Hopes high at English Turn for revival of fortunes

English Turn Golf & Country Club may no longer be considered the metropolitan area’s toniest enclave, but having weathered the loss of its signature golf tournament, the city’s shifting demographics post-Hurricane Katrina and a global lending and financial crisis, the man who’s sold virtually every lot in the sprawling West Bank golf community is remarkably upbeat about its prospects.

On a recent drive through its streets, Glenn Mediamolle pointed out the houses that once belonged to chef Emeril Lagasse and football coach Mike Ditka, sprinkling in trivia and architectural details about the homes as they passed by.

But what’s got him particularly excited as the subdivision closes out its 25th year is the plan to release the first new lots to developers since 2006.

“This year was like a valve got turned on,” he said, explaining that sellers have adjusted their asking prices to reflect the market and that a bump in interest rates has gotten buyers off the fence.

Last year — a year he admits he’s glad is gone — was a difficult one, with only 16 homes sold in the gated community.

This year, there have been 17 sales through August alone, according to the Latter & Blum Research Department.

English Turn had a whopping 46 homes on the market in 2012, compared with just 25 this year, and Mediamolle said the elimination of tolls on the Crescent City Connection, the widening of the Huey P. Long Bridge and the end of lane closures to New Orleans East are boosting one of English Turn’s key selling points: quick and easy access to the city.

“There’s a market now to encourage builders to come over here and build speculative houses,” he said. “We’re encouraged to think we can actually get this going, building spec homes again.”

Early to pick up gated trend

English Turn opened in 1988 on 650 acres in Lower Coast Algiers, across the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from most of Algiers. The development was built by the insurance giant USF&G, which sponsored New Orleans’ annual PGA golf tournament and wanted to upgrade from the course at Lakewood Country Club.

English Turn’s golf course, designed by Jack Nicklaus and Bob Sierra, rode the crest of an emerging trend.

As the city’s first true gated community — with monthly dues, a 43,000-square-foot country club and private streets — it generated great expectations and exceeded them. The grand opening party drew 2,000 of the area’s top real estate agents.

Targeting the top half of 1 percent of the city’s population, financially speaking, English Turn quickly became a magnet for doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, oil executives, professional athletes and local celebrities.

“We offered something nobody had ever seen before,” Mediamolle said, noting that lot sales averaged between 50 and 70 per year.

English Turn also became known for the size of its mansions — the largest is 17,000 square feet on a 21/2-acre lot.

“We made such a bang when we came to New Orleans and offered something so unique, comparatively speaking, and everybody did big stuff,” he said. “And we’ve always done better with the larger houses. Compare what you get for $800,000 here compared to $800,000 Uptown — there’s no comparison.”

But over the years, and sometimes over the objections of nearby homeowners, English Turn started filling in the gaps, selling some of its smaller lots.

“There’s a blend, and we did that intentionally,” Mediamolle said, noting that the community’s houses still average 4,200 square feet of living space and that only four houses are smaller than 2,500 square feet. “We’ve always fought the perception that you can’t afford to live here.”

Changes in golf industry

In 2004, however, the first of several blows came when a new golf course, TPC of Louisiana, opened in Avondale, and took over hosting the golf tournament the following year.

“All of a sudden, TPC takes away the big golf tournament, and that caused people to pause, in my opinion,” said Scott Brannon, an agent with Latter & Blum.

Mediamolle said English Turn has weathered changes in the recreational golf industry by reducing its fees. But he said golf continued to be a draw and lot sales were hot, right up to Katrina.

The center of the hurricane passed just to the east of English Turn, and the development didn’t flood. But the two years that followed were marked by the wait-and-see approach that many people took with regard to the whole city.

“Nobody wanted to buy any lots because no one was planning for the future,” Mediamolle said.

And with the city’s medical sector gutted, doctors, who made up about a third of English Turn’s residents, left the city in droves; many of them decided to stay in the cities to which they had evacuated.

“We had 72 houses on the market in 2006,” Mediamolle said, adding that right after Katrina was when English Turn stopped releasing new lots to developers. He still sold 58 homes, though.

But building costs rose, and as the Road Home program fueled the redevelopment of other, harder-hit neighborhoods within the city, English Turn was up against new competition for several years.

“Lakeview was able to take the affordable end of our market,” Mediamolle said. “Before, they had no lots and our land was always reasonable. ... But when that market came back, it came back strong because it was reasonable in price and new builders were in town.”

