Other Central City
Multifamily For-Sale Housing
Single-family Attached Housing
The Denizen is a 119-unit condominium and townhouse community that includes 105 condo flats in ten separate three-story buildings, 14 townhouses built as duplexes, and three separate open-space/amenity areas. The project is located on an 8.5-acre infill site near downtown Austin, Texas, and was developed as an affordable option for homebuyers desiring an intown location. The plan features a community garden, numerous rain gardens throughout the site, a central amenity area with a swimming pool and a lawn, and a retention basin that also serves as an amphitheater for special events. All units offer either yards or balconies facing an amenity area and views of the downtown Austin skyline.
[ Introduction | Site and Background | Development Management and Finance | Approval Process | Planning and Design | Marketing and Management | Observations and Lessons Learned | Project Information ]
For-sale housing near vibrant downtowns typically is very expensive in major American cities. This is increasingly true in Austin, Texas, which has a vibrant economy and a fast-growing population, with a large percentage of metro-area jobs located in the central city. When Terry Mitchell of Momark Development acquired the rights to the Denizen site, he envisioned a development that could address the demand for moderately priced for-sale housing in central Austin. To achieve an affordable price point, he sought to create a medium-density condo and townhouse development that would allow for more units than a detached single-family concept would allow, thus reducing the unit land cost. But he also sought to offset the higher density by creating a community with considerable shared open space and amenities. After suffering through the Great Recession and a reworking of the plan late in the design process, Mitchell’s vision proved correct, and the project sold out quickly at prices well above pro forma.
Site and Background
The Denizen site, located about 2.5 miles south of downtown Austin, is a long rectangular parcel that slopes about 40 feet from south to north along its length. It includes frontage on South Fifth Street to the east and on Cumberland Road to the north; to the west and south are single-family neighborhoods, some of which include older affordable housing.
The Denizen site was previously owned by the Salvation Army, which occupied an office and a church on the north end of the site facing Cumberland; the remainder of the land was an undeveloped open field and wooded area. The Salvation Army had considered developing the land as an affordable senior retirement community, but eventually determined that this was not feasible and put most of the site up for salewith the exception of their facilities at the northern end of the site, which they retained at the time but subsequently tore down.
The site lies in a very eclectic neighborhood of south Austin—part old, part modern, part low-end, part high-end. A large park, including the South Austin Tennis Center and other recreation facilities, is located directly north of the property. The site is in the 78704 zip code, considered to be a very desirable and trendy zip code in Austin. Portions of the neighborhood directly to the west are single-family duplex homes owned by Austin’s municipal housing authority. Several new small infill home developments have been added in recent years around the community.
Mitchell put the property under contract in early 2008, with the idea to create reasonably priced for-sale housing close to the core of the city that offered density, but with open-space amenities and attractive views from balconies and windows. Notes Mitchell: “The more quality open space you have, the more you separate your project from everyone else. If you can create some open space, this is where they [the residents] get to know each other.”
With the onset of the 2008 financial crisis and ensuing recession, it was not feasible to proceed with development immediately, but Mitchell kept the property under contract and worked to gain entitlement approvals as the market continued to evolve. During this time, he observed that people were moving to Austin even during the recession when there was no real job growth. Mitchell concluded that population growth was perhaps a more important metric than job growth, and saw an opportunity to start the Denizen development based on this trend, even before job growth strengthened. Home prices in Austin have gone up around 50 percent since 2010 because housing development did not keep up with population growth.
Development Management and Finance
Mitchell provided earnest money to maintain the contract for several years before final acquisition in August 2011. As time passed, he also saw the need to bring in partners to add expertise and to share the risk. Mitchell and Bill Skeen, principal with Madison Austin Development, had worked together on another deal, and the former invited the latter to join in a development partnership to proceed with the Denizen project. Skeen had, in turn, worked with Adam Nyer, owner and president of Skybeck Construction, and Nyer was also brought into the partnership. Skeen brought a banking and finance background expertise to the team and Nyer brought construction expertise. Notes Nyer: “By bringing in a contractor and developer partner, [Mitchell] was able to bring in an understanding of what the construction material costs would be, [and] what the labor costs would be.” These three individuals became the managing partners for the development. They formed a development entity called 5th at Cumberland LLC and started putting the development plan together.
