In 2005, Charles Brewer again found himself at a crossroads.
He had already founded Mindspring Enterprises Inc., an Internet service provider, which merged with Earthlink Network Inc. in 2000 to become the second largest Internet company in the U.S. After leaving the tech field a few months after the merger, Mr. Brewer became a real estate developer, transforming a former cement recycling plant off Memorial Drive near downtown Atlanta into Glenwood Park, a 28-acre neighborhood of houses, condos, shops and parks.
With Glenwood Park nearing completion, Mr. Brewer wanted to do another development, but not in Atlanta. He turned his attention to the tropics, eventually settling on Costa Rica.
“I couldn’t see doing another project in Atlanta,” Mr. Brewer told GlobalAtlanta in a recent interview at Glenwood Park. “Land prices were up 10 times. Everybody and his brother was building thousands of condominiums. I wasn’t comfortable investing in that kind of environment so I got this idea of building a walkable beach town down in the tropics.”
His model was Seaside, in the Florida panhandle, a cottage community launched in the 1970s. But he wanted an even better beach development.
“When we go to Seaside at spring break it’s not warm enough,” said Mr. Brewer. “In the summer, it’s blazing hot. There’s not a particularly interesting culture to go be part of or any particularly interesting nature to go be part of. It seemed like that idea might be interesting to have in some great tropical location. It just didn’t exist. So I just set out on purpose to find the place to do it.”
In 2006, Brewer, partners Robert Davey, Stuart Meddin and Tom Claugus and 20 other investors, paid cash for 1,200 hilly acres fronting the Pacific Ocean in Costa Rica's Guanacaste province. The area will eventually embody Mr. Brewer's vision in a town called Las Catalinas.
For now, the plot is quiet and undeveloped, devoid of the small clusters of man-made structures that will eventually dot its green hillsides. Rocky cliffs line much of the property's coastline. Two peninsulas – one decidedly longer than the other – jut into the Pacific, creating a bow-shaped area between them with wide patches of tan beach.
On a clear day, you can see parts of Nicaragua beyond the northernmost peninsula, Jim Berry, vice president of development, said in a GlobalAtlanta interview atop one of the highest points of the property.
As the vivid orange sun slowly sank into the Pacific, the sunset provided a foretaste of the views that future residents would enjoy, said Mr. Berry, an Atlanta native and Georgia Institute of Technology graduate who lives in Costa Rica and manages the development there.
New urbanist principles dictate that settlements are built at high density levels, leaving most of the land “essentially virgin,” aside from the network of recreational trails that will wind for miles throughout the property, he said.
About 85 percent of the project, nearly 1,000 acres, will remain a natural preserve. Thanks to ongoing reforestation efforts, thousands of new trees – about 2,000 this year and 5,000-6,000 next year – will be planted on the property, he said.
Construction on the first seven houses – for the owners of the company and of Lola’s restaurant, which will open its second location at Las Catalinas – is scheduled to begin in November. The first houses will range in size from 1,490 to 7,962 square feet. A beachfront park and trail system for hiking, biking and horseback riding will be also be part of the first phase of construction.
The next phase, which the company will begin marketing later this year, will include 34 houses, a beach club and a small hotel. When fully built, which could take decades, the town will have about 2,000 homes, as well as hotels, restaurants, retail stores and other buildings. Homes will range in price from around $300,000 to more than $2 million, said Mr. Brewer.
“The idea is to have a very compact town but a town with a substantial number of things in it,” said Mr. Brewer. “It will be a lively place but at the edge, it’s the edge. Then you’re out in this wonderful nature preserve. You get this gem of a little town surrounded by a great nature experience on land and at sea.”
At the site, Mr. Berry pointed out treeless patches where different sections of the town will be built and outlined the benefits of concentrating human settlements in small areas.
Not only does it keep building expenses low by decreasing the raw material costs for infrastructure like water pipes and power lines, but it also helps the environment in a variety of ways.
For one, because the city will be walkable and mostly closed off to car traffic, carbon dioxide emissions will be minimal. Another large source of pollution, storm water runoff, can be more easily controlled in a small area.
Also, traditional subdivisions require clearing big lots. Grading land alters the properties of the soil forever, Mr. Berry said.
The “magic ingredient” of Las Catalinas is its slope, said Mr. Brewer. Although modeled after Seaside, Las Catalinas will also have the feel of a Mediterranean hill town, with elevations ranging from sea level to 650 feet, he said.
“You take this compact urbanism – if it’s on the flat, it can be quite wonderful in some ways,” said Mr. Brewer. “But privacy is hard to achieve and you’re kind of crammed for views. But if you take it on a slope, all of sudden everybody gets a good view. Our views are just incredible. And everybody gets privacy.”
Streets will be narrow and some will be car-free, other than for deliveries, a feature that would be difficult to impose in an urban development like Glenwood Park.
“We’re building a resort town.” said Mr. Brewer. “That gives us some extra leeway to make it better.”
Mr. Berry said Costa Rica provides a unique venue for such a rare type of development.
“Costa Rica is one of the few countries in Central America and the Caribbean where it's very safe,” said Mr. Berry, who has lived in Costa Rica since 2006. “You can get out and walk around, it's safe to drive, you feel safe as a tourist, you feel safe as a property owner here. We felt that was one of the things that was missing here with planned projects is that sense of place that we'll be able to create by building a town.”
Mr. Brewer, who lives in Atlanta’s Ansley Park neighborhood, plans to spend much time in Costa Rica, perhaps a year or two at a time. Las Catalinas in only 21 miles from the Daniel Obuber Quiros International Airport of Liberia. Delta Air Lines Inc. has nonstop flights from Atlanta there, with travel times less than four hours.
Mr. Brewer and his partners are intentionally creating a slow pace for Las Catalinas development as a way to ensure quality. With decades before it is finished, Mr. Brewer believes Las Catalinas will be his last development.
“This is such a lengthy project, I’m not anticipating anything else,” he said. “Our aspirations are really high. I think we can build one of the most beautiful, enjoyable, fun towns ever. I’m not looking ahead to anything else.”
For more information on Las Catalinas, e-mail Robert Davey here.