In the last 16 years, Atlanta businessman Charles Brewer has created the Internet service provider MindSpring, founded a real estate development company, and developed a 28-acre residential, office and retail community in Atlanta known as GlenwoodPark, which was his first excursion into the “new urbanism” he is bringing to Costa Rica’s Pacific coast.
But now Brewer has bigger aspirations: He wants to build a town.
Brewer, with contributions from a few other investors, purchased a 1,200-acre plot of land north of FlamingoBeach in northwestern Guanacaste known as Las Catalinas on the shores of Playa Danta and Playa Dantita.
On this large piece of uncultivated, hilly and wooded land, Brewer hopes to create not only a beachside development, but a small, “walk-able” community.
“I had the idea of building a town where the different elements of life such as houses and apartments and shops and workplaces are together on walk-able streets, rather than separated out into separate pods,” Brewer told The Tico Times. “One of the things that I hope we will accomplish is to introduce a pattern of development that I think would serve Costa Rica wonderfully well, which is that of a compact, walk-able town with lots of preserved nature surrounding it.”
Brewer’s development ideas are considered new urbanism, a design movement based on the idea of centralizing the essential elements of a community – homes, offices, and food and retail locations – into a compact area to limit transportation, preserve natural surroundings and boost a communal feel. Brewer said his inspiration for Las Catalinas was drawn from his time spent vacationing at Seaside, Florida, a private, beachside community in the Florida panhandle recognized as a pioneer of new urbanism development.
“I have three small children, and in our search for the right place for a family beach vacation, we frequented Seaside,” Brewer said. “The experience of a walk-able beach town was wonderful and was much better than any fancy hotel or big isolated house on the beach somewhere. I set out to try to find a location where I could re-create a similar environment.”
After scouring the Caribbean region, in 2006 Brewer finally met Robert Davey, a seasoned real estate developer in Guanacaste who shared his enthusiasm for creating a visionary town. Davey and Brewer visited the beautiful crescent shaped beach and hilly terrain of Las Catalinas and decided it was the right spot to put their ideas into action.
“It is extremely rare to find that much available coastline with 1,200 acres of land with this type of topography, all titled to the 50-meter line,” said Davey, who works with Century 21 in Flamingo and is president of the Costa Rican Association of Realtors (CRGAR). “Only 5 percent of all beaches are actually titled to the 50-meter line. It was the perfect place for the type of community we were looking to build.”
A few months ago, construction began on the first homes in Las Catalinas. Within the next year, seven homes and a restaurant, Lola’s del Norte, are expected to be completed.
And over the course of the next several years, Brewer, Davey and a group of 25 ther investors hope to construct a central road, a church, restaurants, several small hotels and around 2,000 homes. Brewer said that if construction progresses at a pace of 50 homes per year, the completion of the Las Catalinas vision is still decades from becoming a reality.
Though the plans for the community seem grand in theory, Gadi Amit, president of the Sardinal-based environmental group Confraternidad Guanacasteca, expressed concerns that the idea behind Las Catalinas was “not ambitious, but unrealistic.” Amit said that SugarBeach, just south of the Las Catalinas land, is crippled by an erratic and insufficient water supply.
“There is nothing on those beaches and there is nothing around it,” Amit said. “It will be very difficult for the development they have in mind to be supplied with all the resources promised. I’m sure the developers have the best intentions, but creating a project as big as this is almost always accompanied by problems.”
Amit cited the property development problems experienced by Steve Case, the U.S. billionaire and co-founder of America Online (AOL), whose $800 million megaresort in Punta Cacique has been stunted by financial problems, water shortages and environmental hurdles. (TT, Sept. 5, 2008) Brewer and company note that the blueprint for Las Catalinas will preserve around 80 percent of the surrounding land in its natural state. Construction of the homes, hotels and restaurants will be centralized around the coastline of Playa Danta and Playa Dantita, on the northwest corner of the parcel. Inland and east of the community, the land will remain essentially untouched, and will offer trails for hiking, horseback riding and outdoor recreation. Brewer says his aim for Las Catalinas is to offer a balance between places like Papagayo, which offers isolation and natural beauty, and Tamarindo, a lively beach town.
“The element of beauty is important,” Brewer said. “What we aspire to have is a place that has the energy and inclusiveness of a place like Tamarindo, but that’s well-Planned and beautiful. Places like that do not exist on beaches in the new world tropics.”
Brewer said the elevation of some of the land on the property, which peaks around 2,000 meters, will allow Las Catalinas to resemble some European Mediterranean coastal towns, such as the famed Cinque Terre in Italy.
With construction underway, Brewer and fellow investors have begun to search for potential buyers and residents for Las Catalinas. With many of the investors based in Atlanta, one of the main selling points to potential property owners is the offer of direct flights from Atlanta to the LiberiaInternationalAirport, a 30-minute drive from Las Catalinas. Brewer says that, with the four-hour flight and short car ride, you could have lunch in Atlanta and dinner overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
The initial price range of homes has been set between $495,000 and $995,000, though Brewer said he hopes that as the community develops, housing options will be available for as low as $125,000.
Although in the next year only seven homes will be built, if all goes as planned, Brewer’s dream of Las Catalinas will continue to take shape in the years to come. What is currently uninhabited, hilly terrain will eventually evolve into Costa Rica’s newest venture in new urbanism.
“I’m building a house there, as are other investors,” Davey said. “We are building the type of town that we’ve dreamt about living in. It will be a family town, a retirement town, a relocation town and a locals’ town. It will be something that allows everybody to interact with everybody in a beautiful location. It’s about all you can ask for from a living experience.”