn’t.
“You use the mixed-use to sell residential homes and residential lots, rather than put it in at the tail end of the development,” Daigle said.
Some retailers and restaurant operators also are leery of going into a neighborhood before there is a critical mass of nearby residences.
“Fortunately for us, the retail and service providers who have come in River Ranch have done well,” Daigle said. “Sales are generally better, particularly for food and beverage providers. … They have a captive audience within walking distance.”
While Southern Lifestyle has made a name for itself with TNDs, the company has done traditional subdivisions. Bailey said the concept doesn’t work in some areas where there isn’t much potential for retail or mixed-use development. And some municipalities have passed ordinances setting a minimum size for a TND, such as 100 acres.
“In some parts of East Baton Rouge Parish, it’s hard to find 100 acres in a good location,” he said.
But even Southern Lifestyle’s traditional subdivisions feature amenities such as parks, public pools and jogging trails.
“We’re strong believers in connectivity and walkability,” Bailey said. “We don’t gate any of our neighborhoods. We like to bring the community into our neighborhoods by having concerts, Fourth of July celebrations.”
The Independence Day events at Sugar Mill Pond in Youngsville bring in about 11,000 people a year; Bailey jokes that only about 10,000 people live in the town.
Daigle said he expects homes in Shoecreek and Conway Plantation “will be in high demand,” based on the initial response to the developments. “We always want to go where people want us,” he said. “The door has been open for us in Central and Gonzales; hopefully, it will be that way in other areas, as well.”
Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.