Wednesday, May 21, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Gilles and Nicci Imbert moved from Paris, France, into the brand-new Inspirada community two months ago in search of something different.
They had the choice of living essentially anywhere in the Las Vegas Valley. But they wanted a real neighborhood, one without gates and with a community pool where they could socialize.
“I like this kind of place because Nicci is safe and there’s the park,” Gilles Imbert said, strolling down the empty streets. “On paper it’s great. On paper.”
Imbert and others in the slowly developing community near the Henderson Executive Airport are having second thoughts about their decision to be the first folks to call Inspirada home.
The problem is, not many others have joined them to date. So these days the streets provide more opportunities for solitude than socializing — and for pondering the considerable differences between the idyllic image they were sold and the reality they are living.
Those spending their nights in Inspirada say their homes’ values have dropped and complain that the floor plans of new houses there have been downgraded because of the slumping market. There’s still a “For Lease” sign where residents say they were told a coffee shop would be open by now. Plus the homeowners association, at this point run by the homebuilders, has been a headache for some.
Inspirada’s New Urbanism style draws from a community design approach increasingly in vogue that seeks to turn back the clock to when many Americans lived in close-knit neighborhoods with schools, jobs, churches and parks within walking distance.
Eventually to include 13,500 homes built on 2,000 acres over 15 years, Inspirada will be a city within a city, a $7 billion community neighboring Anthem, itself a monument to master planning.
Its homes will have front porches. There will be parks nearby, and trails will allow residents to stroll to the market or the casino.
Lately, however, the housing market slump seems to be testing how committed Las Vegas developers and home buyers are to the New Urbanism concept — or any, for that matter.
In June 2004, Focus Property Group and seven homebuilders paid $557 million — more than double the appraised value — at a federal auction for the land on which Inspirada is being built. The next year Focus and eight builders paid $510 million for 1,710 acres in Kyle Canyon. The company also owns Mountain’s Edge.
In September, Focus Property hosted a grand opening for Inspirada with hot dogs and entertainment, showing off the new parks, the pools and the homes lining the streets.
Two months later Station Casinos paid $71 million for 45 acres in the community, but it has not announced building plans.
Market analysts said the sale showed Focus needed a quick infusion of cash. “We are doing fine,” Focus Chairman John Ritter told the Sun’s sister publication, In Business, in November. “We’ve got money in the bank. We are completely healthy and never missed a payment.”
Less than four months later, it did, missing an interest payment on its remaining $330 million Inspirada debt on Feb. 1.
“Focus Property Group remains financially viable and will continue its operations while seeking to strengthen its liquidity,” Ritter said in a statement after the missed payment.
Ritter and other representatives of the Inspirada development group did not respond to requests for interviews for this story.
About 200 homes, ranging from 1,300 square feet to 4,000 square feet and priced from $240,000 to $600,000, have been sold in Inspirada’s first phase. But it is unclear how many people actually live in the community, because some of the houses sold to date are second homes or hoped-for rental properties.
Some in the first wave of residents were drawn by the promise of a real community, one where neighbors interact with one another and the parks are filled with young families. The development will have five school sites, a fire station and a 300-acre town center with restaurants, grocery stores, offices and retail space.
“It felt inspired,” said Lacey Hawk, who moved in at the end of last year after living for nearly two years in Southern Highlands and meeting no neighbors. “It was the old style of people getting together. I thought this was going to be different.”
She had seen the advertisements.
“Imagine a community that reflects your spirit,” a TV ad says, showing a young woman walking from her home to a coffee shop, a school and a flower stand, then meeting her husband and child at a park.
There’s no telling, though, when such Norman Rockwellesque images may become reality.
Construction of the first phase of residences is continuing. The parks and pools in that section have been completed. The next planned step is another section of residences, to be followed by commercial building in the third phase.
Although Hawk, like others, expects the market will turn around, she and several neighbors said the values of their homes have plummeted by about $100,000.
Troubling as that is, Hawk is more concerned about the community HOA.
She didn’t expect such trivial matters as the color of her blinds to be regulated, because the community was supposed to reflect her spirit.
She’s currently battling the board about the future of a stone angel on her porch. The 1,500-pound angel blends in with the beige neighborhood. But HOA leaders — none of whom lives in Inspirada — say it must be moved.
The Imberts are upset that the retail space near the pool is still empty and that the pool itself did not open until recently.
For the moment, though, the neighbors are making the best of it. It’s only a couple of miles to Eastern Avenue, where they can shop till they drop. They have made some friends in the community, even though in some cases the bonding was born of disillusionment. And though the parks are mostly empty, they are well-maintained.
The residents hope the future turns out the way it’s still being promised at the information center.
Resident Cynthia McCarty, for example, hopes to be able to make that walk to the grocery store sometime in the next decade.
“We’re out here in a strange holding pattern,” she said.