Serenbe Is Real!

Sustainable Village
Note to Charles Brewer: I visited Serenbe today, had my cake (actually a chocolate chip cookie) and ate it too. Dude, I told you it could be done.

By the late 1990’s I was splitting my time pretty evenly between feature film production and architectural design, bouncing between both fields as demand (or lack thereof) required. I derived a great deal of pleasure from working with movie stars but every so often the architectural work tossed up an unexpected plum, based entirely upon the never-ending connections of Laura Heery.

Laura’s ardor for New Urbanism and Smart Growth drew her into circles with scholars, advocates and luminaries from those communities and we soon grew familiar with running into people like Andres Duany in the hallway. Every so often we’d be whisked off to some spot around Atlanta to participate in design charettes for planned communities on the outskirts of Atlanta.

One of those charettes took place in the conference room of a bed and breakfast named Serenbe, outside of the sleepy rural community of Palmetto, 25 miles southwest of Atlanta. Laura invited me and fellow Tech classmate Magnus Nilsson to join her on a Saturday with the owners of Serenbe, Marie and Steve Nygren, who told us the story of Serenbe and shared their vision for the many hundreds of acres they hoped to develop into a series of adjoining communities, villages really, that would respond to their own vision of an agrarian oasis outside the hustle and bustle of the increasing urbanization of Atlanta and its surrounding exurbs.

Leading the charette was Phillip Tabb, Ph.D., who is currently (as of August 15, 2010) a professor in and Director of the Department of Architecture at Texas A&M University (thanks to Cassicat for posting a reply with that information, turns out that it’s all listed on the Serenbe Community website!).

Also in attendance was businessman Charles Brewer, who was in the midst of transitioning from internet megastar to real estate developer. Over the course of the day we broke into teams, developing the character of individual village clusters; their individual characteristics, the way they related to the other villages, how they’d be affected by the nuances of landscape and geography, their construction types and their amenities.

It was great fun, good brainstorming sessions are a delight.

At one point I expressed to the group how I, as a theoretical resident of the outlying enclaves of this new “town”, would want the “downtown” portion of the project to provide me with elements like a bookstore and an art gallery and most importantly a coffee shop. Charles, who was exhausted from tending to two sick children the previous evening, seemed surprised and perhaps a little irritated at my desire to have retail establishments in my community and he exclaimed “But the whole reason for moving way out here is to get away from those things, why would you want that stuff way out here?” to which I replied “I want to have my cake and eat it too”.

And it’s true, isn’t it? Regardless of how far out a citified person moves into the country, he’s going to miss the certain aspects of his life in a bigger metropolis: things like a good coffee house, an art gallery, a bookstore. The little delights.

Over the years since that charette I put Serenbe out of mind because I never honestly expected it to happen. When Steve took us for a ride out across the property to experience the rise and fall of the land, to better understand this place we were imagining, I failed to believe that such a development could be created. Then about a month ago Todd Sayre (of my cardboard squadron) mentioned a self-sustaining community called ‘Serenbe’ to me. It was a great surprise to hear him mention that name. It was a faraway and mostly forgotten place in my mind. It was an even greater astonishment to find out that the villages were actually out of the ground and beginning to be occupied.

So today, deep in the throes pondering where I can afford to buy (or build) a house around Atlanta, I hopped into my older car and went to discover the reality of a built Serenbe.

Tucked away in the bosom of the Chattahoochee Hill Country Conservancy, the first thing you see when you arrive at the new Serenbe community (via Selborne Lane) is a large, handsome building that I first mistook to be a community center or possibly a very unusual school.

It turns out that it’s a very nice community stable. A market is slated to go up across from the stable one day, according to the PDF masterplan on Serenbe’s website.

Moving deeper into the development, you begin to encounter trails that cross the road along raised speed bumps. A cluster of cottage homes is the first sign of residences and honestly looked no different to me than other upscale communities that I’ve been through in the past. But, as you follow Selborne Lane down and around the snaking road you arrive at an avenue of homes that were strangely reminiscent of the town of Spectre, from the film “Big Fish“. It would be interesting to get some of you who worked on that show to visit that part of Serenbe to see if it reminds you of that set (since you created the ‘real’ Spectre).

At the end of Serenbe’s ‘Spectre’ the road takes a hairpin curve and begins to climb. I noted an art gallery and with heightened excitement, a shop called the Blue-Eyed Daisy Bakeshop. The streets were quiet and I continued driving, hoping to see something that would orient me to the empty woods and landing strip from our brief tour from that long-ago charette.

Cresting the hill I was surprised to see the asphalt run out into a dirt road leading across a field. Just beyond was a little pond that looked very familiar. Ahead of me a car crossed the dam and pulled to the side of the road, a woman and children piling out to call a friendly grazing horse over to see them. A bearded goat bounded along beside me. Then I saw it, beyond the horse, over the hill…. Serenbe, the bed and breakfast. I continued to the top of the hill then turned around to drive back to their new community. The Nygrens wouldn’t remember me, and I certainly couldn’t afford to buy a place in their growing city, it was time to go home.

Before I left I pulled up to the curb outside the ‘Daisy in my old beater (why didn’t I at least drive my nice Accord??). Stepping inside, I ordered a mocha and a chocolate chip cookie. I greeted an older couple who were probably residents, and I wondered how out of place I looked.

With fancy coffee and cookie in hand I stepped outside and walked past another couple people who might have been the Havertys, co-founders along with the Nygrens. I’m pretty sure the man was wondering who was driving that little scooter in their town, the way he was looking at my car.

But I didn’t care: I was sipping my coffee and eating my cake.

What d’you think about that, Chuck?

3 Comments on “Serenbe Is Real!”

    1. That’s him! Thanks Cassicat, I’ll update the article with your information. It happened so long ago and I was in-between so many things that it just didn’t stick in my mind.

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