If the way to a man's heart is through his stomach, can builders and developers land homebuyers via the same route?
That may be something of a stretch, but food-related amenities are fast becoming a way to make today's new home communities stand out from the competition.
For example, a few years ago, developers would have asked authorities to chase away any food truck that set up shop near their community centers. And if a homeowner turned his backyard into a farm, the community association probably would have objected.
Now, mobile dining and urban agriculture are the rage, and forward-thinking developers are welcoming vendors and gardeners as part of their amenity packages. Call these new edible community features "gastronomic extras."
Mobile kitchens are helping to energize many downtown markets at lunchtime, and they can do the same at master planned communities, according to panelists who shared their best ideas on what it will take to succeed at a recent Urban Land Institute (ULI) conference.
Mobile vending used to be the sole purview of ice cream trucks and food and vegetable wagons. But now, a wide variety of gourmet and ethnic meals are being served from vans and even pickup trucks.
These meals-on-wheels are welcome not only at lunchtime but also in the late afternoon -- say, just after school -- or any other regularly scheduled time, such as during sporting events.
"Creative retail is a wonderful thing," said Theresa Frankiewicz, vice president of community development at Crown Community Development of Naperville, Ill.
Just as hot as mobile dining is urban farming. In fact, agriculture is supplanting golf courses as today's must-have amenity, said Randal Jackson, president of The Planning Center/DC&E, a consulting firm headquartered in Santa Ana, Calif.
One good thing about gardening is that developers don't have to devote big acreage to it, which is important with today's downsized projects. Whereas golf courses can easily gobble up a couple of hundred acres, community garden plots may require as little as an acre.
Some builders are offering storage sheds, arbors, greenhouses and even vegetable beds as options. One well-stocked backyard garden can produce enough produce to feed the entire block, according to one ULI panelist.
Following the same food-based theme, Adam McAbee of John Burns Real Estate Consulting in Irvine, Calif., recently noticed a couple of attention-grabbing features that are intended to stick in visitors' minds long after they've left the premises.
One, in a San Diego market with a predominantly Asian buyer profile, was a wok kitchen, offered as an "extended prep" area off the main kitchen. Another was a sales office that looked decidedly like a French countryside cafe, where prospects could linger and sip coffee.
Creating a social infrastructure has long been as important to developers as streets and sewers. But nowadays, that means going beyond intranet systems and clubs, especially if the property is large enough to support retail and commercial components.
Anything that gives a project a sense of place and encourages social interaction will create value, the ULI panelists stressed. It could be a trout stream, such as the one running through a Salt Lake City project, or a riverside park, such as the one below a spaghetti freeway in Houston.
One of the best tools for bringing people together is restaurants, according to developers. "You buy a couch once every 10 years, but you eat three times a day," said Jonathan Brinsden of Midway Development, the developer of the CityCentre mixed-use property built on an old mall site in Houston.
Other people magnets are athletic clubs and hotels, if the properties are large enough to support them.
"Athletic facilities are part of our daily lives now," Brinsden said. "And public spaces are so ingrained in our DNA that they are the most valuable acres in our project."
Todd Meyer of the SWA Group, a worldwide planning, urban design and landscape architecture firm, agreed.
"People like to get out and enjoy open spaces," he said. "They are great gathering spots anybody can walk to at any time. But they can't be sterile or boring. People need to have things to do, so create the kind of venue where people like to mix with each other."
But the project doesn't have to be big to be bountiful. Take Taxi, a 20-acre live-work-play property being built on the site of an old taxi garage just outside downtown Denver.
As relatively small as it is -- six buildings with 25,000 square feet of commercial and residential space -- about 400 people work for more than 80 different companies at Taxi. Occasional seating and dining areas can be found along the halls, which are called streets.
The two-story, low-rise project is a place where the younger generation can escape the high-rise culture and express themselves, said longtime Denver developer Morton "Mickey" Zeppelin.
"It's sort of like not having to make your bed in the morning when mom isn't home," he said.