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Black & White City Guide
Residential Feature
3173 words
May 8, 1998
Copyright (C) 1998 Karyn K. Zweifel
First North American Serial Rights (FNASR) (Print) Only

It’s a magical life. Although you won’t find any two developers agreeing on the perfect neighborhood, they’ll all tell you how many wonderful communities can be found in the city.

“Birmingham is blessed with a tremendous selection of fantastic neighborhoods,” says Doug Eddleman, president of Eddleman Properties. “People from all over -- New York, California, Chicago, Texas -- always tell me they’re impressed with the broad selection of beautiful neighborhoods, all over the city. It’s one of Birmingham’s greatest assets.”

He smiles. “I’m not biased or anything, but I think Highland Lakes is the best neighborhood.” Eddleman Properties broke ground on Highland Lakes in 1992. The development off of the 280 Corridor is built around four manmade lakes, well-stocked with fish, to emulate lakeside living with the convenience of quick city access. Highland Lakes is projected to include 1,858 homes when it is completed.

Just north of Highland Lakes is Greystone, a development of Daniel Corporation. It, too, was built around a core concept that makes it one of Birmingham’s more prestigious communities. The Greystone Golf Club hosts the Bruno’s Memorial Classic every spring, a Senior PGA event that draws thousands of spectators and media from around the country.

Besides creating a beautiful setting for a home, the golf club also induces an unusual number of residents to ante up hefty membership dues. “At most planned communities, only 15% of the residents join the golf club,” says Hap Gwaltney, vice president of Daniel Corporation. “But over 50% of the members of Greystone Golf Club are residents.”

Another pricey, upscale development south of the city is Liberty Park, a mixed-use development with a first-class golf course.

“People like new houses,” Eddleman continues. “Some people do prefer to live closer to the city in older housing, but the majority of people are attracted to new homes.”

A new home is like an empty canvas to Diane Barnett Lupo, an interior designer and the owner of Renaissance Interiors in English Village.

“My philosophy is that once you get the wall color right, it’s like a canvas. Then, it’s a blending of styles, a layering of colors, tones and textures.”

Lupo points out that people rarely start out with all the pieces to make a perfect room. She encourages her clients to choose carefully.

“Buy the best you can afford, even if it means not buying something else you like. Even if you only buy one piece every year, or every other year, you can always recover a fabulous chair you love when the fabric wears out.

“Art is becoming more and more of an investment,” she continues. “It goes up. Furniture, rugs, antiques. If we make these purchases wisely, we’ll be leaving something for our children.”

Lupo sees her clients paying more attention to the impact of design choices on the future. “Our lifestyles have changed,” she explains. “Durability has a lot to do with it. We’re trying to get away from a disposable lifestyle.” She sees this change most clearly in the kitchen, where stainless steel, commercial-grade appliances are in demand, including more gas stoves. “They’re definitely spending more money on appliances,” she says. “They’re experimenting with gourmet cooking, trying out new foods.”

Her clients are also paying more attention to the details of design. “Details like hardware,” she says. “They’re looking for finishes in iron, satin nickel, oil-rubbed bronze. They’re using many more traditional fixtures, but in newer materials. People are spending lots of money on bathrooms and kitchens.”

She describes one particular fixture with enthusiasm. “Tradition is still an important part of design. But in three different powder rooms I’ve designed this year, I took a slab of stone and set a large glass or pottery bowl on it to use as a sink. It’s much more functional and artistic than a bowl surrounded by Formica.”

Looking around at all these large, (3,000 square feet), expensive (from $280,000) and gorgeous homes, it’s easy to wonder who in the world is moving here.

And that’s the answer. People from all over the world. Or at least the country.
“About 50% of the people moving into Greystone are transferred,” says Gwaltney. “They’re moving to Birmingham because of their work, and they like the lifestyle here. They’re familiar with it, they’ve seen it in other cities. And they know a home here will hold its value. So if they’re transferred again in 3-5 years, they can sell the house and make their initial investment back.”

