PodcastMaster-Planned Communities

Hillwood Communities and the Art and Science of Placemaking

Dean Wehrli

Dean Wehrli

May 31, 2024

If you have anything to do with the housing market in Texas, you have heard of Hillwood Communities. If you are from elsewhere in the country and have not heard of Hillwood, here’s your chance. All across the great state of Texas, Hillwood is building some of the best-designed and most successful master-planned communities in the US. They have achieved this with expert placemaking, which Hillwood defines this way: “We create places where relationships with neighbors evolve into friendships and those friendships begin to feel like family.”  

On the latest episode of the New Home Insights podcast, our guest is Fred Balda, the president of Hillwood Communities. Fred has guided Hillwood Communities for over three decades and he shares his approach, outlook, and take on all things master plan. He and Hillwood have a track record that says you should listen.

Featured guest

Fred Balda, President, Hillwood Communities

Everything is big in Texas, but especially Hillwood

  • The first thing you should know about Hillwood is that it is not just a land developer. Hillwood is a diversified company headed by Ross Perot, Jr., with interests in airports, hotels, energy, commercial real estate, and residential communities. The company is in 10 countries, 32 states, and over 70 markets.

  • Their residential developments tend to be big, like 1,000 to 2,000 acres, and usually 3,000 to 6,000 homes. Hillwood is partly responsible for the vast growth Texas has experienced over the last few decades.

Not just big, but also really good

  • Fred is proud of his master plans, and picking a couple to highlight over the others would be like picking a favorite child. It’s rude to ask and impossible to answer, but I asked, and Fred answered.
 
  • Harvest has been going strong for 10 years. It is a community that helped pioneer the “agri-hood” concept with farmland preserves and community greenhouses.
 
  • Pecan Square—and that’s pronounced “puh-CAHN,” not “PEE-can”—centers on a town square that offers not just a place for social interaction but also co-working spaces, parcel lockers, a 22,000-square-foot event space, and a huge array of amenities that encourage an active lifestyle.
 
  • Product differentiation and placemaking are critical to Hillwood’s philosophy. A Hillwood master plan offers a home for any buyer segment, and an array of public and private builders are partners in home design and segmentation.
 
  • The result is the Lifestyle by Hillwood focus that imprints every community. “If we do everything right, you end up with a very vibrant, connected, neighborly, active community.”

The future is now

  • No one gets out of one of our podcasts without being asked to tell us what they see ahead, not even Fred. It’s kind of our thing.
 
  • Hillwood tries to stay on the cutting edge with new technological solutions that could improve a neighborhood, such as high-speed internet, smart-home features, and autonomous deliveries. The key is to be willing to try anything to see if it works; if it doesn’t, move on to the next thing.
 
  • Sustainability is going to matter whether you want it to or not. So Hillwood looks at trends like geothermal as an energy alternative or imaginative city concepts as planning alternatives.

What keeps Fred up at night?

  • There are always a thousand challenges and hurdles that might hinder the goal of perfect placemaking. Two significant hurdles Fred constantly thinks about are development restrictions and housing affordability.

  • Restrictions on what you can do are not just zoning and slow-growth concerns—there are those, but less so in Texas. A big worry is land prices. “Land prices have not come down because the market has been so active.” Of course, Fred is on the buy side of raw land, so I wonder if he would say the same thing when selling finished lots to builders? JK, Fred.

  • Affordability is perhaps the greatest concern. Prices continue to grow and are massively higher than they were before the pandemic. Fred notes that monthly payments have roughly doubled. 

  • But planning for this home-price squeeze and seeking solutions is always top of mind at Hillwood. Despite these challenges, Fred is highly optimistic about the future. Constant innovation and searching for new places drive Fred and Hillwood. “Exciting times for us, and at the same time, we are searching and looking for that next pipeline.”

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About The Author

Dean Wehrli
Dean Wehrli
Principal
Dean helps housing sector clients figure out not just what might work and what might not, but why.

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Hillwood Communities and the Art and Science of Placemaking