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Area housing construction is on the rise
Market across Atlanta area still in distress
Several new houses are currently under construction at Cresswind at Lake Lanier on Browns Bridge Road near McEver Road. - photo by Tom Reed

The nation's economic recovery has been soft, to say the least, and another recession may be around the bend.

But hard times haven't buried residential development in Hall County.

In fact, it appears to be on an upswing in several areas, as companies are resurrecting subdivisions left vacant by financially struggling developers.

Mundy Mill and Cresswind at Lake Lanier, both in Gainesville, are a couple of prime examples where the resurgence is occurring.

"They were always good quality projects, were always very well located and master planned, and the (failing) economy just caught (up with) the various entities owning them," said Frank Norton Jr., president of real estate firm The Norton Agency and producer of an annual economic forecast, Native Intelligence.

"Good real estate is good real estate," he added.

The numbers are bearing out that housing starts are on the increase overall.

Gainesville, for example, has issued 41 single-family, residential new construction permits this year through Aug. 3, said Rusty Ligon, community development director.

By sharp contrast, the city only had one permit for a new home in all of 2010 and issued 18 permits for new homes in 2009.

In January 2010, Florida-based investment firm The Kolter Group LLC acquired the former Seasons on Lake Lanier, a sprawling active-adult community off Browns Bridge Road, and rebranded it as Cresswind at Lake Lanier.

It is building an $8 million, 36,000-square-foot clubhouse and amenity center, as well as 20 homes.

"I think, generally, things have loosened up a bit," said Bob Rademacher, Kolter vice president. "I think there's lots of pent-up demand in the market and ... the last couple of years has kind of gotten people used to the kind of prices that now are selling."

Residents left stranded by the previous developer "did a fine job maintaining the property ... with the funds they had available to them," he said.

"What Kolter did was take it from regular television to (high definition), with regards to landscaping and all the common areas and just making sure the place looks top shelf and first-class," Rademacher said.

Since May 2010, Kolter has sold about 80 homes.

Steve McKibbon and Robbie Robison of Murrayville-based McKibbon-Robison have bought three former developments and are moving forward with plans to inject new life into them.

McKibbon took time to talk about his endeavors during a visit to The Gardens, which is at Wessel and Piedmont roads in Gainesville.

That development dates to 2005.

"Three banks owned it, nobody really knew what to do with it, and the city was caught in a situation of getting the roads paved," he said. "The original development had put up surety bonds and those bonds expired, and so the city was stuck with a half-finished subdivision.

"We stepped in took care of a lot of the things for the city."

When McKibbon-Robison bought the development in July 2010, "the market was still pretty bad," McKibbon said. "It still felt kind of risky. ... It's been a challenge (bringing it back)."

The company is selling lots in the subdivision, with plans to perhaps build one speculative home in the fall, he added.

On the southern end of Gainesville, Wendell Starke of Butler Property LLC is trying to revive Mundy Mill subdivision off Mundy Mill and Mountain View roads.

Plans for the mixed-use, 604-acre development, when approved in 2004, called for 1,148 single-family houses, 578 town houses, 460 apartments and more than 1 million square feet of office, retail and industrial space.

The property ended up owned by two banks over the ensuing years. Starke bought about 85 percent of the property in 2010.

The Maple Park section of the development is owned by a bank and an investment group, said John Schwartz, sales manager for Main & Main Realty, which is marketing Mundy Mill and Marina Bay on Lake Lanier.

Starke went before Gainesville City Council in December seeking permission to build 1,235 apartment units instead of 460 condominiums, saying he believed the change would address demand in the housing market.

Single-family homes are being built in Mundy Mill, however.

"Our plan is to offer affordable housing to this Oakwood corridor," Schwartz said, referring to Mundy Mill's general location.

"With the proximity to Interstate 985, Gainesville State College, all the shopping and (closeness) to Lake Lanier, location was the key factor in Butler Property's decision to consummate this project."

Farther south, in Flowery Branch, one developer has been able to maintain its project since 2001, when it was given the approval to build up to 1,788 homes on 900 acre in Sterling on the Lake.

Newland Communities, which is based nationally in San Diego and has an office in Duluth, later got approval for a 200-home expansion. And then, in March, the company got Flowery Branch City Council's OK to change plans for a 30-acre section.

In an area where 98 town homes and 93 single-family homes were planned, Sterling now is planning for 122 single-family homes and a 4 1/2-acre park.

And business is booming.

"We're seeing a 24 percent increase in traffic and just under 50 percent increase in sales from last year at the same time," said Patrick Clark, Newland vice president and general manager.

The housing market across the Atlanta area is "still in severe distress," he said.

"That being said, there are pockets of activity where people want to live, where there are still quality opportunities for builders and customers," Clark said.

"There's a volume of business that's out there, there's a certain number of new homebuyers that are still buying and coming into the area, that still need to move or can move," he said. "And they're finding these hot spots, these areas that are sustainable."