Real estate financial crisis

At about the same time as changes in the local market were playing out, the national real estate bubble burst and the financial crisis hit. Credit froze, and homes were foreclosed on.

“We had a hangover of inventory because it took a lot of buyers out of the marketplace,” Mediamolle said. “It slowed that whole market down.”

He said homes at the high end of the scale in English Turn, up toward $1 million, still do well. Six of the last eight sales have been for over $1 million, he said. But the higher interest rate required on a loan over $500,000 has helped hold back that market.

“The dynamics of the loan (industry) really impacted us the most,” he said. “Our time on the market got longer. ... Owners and sellers weren’t willing to meet market conditions.”

Mediamolle said English Turn did see its share of foreclosures, but he declined to get into specifics.

“I think that created some transactions where people were getting some great deals,” Brannon said, noting that continuing consolidation of the oil and gas industry in Houston also has had an effect on sales in places such as English Turn.

According to the Latter & Blum Research Department, the average price per square foot for homes sold in English Turn during the three months ending in August was $134.80, down from $150.80 for the same period in 2008.

“When we did have some foreclosures, the appraisers would do the comparisons, and it was bringing (values) down,” said Margeaux Fanning, administrator for the English Turn Property Owners Association. “Now people are more hopeful that the appraisers are getting more schooled about the area.”

It was during this period that English Turn left behind its initial image as the place where everyone aspired to live.

“There’s definitely been a change in terms of its exclusivity,” Brannon said of the market’s evolution in the past two-plus decades. “It does appear to be more accessible than it used to be.”

New community desires

As New Orleans bounced back after Katrina, it did so as a different city in many ways. It has followed the national trend away from the types of development that created suburban golf communities in the 1990s and toward the “new urbanism.”

Richard Campanella, an urban geographer with Tulane University, said the gated communities of a quarter-century ago now find themselves at odds with the current trends in residential development: city living, “authenticity” and character, walkable urban communities and no commutes.

Gated communities, he said, “are increasingly viewed as distant and estranged from the social and urban fabric, dependent on automobiles and designed more to keep the rest of society out than to embrace and engage it. Plenty of Americans still seek that residential lifestyle, but more and more — including their own children — want the exact opposite.”

And Campanella noted that suburbs no longer are seen as havens from crime, either.

“Historic neighborhoods are seeing population increases (and) price increases ... whereas property values in the periphery, both within Orleans Parish as well as in St. Bernard and Jefferson, are generally declining,” he said.

“The city contracted as a result of everything related to the storm, and all the movie industry people who brought a lot of money in, not a lot of them are looking at English Turn,” Brannon said.

Mediamolle said he doesn’t dwell on those trends, explaining that English Turn isn’t supposed to be on everyone’s radar.

“If you’re a city slicker, you’re not coming here,” he said, noting that English Turn doesn’t see itself competing with the Warehouse District, but rather with the North Shore.

There will always be people looking for security, peace and quiet, lower taxes, community and elbow room just 15 minutes from the city, he said.

Brannon agreed there will always be a market for English Turn, and he said its location is its key selling point. A resurgence in the medical community has helped sparked interest so far this year, he said.

“We’re actually seeing a lot of activity in English Turn,” Brannon said. “That’s the first time in the last several years that they’ve seen that kind of activity.”

New homes have been built at English Turn since 2006, though by people who already owned lots there. The upcoming release of new lots to developers is timed to the uptick in the market.

Incentives for developers

English Turn is offering a raft of incentives, including a 10 percent cash discount on developer lots, 30 percent down and no interest for 18 months, and an offer to pick up property owners’ fees for a year and property taxes through the end of 2013 on developer lots. It’s also waiving the initiation fees for the golf and country club on developer lots.

“We’re now able to rebirth it,” Mediamolle said. “Inventory is low. The competing (existing) house (in English Turn) might be 30 percent below what it costs to build, but that’s only because if you buy it you have to bring it up do date.”

Homes start in the high $300,000 range, and the average sale is in the $500,000 range.

Mediamolle said there is often reluctance among sellers to acknowledge that their 20-year-old homes need to be updated.

Just under a year ago, English Turn residents formed a real estate committee to reach out to agents to try to put their neighborhood into more people’s — and potential buyers’ — minds.

“I think people are getting more hopeful that word is getting around to more of the outside real estate agents,” Fanning said.

Fanning, who has lived in English Turn for eight years, said the association is getting more requests for family-oriented programming for its common areas.

“For a while it was kind of going to an older group of people, but now I think families are starting to come back,” she said.