For Highland Lakes and Brook Highland, another Eddleman Properties development on Highway 280, Eddleman estimates that sales to newcomers are about 40%. “We have a good move-up market,” he says. People are buying their third or fourth home and coming out Highway 280. “There’s a broad spectrum of reasons,” he continues. “The 280 corridor is a good value. Customers perceive a high quality of life. They like lots that are unique -- either mountain top lots, or on the lakes.”

Quality of life is something Greystone boasts about, for good reason. The 2,500 mixed-use acres have been carefully planned to span a range of price points and architectural styles to attract different age groups. That makes for a real community, Gwaltney says. “We have a genuine sense of community here. We have block parties, Easter egg hunts, garden clubs. With the golf, parks, and lakes here, plus the privacy and security of a gated community.”

“We’ve been here for six years,” says Janice Folmar, a resident of Greystone. “I love it for so many reasons. The sense of community, the pride, the amenities. The golf club has an excellent dining facility, and the swim and tennis club is great.”

The 280 corridor has been the flagship for new home development since the early 1980s, and neither Gwaltney nor Eddleman expects to see that change any time soon.

“Wherever jobs are being created, housing will follow,” Eddleman says. “There’s no scarcity of land.”

“The 280 corridor will continue to expand,” agrees Gwaltney. “It’s already moving into Chelsea.”

“The Birmingham housing market has had a consistent growth pattern for fifteen or sixteen years now,” Eddleman continues. “There’s been no boom and no bust. That leads to risk-taking in the industry -- it breeds an environment where developers will take chances out in other areas. So there is significant growth in all areas of town.”

Take a pin and stab at random in a circular pattern around the city, and chances are, you’ll hit the site of a new development. Don Slatten, executive vice president of the Awtry Companies, doesn’t see the development business as risky at all. “We have confidence in the economy, so we’ll continue to buy land and develop it,” he says. Awtry Companies primarily works in the Hoover/I-65 area, although they are creating a community in Trussville.

Slatten believes there are three forces driving development in the Birmingham area. “The first is the economy, which is stable, with no real big highs and no real bad lows. The second is the fact that our banks are homegrown. The owners aren’t out-of-state. I think they do a better job, because they know the market, know the developers. A development loan doesn’t go to Memphis or Charlotte for approval. It goes to someone with a personal feel for the land and the community around it.”

The third factor, Slatten says, is Birmingham’s image. “It’s getting better and better. You know, when you hear about a famous athlete having surgery, he’s coming to Birmingham. That helps. The Mercedes plant locating in Alabama helps. And the Bruno’s Memorial golf tournament has given us good national publicity too.”

This rising tide of optimism in the development industry is floating more than traditional single-family homes. One of Awtry’s projects, in conjunction with the Cole Companies, is South Lake Crest Garden Homes. Garden or patio homes all around the city are smaller, up to 1800 square feet, single story, and many are zoned as “zero-lot line” -- meaning the house takes up most of the lot so yardwork is cut down to a bare minimum.
Richard Tubb is an interior designer experienced at making smaller places livable.

“It seems like a lot of people are moving to smaller places,” he says. “They need more security, and less room. One of my clients bought one of the cluster homes at Liberty Park, but just didn’t feel at home there at first. So I went over and we talked.

“Her new dining room was close to the kitchen, so instead of putting a table and chairs in the kitchen like she’d always had it, we put two chairs and an ottoman there. We made it a more comfortable room, like a mini den, because most people live in the kitchen now.”

It may seem like an obvious concept, but Tubb designs a house for living, not for show. “I like to talk to a client to see what their needs are,” he says. “People should take their time, and have fun with it. When you’re finished, it’s so nice to have guests come over and forget how long they’ve stayed, they’ve been so comfortable. A home should entice the senses -- all of them. It should smell good, sound good. The furniture should feel good.”

Comfortable design is even more accessible now, Tubb says. “Furniture is on a little larger scale. Coffee tables are 20” tall now, so if you’re sitting on the sofa you don’t have to lean down. We’re hanging pictures a little higher. People are doing better lighting. Because if your house is comfortable, you want to stay there.”

