A few short years ago, it was an empty patch of desert outside Las Vegas — barren, bleak and uninviting. Now visitors and residents can enjoy lush green golf courses, a manmade lake and luxury homes. How does a project such as Lake Las Vegas come together and develop to combine homes and golfing into one neat, master-planned package — the golf course community?
The golf course usually takes precedence in the planning process. The master developer for the community as a whole hires a golf course architect to walk the land and start initializing plans. At the same time, the developer looks at how the course will affect land development parcels. Once a preliminary plan is drawn up, the developer goes to the city to complete the zoning and entitlement process. While that process is going on, the golf course designer is hired and prepares preliminary plans.
When selecting the course architect, developers look for a well-known architect to create value in surrounding real estate, and the more high-end the community, the bigger name the developer seeks. “A signature name will attract higher guest fees for a resort development,” said John Herndon, director of golf at Lake Las Vegas, which combines a golf course community with a resort community. “We kick names around, but usually our list is pretty short.”
Eventually, the plans come together, the entitlement process is completed and the budget process detailed. Then the architect begins work, along with civil engineers, landscape architects and consultants for services such as irrigation and power. Typically at the same time, the golf clubhouse architect is hired. All the while, developer and designer are tweaking the golf course plans, trying to create the best course possible in conjunction with the land, the community and the proposed clientele.
Once the course is graded, the golf contractor and the developer begin looking at the difference between a flat representation of the golf course (the plans) and the three dimensional challenges of producing the same course in real life (the reality). “We start out with a land plan showing the areas to be utilized by golf, by homes and by streets, so it all works. It’s not all about designing great golf or a great community, but a great community with golf so there’s no compromise,” said William Bone, CEO of Sunrise Colony Company, which is currently creating the Red Rock Country Club gated community in Summerlin as well as the age-qualified Siena project.
Golf course design is an art form rather than a science. “It’s amazing how hard it is to bridge the gap from paper to reality in the field. To see it come together in 3D is a lot different than building architecture,” said Bone. “With golf architecture, you spend a lot of time in the field looking at how it’s coming together and making field adjustments, adjusting heights and making sure visibility and impact are maximized. We want to make sure it looks right and plays right.”
“The plans that we have are a bid document,” said Scott Lewis, director of golf maintenance at Lake Las Vegas. “They allow us to do things like move a green or a tee or an alignment of a golf hole, or change the number of sand traps that we have or the elevations to make a golf hole more aesthetically pleasing and to help playability. With a signature architect, typically there’s a set of plans, but you don’t build specifically to plan. You build as close to plan as you can, but if you have a Jack Nicklaus or Tom Weiskopf, whom we feel are in the upper echelon of architects, you gain the best product by allowing them to use creativity and freedom to make decisions.”
Sometimes granting the architect creative freedom is a requirement rather than a choice. Montreux in Northern Nevada is a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course. “Part of the requirements to be a signature course is that Jack Nicklaus has total control over where the course is located, how it is constructed, how it looks. He has more authority over the golf course than the developer does,” said Stan Jaksick, general manager of Montreux Golf and Country Club.
Once the golf contractor has made field adjustments, bringing the plans to reality, and the water features have been decided upon, the sod is put down or the course is seeded. “From a land development side, green grass shows more progress [on the course] and helps sell real estate, so it’s an advantage on both sides,” said Lewis.
When designing a course, decisions need to be made regarding its level of difficulty. Individual courses can be designed to be the toughest in the nation or to be relatively easy, but for a community, there are other considerations. In order for members to play every week, the course must be challenging enough to avoid boredom, yet not be prohibitively difficult. “If it’s too hard, people won’t enjoy the experience on a repetitive basis,” said Bone. “It’s tough to design a course for people to play two, three, four times a week and be challenged and not bored. It’s easy to make it too easy or too hard. Challenge is the middle ground.”
