Developer: Bryce Powell
Some residential developers focus on volume. They buy large tracts of land and build as many houses as they can in a short period of time. E. Bryson “Bryce” Powell, who started developing communities in Greater Richmond more than 40 years ago, takes a different approach. Rather than focusing on speed or the number of houses, he focuses on details.
“Bryce has never been in a big hurry to churn out subdivisions,” said John W. Montague Jr., a retired builder who constructed homes in several of Powell’s communities. “He’s more concerned with the final look.”
Powell, whose developments include Woodland Pond in Chesterfield County, Randolph Square in Goochland County and Walnut Hill in Hanover County, isn’t completely removed from large developments, though. More than half a century ago, his father’s furniture manufacturing business, David M. Lea & Co., acquired a large parcel of land next to the Swift Creek Reservoir in Chesterfield, initially to harvest pine timber. Then the elder Powell came up with a new idea for the parcel.
“In the 1960s, my father saw the potential for a large planned community around the reservoir, but he didn’t have the expertise as a developer,” Powell said.
In 1973, the elder Powell sold the land to the Sea Pines Co., which developed the Brandermill and Woodlake communities there. With approximately 3,700 single-family houses, town houses and condominiums, Brandermill is Chesterfield’s largest residential community. Sea Pines later became East West Communities, and it’s currently developing Hallsley in Midlothian.
Powell has another family tie to Chesterfield’s largest development. His wife, Franny Powell, worked on the Brandermill project, and she has been part of the East West Communities team for more than 40 years.
Still, Powell has focused his own business, Midlothian Enterprises Inc., on developing smaller communities, for both aesthetic and financial reasons.“Large projects with numerous amenities can require long-term operational investments,” Powell said. And smaller developments have shorter sales cycles, which help “to avoid the harmful financial impacts of recessions.” Moving slowly on smaller projects also allows Powell to focus on architectural and landscaping details. “Bryce has to approve the planned architecture in his developments, and he’s concerned about the siting of each house,” Montague said. “And it’s paid dividends.”
Granted, that minute attention to detail can make the design process more complicated.
“Bryce and his team are perfectionists and aren’t afraid to say ‘no’ if a building plan being submitted to them does not meet their high standards,” said Richard Bower, a senior vice president with Joyner Fine Properties and a homeowner in one of Powell’s developments. “I have heard some of his former buyers say that although it was a tough process, they appreciated it after it was over because they liked the end result.”
After working briefly for his family’s landholding business, Powell formed Midlothian Enterprises in 1975, and he remains its president today. His earliest projects – including Smoketree, Evergreen, Hunters Ridge and Woodland Pond – were in southern Chesterfield and Powhatan counties.
Woodland Pond is noteworthy for its more than 250 acres of open space, including 110 acres left undeveloped along the community’s entrance. An expansive, permanently undeveloped entrance would become a Powell trademark in later developments.
Powell’s first project north of the James River was the Mooreland Commons condominiums near the intersection of North Mooreland and Derbyshire roads in Henrico County. With construction beginning in 1980, the empty-nester community was the first to offer downsizing options in the area, and its 100 units sold quickly.
With his next development project, Randolph Square, Powell began designing communities that share a few common features, despite their wide-ranging architectural styles.
“Certainly, in the last half of my career, protection of open space, respect for natural features of the property – i.e., topography and vegetation – and large lots have been a common feature,” Powell said. “Also, I’ve tried to provide open space along the main entrance to my projects to create a unique sense of entry/arrival to each neighborhood.”
In Randolph Square, for example, Powell left 40 acres of woodland untouched along its entrance and entry road as a buffer. And for Goochland’s The Meadows at Joe Brooke Farm, he designed an entrance that features stone columns and a white fence with rolling meadows beyond them.
“It couldn’t be more perfect for a rural residential community with nearby equestrian estates,” Bower said. “The entrance at Randolph Square, on the other hand, is quite regal and Georgian in appearance. The winding, wooded entry road leads to a beautiful community square and roundabout that is stunning. It is very much in keeping with its south of River Road location.”
Over the course of more than 40 years, Powell has developed more than 2,600 lots in 16 communities. Currently, he is completing the Woodland Pond and Walnut Hill developments.
“Resales remain strong in Bryce’s neighborhoods not only because of their design and the maintenance of the common areas but also because some offer special amenities, like Dover Lake at The Meadows,” said Pam Diemer, a real estate agent with Long & Foster and a Meadows resident. “Also, Bryce has partnered with some of the finest homebuilders in the area, and they have adhered to classical architectural standards to create beautiful homes that will always be popular.”
Diemer helped Powell with sales and marketing of new homes and lots in Goochland’s Running Cedar Place development. The community features 5-acre homesites with European and American cottage-style homes.
“Bryce has made a positive and lasting contribution to Richmond with his developments, enhancing the lives of many families,” she said.
Powell credits his business partner of 30 years, James Schnell, with providing critical oversight and management of the architectural process and approvals.
“Without James’s keen eye for detail and his passion for stringent architectural standards, our communities would not look nearly as good,” Powell said.
Powell also has formed partnerships with prominent Richmond families to develop residential communities, such as with the Reynolds family at Randolph Square and the Reed family at The Meadows.
And with Walnut Hill, Midlothian Enterprises formed a partnership with the Virginia Museum Real Estate Foundation in 2001 to convert a 458-acre farm formerly owned by Harwood and Louise Cochrane into a luxury-home community with lot sizes ranging from 10 to 60 acres.
The foundation facilitates real estate gifts that exclusively benefit the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and proceeds of the land sales at Walnut Hill were earmarked to increase an American art purchase endowment as well as an endowment for the position of Cochrane Curator of American Art. VMFA received $4.9 million from the sale of the lots and the original Cochrane house.
“Every developer in Richmond would have loved to have had any of these opportunities,” Bower said. “The families chose Bryce because they trusted him and knew he had the vision and skills they needed to be successful.”
Powell also has worked with many of the same builders and real estate agents for decades. In the course of more than 30 years, for example, two-thirds of the houses that John Montague’s company built were in Powell’s developments, and Montague built two homes for Powell’s personal use, too. (Montague retired in 2004, and his sons, Warren and Kevin, run the family company today.)
Montague worked as a partner on the Mooreland Commons project, and he recalled receiving a letter from Powell while construction was underway.
“In the letter, Bryce said he felt uncomfortable owning half the partnership, given the work my wife, Sue, and I were doing for it,” Montague said. “So he changed the percentage and gave me and Sue majority ownership. That’s the kind of guy Bryce is.”
Jeremy Harring, president of Harring Construction, has worked with Powell on two developments – Woodland Pond and Running Cedar Place – and he likewise attributes the developer’s success to something more complicated than the mechanics of designing and building a subdivision.
“Bryce is a good developer with an eye for detail, and that’s important,” Harring said. “But to me, what’s most important is his character. If Bryce says he’s going to take care of something, he will. And he’ll do the right thing even if it costs him money. He ultimately values honesty and integrity over making a dollar. I know he cares as much about my success as his own, and I feel privileged to work alongside of him.”
By Doug Childers/Homes Correspondent
Richmond Times Dispatch
Federal Hill Farm
Running Cedar Place
The Meadows at
Joe Brooke Farm
Walnut Hill http://www.walnuthillvirginia.com/
Woodland Pond http://www.woodlandpondva.com/