Two years after first turning dirt for construction, the 300-acre Old Town mixed-used development in north Columbus is taking shape, with new apartments now leasing, single-family homes being built, and a town square moving toward completion this September.
"If you stand right here, you have no idea that you're one mile to Columbus Park Crossing. You have no idea you are in Columbus, Ga. I feel like I'm at a mountain resort in North Carolina," said Woodruff Co. executive Lucy Jones, standing Wednesday on the back porch of The Mill, a gathering and recreation facility at Swallowtail Flats, the 140-unit apartment complex, which has been accepting new residents since September.
The Woodruff Company, a Columbus-based development and property management firm, is in charge of turning an old family farm into a residential and commercial community, near the intersection of Veterans Parkway and Williams Road.
The company is developing the rolling and rocky piece of land for Columbus native and Maryland investment firm executive Calvin Koonce. He's the son and eldest of three children of the late Burns Koonce who, with wife Virginia, purchased 149 acres in the area in 1950. Additional land purchases by Calvin Koonce in recent years brought the total to about 300 acres.
"A lot of these types of developments, all of the ones we've traveled to, with the exception of one in Charleston, S.C., are out in the middle of nowhere," said Jones, a Realtor and president of Woodruff Property Management Co. "You have to drive way, way out to get to them, and you often have to give land to schools to come and build a school. But we are adjacent to three of the newest schools in town, and we're at the (proverbial) corner of Broad and Broad."
The construction completed thus far on the project and the work now underway come more than two decades after The Woodruff Company first approached the Koonce family about doing something with the heavily forested land. The general vision for Old Town has been in place for at least a decade, with it evolving through good economic times and the Great Recession.
"The whole entire development is unique to us, unique to Columbus and the Southeast," said Cathy Young, vice president of marketing and corporate business development at Woodruff. "It's a town within a town."
Attention to detail
There's Swallowtail Flats, the apartments accessed off Veterans Parkway and now doing business as the rest of the project unfolds. Another 44 loft-style apartments will be located above the brick commercial offerings in the center of the development. A white town hall building, which appears church-like because of its shape and steeple, is nearing completion and will serve as a gathering place for social functions, community meetings, reunions and weddings.
Attention to detail is evident in the buildings and facilities rising from the earth within Old Town. The Mill, for instance, is a splash of colors, from its bright red exterior to the multi-colored interior furnishings in the main hall and the downstairs recreation/fitness area.
The latter area includes a pool table atop a faux red sports car, big screen TVs with plush chairs, a large-screen movie viewing room, and a workout center complete with inspirational quotes from Michael Jordan. Those wishing to head downstairs to that area can take the traditional stairs or hop in a tube for a slide to the bottom floor.
"It's a great conversation piece and helps break the ice. Nobody can believe there's a slide in here," said Swallowtail Flats property manager Rachel Murrell, who also pointed out The Mill has mailboxes inside, with residents allowed to access the building around the clock using special access keys.
Roughly eight months into opening the apartment complex, Murrell said leasing is going well. Part of the initial sales process is taking prospective tenants straight to the back porch overlooking the pool and a large lake that has trails around it. The body of water is complemented by swings and seesaws and colorful Adirondack chairs for hanging out and enjoying Mother Nature.
"They stand here with their jaws dropped. They can't believe this is here," she said of Swallowtail Flats, whose staff works to stay engaged with residents, offering treats such as movies and food on the grassy lawn overlooking the lake. "We have a lot of involvement here. The residents that live here take pride in where they live, and they love that this is their home."
That's the sentiment of Roy and Mary Dionne, who relocated from their Columbus home to the apartment community about a month ago. Both in their mid-50s, they made the move to escape chores such as yard work, but also to enjoy what they call resort-like amenities. Their one-bedroom unit has a balcony overlooking the lake, with walks around the water a treat for them.
"I've been to five-star resorts that don't have half the amenities this has, and the (staff) here, they're always friendly and helpful," Roy Dionne said of Swallowtail Flats. "The people that live here, we get to intermix with them a lot more. In my own (former) house, it took me months and months to get to know anyone."
Southern Living homes, commercial space
Long-term elements of Old Town include about 50 acres of commercial space across from the property and fronting Veterans Parkway. Jones said a supermarket is a possibility, along with a retailer such as Costco, which local residents have long had on their wish list. A dentist, veterinarian, restaurants, ice cream shop and hair salon all look to be among the property's interior commercial tenants, she said.
That leaves the major component of Old Town, a single-family residential development that Woodruff Co. anticipates completing over the next decade or so. More than 250 homes are planned over that time, with them having the cachet of being part of "Southern Living Inspired Communities," a designation from the popular magazine that has long offered its readers floor plans for unique dwellings. The Old Town homebuilders all are certified in Southern Living construction.
The first phase of the single-family homes is now underway closest to the neighborhood's Williams Road entrance on its southern border. Six homes are under construction, with one having recently sold as crews work to complete it. The home construction will continue to move northward in Old Town in coming years, with Jones saying her company will err on the side of caution and not overdevelop, making sure everything is ready in existing areas of the property before moving to another portion of land.
While apartment renters will use The Mill's amenities, those in the Southern Living residential area will have an open but covered structure called The Field House. The facility will be for gathering and cooking, with it also overlooking a large pool and two retention ponds that have been landscaped to include waterfalls using recycled water.
Nurturing the natural areas
As with the lake near Swallowtail Flats, and with future work at Old Town, Bruce Jones said his job as president of Woodruff Development Co., and head of landscaping, is to make the natural areas look as if they have always been there.
"The property is so pretty that the more you do, the more you screw it up -- so less is more," he said, noting one of the biggest challenges has been working amid the very rocky terrain. "We've taken the rock and used it for walls and other things throughout the property, like a rock hop across the lake."
The difficult topography did serve the project well, Jones said, because it prompted designers and construction crews to work around the rocks much of the time, leaving more of the original character of the land. That's unlike modern home development, he said, with builders clearing much of a property's trees and grading land to construct homes on flat concrete pads rather than the elevated front porches that will be common at Old Town.
"My goal was to develop this property like we didn't have tractors, because in the old days they didn't have tractors. So we're working with the topography," he said. "The owner was very conscious of trying to save trees, like the big live oak on top of the hill... that's on the original home site."
That perch, known as "Mrs. Vee's Park," in tribute to Calvin Koonce's mother, Virginia, overlooks the first phase of Old Town, including the town square and town green. It's a few hundred feet just inside the Veterans Parkway entrance to the development. That makes it a buffer between the community's center and the larger commercial area fronting Veterans Parkway, he said, while adding a little more charm to the development.
Young said the extra effort put into elements such as more lush and mature landscaping -- about 80 large magnolia trees were planted last winter -- will serve not only aesthetic purposes, but practical ones. That's crucial in particular because of the heavily traveled Veterans Parkway and Williams Road nearby.
"Because of the care they took in preserving this landscape and this buffer, you're not far from the road, but the way it was designed and done, when you get a few hundred feet in, you don't even know that you're in the busiest part of town," she said. "You don't know that you're close to everything. So it's by design, literally."
Lucy Jones said the project, at its core, is putting Columbus residents in position to engage more with their neighbors, walk the sidewalks, sit on their porches, and get outdoors.
Still, she acknowledged, the entire project can be daunting at times. Asked what is the most challenging aspect of the project to her, she responded that it's simply getting people to turn off the nearby roads and into the development to see everything that it offers.
"We've got to be a company that wants to engage people and engage their spirits to get out and about," she said. "We're also really trying to create something special and leave Columbus better than we found it."