Harvesting the future north of Fort Worth

A. Lee Graham lgraham@bizpress.net

Behind a barn overlooking freeway traffic and suburban sprawl is the next wave of residential development. At least that’s what Hillwood Communities hopes by announcing Harvest, a 1,150-acre master-planned development merging rural tradition and modern technology. “It’s a modern community with all the latest technology, but also focused on the way we used to live,” said Angie Mastrocola, senior vice president of Hillwood Communities.

As developer of the mixed-use AllianceTexas development, Hillwood knows a thing or two about master-planned projects. Combining residential, office, retail – even aviation, in the case of Fort Worth Alliance Airport – was the brainchild of Ross Perot Jr., the Hillwood Companies chairman whose Midas touch has transformed once-vacant land north of Fort Worth. From FedEx to BNSF Railway, tenants at AllianceTexas are a who’s who of corporate firepower. Harvest has upped the stakes. By embracing the emerging agrarian living movement, Hillwood Communities is going green like few other companies. Families who are expected to occupy the 3,200 single-family homes planned for the development will grow their own crops, learning such skills from Rocky Tassione, an on-site farmer and go-to resource among many upscale eateries dotting Dallas-Fort Worth. But growing vegetables and sharing those skills with homeowners is just one of five parts of what Hillwood calls its LiveSmart design principles: sense of community, technology, healthy living, environmental stewardship, and education and enrichment. “It’s bringing families together and having a reason to gather,” Mastrocola said. The focus on agricultural self-sufficiency has long dominated rural America, but pursuing it in the hustle-bustle culture of suburban Fort Worth could be unprecedented. “As far as I know, it’s the only [residential community] where they’re really trying to establish a development concept around urban agriculture,” said Don Gatzke, dean of the University of Texas at Arlington’s School of Architecture.

Urban farm And Gatzke should know. As the visionary behind the La Bajada urban farm in Dallas, Gatzke envisioned an urban farm that would produce vegetables, employ high school students and teach them nutrition, cooking and other skills. “We’re in design phase and will be collaborating with them [the West Dallas Community Center] to bring it into reality,” Gatzke said. Before moving forward with his plan, Gatzke summoned Dallas city leaders, restaurateurs and others for a marathon meeting focused on the concept. Similar planning occurred for Harvest, for which Northlake and Argyle city and school officials, architects and builders attended a three-day planning session. “I think it will have a positive impact for the area and keep with the comprehensive use plan of the town,” said Northlake Mayor Peter Dewing, referring to efforts to retain the town’s rural flavor. Even before Dewing moved to Texas in 2005, what would become Harvest was under discussion. Now construction crews are busy completing the first of 3,200 houses that will let residents manage their thermostat, security and selected lighting remotely. The first phase of Harvest will consist of 323 homes. Homeowners also will be prompted to change air filters and take out the trash, features once the domain of The Jetsons television cartoon. Each house will feature Verizon FiOS TV and other amenities thanks to partnerships between Hillwood and HomePro, Verizon and Atmos Energy. Hillwood has kept abreast of such innovations and urban farming trends through the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit research and education organization. Ten years ago, trails and transportation were the overriding concerns among residential developments nationwide, Mastrocola pointed out. Then came demands for technology. And now community itself is taking precedence among many prospective homebuyers. “We’re taking it to the next step, which is wellness and a place for people to gather,” Mastrocola said.

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AllianceTexas Reaching Harvest is simple. Motorists on Interstate 35W can take the FM 407 exit and head west. Harvest occupies the northwest corner of the I-35W and FM 407 intersection in outlying areas of Northlake and Argyle north of Texas Motor Speedway. As companies open operations at nearby AllianceTexas and other increasingly popular tracts in Northeast Tarrant County and Denton County, demand for housing is rising. Hillwood hopes to help meet that demand with Harvest houses priced from the $200,000s to the $400,000s. The first phase will be complete this fall, with 323 homes ready to tour at that time. Homebuilders include David Weekley Homes, Plantation Homes and Highland Homes. Just east of the home lots are vegetable gardens and larger tracts for organic farming, with Harvest Lake just north of the Harvest Way exit that takes visitors from FM 407 into the community. Planned amenities include the 11-acre lake, community pools, hike and bike trails, an amphitheater, community farm, community center, playground and several outdoor parks. “The whole idea behind Harvest is Harvest implies you are growing stuff,” said Fred Balda, president of Hillwood Communities. “We’ve taken this Northlake-Argyle agrarian life and brought it into our community, with the barn representing one piece of the story,” Balda said.

The story began with John Wesley Faught, who settled in Denton County in 1883 and built what’s known as The Faught House, which still stands on the Harvest property. Hillwood restored the Faught farmhouse, which will serve as Harvest’s community center. The Perot family, longtime friends of the Faughts, made sure to emphasize the tract’s rural history and productivity by agreeing late last year to donate 10,000 meals and committing to donate a percentage of each crop from the Harvest community farm to the North Texas Food Bank each year. The food bank and the Perots have a long history of working together. For example, Ross Perot Sr.’s sister Bette Perot donated space in the same warehouse that the Food Bank continues to occupy. Further emphasizing Harvest’s farming focus is Tassione, who will be the community’s on-site farmer and teach residents how to grow their own produce and live a sustainable life.

For only $1, Tassione is leasing the on-site greenhouse. In return, he uses an acre on the property for his private farming operation. “The community benefits from having a guy like that on the property. He’ll teach everyone how to farm,” Mastrocola said. Before sinking money into the Harvest development, planners wanted to make sure it would succeed. So they toured several farming communities nationwide to study not only amenities and other features, but also dollars and cents. “Not a single one is making money,” Mastrocola said. “But we are in the business to make money.” Hillwood Communities makes that money by selling lots to homebuilders, who sell to homeowners. “I think what we have, in financial terms, will work,” Mastrocola said. “Our biggest challenge now is educating the public. It’s a brand-new concept.”