By CHAD CALDER
Advocate business writer
The prospects for Americana, a $500 million traditional neighborhood development planned just west of Zachary, didn’t look very bright three years ago.
In 2008, the project’s investors were embroiled in a legal battle that landed the 413-acre parcel on La. 64 in bankruptcy court. By the end of the year, the U.S. financial crisis brought the economy to its knees.
The economy was stagnant, and credit markets were frozen even when Old Towne Development’s property was bought out of bankruptcy in October 2009 by investors John Engquist and John and Michael Campesi, with plans to proceed without the former partner with whom they’d been feuding.
Looking back last week on the course of those events, Engquist said he can’t help but think the timing worked out for the best.
The legal battle prevented the development from getting under way in the midst of the financial meltdown. The subsequent holding period has the land for development on the verge of being annexed by the town of Zachary, as opposed to the previous plan of it being out on its own in the northern reaches of the parish.
“Our timing today is pretty good,” Engquist said Tuesday, the day after Zachary’s planning commission voted to support the development and one week after the city council did the same. “The fact that we somewhat put this project on hold for a period of time is not a bad thing.”
Charles Landry, the attorney representing Americana, said Old Towne Development expects the annexation process and the creation of an economic development district to be complete by November, with the property rezoned and the project’s first phase approved by the end of the year. Construction, he said, would begin immediately after.
Phase one would include 129 homes, 205 live/work spaces and 11 condominiums and apartment units, as well as a 10-screen movie theater, a YMCA and 172,321 square feet of retail and office space.
Ultimately, the development would have 818 single-family homes, 400 live/work units, 261 condos and apartment units, 69 townhouses, 100 senior living units and 40 bed-and-breakfast units.
On the commercial side Americana will have 482,555 square feet of total retail and office development, and a 60,000-square-foot grocery store. The theater will be expandable from 10 screens to 14.
There will also be 6,400 square feet of space devoted to civic functions and public use.
Talking to Zachary officials last month, Landry said the component driving the development’s urgency is the YMCA, an $8 million branch to which Old Towne has contributed $1 million in land and $1 million in cash.
Landry said the pool there will be the best in the area and the developers see it and the movie theater as key attractions for the first phase.
But Old Towne is relying on another selling point for Americana, the involvement of Robert Daigle and Steve Oubre, the developer and community planner, respectively, of Lafayette’s River Ranch.
River Ranch is the sprawling development that in less than a decade turned 260 acres of rural land on the outskirts of Lafayette into the poster child for successful TNDs — traditional neighborhood developments — in Louisiana.
Engquist said that when he decided to invest in the Zachary project in 2007, he insisted that Daigle be involved.
“I took the project to him, because I have so much confidence in him as a developer,” Engquist said. “I think he’s the best developer in Louisiana.”
Judging by Engquist’s comments and Landry’s presentation to Zachary city officials, two key elements of River Ranch will help define Americana.
The first is that the look of the development, while not homogenous, will be highly regulated.
“This is not the kind of place where you can bring in your architect and design what you want,” Landry told the group last month, noting the restrictive covenants are 180 pages long, not 20.
“We want to control what this place looks like,” Engquist explained. “You’re building a community; you’re not building a neighborhood. And you’ve got to have strict control over the project — what it looks like, the kind of architecture — and for a traditional neighborhood development to be successful, you just have to do that.”
The second is that Old Towne wants Americana to be part of Zachary.
“We want the public in this development,” Landry said, noting free concerts held in River Ranch bring in thousands of people.
“We are building a community, and it’s for everyone,” Engquist said, noting Americana’s walking trails will be connected to the nearby BREC park. “You won’t see any gates. This community is open to the public.”
Daigle said that as a TND, Americana will embrace the same concepts as River Ranch, a mixed-use community with a town center and an emphasis on open spaces and walkability. He said that openness and integration with Zachary — from the YMCA to the bike trails to the parks — is the goal.
“From a development standpoint, we don’t believe in gated communities,” he said, noting users of park space in River Ranch often come from outside the development.
“That’s cool,” he said. “We encourage that.”
One thing that will be a little different is the price point. River Ranch’s average home is more than $500,000, he said, while Americana might average, based on today’s dollars, about $325,000. He added, however, that there will be plenty of homes in the $600,000 to $700,000 range, just that there will be more homes below the average.
Engquist said fire protection and water and sewer system connections were the main factors in the decision to ask Zachary to incorporate the land that will become Americana, but added weaving the development into the community makes sense.
“Zachary holds a lot of potential,” he said. “It’s a great community, a very affluent community. I think Americana fits that quite well.”
It was enough to convince Old Towne to let the rezoning it received three years ago from the city-parish Planning Commission lapse and essentially back into the process with Zachary.
In a process Landry said he has stewarded twice before, most recently in Port Allen for the River View development at the end of 2008, Americana sought symbolic, non-binding votes of support from the city council and planning commission on the project and a planned economic development district that would take 1 cent in sales taxes from Americana and 1 cent of existing undedicated sales taxes in Zachary to fund five projects.
The resolutions have already been granted unanimously by the planning commission and with one dissenting vote by the city council. Though, they are nonbinding, the resolutions give Old Towne confidence to begin the annexation process even though none of the agreements can be done officially until after it is annexed.
“We feel very comfortable that if the city of Zachary gives their commitment on this — even though it’s non-binding — that it’s rock solid,” Landry said. “We feel very comfortable.”
The first of the five projects would be $1.5 million in improvements to La. 64, including landscaping and a sculpture-centered roundabout. The sculpture would represent Zachary, not Americana, Landry said. It would be a city project, done in conjunction with the city-parish’s Green Light plan.
“We want this roundabout to be the gateway, the entrance to Zachary (from the west) and Americana,” Engquist said.
The second project would be $850,000 in public trails that would connect the east side of Americana, where some of the wetlands are, to a new BREC park nearby. This portion would be fronted by the developers, but would come through tax increment financing administered by the economic development district board. The board would be made up of city council members.
The third project would connect Americana to the city’s sewer system, while the fourth and fifth would convert some ditches behind the property to culverts and create a “town hall” for civic functions.
In his discussion with city leaders last month, Landry spoke of Americana as a transformational project, noting it will drive development down La. 64 and into Zachary.
Engquist agreed the development will be significant for the sleepy town in the northern part of the parish, but said that in the several years he’s been in touch with city officials and its residents, “I have yet to receive a negative comment from a citizen, the city council. The support for this project is overwhelming.
“It’s going to be a huge generator of sales taxes for Zachary and it’s going to be very positive for that community,” he said.
Zachary Mayor David Amrhein said he’s in contact with the developers “every other week.”
“This is a leap of faith for everyone, but he’s got competent people behind this,” Amrhein said. “They’ve done it before and I think they’re going to be successful. My reservations are not nearly as much as before we sat down and talked to them.”
Those reservations, he said, basically amounted to fears they wouldn’t follow through on what they promised.
“I didn’t want somebody to go in there and have the roads finished to the back and it’s a road to nowhere,” the mayor said. “We’ve been to River Ranch and Sugar Mill Pond. I like what they’re doing.”
Amrhein said he also is looking forward to reviewing an economic impact study Old Towne has commissioned from LSU economist Jim Richardson.
“Engquist has got a name and I don’t think they’re going to screw it up,” Amrhein said. “It’s easy to work with people that you can trust up front.”