Gold Hill Mesa’s heart beating again

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Daniel McCartan (left) and John Dunfee of Dirt Cheap Grading and Landscaping install sod at Gold Hill Mesa, where building has resumed.

Daniel McCartan (left) and John Dunfee of Dirt Cheap Grading and Landscaping install sod at Gold Hill Mesa, where building has resumed.

The scene outside the community center in the center of the Gold Hill Mesa housing development is a bit of a mess — dusty roads busy with workers and filled with the sound of hammers and drills and saws.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this right now.

It was supposed to be full of completed, occupied homes, but a homebuilder bankruptcy made the Gold Hill timeline go bust.

“But this is music to our ears,” said Stephanie Edwards, vice president of marketing for Gold Hill Mesa. “This is a happy sound, hammers and construction. It’s so good to hear this again.”

All the homes in the center of the community were supposed to be the first ones finished. But with almost 100 homes, most on the perimeter, already sold in what will be a dense 800-unit subdivision and commercial development on 264 acres, Gold Hill Mesa is just now catching up with its original plan.

When the development’s initial builder, John Laing Homes, filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in February of 2009, it froze progress on 40 properties the builder was constructing in the new subdivision.

Nothing could be done with those homes, which were in various stages of construction ranging from rough plans to poured foundations to complete model units.

Gold Hill Mesa was finally able to buy the properties through the bankruptcy court in October and begin construction again.

In the almost two years that the Laing properties were frozen, local builders J.M. Weston, Challenger Homes, CreekStone Homes and G.J. Gardner began constructing and selling units on lots a block or two away from the center of the subdivision.

That positioning wouldn’t make much of a difference in most Colorado Springs developments. But at Gold Hill Mesa it does.

“We aren’t into beige boxes here,” Edwards said.

Gold Hill Mesa is Colorado Springs’ first true Traditional Neighborhood Development, a term used by city planners, architects to describe its design.

The designs call houses that are close together and sidewalks that can take each resident from the center of the community to its perimeter.

Their front doors are just a few feet from the broad sidewalks that line the neighborhood’s streets. They have xeriscaped yards and shared green spaces.

“People move into this kind of neighborhood for a sense of community,” said Gold Hill Mesa developer Bob Willard.

While Willard and his team have stayed true to the concept, it’s been an uphill battle.

The first fights came from ongoing controversy about the development’s location on land that is feared to be toxic and has sat vacant for more than 40 years after the gold mill that occupied it closed down.

But, the Laing bankruptcy set back the vision and caused some financial anxiety, because when the homes at the center of the community couldn’t be built, there was no community.

Willard said most residential developments start with a little interest and then sales grow steadily stronger. However, in the traditional neighborhood developments, sales typically stay rather flat because the first homes to be built are the ones closest to the heart of the neighborhood, which are typically among the most attractive homes for the types of people drawn to the development style.

“If you’re buying in here, you’re buying for the community,” Willard said. “But we couldn’t complete the center of the community.”

Laing had finished building and sold 54 homes before it filed bankruptcy in 2009. Most of those were on two sides of the center, leaving the other two mostly undeveloped.

The new builders have filled in where they could and have sold several single family units and townhomes.

When Gold Hill Mesa got possession of the Laing properties, the finished ones sold right away, Edwards said.

Now, construction crews from Gold Hill Mesa’s Eclipse Homes are working to finish the unfinished Laing dwellings and other builders are applying for permits to construct houses on the abandoned Laing foundations on the northwest side of the community center.

Willard’s vision for a different kind of neighborhood is starting to take shape. As the homes in the center are finished and sold, the neighborhood will grow outward to the edge of the mesa, where homeowners will have sweeping mountain and city views on lots up to half an acre in size.

Willard said he expects homes in Gold Hill Mesa to range in price from $160,000 for a townhome to well over $1 million for some of the larger houses on more property.

He is also starting to research the community’s commercial development, which will have small shops and restaurants along 21st Street and Highway 24.

Willard envisions a high-density live/work space with 200 to 300 apartment and condo units above the new commercial space.

It’s a neighborhood that he said should draw young professionals the way the LoDo neighborhood in Denver has.

He said it will probably take two years to research and permit the project before Gold Hill Mesa will even break ground its commercial development.

Real estate sales have been up. Edwards said that 10 units have sold since the beginning of the year and another one is under contract.

“I really think this kind of neighborhood is becoming more relevant,” Edwards said, crediting rising gas prices and a growing trend of people moving back into urban cores. “People are drawn to it.”