Restoration is the key to New Hampshire’s future
I just returned from a national meeting of the Counselors of Real Estate. This is a very high-powered group. The meeting was in Charleston, S.C., one of those Sun Belt cities that is growing in leaps and bounds and is the best preserved/restored 18th and 19th century venue in America. But beyond Charleston proper — a city that has had the same mayor for 30 years — annexation and growth is everywhere. We toured Daniel Island, a new community of up to 7,000 homes, 2 million square feet of commercial and office space, along with hundreds of acres of open park lands and trails. We also had a presentation on Noisette, formerly several small neighborhoods in industrial and blighted North Charleston, including parts of a former Navy base. This community aspires to be a green environment. They are restoring — not the purist stuff — but quality adaptive reuse all of the sound buildings and then infilling with new construction. The densities are new urbanism standards — walkable, transit-oriented, fewer cars, lots of light and easily accessible public space. Both these communities are building two-story schools. Of course when the average starting home price is $350,000-$400,000, building the bells and whistles is doable. Throughout the Carolinas it is said they used to plant cotton, now they plant golf courses. Here in New England, we don’t see new communities of this size for several reasons. Our economy is simply not that robust. Population growth in New Hampshire is 15,000 to 16,000 per year, half indigenous and half in-migration. Wealthy retirees are not moving or building here in large numbers. Yes, they have lake and mountain vacation homes and we are creating substantial numbers of Over 55 housing units, but the demographic profiles are not those of the super-rich. Our zoning is restrictive. Impact fees are not encouraging for those wanting to do large-scale development. Our infrastructure — roads, water, sewers, etc. — are old and threadbare. Innovative community design is not understood, and while it is paid lip service, few really truly get it and are willing to champion it. Hudson may have an opportunity with the Green Meadows Golf course sites, and Nashua plans a transit-oriented development, or TOD, at the Dow site in South Nashua. Our continued misunderstanding of fostering growth management by increasing lot sizes is back-assward. Growth is not bad, but sprawl is and somehow we complain about sprawl while virtually mandating it through lot sizes (too big), parking requirements (too many) and impact fees (too high). Reinventing our villages, mixed-use neighborhoods and downtowns is the way to preserve open space and initiate investment in our built environment with its aging infrastructure. Storm Cunningham, author of “The Restoration Economy,” chronicles the previously undocumented trillion-dollar global industry that is revitalizing our natural and man-made environments. He maintains we need to shift from our new development present to a restorative development future soon. For historic New England it makes perfect sense. One final thought to share with you: Many of the CRE sessions touched on the housing bubble. The general sense was no, not this time … Well, except Miami Beach, Las Vegas and a few other spots. But Jim Curtis, a CRE from San Francisco, captured the thinking. It is not a housing bubble, it is a housing soufflé. As long as no one slams the oven door, the soufflé won’t drop like a stone. Interest rates are critical, but there is a lot more to it than that. As Ken Riggs, a CRE from Chicago said, “There are more challenges in our economy than I have seen in 25 years.” I agree with him. Bill Norton, president of Norton Asset Management, is a Counselor of Real Estate (CRE), a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (FRICS) and a member of the board of The Initiative for a 20/20 Vision for Concord. He can be reached at email@example.com.