The group employed Grandbridge Capital as mortgage banker, and Grandbridge helped put together the financing package. Condo financing was not in favor at the time, but the Grandbridge team used Mitchell’s thesis—that Austin was running out of housing—to raise the needed capital. They solicited both equity and debt financing for the project. At the time, banks wanted 50 percent equity, so a mezzanine lender—Grosvenor—was brought in to round out the financing package. Grosvenor provided about $6.1 million of mezzanine subordinated debt, which was used to cover the land acquisition and site development work. The primary lender was Texas Capital Bank, which viewed the Grosvenor debt as equity. Mitchell, Skeen, and Nyer had to personally guarantee the debt from Texas Capital Bank; the bank supplied a total of around $26.98 million in debt. Limited-partner investors also were brought in, resulting in a partnership with the following entities and ownership interests:
|MarkSky Development LLC, |
|Momark Development||40.9 percent|
|Skybeck Development LLC||14.9 percent|
|5th at Cumberland Development # 1 LLC (Two Drifters Ltd.)||29.8 percent|
|5th at Cumberland Development # 2 LLC (Lippincott Capital Ltd.)||11.2 percent|
Since the project was a for-sale development, the construction funding was supplied in phases based on sales potential. As a result, notes Skeen, “We prepared 36 status reports/funding requests to the two lender groups” during the development process. Construction costs increased as they continued to develop the units, and the bank would fund only a limited number of spec units at a time, so the developers faced cost increases each time they went to market to price new units.
The mezzanine debt from Grosvenor was structured as a fixed-rate loan with a participating interest, a subordinated note to the first lien. This guaranteed Grosvenor a minimum return, which was pretty high, and then a participating piece. The financing was structured such that the developer could profit handsomely if the project exceeded expectations. Notes Mitchell: “If we had just been at our pro forma, we would have made a little bit of money, but we wouldn’t have been really successful. But they [Grosvenor] incentivized us so that if we did really well, we would get more than our fair share of the back-end profit. . . . They took almost all of the profit on the front end, and then gave us more than half on the back end. When prices rose so dramatically, we benefited from that.”
The project “has performed very well, above expectations,” Skeen notes. “On an internal rate of return [IRR] basis, north of 39 percent. We just hit the market right.” The partners were projecting an IRR of 20 to 25 percent. As prices rose and the profitability improved, notes Mitchell, “The lenders made more money and we did, too.”
They closed on the property in August 2011, land development began in May 2012, the first building construction commenced in September 2012, and the project was sold out by August 2014. The land was acquired for $2.77 million, and the total development cost for the project came to $27,652,356, with an average per-unit cost of $232,373.
At the outset, the city of Austin was not sure what its vision for this property was, but a zoning change was needed to develop the property as the developers envisioned. Mitchell developed an initial plan, and during the recession engaged with the neighborhood groups and the city over the next several years to gain input and eventual approval. They had 16 meetings with the community and neighborhood associations before they submitted their plat.
The approval process was somewhat controversial, since neighborhood residents initially wanted single-family detached units on the site, in keeping with much of the surrounding neighborhood. Residents were also concerned that if this parcel were rezoned for higher density, other parcels might follow suit. Mitchell and his team wanted to build a community with affordable for-sale homes, initially in the $175,000-to-$350,000 range, which would not have been possible at single-family-detached densities. In the end, Mitchell and his team obtained approval for 22 fewer units than what they originally proposed.
The creation of a community garden and open space was an important factor in gaining approval. Notes Mitchell: “Creating open space that was open to the public was important.” Developing the townhouses and the garden/park as transitional areas near the single-family neighbors also was a key factor in gaining approvals. The zoning that was obtained involved a height requirement that limited the buildings to three stories and also affected the pitch of the roof design. The development also had to meet the requirements of Austin’s municipal green building program.
Planning and Design
The Denizen’s plan evolved over time, with some major changes put in place fairly late in the process. Mitchell organized a charrette kickoff meeting with the design and development team and prospective buyers to talk about the aspirations for the project and to brainstorm ideas. The design team included Tom Gross Engineering, landscape architect DWG, and architect BSB Design.
Site plan. The final plan that emerged arranges ten rectangular condominium buildings, each with roughly ten to 11 units, in three primary groupings. Five of the structures face onto a central lawn and amenity area, two buildings on the southern portion of the site face onto the park and community garden, and three buildings on the northern part of the site face onto the amphitheater with views of downtown. As a result, every unit has a view of an amenity area. Some units also have views of the hill country to the west. The plan includes 3.5 acres of open space in the three separate areas. The plan also arranges 14 townhouses in duplex buildings along South Fifth Street, where they have frontyards.
The main entrance to the development is from South Fifth Street, where visitors encounter the aforementioned central amenity area; a secondary entrance is off Cumberland Road. Internal circulation includes two north–south “streets” and two east–west alleys that provide access to the condo garages. A prior plan included a third road that ran through the middle of the site, but Nyer proposed that this be removed to make way for more open space and a larger central amenity area with a pool and clubhouse.
