Yankee Ingenuity: Springfield Developer Bucks Current Trends with Retro-Inspired Projects
By Jaclyn Stevenson
Home builder Leslie Clement believes the new neighborhoods she’s creating in Springfield, which gave a nod to the past but feature many modern design elements, will help make the city more of the destination it has been historically ----and she believes will be again.
Leslie Clement has always had a creative mind. She graduated from Indiana University with a liberal arts degree --- having studied dance, music, art and culture for many years of her life. But eventually, she said, she had a revelation. “I realized my degree prepared me for absolutely nothing,” Clement said, and she soon started searching for more practical applications for her far-reaching creative interests. She recalled one of her favorite hobbies as a child --- her father would often channel Clement’s flair for thinking outside of the box into small building projects --- and took a dramatic leap onto a new career path, studying to be a carpenter’s apprentice in the late 1970’s.
The apprenticeship, completed with the Springfield Carpenters Local Union 108, required four years of working construction, as well as specialty skills such as draftsmanship, finish carpentry, surveying and estimating. A number of intriguing jobs followed, including work on a series of bridges for Interstate 391 and a downtown high rise, but the more views of the city she saw, the more changes Clement wanted to make.
“In Springfield, I saw a city that needed a lot,” she said. “But more than anything, it needed help with its poor self-image.” So she set out to do something about it. Clement’s first solo project in the housing sector was a home restoration in the historic Maple Hill section of the city; later it led to the renovation of 14 additional National Historic Register properties in concert with a tea of tradespeople. Funding for these projects including financing from limited partnerships, private funding and city grant money.
“These were incredible historic homes, and a number of projects had strict criteria for renovation,” she said, noting that, upon completion of that suite of projects, she’d developed an interest in and respect for historical design, as well as the city’s own assets.
Soon, though, it was on to new endeavors, including a condominium conversion in a Victorian mansion in Holyoke, then the Wyndhurst Condominiums overlooking the Connecticut River on Crescent Hill in Springfield, and nine new homes on a parcel of land abutting Lake Massasoit in the East Forest Park section of the city. The latter ultimately sold for a total of $1.05 million over the course of 18 months. By that time, the early 1990’s, Clement had also become a real estate broker as well as a developer, and this began to further shape her home-building goals. “I began to see home sales from a reverse perspective,” she explained. “Instead of only saying, ‘If I built it, they will come,’ I started saying, ‘if I build it, there’s still a chance they won’t come!”
Stepping back to take a broader look at the home-building landscape, Clement said she saw a huge disconnect between the labors of love to restore an old home to its former glory, and what was happening in the new-home market. At that time, she told BusinessWest, few developers were building homes in urban areas based on consumer demands for a better designed home. “There were a lot of cookie-cutter homes getting built, and I saw an opportunity being missed - to give people something beautiful and interesting in a new home --- a new house with the beauty of an old one.”
Thus, her latest project, now being developed in Forest Park answers the question of how to retain homeowners who might normally move to the suburbs. Springfield has a lot of urban minority professionals looking for high end homes. And there are suburban empty-nesters who would move back if there was something exciting architecturally to purchase,” she said. Located off Tiffany Street, not far from the Longmeadow town line, the new neighborhood Clement is now in the process of developing abuts the southern end of Forest Park and is about a half-mile away from Franconia Golf Course.
Today, Clement’s varied experiences lend a number of additional titles to her business card, including general contractor, designer and listing agent. All of these skills are being put into play in creating her new niche neighborhood in the City of Homes, and Clement estimates that they also save her about $5000 per property in development costs. She purchased the 12-acre parcel from a private owner in 2004, again with the help of private investors and financing through United Bank, and from that parcel has created 37 individual lots with the assistance of Springfield architect Phil Burdick. “Phil suggested that we create clusters of small streets that branch off the main road, Brentwood Street,” Clement said, adding that this idea was also in line with the historic-inspired type of homes she wanted o build.
She added that when constructing new homes on the previously undeveloped land, she wanted to honor the area’s heyday, and modeled some of her palns after the 1920’s-era “Craftsman style”, the originals of which can be seen in historic parts of the Forest Park section of Springfield and nearby Longmeadow. These homes typically have large front porches and use natural materials when available, including wood shingles, stone veneer detailing, front porches and detached garages that Clement says “make for a friendlier-looking streetscape.”
The first jewel of Clement’s project is June’s Way, a street named for her five-year-old daughter and including six lots on a private cul-de-sac. Four homes, each unique in design and ranging in price from $330,000 to $400,000 have already been completed, while two lots remain for construction. The finished homes on June’s Way are geared toward empty-nesters and urban professionals. In contrast to the retro feel of the houses’ exteriors, the floor plans inside are more modern and informal with a “bungalow” feel. They feature master bedrooms on both the first and second floors which can accommodate “aging in place” living as well as having elderly parents join the family. The homes are relatively small footprints between 2200 and 2600 square feet per lot, but the wide-open floor plans are meant to maximize space. All of these features, Clement said, work together to create a quality product that are in keeping with her goal to offer something new and yet solid to Springfield’s real estate market.
“People move for real needs,” she said. “The need for more space, proximity to good schools, the desire to be out of a two-family and into a single family home, or to have a first floor master bedroom. This development offers these things, and with better design and more targeted marketing for buyers. We’re attracting the right people.”
National Staging: The project is attracting some positive press for Springfield, too. It was recently featured in BUILDER Magazine as one of the five “bright spots” across the nation that have taken “design’s high road” and reached some positive benchmarks. BUILDER Magazine identified Clement’s project along with others in Las Vegas, Portland, Oregon, Los Angeles and Fowler, Michigan. While sales volume isn’t the best indicator of the Forest Park lots’ success --- seven homes have been built and sold since construction began --- the magazine took particular note of the going rates for these homes. New single-family properties in Springfield typically sell for between $250,000 and $275,000, but Clement’s properties are averaging $75,000 above that or more, and prices haven’t slid in the two years since the project started, regardless of the tepid state of the current housing market.
“I think that is proof that details make the difference, and people appreciate quality,” Clement said, wiping a speck of dust off the bay window and flicking off the ambient lights in the kitchen.
It would also seem she’s found an outlet for a lifetime of creative thinking.