July 12,2016 - Babcock Ranch breaks ground
By ANNE EASKER
“Here we are about to go vertical,” Syd Kitson, chairman and CEO of Kitson & Partners, said Tuesday, with shovel in hand over the construction site of downtown Babcock Ranch. “We picked up our permits and plats today and are ready to go.”
It was a historic day as Kitson & Partners broke ground on the nation’s first solar-powered town. Babcock Ranch is currently the largest development project in the United States and has attracted local and international attention for its innovative technology, sustainability focus and community vision.
“At Babcock Ranch we are working to provide a whole new way of life with expansive opportunities to connect with nature and neighbors,” Kitson said. “We are about inclusion. Founders Square is designed to serve as a regional gathering place, drawing in our neighbors to join the fun at the heart of a vibrant new town.”
The downtown area will include Founders Square, a lakefront park complete with splash fountains, shade structures, a band shell and lakefront boardwalks. A family-friendly, farm-totable restaurant will be the first building to go up on the square’s west side, joined by a discovery center with interactive tools to explore the community and learn about its sustainability initiatives, as well as Kitson & Partners offices. An outdoor outfitter store will provide anything residents and visitors need to explore the hiking and biking trails, or paddle across the freshwater lakes on a kayak or canoe.
There are five lakes in the downtown district alone, with 14 more in the larger plan. Gaspowered motorboats will not be permitted, but silent, electric boats are allowed.
Facing Founders Square from the south, a market cafe will sell coffee and ice cream, and a collaborative workspace called the Hatchery will rent office space to professionals while mingling and sharing ideas.
“Our hope is that a baby boomer and a millennial could both come and work next to each other and learn from each other,” said Babcock Ranch President Rick Severance.
An education building will house advanced education courses being developed through a partnership with Florida Gulf Coast University, and a public STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) charter school for grades K-8 is expected to open next year with 60 to 80 students. The school will accept students from both Lee and Charlotte counties. More elementary, middle and high schools are planned throughout the community, but the charter school is available for the first young families moving in next year.
A health and wellness center will stand on the east side of Founders Square, and every home and business in Babcock Ranch will be connected with a minimum of one gigabyte of fiber optic capacity by CenturyLink. All Founders Square buildings are being designed by Harvard Jolly Architects and constructed by Skanska.
The first neighborhood, Lake Timber, will contain 1,100 homes. Five different builders are working on the neighborhood, with larger homes and smaller homes intermingling.
“We’re building a town, not a suburb,” said spokeswoman Lisa Hall.
Each neighborhood will connect to a trailhead, with 50 miles of trails running throughout the town and connecting to even more in the preserve. Neighborhoods will also be within walking distance of downtown to reduce the need for cars and parking garages. Public transportation will include autonomous vehicles. Kitson & Partners is working with the Research Lab at the University of Central Florida and is in the process of finding a partner.
Residential construction is set to begin in August, with the first residents moving in early next year. Already, many people are interested and waiting for the chance to close on a home, Hall said.
Severance said price points will vary, since the founders hope to draw a diverse, intergenerational population. The first houses range from the upper $200,000s to $900,000s, but national builders could offer prices as low as $175,000 to $190,000.
Thomas Hoban, Kitson & Partners president and chief investment offer, said the sustainable technology efforts should reduce costs to residents, and the amenities are considerable.
“We’re hoping to provide a higher-quality lifestyle at a lower cost,” Hoban said.
Kitson said he is aware that those already living near Babcock Ranch are concerned that the new town will disrupt their way of life, which is why Kitson & Partners has been careful about development around the town’s edges and preserved 90 percent of the original ranch by giving 80 percent to the state and building on only half of its allotted 20 percent.
“At the end of the day, our goal is for them to be a part of it all,” Kitson said.
The town will be open to anyone to come in, and he hopes the town’s rural neighbors will visit to enjoy the trails and lakes, eat at the restaurants, get ice cream, or see a concert.
“It would be the biggest compliment if they said, ‘You know, this turned out pretty good, and our way of life is not impacted,’” Kitson said.