The site feels relatively flat when in fact it is not. The site has been transformed into a series of flat terraces separated by retaining walls in multiple locations. Considerable fill dirt was required to level portions of the site.
Central amenity area. The central amenity area includes a lawn area with artificial turf, a swimming pool, an outdoor barbecue area, and a club/party room adjacent to the swimming pool. Residents often bring out chairs to sit and relax on the lawn, which has become a very social place. This amenity created a sense of place for the entire development.
A desire to reduce water use and the need to hold events on the lawn led to the artificial turf approach, which eliminated the need for watering while ensuring that the space would not turn barren or muddy. Notes Daniel Woodroffe, president and founder of DWG, “A lawn surface that in Texas is being watered in a limited capacity but used heavily turns into a dust bowl instantaneously. We really wanted it to be more of a high-performance sports surface than a lawn.” The lawn is also popular with children, and is used for movies as well.
Southside park and community garden. The southern portion of the site is devoted to a park and community garden, with a wooded area on the north side of the park and garden plots on the south side. The park is open to the public. The garden area and park were placed at the south end to create a transitional buffer between the development and the single-family neighborhood to the south. Numerous live oaks were retained and preserved within the park area.
An informal community garden had existed on the site for 20 years or more, in a different location at the northern end of the site. The soil that had been cultivated for many years was moved to the new garden area, which is now maintained by community residents. Notes Mitchell: “I would say five of the first ten sales were made in part because of the garden amenity.” One of the buyers was a chef. The garden is run by the southeast community garden group, which includes both Denizen residents and nonresidents. The garden is fenced and includes a shed with garden tools.
Amphitheater/retention area. The third open-space amenity is the amphitheater/retention area at the northern end of the property. All excess rainfall runoff is directed to this area. After a heavy rain, there is often four feet of water in the retention area, which drains out over 24 to 72 hours. Most of the time, the area is dry and can be used for recreational purposes.
Locally sourced limestone blocks have been placed in the area to create walls on two sides and a terraced seating area on a third side; the seating is used during concerts and other events. A large grassy area in the middle is frequently used as a children’s play area and/or a dog run. The community has had informal concerts here as well.
The amphitheater is an example of the planners’ desire to double- and triple-load spaces with multiple functions, essentially creating outdoor rooms used for several purposes—functional, aesthetic, and recreational. Notes Woodroffe: “Infrastructure doesn’t have to be an ugly thing that is hidden.”
Engineering this space was challenging, however, since the area was subject to groundwater infiltration and thus had to be retrofitted with a sump pump to keep it dry.
Rain gardens. One of the principal issues that came up in the planning process was, notes Woodroffe, “How are you handling water quality?” He proposed the idea of using rain gardens and low-impact design as a distinguishing approach that could set the project apart from competitors. DWG designed approximately eight rain garden basins throughout the site to manage stormwater and water quality. The rain gardens are long and narrow, walled and sunken; water flows into the gardens and is retained during rainstorms, with overflow moving downhill, eventually reaching the larger retention area/amphitheater at the north end of the project.
Woodroffe sought to “use the rain garden as a thing of beauty as opposed to a thing of engineering infrastructure…. A big part of our agenda as a design firm was to make green infrastructure… seamlessly integrated into the design as opposed to a glaring thing with a chain-link fence around it.” They worked collaboratively with Tom Groll Engineering to make the system work, creating flows from one microshed to the next as the property sloped to the north.
The rain gardens capture and retain water and filter out pollutants, but they also support plants that flourish during drier periods. The soil and plants were carefully selected to support both filtration and plant life. However, notes Groll: “We didn’t have a high-enough permeability [in the soil], so we had to put in underdrain pipes [to allow water to drain to the detention area].”
This level of water quality control was not required by the city, notes Woodroffe, but the effort, while expensive, turned out to be “a really good branding and marketing tool. To do rain gardens on this scale wasn’t an insignificant cost, because they require over-excavation, a very specific bio-remediation mix of media, and then a certain quantity of plants.” While these costs were significant, the planners and developers believed that the rain gardens could help with both the approval process and the marketing process, which proved to be the case.
Condo unit design. The developers and designers originally designed the condo buildings with access from a central hallway, but this would have resulted in some of the units overlooking alleys and garage areas or having other unattractive views. As a result, they shifted the building design—late in the design process, which had already reached working drawings—to “shotgun units” with no central hallway and perimeter access. As a result, all buildings are through units, one unit deep, affording attractive views for each unit and allowing light to enter second- and third-level units from two sides.
