In the Land of Sprawl, Pam Sessions Chooses the Walkable
Road Less Traveled
In early May, covering a story for The Town Paper,
I attended a Seaside Institute conference entitled "Marketing New Urban
and Smart Growth Communities." (For specific details, see our Summer 2003
issue). On the second day, basking in the glow of fluorescent lights while
the streets of Seaside were coming alive outside, Atlanta-based Hedgewood
Properties' Sales Manager Fran Marty regaled the audience with tales from
her company's infancy, in particular the persistence and foresight of
its founder, Pam Sessions.
As the colorful anecdotes flowed, I began to mentally assemble them into
a potential headline for a personality profile. This is what I came up
with: "Rock and Roll Renaissance Mom Builds Town for Her Kids."
I need to go meet this person, I thought. So that's what I did.
As it turns out, it wasn't a very nice day. Certainly not ideal for strolling
the unfinished streets of Vickery, Hedgewood's 237-acre showcase TND currently
under construction in Atlanta's northern hinterlands. But as rain spattered
off my windshield on my drive up Georgia 400, I wasn't especially worried
about it. After all, I wasn't going there to do a piece on the neighborhood
itself, the company's foray into mixed-use and compact development. I
didn't need to measure densities or lot lines. I was more interested in
what it is that leads a person to build such a place, especially someone
who's spent 20 years building homes in the Sunbelt's capital of sprawl.
Granted, there's always been a difference between Hedgewood and the production
builders who rule the city. While deep-pocketed competitors crank out
largely undignified, suburban-styled product in ever-increasing quantities,
Hedgewood has carefully built a brand around quality design and construction.
But while this focus made for a logical evolution towards the finest in
period architecture, it concerns houses rather than land planning. What,
I wondered, led them to move from selling homes that suit our lifestyles
to selling neighborhoods that serve our lives? Was I going to meet an
idealistic dreamer or a savvy and pragmatic entrepreneur?
Pam Sessions, I discovered, is a little of both.
I guess it should have come as no surprise that Sessions is a committed
mother, given the fact that she tends to mother her visitors, offering
a drink immediately after a warm and relaxed handshake. In the course
of our conversation, though, it became clear that this isn't just a part
of her persona. Family, it seems, is at the heart of everything she does.
Consider this: Sessions' business partner is Don Donnelly, who just happens
to be her husband. The company's headquarters sit on the same 23 acres
as their family home. And those 23 acres, along with 214 more that surround
them, are the site of their ambitious Vickery project. It's almost as
though the lessons they've learned over the past 20 years have progressively
come home. But why?
"We live in an area with a family focus," she says. "Families are drawn
out here, and we just weren't satisfied with the choices that were available
to us." She goes on to talk about the dearth of walking in Forsyth County
- the absence of accessible amenities -- not because its residents don't
value exercise or convenience but because the physical makeup of their
environment makes it impossible.
"The dream of living in the country has a downside that maybe you don't
realize until you've experienced it," she continues. "When people ask
us 'How can you give up all this acreage and privacy?', I understand where
they're coming from, having lived it myself. A rural-type setting is ideal
for young children, but eventually they just want to be with other kids.
You end up planning every event. You end up driving them everywhere."
So, after years of largely conventional homebuilding, she began conjuring
up a more conducive environment. It was ultimately just coincidence that
what was intuitively right for her growing children, and right for her
family, just happened to have a name. Several names, actually: new urbanism,
or neotraditional design, or traditional neighborhood development. The
nomenclature didn't really matter. Sessions wasn't drawn to it as a planning
fad or a market niche. She was simply looking for a more satisfying life.
The fact that a notable segment of the market apparently agrees is just
icing on the cake.
"We're just going on our own instincts," she mentions modestly. "We figured
we couldn't be the only ones who feel this way . that we'd like to walk
to a coffee shop or have our kids walk to school or to the YMCA. And so
far, the market has responded with 'yes, thank you.'"
Based on expressed interest, Vickery seems destined to be a hit, even
with just a few homes built and the civic and commercial amenities just
colors on a master plan. But what really brought people around, she says,
were the wide variety of choices and the integration of price points.
It provided perspective rarely considered by the typical Atlanta single-family
Thinking back on this phenomenon, she offers, "People relate when it's
on a personal level. You know, 'Do I want my [retired mother] to be able
to live down the street? Yes, I do.'" This is no calculated emotional
ploy. Independent of any targeted marketing initiative, three multi-generational
families have already bought into the development.
Pam Sessions is living proof that new urbanism, though clearly a movement,
is also just a collection of attributes that create great places to live
and raise a family. An environment that people connect with -- deeply
-- whether they've ever heard the term or not.
And the rock and roll part? Well, it turns out that Sessions sings in
a band. One that includes her brother (no surprise there), who also operates
a psychiatric office in a restored building on the family land. The band
So, apparently, long before Vickery was ever even considered, the family's
23-acre homestead included mixed uses and adaptive restoration. Sounds
like Pam Sessions has been a new urbanist -- whether she recognized it
or not -- all along.
Scott Doyon is a principal with Civitatis, a communications and marketing
group devoted exclusively to the well-conceived and lovable place. He
can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 404.372.5394.