Monday, May 27, 2024 May 27, 2024
90° F Dallas, TX

Why Huffines Communities is Betting on Arlington

Others have tried to make a go of Viridian. Will Donald and Phillip Huffines be the ones who finally succeed?
illustration by Phil Foster

Big dreams are inspiring, even intoxicating, and some people make them come true.

A prime piece of real estate in North Arlington has been luring developers for decades, only to frustrate them each time. Seven owners since 1980, and so far, none could get a project out of the floodplain and out of the ground. That includes the Lakes of Arlington, the Lakes at Bird’s Fort, and a possible home for the Dallas Cowboys.

The area is best known for an aromatic landfill on its western edge and the high-pitched wails of motorbikes pounding the terrain.

So welcome the twin brothers Donald and Phillip Huffines, grandsons of the famed auto dealer. They’ve been in local real estate for 25 years and, in true Texas fashion, they’re planning the grandest thing yet for the 2,300 acres in Arlington.

Called Viridian, the project hasn’t received much attention, probably because past plans all fizzled. But after five years, Huffines Communities worked this out. Its financing scheme drew in local, state, and federal government, a Boston investment firm, muni bond buyers and seven top homebuilders—all before construction starts.

As envisioned, Viridian will have $2 billion worth of rooftops, commercial space, and infrastructure, including five lakes and 12 miles of biking and hiking paths. The public contribution alone, in the form of rebated property taxes, will top $337 million, if all goes as planned.

That’s a big if, to be sure. As April’s bond statement put it: “The housing industry in the Dallas-Fort Worth area is very competitive, and neither the developer nor the (special tax) district can give any assurance that the building programs which are planned will ever commence.”

Will ever commence? That must be boilerplate language for the SEC. Dozens of earthmovers have been on the scene since last spring, excavating and filling. The real question is whether Viridian will ever finish.

The project calls for 3,564 single-family homes, 570 townhouses, 709 multifamily units, 615,000 square feet of office and retail space, and a 120-room hotel. It won a major vote of confidence last spring, when the Viridian Municipal Management District managed to sell $21 million in bonds to pay for roads and utilities. Most of the principal isn’t due until 2037.

Call them junk bonds, because they don’t have an investment rating, and most pay 9 percent interest, tax-free. That’s an indicator of the risk for bondholders and the fragile muni market at the time.

The big risk-takers are the Huffines family and CrossHarbor Capital Partners, a Boston firm that focuses on opportunistic transactions. Since 1993, CrossHarbor has invested $1.7 billion in 145 real estate deals, including two Huffines projects just north of U.S. Highway 380. Although the Huffines company will manage Viridian, CrossHarbor has the right to approve most major decisions and throw out the brothers, if necessary.

After Huffines bought the land in 2006, the housing market went in the tank and stayed there. These guys are either crazy or genius, pledging $100 million for a troubled property during a housing depression.

“I’m betting my career on this—that’s how much I believe in it,” says Robert Kembel, president of Huffines Communities.

It’s rare to build a masterplanned development in the heart of a metro area, and rarer still to have such natural beauty. Because of the floodplain, more than 1,100 acres will be dedicated to wetlands, lakes, trails, and river, creating a lush combination unlike any in the region.

Kembel says it will be reminiscent of the White Rock Lake area in Dallas, with a Southlake Town Square thrown in. The buildout will take 12 years or more, unless the housing market booms again.

Most masterplanned communities are on the outskirts of town, where (usually flat, indistinct) land can be affordably amassed. The tradeoffs are long commutes and long waits for amenities.

Viridian is located between Cowboys Stadium and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Entertainment options are in every direction, and major employers are within a manageable drive. The Trinity Railway Express runs along the northern edge of the property and has a station nearby.

The location is the draw; the floodplain is the killer. Crews are raising 678 acres to make them suitable for construction. Ultimately, 15 million cubic yards will be excavated, and 13 million cubic yards of fill will be added, the bond statement says.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Legislature approved the plans. Officials in Arlington, Tarrant County, and the hospital and community college districts agreed to give tax rebates.

Arlington’s success with Cowboys Stadium helped convince CrossHarbor to invest, Kembel says, and the city had to OK the muni bonds, even though it’s not on the hook for payments.

From government’s perspective, the incentive is ideal: The upside is enormous, and developers and bondholders put up all the money. They get paid back after homes and stores are built, and residents start paying property taxes.

By June, the developers had spent $65 million, and houses aren’t scheduled to come on line until early 2013. Phase I calls for 385 single-family homes, with most selling for $300,000 to $400,000.

In the bond statement, a market analysis warns against being too upscale: “Simply put, Viridian must not be viewed as a luxury home community,” it says.

Ah, bah humbug. Most masterplanned communities cost about $30 million to get underway, Kembel says. Viridian plans to spend that much on public landscaping alone. And its centerpiece is a gated community on an island in Lake Viridian, where some estates will sell for $2 million.

Residents face a hefty tax bill, about two-thirds higher than Arlington’s standard rate, so Viridian better be great. “People will pay for quality, as long as we don’t poor-boy anything,” Kembel says.

That’s the difference between dreaming big and playing big.

Mitchell Schnurman is an award-winning business columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.