All the condo buildings have the same unit layouts on levels two and three; ground-level plans have two variations, either three one-bedroom units or two two-bedroom units. This made for a very efficient design and construction program, whereby the design/construction team was essentially building the same building ten times, with some first-level variation. The ground-level building floor plans include garages, so the ground-level units are wider and not through units.
There are 80 garages in the flats, eight in each building, all located off alleys. Two-bedroom units include one attached garage and one reserved parking space. One-bedroom units include one reserved parking space. Garage spaces can also be purchased depending on availability. Garages are accessible through a secured internal hallway that links the units with the garages.
All 25 ground-level condo units have a yard, typically measuring around 300 square feet. Second- and third-level units have balconies of roughly nine feet by 11 feet that serve almost like an outdoor room. The center units are often the larger units. The buildings are generally woodframe structures with some steel used over the garages. The units feature bamboo floors and contemporary layouts.
The phasing of the condo unit construction started at the top of the hill and worked toward the bottom, south to north.
Townhouses. The duplex townhouses were placed on the east side along South Fifth Street, the front of the development, where elevations are higher than on the west side. This allowed the development to blend well with the single-family neighborhood across the street. These duplex townhouses, notes David Copenhaver, partner with BSB Design, “really hide the three-story buildings behind, so you don’t really see the scale of this project at all because of the topography [and the design].” In addition, trees were preserved in front of the townhouses. This also helped with the approval process and allowed these units to better blend with the neighborhood.
Architecture. Traditional architectural styles were not going to work in this trendy infill location. A contemporary design with traditional materials, especially stone, was chosen instead that tied in closely with the architecture in downtown Austin. Exterior cladding materials include Hardiplank cement board, stucco, and stone. The stone was all locally sourced. The architects focused on colors and went back to nature, choosing natural earth tones and subtle colors for the various materials that were used.
The overall design results in a fairly high-density multifamily product that does not look or feel like high density.
Marketing and Management
Marketing and promotion relied on great website and social media presence, good public and community relations, and outreach to real estate agents, who play a big role in urban housing in Austin. Notes Mitchell: “PR played an incredible role, meaning telling stories. There was an article in the newspaper about the garden—the south Austin community garden. It included pictures of the homes…. Traffic went through the roof for about three or four weeks.”
Social media also played an important role, including Facebook and Twitter. The marketing team posted daily on these sites, including profiles of new buyers. They also sponsored five real estate agent events. No paid advertising was used until the last four months of sales, when only a few select units were left and prices were higher. Notes Mitchell: “When the offering is good, I don’t think you need a lot of advertising.”
Denizen marketing targeted mid-range homebuyers ranging from empty nesters to young families to single people, and sought to bring them all together at an affordable price. A large number of jobs are within a three-mile radius of the site, which was a very big plus from a marketing point of view.
Branding also was an important element of the marketing. Notes Mitchell: “We went through a fairly extensive branding exercise.” One word they focused on was eclectic. Around 27 different names were considered. Mitchell wanted a memorable name, and they finally settled on Denizen, which means inhabitant of a community. The “04” was added to the end to emphasize the Denizen zip code, a very desirable zip code in Austin. Buyers were essentially buying into an eclectic and trendy urban neighborhood.
Pricing started at $189,000 for a 735-square-foot one-bedroom unit, but as time passed base prices quickly rose into the $200,000 range for these units, topping out at $300,000. The largest two-bedroom units (1,344 square feet) started at $325,000 and topped out at $470,000. The townhouses were the first units to sell, with prices ranging from $395,000 to $425,000 for units ranging from 1,629 to 1,931 square feet. Notes Nyer: “Pricing increased almost weekly” once they got into the marketing phase. Conversion rates were fairly high, with around four of ten qualified prospects buying units. All units sold equally well, including ground-level units. The yards were a popular feature that really helped offset security concerns.
The property, including the private yard spaces, is maintained by a homeowners association. A bicycle storage room is provided, in part to ensure that bikes are not stored on balconies.
Dogs are allowed and encouraged in the development, but they are also carefully managed. Two dog parks are provided on the property, one in the southeast corner and the other in the northeast corner. Denizen homeowners must register their dogs, including providing a DNA sample. If dog waste appears on the property, the waste is tested and if it matches with any registered dog, the owner can be fined.
The development has blended well with the community. Notes Copenhaver: “At the end of the day, the existing community and the new community have really meshed.”
Observations and Lessons Learned
Much of the project’s success can be attributed to the open-space plan. Notes Skeen: “Most properties of this size [in Austin] do not have nearly as much open space. The rain gardens, the landscaping, [the on-site open space and amenities], and how these are integral to how the buildings fit together [are] all part of it.” Notes Mitchell: “The communities that have the most gathering places are the ones that have the strongest sense of community. The idea here was, what can I do with this open space?”
