Jim Leeper is developing the first 23 lots of the 200-lot Brookside at Pleasant Valley subdivision just off Southwest Butler Road in Gresham.Work is under way on the first large-scale subdivision in four years in Gresham, and the first housing development of any kind in the 1,500-acre Pleasant Valley area that was annexed to the city in 2003.
It’s all because of a tenacious Gresham man who jumped from the printing business to housing right before the economic recession brought homebuilding to a halt.
Now Jim Leeper is betting there finally will be a market for new homes in a subdivision off Southwest Butler Road.
It’s also a chance for the city to see whether Leeper’s 200-lot subdivision can be the first small step into eventual development of the Pleasant Valley area.
“I sincerely believe in Pleasant Valley. It’s a great area with a clean slate,” Leeper said. “I think it’s the next growth spot.”
Pleasant Valley sits to the south of Portland and Gresham. It’s made up of small farms and 800 people in scattered homes on five-, 10- and 20-acre lots. Metro, the regional government, brought the area inside the urban growth boundary in 1998 and then began extensive planning for 12,000 residents.
It took years to finish all concepts and codes for homes, businesses, open space and services such as sewers. Gresham finished planning for the area in 2007, just as the housing market crashed.
A printer first
Leeper could be called an accidental developer.
He got into the printing business in 1992, doing all the forms and advertising for the Multnomah Kennel Club in Wood Village. As the greyhound track’s business wound down, he moved into printing work for the real-estate industry. It was the heyday of subdivision development and homebuilding. Jim and Michelle Leeper owned a house on 2.5 acres off Butler, and he saw what his friends in the real-estate business were doing.
Leeper bought land next to his home and developed 30 houses before the market crashed. But the nicest piece of property was 37 acres at the corner of Butler and Southwest Binford Avenue, just two blocks from Leeper’s property. It was owned by Pacific Lifestyles of Vancouver, which was founded in 1996 by Kevin Wann. By 2007, Pacific Lifestyles had become one of three big, locally owned home developers in the Portland area, with 115 employees and yearly revenue of $95 million. But the recession brought Pacific Lifestyles to its knees, and it sought bankruptcy protection in 2008.
Leeper watched as Pacific Lifestyles lost the Pleasant Valley parcel to its lender, the Bank of Clark County. But the bank had also bet too much on suburban subdivisions. The FDIC shut the bank in January 2009 and took control of the land.
Leeper said he spent the next 18 months negotiating with the FDIC to buy the parcel, closing the sale in March. During that same time he continued to push a subdivision application through the city’s permit process and in January shut down his printing business. “I’ll be the only developer in town with a printing press in their backroom,” he said with a laugh.
Leeper’s plans call for building in four phases. The first phase has 23 lots, with access off Binford Avenue. The second phase calls for 40-50 lots, said Leeper, with a city park and a tree-lined main street through the development that links to Southeast 190th Avenue to the west.
Leeper’s plans for the first phase call for streets, lights, sewers, sidewalks and landscaping to be finished by January.
And, coming full circle, six months ago Leeper approached Wann to see whether Pacific Lifestyles wanted in on the project.
“He liked the fact that we knew the area and had some history with that land,” said Wann.
Pacific is buying 19 lots in the first phase and plans by April to have finished a model home and several other “spec” houses.
“To me it doesn’t feel like Gresham,” said Wann, whose company came out of bankruptcy in 2010 and is on track to build and sell 45 homes this year. “It’s more centrally located, has good access to Interstate 84 and I-205 but still has a nice, rural feel.”
Lot sizes range from 5,000 to 7,000 square feet. The houses will be 2,400 to 3,000 square feet and priced from $280,000 to $320,000.
Leeper and Wann are betting that there is a market for new homes in Gresham in that price range.
Leeper says Pacific Lifestyles’ purchase of 19 lots “is a big signal” that the Pleasant Valley area is ready for its first development. And though the subdivision still has to compete with hundreds of foreclosed, pre-owned homes on the market, Leeper contends there is interest in new, affordable homes in a quality subdivision.
“There is no project in this range,” he said, “and it’s at a price that people can afford.”