A Meaningful Community Vision Creates a Powerful Sense of Place

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“You don’t just happen upon it. You have to know it’s here. In fact, you know it once the tree line visibly climbs higher, the Mountain appears closer, and the forest becomes ever present. A spirit resides here that only the outdoors is big enough to contain, one that fuels the desire to preserve it, share it, grow in it, live in it. A spirit so inherent that it is both the legacy of this land and the inspired impetus for creating this new community in the forest, Tehaleh.”


This is the story of Tehaleh, a 4,700-acre, master-planned community, which opened in September, 2012, and will include a mix of 9,700 single and multifamily homesites. Located in east Pierce County, Washington, about 30 miles southeast of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, it was acquired out of bankruptcy by Newland Communities and their investment partner North America Sekisui House, at a time when neither Newland, nor large planned communities were a known entity in the Puget Sound or Seattle region.

What the development team realized immediately was the beauty of the land itself and the opportunity to create a vision and development strategy that would result in a demonstrable and tangible sense of place. The financial metrics of the time meant they couldn’t just over-amenitize themselves out of what was a pioneering and challenging location, though the temptation was there to serve up all the items on a typical master-planned community menu – pools, clubhouses, and the like.

Instead, the team looked to the land, did deep consumer research to understand who will live here and how they wanted to live, and created a vision for the community that truly drove development strategy. Set high upon the Bonney Lake plateau with some of the most unobstructed and beautiful views of iconic Mt. Rainier, what had previously been known as the undifferentiated “Cascadia” became “Tehaleh” – inspired by words in the Chinook language once spoken here that meant “the highlands” or “the land above”.

“Everything is driven by creating ways for people to live in the forest,” says Scott Jones, Senior Vice President of Newland Communities. “We developed the plan so views of Mt. Rainier orient toward public spaces. The mountain is even more of a draw than we imagined,” Jones continued, as he recounts how street alignments, and park locations were driven by opening up views to the mountain. The drumbeat of paying homage to the mountain and its forested home drove key development decisions from the start and still does today.

It’s in the land plan, or what Jones refers to as “the fabric of small pocket neighborhoods surrounded by corridors of trees”, and how the story is told. The welcome center/café was sited atop a hill with unobstructed views of Mt. Rainier and named The Post, a nod to the national park itself. A forest trail called Tehaleh Pass terminates at a warming hut adjacent to an interpretive hiking map at the back entrance to The Post. Neighborhood parks have been crafted with thought given to who the buyers in each neighborhood will be, with names like Big Sky Park, Sprouts Holler, Boulder Dash, and Sticks ‘n Stones. Trails are a big deal in Tehaleh as well, with 12 miles open today and plans to add +/- 2 miles more each year.

“Life in the forest has always been core to our story. And as we move towards 2020, it’s becoming more of a city in the forest,” says Jones, as he looks to add multifamily, an assisted living offering, and office/retail space. It appears to be working. A new builder recently announced the opening of their product in Tehaleh and received 37 lot reservations in 48 hours. Tehaleh has been the best-selling single-family home community in the MSA since 2013, on pace to sell 350 homes this year at an average price of $540,000. Given Tehaleh’s location and traffic in Seattle, it’s a testament to the vision that many residents face a lengthy commute each day and choose to live life in the forest versus a condo downtown.

Tehaleh took what was once a failed community in a challenging location and became the example many others have studied when creating a true place, not just a marketing construct. “One of my favorite things to do with new visitors to Tehaleh is stand in front of The Post and ask them to look around and tell me how many homes they see. There’s maybe 1,300 homes built or under construction within that area, but how many can you see through the forest,” says Jones with pride.

Five Lessons from Tehaleh: How Does Vision Define Place?

  1. Take cues from the history of the land itself and amplify them, connecting them to the core values of the people who will live here.
  2. Tell your story in powerful language, and engage everyone on the team in its meaning, challenging them to bring it to life in ways it can be seen and understood.
  3. Resist the temptation to do things that can be anywhere. Do only what makes sense here.
  4. Every detail matters. Parks, trail names, signage strategies. Pay attention.
  5. As the community grows, engage the people who live here to share why it matters to them.

 

Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki, principal of tst ink, brings a customer-focused “how might we?” approach to creating communities and brands that connect and engage with how people want to live their lives

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