It looked like the setup to a joke, or a scene from an alternate-reality spaghetti western.

Two guys, brows shining and skin pasty under the midday sun, stood on a patch of dirt and weeds. They wore tailored slacks and dress shirts with sleeves rolled above the elbow; it’s the look that bright-eyed junior members of Congress don when meeting constituents in campaign ads, the look that suggests: “There’s work to be done, and we’re the ones who’re gonna do it.”

Behind them stretched out the big cowboy sky and gentle hills of Tarrant County. In front, dusty and decidedly out of place, sat a black Tesla framed by a couple dozen suburban homes, some built out and others under construction.

The men at the center of this juxtaposition are those responsible for it. Tony Ruggeri, the Tesla’s owner, and Jake Wagner, are longtime friends and co-chief executives of Republic Property Group, the developer planning to convert thousands of acres of ranch land 12 miles west of downtown Fort Worth, where the interstate highways 20 and 30 meet, into what they’re branding as Cowtown’s “next great neighborhood.”

Within the next couple of decades, 15,000 homes ranging from the high $200,000s to the millions will dot the Walsh development, named for the prominent North Texas ranching family who own the land. Walsh will be a place in the way that old, beloved neighborhoods are places — with markets, schools, parks and communal trust. But that’s looking many years and tens of millions of dollars into the future.

“We’re trying to create a timeless place,” Wagner said. “You can drive to some suburbs and tag them as being from certain year. We don’t want people to drive by and say, ‘Oh, this is a typical 2018 suburb.'”

To date, buyers have moved into 112 homes and purchased 217. The first phase, scheduled for completion by the end of 2020, will have 587 homes from almost a dozen builders in several different architectural styles. The more modestly priced are on lots of 3,800 square feet; the larger home sites will stretch nearly an acre.

At more than 7,000 acres, the completed Walsh project will be one of the country’s largest master-planned communities, the developers claim.

The planning goes back the better of two decades. In 2002, a group of planners and developers assembled a PowerPoint laying out the broad strokes of what the development could be: a sprawling, ranch-inspired community basking in the “quiet dignity” of western life; a place with respect for the natural environment and a “smart,” technologically-enabled community.

RPG responded to a request for development proposals issued by the Walsh family in 2013. They inked a deal in 2015.

“It’s such a large tract of land — over 11 square miles — that we want this place to be relevant 100 years from now,” Ruggeri said. “We can’t be overthematic. We have to be real. What would a real place do?

So they interrogated the concept of place. They consulted with dozens of business and thought leaders, toured historic neighborhoods and read Jane Jacobs, whose writing served as the basis for the urbanism movement.

The result, in practice, is a sort of upscale communal living, or a kibbutz with lots of mid-sized sedans. At the center of the community is a so-called amenity node, with a co-working space, market, gas station and fitness center. And food trucks and a day care and tennis courts and a maker’s space, where residents can learn how to use 3-D printers, lathes, metal and woodworking equipment and a “big laser.”

“We’re focusing on creating a neighborhood’s connective tissue,” Ruggeri said.

It’s shamelessly ambitious, and surely difficult.

RPG has done master-planned developments spanning tens of thousands of acres throughout Dallas-Fort Worth, including Lantana in Denton and Valley Ranch in Irving. And they are behind the ongoing Villas at Legacy West project in Plano.

“It’s not just about buildings, it’s about the entire community,” said Rik Adamski, the North Texas chapter president of the Congress for the New Urbanism. “And that’s harder to do when you don’t have the community to begin with.”

For Walsh to feel as organic as RPG would like, it’ll need to have public meeting spaces, community governance and distinct businesses, Adamski said.

“It can’t all be top down,” Adamski said. “It can’t all be the developer. The planning of great places, it has to be decentralized. It’s about how others invest their time, money and energy into a place, because ultimately, that’s what creates great urbanism.”

Ruggeri and Wagner say they accept their duty to let things grow organically, and to allow quirk and distinction to flourish.

There’s a community garden, an elementary school — the development is in the Aledo school district; a cluster of schools for different grades will pop up over the coming years — and eventually several parks with different names, the hope being that they become anchors and namesakes for different sections of the neighborhood.

Interaction with the natural, both through the parks and the landscape, is important. Several of the homes are on mews, rows of houses that abut green space rather than roads, which also improves walkability and thus safety. A third of the total acreage is set aside for open space for the restoration of endemic blackland prairie.

It’s an attempt at benevolent social engineering. Ruggeri said residents should be in walking distance from an amenity node. So instead of taking their minivans and SUVs 12 miles to the grocery store, they can walk to the market; on the way, they’ll meet their neighbors, and look out onto the unending plains, and see their child’s elementary school, feeling as a member of someplace rather than somewhere.

They haven’t forgotten the “smart city” directive from that 2002 presentation. Residents get access to around-the-clock telehealth service, and the whole community is wired to handle 10 gigabit-per-second internet, a blazing pace, courtesy of a telecomms company that RPG created specifically for the development. Homeowners get two gigs per second with their homeowners association fees but have the option to pay extra per month for more speed.

Ruggeri and Wagner are banking on the fast internet incentivizing local commercial tenants to set up shop in the development, providing employment, diversity and density. Rather than make Walsh a residential appendage to a city, the developer wants it to be a self-sustaining but still integrated part of Fort Worth.

“We can’t do what we want without some kind of commercial backbone,” Ruggeri said.

It’s all very idealistic. And moreover, it’s a little paradoxical. What can be organic about 15,000 homes spreading like a slow-moving rash across what was once pristine prairie?

And how can real quirk exist in a place designed to look quirky without looking like the setting of The Truman Show?

Perhaps it’s not possible, or at least not probable.

But, Adamski said, that shouldn’t stop anyone from trying their damnedest.

“There might be a temptation to say only the things we built before World War II can be great places,” he said. “I don’t think that we can afford to live with that temptation.”

The Dallas Morning News, July 16, 2018, Arren Kimbel-Sannit | View Original Article