The sizing and placement of the open spaces were critical to the project’s success. By creating three separate and distinctly different open-space amenities, the planners ensured that all units would be exposed to these amenities while also offering variety.
The slope and very attractive topography of the site created both challenges and opportunities. Because of the slope of the site, retaining walls were necessary and special stormwater management facilities were needed; the retaining walls and the rainwater gardens that resulted became important features of the landscape that helped form a unique community environment.
For close-in infill locations that attract young buyers, bike storage is important. The bike storage at Denizen is somewhat undersized. Careful planning of these facilities can provide considerable storage without taking up a lot of space. If young people are part of the target market in an urban location, bike storage should be properly sized as an amenity.
The concept of a moderately priced low-rise condo project in an infill location was considered to be somewhat risky by lenders, but that was not the case in the end. By targeting a moderate price range, the developer hit the sweet spot and created considerable upside potential as the market improved. Many of the more urban and high-rise condo competitors were much more expensive.
The construction financing environment at the time created some problems for the project, since the lenders were not willing to extend funds for the whole project at once. Notes Nyer: “We really struggled with what we had originally forecast [for a construction schedule and budget] because of the start/stop aspect of the spec count.” The developers had to go out for bid for each phase in a market where costs were rapidly increasing. In addition, they often had to bring in new crews for each phase, which was less than ideal. These challenges affected both the budget and the schedule.
Because the developers originally thought there might be time limits for the permits, they did not permit all the buildings at once, which led to some permitting delays. In retrospect, they could have and should have permitted all the buildings at the beginning. Notes Nyer: “That permit cycle was pretty difficult to get through.”
The reorientation and redesign of the units late in the process was difficult but well worth the effort. By creating attractive views and orientations for every unit, the developers were able to sell all units equally well at attractive prices.
As with any development, good timing and a willingness to take risks were both critical to the success of the Denizen project. Mitchell was bold in continuing to fund and stick with the Denizen development opportunity during the recession, and the development team was equally bold in moving forward with the project early in the recovery. Notes Nyer: “We were one of the first to dip our toe in the water” of development. That early move allowed them to take advantage of fairly low construction costs, limited competition, and significant price appreciation over the life of the project, all of which greatly enhanced its bottom-line performance.
|Site under contract||2008|
|Construction financing arranged||August 2011|
|Site purchased||August 2011|
|Site construction started||May 2012|
|Building construction started||September 2012|
|Sales/leasing started||July 2012|
|Project sold out/completed||August 2014|
|Gross building area (GBA)||Building area|
|Condo flats||172,010 sq ft|
|Townhouses||26,838 sq ft|
|Pool house||800 sq ft|
|Total GBA||199,648 sq ft|
|Number of buildings in the Flats||10|
|Number of buildings in the Townhouses||7|
|Number of buildings total||17|
|Surface parking spaces for residents||86|
|Surface parking spaces for visitors||20|
|The Flats garage spaces||80|
|The Townhouses garage spaces||28|
|Total auto parking spaces||214|
|Total bicycle storage spaces||110|
|Land use plan||Site area (acres)||% of site|
|Unit name/type||Number of units||Unit size (sq ft)||Percentage sold||Typical sale price|
|Development cost information|
|Site acquisition cost||$2,771,963|
|Site development cost||$1,663,280|
|Real estate taxes||$310,000|
|Total development cost||$27,652,356|
|Hard costs per square foot||$105|
|Total development costs per square foot||$139|
|Total development costs per unit||$232,373|
|Equity capital sources|
|MarkSky Development LLC (Managing Member)||$22,000|
|Skybeck Development LLC||$100,000|
|5th at Cumberland Development # 1 LLC (Two Drifters Ltd.)||$200,000|
|5th at Cumberland Development # 2 LLC (Lippincott Capital Ltd.)||$75,000|
|Debt capital sources|
|Texas Capital Bank||$20,905,356|
2800 South Fifth Street
Austin, TX 78704
5th at Cumberland Development LLC
Tom Groll Engineering
Grandbridge Real Estate Capital
Texas Capital Bank
Terry Mitchell, president, Momark Development
Bill Skeen, principal, Madison Austin Development
Adam Nyer, owner and president, Skybeck Construction
David L. Copenhaver, partner, BSB Design
Daniel Woodroffe, president and founder, dwg.
Tom Groll, owner, Tom Groll Engineering
Patrick L. Phillips
Global Chief Executive Officer
Chief Executive Officer, ULI Americas
Executive Vice President, Content
Case Studies and Publications
James A. Mulligan