The philosophy behind the courses at Wingfield Springs in Northern Nevada was to build competitive golf courses that could accommodate top players as well as average golfers. “The owners sat down with the designer to come up with a course that a female golfer would enjoy as much as a male, someone who has played for a couple years as much as someone who is at the very top of their skill level,” said Terry Reynolds, general manager at Wingfield Springs. “It was very hard to do, but we feel it was one of the things we have achieved in both our public and our private course.”
Once the paperwork process with the municipality is complete and the large parcels of land delineated, bulk parcels are sold to individual developers. Most golf course communities offer a wide variety of prices and products, from affordable multi-family units to multi-million dollar custom homes. Housing parcels vary in density, and the character of the land determines the sales price.
Master developers make certain that neighborhoods don’t overlap with product type and pricing. “We make sure everyone is doing something a little different, offering niche products that won’t overlap,” said Mike Rau, vice president sales and marketing for Shamrock Jenamar Communities, which is building Toscana in Northern Nevada. The active adult community offers a range of prices, from lower-end attached housing starting at $130,000 to luxury homes exceeding $300,000.
Landscaping from the golf course is often carried out in a theme throughout the community’s residential neighborhoods. Toscana is building at D’Andrea Ranch, and carrying a Northern Italian-Tuscany theme throughout the community. Developers created the theme first, then brought in landscape architects with plant materials to give the flavor of Northern Italy. The landscaping along the golf corridors ties in with the real estate itself.
At Lake Las Vegas, an effort was made to ensure the plant palette was low and didn’t grow to block views. “We’re very concerned about the two-story element, about the colors of roofs, roof lines, views. With the lake in the center and everything built up around that, you’re looking over architecture, and we’re very concerned with that view,” said Herndon.
“One thing that sells well in golf is water,” said Bone. “If I could have water at every tee between the greens we’d sell more homes. But there has to be some grass. Wherever there are lakes or streams, people buy homes or put lots. So we’re going to maximize utilization of water features. It’s good for real estate and it’s good for the course.”
At Montreux, Mother Nature landscapes areas between the manicured fairways and the community. Native pines surround the course and create the landscaping within the community. “This area is a transition from high desert into forest, and it’s very striking,” noted Jaksick.
Just as the courses cover the spectrum in terms of challenge to players, and homes from multi-family to single-family customs, homeowners also cover a broad spectrum, from second, third and fourth home buyers to families just starting out.
There is also a variety of players and non-players living in golf course communities. On average, most communities expect approximately 35 percent of their homeowners will have private course memberships or play the daily fees public courses. Montreux, however, offers membership only to land owners, and averages greater than 90 percent.
A variety of amenities draw non-players to a golf course community. Some of the most popular locations within these communities are lots directly adjacent to the course. Even non-golfers want these locations, if for no other reason than the property values. Buyers are willing to pay premiums in some communities over $100,000 for the location.
“It’s interesting. If you look back over our experiences in the Palm Springs area over the last 30 years, half the people buying in those communities do not play golf,” said Bone. “They like the ambience, the privacy of a gated community, the golf course views. It’s beautiful, and it’s interesting to see people playing golf — it’s entertaining even if you don’t golf.”
Rob Wonhof, a listing agent with Dickson Realty at Montreux., noted that while some Montreux residents buy because of the golf course, the main attraction is the country club environment, which includes amenities such as fitness facilities, tennis courts and swim centers. “It’s really more of a lifestyle, and it’s a country club lifestyle,” said Wonhof. “They like the gated community. They like the really high quality.” Bone agrees. “It’s all a lifestyle community. That’s the key —people are buying into a lifestyle.”
What did it take to build the master-planned golf course community of Lake Las Vegas?
- moved 14.8 million cubic yards of dirt.
- built 55,000 feet of streets, 48,000 feet of water lines, 66,000 feet of sewer lines.
- planted 1,925 palm trees, 26,800 other trees, 418,000 shrubs, 1.96 million square feet of turf and 11 million square feet of desert re-vegetation.
- created 8,000 square feet of streams and water features, 30 acres of ponds.
- installed 742 miles of irrigation piping
- brought in 330,000 square feet of desert rock for landscaping and 4,200 tons of sand for the beaches.