December 14th, 2015

New mega-communities open in St. Johns

By Carole Hawkins,

The promised wave of new homes in St. Johns County is here.

Realtors were barraged this fall by marketing from large-scale communities all launching at roughly the same time.

• Shearwater, a 2,600-home community on County Road 210, held a dusty-shoe opening for Realtors in early November. An amenity center is nearing completion as are models from the community’s four builders.

• TrailMark, a 2,278-home community to the west of World Golf Village, just two weeks earlier held a Realtor grand opening of D.R. Horton’s new model. Home sales have begun and an amenity center is scheduled for completion in the summer.

• Markland, a 345-home community on International Golf Parkway, just east of the Interstate 95 interchange, held its Realtor introductory event. Models by the community’s six builders are under construction.

• RiverTown, a 4,950-home community on the St. Johns River south of Fruit Cove, held a sales event in mid-November for its new neighborhood, The Landings at RiverTown. The larger community relaunch has been moved to early 2017.

Following years of lean, a building rebound is welcome. But do the new communities signal a return to the overexuberant boom years?

Markland’s Walt O’Shea said no. The developments are replacing other projects that are now finishing up — Durbin Crossing, Murabella, St. Johns Forest. Even World Golf Village and Palencia are entering their final stages.

“We need them, we need someone to step up,” O’Shea said.

Construction still hangs far below the 2005 levels. And demand in St. Johns is producing 2,000 to 2,500 new-home permits a year.

“Even with Nocatee absorbing half of that, it still means 1,000, or even 1,500, more homes are needed,” O’Shea said.

Anthony Crocco, of market analyst Metrostudy, in September warned unless builders boosted production, there would soon be a shortage of new homes.

Household formation in Northeast Florida now outpaces homebuilding and excess inventory created during the recession has been absorbed.

Developers are feeling the effects of low inventory.

“We’ve already seen a slowdown in northwest St. Johns County,” said Jason Sessions, general manager of RiverTown. “Aberdeen, Durbin Crossing and others are running out of lots and sales are slowing tremendously.”

The new communities in St. Johns will overlap somewhat in product, but each also offers something a little different.

Markland will have master-planned living with convenient access to an interstate highway.

RiverTown will have the riverfront and 5,000 acres to build on, large enough to create an entire lifestyle.

Shearwater will be the next great master-planned community on County Road 210, the epicenter for new home building.

Andrew Smith of Shearwater said the simultaneous launch of other communities is welcome.

“We hope they do well,” he said. “It’s like having five car dealerships on the same road. Activity breeds activity.”

Developing Shearwater’s amenities was family affair

Andrew Smith called in an expert when he helped design Shearwater’s lazy river amenity. His 7-year-old son.

“We toured lazy rivers all over Florida to see which ones were the best,” said Smith, regional development manager for Freehold Communities, Shearwater’s developer.

The father-and-son team worked out how many turns the river should have and what kind of follies. His son liked the white water rapids, with bubbles coming up from underwater jets. And the dumping bucket of water.

“You never know when it’s full and when the water will fall down,” Smith said.

Like many new-home communities in Northeast Florida, Shearwater will emphasize an active outdoor lifestyle. But it’ll bring a different twist on those amenities.

Its zero-entry pool and two-story slide tower will be partnered with the lazy river and a lap pool, with steps around the edges for those not swimming laps.

The pools are part of a larger recreation area that includes a fitness center with yoga studio and kids’ area, tennis courts and a community building that offers coffee, drinks and snacks. The amenity center will be completed for phase one.

Shearwater’s bicycle trail is also slightly different. A sidewalk meandering through the community was built extra-wide — 12 feet — and will connect each home to a school, so children won’t have to cross the street.

Trout Creek lies to the east of Shearwater and a wetlands preserve to the west.

From day one, there will be a trail to a scenic overlook at Trout Creek, and eventually, a dock, playground and picnic pavilion.

RiverTown launches The Landings neighborhood

At 4,950 homes, RiverTown is one of the largest new communities poised for a St. Johns County rebound. But, little news has been heard since Canadian developer Mattamy Homes took over the project in early 2014.

At that time, Mattamy planned to retool its design and relaunch in 2016.

A November sales event teased buyer agents with the introduction of a 97-home neighborhood, The Landings at RiverTown. But the grand relaunch has now been moved to the first quarter of 2017, said general manager Jason Sessions. Mattamy has focus-grouped its plan and made some minor adjustments to it, he said.

“We like to make sure we’re the right amenities and product for the market,” Sessions said. “It’s going to be a 15-year build-out, so six months (more until relaunch) is really not that much.”

The developer still plans a new north entrance on Longleaf Pine Parkway, just south of Bartram Trail High School. It’s a move that will lower RiverTown’s commute time by 15 minutes.

The community has a 7,500-square-foot River House amenity that includes a fitness center, tennis courts and pool with a water slide. Designed to support more than 2,000 residents, it’s more than ample for the 200 who live in the community today, Sessions said.

In a year’s time RiverTown has dropped one builder, Dennis Homes, and added two others, Landon Homes and MasterCraft Builder Group.

In addition to the 97 lots at The Landings, RiverTown’s central neighborhood has 50 home sites.

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