Tubb sees more clients taking advantage of local talent, too. “We have wonderful blacksmiths here,” he notes. “It’s nice to have something that’s one of a kind, like a coffee table, lamp or dining table -- made especially for you.”

Diane Barnett Lupo agrees. “Iron furniture is like blue jeans and pierced earrings. It’s not going anywhere. It’s durable, timeless.”

The color choices of a few years ago are not so enduring, Tubb continues. “Colors are changing. We’re going back to the old colors, like yellow, orange, olive and chartreuse.”
“Miami Vice colors are gone,” Lupo says. “I use a palette of greens, browns, olives, some taupes. Then I splash it up with some terra cotta red, or some blues.”

Tubb helped his client at Liberty Park select her paint colors before moving in, but even the right colors couldn’t substitute for Tubb’s belief in livable space. “In a smaller place, everything should have a function, and it’s important that everything be in the right place,” Tubb concludes.

Although many garden home buyers are empty nesters, older couples looking for a low-maintenance lifestyle, Gene Cole of the Cole Companies sees a number of single young professionals who are attracted to the idea as well.

“Single people want a small yard to take care of too, they’re busy,” he points out. “They don’t necessarily want an apartment, so the Hoover area garden homes are the best alternative. It’s convenient, close to I-65 and close to work.”

Cole, like Eddleman, believes that housing follows jobs. “People are moving south and east,” he says. “That’s where the jobs are, and the service businesses and schools to draw residential developments. Nothing happens without a job. All these things go hand in hand.”

At Maplewood, one of the Cole Companies’ larger developments in the Trussville area, the schools are an undeniable drawing card. “People are moving here from existing housing in Roebuck and Center Point, moving up to a bigger house,” he continues. Prices at Maplewood range from $200-$415,000. “Trussville is a good community, growing fast,” Cole says.

“Trussville has been coming on strong,” agrees Slatten. “They have excellent schools, and that accounts for some of that growth. When a family moves, they look for good schools.”

Marti and David Slay moved to Trussville a little over a year ago. “We moved here because we found a house we liked,” Marti says. “I wanted to stay in the city, but David liked the idea of moving further out. The Trussville schools are appealing.”

“By and large, suburban schools are a plus,” Slatten continues. In the early planning stages for Greystone, Daniel Corporation knew schools would be a crucial element in their success. They set aside land for building schools, and lobbied hard to become a part of the Hoover school system. Greystone Elementary, a light-filled, comfortable building on Greystone property, has received several awards for its PTA, and its teachers and principal have all been recognized nationally for their work.

Liberty Park also put a lot of effort into the question of schools, and the development is zoned for the Vestavia school district. They are constructing an elementary school facility on the property now, and will add a middle school when the need arises.

Schools aren’t the only consideration when families are shopping for a home. Grocery stores, video stores, restaurants and churches play a role too. And once a family settles in, they’re likely to stay in the area.

In Slatten’s experience, once people choose a community, they don’t often move far when they move up to a bigger house. “People get comfortable in their schools, churches and shopping areas,” says Slatten. “We’re creatures of habit.”

Whether they stay in a neighborhood for years or hopscotch from one development to another, families are investing more in their homes now, according to interior decorator Greg Mewbourne.

“We love our houses more than ever,” he says. “People are more willing to put money into something that will last a long time. Things that will wear well mentally, if you know what I mean. It’s an investment.”

In the past year, Mewbourne has focused on larger projects, involved in the design process literally from the ground up. “I’ve been selecting flooring, doing the lighting layout, and really getting into the details. When I’m this involved, I can make sure the room looks good from every angle.

“I think we’re finally at a point where nothing’s really trendy. Natural stone surfaces are great when budget permits, like granite countertops and floors, or slate.”

