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Yankee Ingenuity

Springfield Developer Bucks Current Trends with Unique, Retro-inspired Project

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,” said Clement, who 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 1970s.
The apprenticeship, completed with the Springfield Carpenters Union Local 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 highrise, 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.

Raise the Rafters

Clement’s first solo project in the housing sector was a home restoration in the historic Maple Hill section of the city, which later led to the renovation of 14 additional National Historic Register properties in concert with a team of tradespeople (funding for these projects included financing from limited partnerships, private funding, loans, and grants). 

“These were incredible, historic homes, and a number of the 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 assets.

Soon though, it was on to new endeavors, including a condominium conversion in a Victorian mansion in Holyoke, the Wyndhurst Condominiums overlooking the Connecticut River on Crescent Hill in Springfield, and nine 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 1990s, 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 build 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 required 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 wants or demands.

She added that without something interesting to draw buyers into — or keep them within — an urban area like Springfield, those with the means to purchase new, moderate- to high-end homes soon flee to new areas or suburbs.

“Nobody was building what people wanted,” Clement said. “There was a lot of cookie-cutter activity going on, and I saw a huge opportunity being missed — to give people some beautiful, interesting homes that they were instantly attracted to.”

The Forest Through the Trees

Thus, her latest project, now being developed under the company name Forest Park Fine Homes, is one answer to the question of how to retain these homeowners.

“This community has a ton of urban professionals,” said Clement. “That’s a lot of money that’s going unnoticed in this city, and people are leaving for other places or not even considering Springfield as a destination.

“But often, these are people who are looking for interesting properties,” she continued, “something with great architecture that doesn’t look like everything else — and the goal here is to reach those untapped markets.”

Located off of 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 they also save her about $5,000 per property in general 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-based architect Phil Burdick.

“He suggested we created little clusters of homes on small streets that branch off of the main road, which is Brentwood,” said Clement, adding that this idea was also in line with the historic-inspired type of homes she wanted to build.

Until 1943, when the town line was moved, she explained, this area was actually part of Longmeadow, and was dubbed ‘Franconia Village’ on some historical maps.

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 plans after the 1920s-era ‘craftsman style,’ the originals of which can still be seen in historic parts of the Forest Park section of Springfield and in Longmeadow.

June Gets Her Way

These homes typically have large front porches and use natural materials when available, including wood shingles, stone walls woven throughout the landscaping, and detached garages that Clement said “make for a friendlier-looking street.”

The lots are spaced out across five roadways. Grace Street represents what will be the final phase of the project, including 18 lots that have yet to be developed. Also in process are home plans on Craig and Bassing streets, which will accommodate houses in the $300,000 to $390,000 range, and on South Park Avenue, building is now in process on 11 homes in the $290,000 to $340,000 range, slated for completion in or around spring 2008.

But the current jewel of Clement’s project is June’s Way, named for her 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 $390,000, have already been completed, while two lots remain for construction.

The finished homes on June’s Way are geared, Clement said, 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 bedrooms on both the first and second floors, most with adjoining private bathrooms, which can accommodate ‘aging-in-place’ living for older Americans planning to stay in the home or living with elderly parents.

The homes also have a relatively small footprint, between 2,200 and 2,600 square feet per lot, but the wide-open floor plans inside are meant to maximize space.

All of these features, Clement said, work together to create a quality product that is 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 schools, etc. This development offers these things, and with slightly better design and better buyer targeting, 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 five “bright spots” across the nation that have taken “design’s high road” and reached some positive benchmarks.

Builder identified Clement’s project along with others in Las Vegas, Portland, Ore., Los Angeles, and Fowler, Mich. (a stretch between Detroit and Lansing). 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 $275,000 and $315,000, but Clement’s properties are averaging $75,000 above that or more, and prices haven’t slid in the four years since the project started, regardless of the tepid state of the current housing market.

“I think that’s proof that details make the difference, and people appreciate quality,” said Clement, wiping a speck of dust off of the bay window seat and flicking the ambient lights off in the kitchen.

It would also seem she’s found an outlet for a lifetime of creative thinking.

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