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A curb appeal makeover story: one Arizona manager is leading a landscaping transformation that has residents and ownership buzzing.

When Jim Sharpe first stepped onto Fairway Crossings--the Phoenix apartment community where he was to serve as community manager--dying grass crunched under his feet. Honeysuckle and juniper bushes baked in the hot Arizona sun. Not exactly the type of curb appeal that attracts new residents.

"When I came to the community two years ago, I asked myself, 'What can I do to enhance and improve this community?'" Sharpe said. "I can't control the market. I can't control the buildings' structure. I can't control what they are charging across the street. But the landscaping is something I can control."

Almost immediately Sharpe initiated a landscaping transformation using the funds already in his landscaping budget. Since July 2003, turnover at the community has improved and occupancy has grown to 95 percent. And Sharpe is just getting started.

Tackling the lawn

With the help of Mike Tompkins, Owner of IDT Landscape, Sharpe began mapping out ways to maximize his budget.

"There were areas of the [community] that were worse than others," said Tompkins, who has 20 years of experience in landscape installation, irrigation, maintenance and renovation. "We started with priority areas that potential residents would see."

One of their first goals was to rid the lawn of expensive sod.

"The biggest nightmare for an Arizona landscaper is trying to keep grass green in the shade in the summer," Tompkins said. "Let's put it this way: Landscapers lose a lot of jobs over it. But you're dealing with nature."

Sharpe said, "Shade is at a premium, perhaps all over the country, but in Arizona in particular. In shaded areas, Bermuda grass would not grow, so the community would have to keep resodding every year, driving costs up."

Sharpe estimated that it costs between $500 and $600 per year to keep a 10-by-15-foot area of sod looking fresh. "By removing sod in two or three large areas of the community, we were able to save between $4,000 and $5,000 that could be invested elsewhere to improve the landscaping," Sharpe said.

Colorful Additions

Sharpe redirected his savings into a modified xeriscape concept, using native plants and well-placed rock to create a modern look that also conserves water. (See the July 2005 issue of UNITS, pages 56-59, for information on xeriscaping.)

"In areas where we could not grow grass, we created a rock garden and found plants that would grow in the shade," Sharpe said. "This way, they required little maintenance or water and still looked attractive."

Tompkins said that while Arizona's dry heat is hard on plant material, experienced landscapers can identify plants that thrive in the environment and also make a statement about the community. "You have to throw in elements that make you a little different and give the community that 'pop.' To do that, you need to know what works well in your area."

To break up the rock, Sharpe and Tompkins planted colorful native plants, including light pink and purple ruellia, petit oleander, goldmound lantana--which is bright yellow with a hint of orange--and torchglow bougainvillea

"Torchglow bougainvillea is a variety used in Arizona that can handle extreme heat but doesn't require a lot of trimming," Tompkins said.

Cutting down on trimming not only reduces maintenance, but also allows more of the plant's bright fuchsia flowers to bloom. "Bougainvillea is ... so bright you almost need sunglasses to look at it," Sharpe said.

Residents React

Unlike some xeriscapes, Fairway Crossings is not all rock and cacti. "We used a hybrid model," Sharpe said. "People come to Arizona from all parks of the country, places where they are used to having some green. Our goal was to have a diverse landscape that combined the ideas of xeriscaping with more traditional lush lawns to offer something for everyone."

Sharpe said in addition to saving money, his goal was to create a pleasant experience for residents as they walked through their community. "I wanted residents to be able to walk from the parking lot to their building and get an uplifting feeling," he said.

And residents are noticing the improvements to their environment One change included a new barbecue area--a hot spot for families to stay cool while enjoying the weather. "It's like a little park with shade and sun areas," Sharpe said. "We created a place in the community to sit down and enjoy the landscape."

After the initial phases of the landscaping transformation, residents started sharing positive comments. "Residents enjoy the new look and take the time to say so," Sharpe said. "Residents say the one thing they'll remember me for is the landscaping, and that makes me so proud."

A Growing Idea

Colonial Properties Trust, which owns and manages Fairway Crossings in a joint ownership with DRA Advisors LLC, is also proud of Sharpe's accomplishments. So much so that it views Fairway Crossings as a presentation community and uses it as an example for other communities in the area.

"When we took over, the community was basically dirt and no color," said Michelle Howland, Regional Vice President with Colonial. "The transformation is wonderful, with lots of color and an entrance that is beautiful and inviting. We have continued to maintain a high occupancy and exceeded our income each month since December 2004."

For Sharpe, more work still lies ahead, with about 50 percent of the Fairway Crossings project yet to be completed and additional landscaping makeovers pending at other Colonial communities. But Sharpe is looking forward to the challenge.

"The experience has been one of pure excitement and exhilaration, to say the least," Sharpe said. "In this industry, there are so many things that we don't have control over, and often, landscaping is one thing we have complete say in. You can take the landscaping and make a difference."

Howland said Colonial encourages community managers to take the kind of initiative Sharpe has demonstrated with his innovative landscaping project. "Colonial Properties Trust has an entrepreneurial culture we live by," she said. "We empower our teams to create and spread that culture onsite as well. By empowering our teams, we have a greater sense of ownership and accountability."

Tompkins, who has worked with Sharp on projects at other apartment communities, said that Sharpe's sense of ownership allowed him to make smart landscaping decisions. "He is a go-getter. He worked with my ideas and I worked with his, and we both used each other's expertise to make the project work," Tompkins said. "When you tackle a project like this, many companies don't look at the whole picture and take the time to plan the entire strategy. That's exactly why Jim and I worked well together. In this project, the people above him said, 'They know what they are talking about. Let's let them do this.'"

Sharpe noted that a little polish on a community's curb appeal can go a long way. "When you buy a car, you don't have control over the design, but you can control how you take care of it and make it shine," he said. "When you take that car to get it washed, it may only be polished on the outside, but doesn't it sometimes seem to run better, too?"

Jeanine Gajewski is NAA's Manager of Communications. She can be reached at jeanine@naahq.org or 703/518-6141 Ext. I41.
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Author:Gajewski, Jeanine
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Date:Sep 1, 2005
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