Mewbourne, like Tubb and Lupo, sees an increasing interest in a muted color palette. “People are liking earth tones more. Not a lot of real strong colors, but natural shades like sage or sealskin brown.” Mewbourne believes a house should feel cozy and inviting. “I hate that ‘don’t touch me’ kind of look,” he laughs. “Or an overdone look, like when builders start going crazy trying to add layer after layer of decorative molding to a new house. It’s like a race to see who can put in the most.”

Those builders, and Mewbourne’s customers, are finding themselves increasingly distanced from the city center. A twenty or even thirty minute commute to work is not unusual any more.

“First time buyers are going further out,” admits Hap Gwaltney of Daniel. “The price of land drives the price of the house, so you can get a less expensive house the further out you go.” The 280 corridor is expanding all the way into the Chelsea area, he points out.
Hoover used to be a separate community, Gene Slatten remembers. Then the city reached out and enveloped it. “Pelham used to be in the country, but it’s not anymore. I think the 280 corridor and the I-65 corridor will continue to expand. It has to do with the availability of land.”

Even though these new communities are far from the urban center, they are almost always quite close to the necessities of daily life.

“I can find everything I need, right around here,” says Janice Folmar. “The shopping and services near Greystone are just a few minutes away. I think people prefer being away from the hustle and bustle of the city.”

Interior designer Betsy Brown has seen her client base spread out to many different areas over the past few years. With clients in Mountain Brook, Liberty Park, Redmont and Vestavia, she finds recent changes in interior design refreshing.

“For the longest time, it seemed people wanted a stage setting, like a French Chateau house or an 18th century French farmhouse look. But now, my clients want to make environments that look real. Sophisticated, but fun. You can incorporate beautiful antiques but still know you’re living in the late 20th century. It’s timely.”

Start with a very simple plan, she advises. “Limit yourself to a simple color scheme, and a simple combination of accessories. Paint the whole house one color, choose just one or two floor coverings and one or two fabrics to start with. Then you can let it evolve.”
Brown says you can create a room that feels warm and welcoming by starting with this background and then adding intriguing artifacts. “Old statuary on spikes, good paintings, really good black and white photography -- interesting things that my clients love. I look for pieces that have a lot of character. Then I create a still life of objects that have special meaning for my clients.”

Like Lupo, she sees her clients focusing more on high quality solutions in the kitchen. “The look they want costs more. It’s very utilitarian. Simpler, more functional. You just can’t find it less expensive, because it’s new.” Stone surfaces are popular, not just in the kitchen, but all around the house.

“There are some wonderful people in town that do limestone work. They’re willing to try something new for every job. They’ll sandblast it, acid wash it, whatever it takes to make the stone feel more mellow. I’ll go out to their plant and work with them to get the look we want.” Brown has used limestone for mantels, table bases and as countertops with a beeswax finish.

“Don’t focus on what’s new or trendy,” she cautions. “A house isn’t like a suit you can just put away in the closet if it goes out of style. A combination of contemporary and traditional will always be classic.”

Classic doesn't necessarily mean formal. New houses in Birmingham typically don’t have the old-fashioned layout of living room, dining room, den. Family friendly design means a great room, sometimes in combination with a kitchen, high ceilings and a more open plan. On the outside, brick is a popular choice, and garages are in demand.
The sprawl of Birmingham’s suburbs is growing just as fast as contractors can splash on the dryvit. That’s not anything likely to change soon, either. South on 280, south on I-65, west on Highway 150 and east towards Trussville, developers are optimistic.
“I think we’ll see more residential development in the Moody/Leeds area,” says Cole. “And all around the 459 loop. Of course, along the 280 corridor too.” He laughs, only half-joking. “I guess it’ll grow all the way to Childersburg.

“We’re doing what Atlanta did fifteen years ago,” he continues. “They built a loop around the city and that’s where the growth is.”

“There won’t be any dynamic, radical change to the growth pattern,” agrees Eddleman. “Until there is some major highway money spent, things won’t change. The growth will continue in the areas it already is, because the infrastructure is there to support it. There are no roadblocks to continuing development in existing areas.”