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Spotlight: An Eco-City Takes Shape in Georgia

Spotlight: An Eco-City Takes Shape in Georgia


Eight years after work started on a revolutionary attempt to create an eco-city in the woods north of Atlanta, Serenbe resembles many new developments.

Stores and restaurants line the narrow, tidy streets, many using designs inspired by old English villages. About 350 people live in the community, which is about 15 percent complete. On Saturdays there is a farmers market in the little park. 

Serenbe-4.jpgHowever, beneath the surface Serenbe is a much different form of residential project. The pretty field where many tourists stop to get their picture taken is part of an organic wastewater treatment system. Each home is designed for energy efficiency and water conservation. And the community was specifically arranged to increase personal interaction and maximize the preservation of the surrounding forest.

"We're an example," said founder Steve Nygren during a recent tour of the property. "It isn't complicated. You don't have to destroy the landscape to accommodate development."

Eventually Serenbe will cover 1,000 acres, including an array of new urbanism and sustainable practices. Plans call for preservation of 70 percent of the wooded hillsides, with construction focused on dense community zones built on existing greenfield areas.

Since the community was started from scratch, holistic and green-based systems are built into every aspect of the master-planned area. Homes are equipped with underground compost collectors. Water is filtered through chemical-free, passive systems. Grass lawns are forbidden; only native plants and organic landscaping techniques are allowed.

Serenbe-3.jpg"We really integrate all these things," Mr. Nygren said.

At the same time, Serenbe is taking a stab at social engineering, designing the residential areas to encourage community connections and walkability. Homes are set close to walkways and include wide front porches. Paths connect all the residential and commercial zones, which include a community theater and the home of a non-profit arts, culture and environmental organization, The Serenbe Institute.   

Serenbe is following in the footsteps of other bold attempts to create new urbanism communities, such as the much-discussed, Disney-created Celebration in Florida. Many of the efforts have invoked comparisons to "The Stepford Wives" or "The Truman Show" for their pristine, overly sanitized, bubble-like community atmospheres.

Serenbe-2.jpg"We are trying hard to keep it an authentic experience," Mr. Nygren said. "Why develop in such a way that you have to ask, is a place like this real?"

Serenbe is set apart from many new urbanism efforts by its ambition and location -- the deeply wooded Chattahoochee Hills, about 45-minutes from central Atlanta. The surrounding hillsides are now covered by a land conservation plan, which also includes provisions for 25,000 homes. Eventually Serenbe will connect to a 98-mile greenbelt corridor.

"The nature you are preserving is immediately accessible to you," Mr. Nygren said.

But Serenbe is not a roughing-it-in-the-backwoods style of eco-living. Mr. Nygren likes to call the area the "Napa Valley of the South East."

There are no fast food chains in Serenbe, but there are two well-reviewed gourmet restaurants. High-end brands such as Mitchell Gold and Bosch promote their products in the village. Martha Stewart recently recognized The Serenbe Inn, the bed and breakfast that anchors the community - located in the house that once served as the Nygren's family home - for serving some of the best fried chicken in the country.

Serenbe-1.jpgMr. Nygren is the founder of the Pleasant Peasant restaurant chain, which he sold in 1994. He began buying chunks of land in the area surrounding his home in the '90s, when he realized the pristine forests were under threat of cookie cutter suburban development. Most of the area was unincorporated agricultural land.

But when he went to lenders looking to finance a new urbanism project in the woods, he was laughed out the door.

"The bankers thought we were nuts," Mr. Nygren said. "They couldn't understand it."

Ultimately all the financing was provided through personal loans, backed by Mr. Nygren's Atlanta real estate holdings. He declined to discuss details of the cash flow, but said the project "sells enough to keep the debt current."

Home prices in Serenbe hit a median of about $500,000, with some as low as $290,000. Cottage lots start at $125,000. Homeowner fees from about $650 to $1,000 a year, depending on the size of the home or lot. Residents also pay anywhere from $150 to $800 for shares of the vegetables produced by the communal farming project.

The next "hamlet" scheduled for construction will focus on health and wellness, including a boutique hotel, spa, restaurants, eastern and western practitioners and assisted living areas.
 
Eventually Serenbe will include 1,000 homes, while the surrounding hillsides will have a projected 25,000 homes, following the guidelines of the land conservation plan established for the area. Chattahoochee Hills was incorporated as a city in 2007, including Serenbe.

The project will likely take another 10 to 15 years to finish, Mr. Nygren said. But he is undaunted by the numerous challenges.

"It's a passion," he said.

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