Tucked between wetlands, cattle and crop farms, and natural habitats, construction of an entire town has started about 20 minutes northeast of Fort Myers in southwest Florida. Babcock Ranch is the largest development currently underway in the U.S. and, over the next two decades, there will be 20,000 new homes to sell there.
But what truly sets this project apart is that it’s the first master-planned green “smart city” in the country.
Kitson & Partners, the developer behind Babcock Ranch, has set out to meet the evolving tastes in what buyers say they want in the homes they purchase.
It’s to be the first solar-powered town in the United States. It’s also part of the largest preservation land purchase in Florida’s history, ensuring it stays nestled within greenery and wetlands, not to become a casualty of urban sprawl. What’s more, Babcock Ranch wants to be a model for accommodating autonomous or self-driving vehicles. Features are being built into the town’s infrastructure from the beginning so that this new automotive technology can easily integrate with the development’s modern living and community design.
Kitson & Partners has veered away from the “exclusive” development model, where you’d typically find clubhouses and golf courses. Instead, the developer is taking what it calls a more inclusive approach, creating one cohesive community that’s accommodating for all ages, with homes at various price points and built with sustainability in mind.
The developer donated about 73,000 acres of its total 91,000 acres of land to the state of Florida to create the Babcock Ranch Preserve. The remaining 18,000 acres — roughly the size of Manhattan — will be used for the construction of the town. But still, only about half of those remaining acres will be used to house an estimated 50,000 residents along with as much as 6 million square feet of commercial space. The remainder will be dedicated to greenways, parks, and lakes.
The community plan is to mix the appeal of urban living with the desire for preservation and sustainable living, with the first residents expected to begin moving in about a year from now.
“We wanted to create a sense of place, rather than a series of new subdivisions,” says Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners. “That is what we believe the future is all about. A true hometown feel where you can live, work, and play.”
Kitson says he hopes the development will prove that growth and preservation can work hand-in-hand.
Along with solar power, the town will offer residents farm-to-table dining options, community gardens, and good schools to attract young families, Kitson says. The development, once completed, will add several thousand jobs to the area. “We hope this will become a model for future communities as we work through the 21st century,” he says.
For brokers and developers across the country, this large-scale development may be a sign of what’s to come. Americans are increasingly buying into the lifestyle of a community, not just buying a home, says Kitson. Babcock Ranch developers want to return to the days of home-pride living when neighbors communed outside and downtowns were a central place to gather.
Selling an Experience
Planning for Babcock Ranch began in 2006. But then the housing crisis and subsequent foreclosure meltdown struck, leaving the project in flux for almost a decade. Over that time, the developer tweaked plans. While its main vision for the community remained the same — a commitment to the environment, energy efficiency, education, technology, transportation, health and wellness, and storm safety — the design evolved to meet how buyers’ demands were changing. The developers decided to incorporate a more urban feel with retail, residences, and walkability for even greater sustainable living.
“Beyond the color of the granite or the square footage of the home is a lifestyle. We sell the lifestyle,” says John Hillman, a real estate professional and senior vice president of sales and marketing at Kitson & Partners. “We think of the sense of place and the community, like the parks and trails the homes are a part of. These are all important. A true sense of community matters to buyers today.”
Here is an overview of the main elements that Babcock Ranch developers believe are most appealing to consumers:
Sustainability: The town strives to be the greenest city on Earth. It will foster a walkable and bikeable lifestyle, with more than 50 miles of nature trails winding throughout. It’ll also include net-zero energy homes and buildings, community gardens, and agriculture. In becoming the first solar-powered town, Babcock Ranch will have an on-property solar panel farm and a 75-megawatt power generation plant covering homes and businesses.
Technology and transportation: Kitson & Partners is dubbing the town a “gigabyte community” because all homes will have access to a fiber optic network with a 1-gigabyte-per-second bandwidth Internet speed. That will offer residents plenty of online speeds to implement greater “smart” devices into their homes without sacrificing extra bandwidth for household and business uses. Furthermore, the town is being built to accommodate ride-sharing self-driving vehicles. Car manufacturers already have models that can drive autonomously but part of the delay in debuting to the public is that cities lack the infrastructures to accommodate. “Autonomous vehicles change the game on how we plan condo buildings, for example,” Hillman says. “Now the parking lot isn’t as important. We have more room to do more things, like have an open park.”
Multigenerational town: Babcock Ranch will mix affordable living with luxury living, geared to all incomes and ages, from young professionals to retirees. A combination of single-family homes, condos, and apartments will be available from the $200,000s to $900,000s and up. “Diversity matters when you think of selling an entire town,” Hillman says. “We want to make it as accessible to as many people as possible.”
Traditional architecture: The developers want to bring back a communal feel, so the architecture within Babcock Ranch will be a throwback to the pre–World War II era, with deep, open front porches to foster neighborhood connectedness. Homes will be grouped around parks to encourage more social interaction as well. The development will feature 700 single-family homes, 70 townhomes and villas, and 330 condos in Craftsman, Farmhouse, Coastal Gulf Vernacular, Spanish, and Colonial/West Indies architectural styles.
Commercial space: The community will offer a “Main Street downtown vibe” filled with specialty shops, markets, restaurants, galleries, wellness centers, schools, and office buildings, all within walking distance to homes. The developer wants to promote job creation within the community to respond to buyers’ growing desire to live close to work. “We are trying to give the best of what you get out of an urban environment, like the walkability and the jobs, while also bringing in more of a hometown feel,” Kitson says.
Wellness and recreation: The developer wants to cater to an active lifestyle, and cities designed for walkability have been linked to better health. The town will feature bike- and pedestrian-friendly trails throughout, recreational facilities, lakefront areas, and places to enjoy hobbies, such as community gardens.