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Setting a new standard: Charter offers behind-the-scenes look at how projects come together

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Kevin Ohlinger, vice president, design, left, and Rob Bowman, president of Lancaster County-based Charter Homes & Neighborhoods.
Kevin Ohlinger, vice president, design, left, and Rob Bowman, president of Lancaster County-based Charter Homes & Neighborhoods. - (Photo / )

By the time homes, stores and restaurants start coming out of the ground, it marks roughly the end of a long process for Charter Homes & Neighborhoods, a developer of mixed-use projects like Arcona in Lower Allen Township.

That long process involves tens of thousands of pieces, said Rob Bowman, president of Charter Homes, and it’s a major logistical challenge to put them all together when Charter’s “factory” is the outdoors.

But Bowman and his Lancaster-based team of designers enjoy the thrill of finding the right pieces to achieve their goal of building a “timeless,” not trendy-looking community.
“We want to set a new standard for what living looks like in the suburbs,” Bowman said.

The construction that commuters and potential home buyers see today often happens a decade after the company initially agrees to buy land for a neighborhood. And it will likely take years, if not another decade, to fully execute the plan.

Years are spent scouting and buying land parcels that can be assembled into a bigger whole, and refining a vision for a project that may take many months to win approval.

Over the last few years, Charter has gone all-in on the idea of developing suburban neighborhoods that break the cookie-cutter mold. They incorporate a variety of housing types and businesses, with walkable and community spaces that appeal to people of all ages.

“When you look at their product, it’s unique,” said Kirk Stoner, planning director for Cumberland County. “You’re not seeing repetitive housing types.”

Charter’s neighborhoods, which continue to pop up across the midstate, are “very distinct,” Stoner said, comparing their designs to those of established boroughs around Cumberland County. “Charter’s homes bring back aspects of traditional communities.”

Why aren’t other builders doing it? Some are, but there is a lot of time and money tied up in planning for these neighborhoods, which can be risky, Stoner said.

Local zoning and attitudes about introducing commercial components also pose challenges.

It’s generally safer to just build single-family homes, or to plan a development with townhomes and apartments, Stoner said. “You need a proven model (to do what Charter is doing). It’s complexity, it’s financing and marketability.”

Charter officials believe they have found their rhythm. They are actively pursuing new neighborhoods in Central Pennsylvania as well as the western part of the commonwealth.

Where it begins

The birthplace of Charter’s architectural ideas is the company’s Dillerville Road headquarters and design center just off Fruitville Pike in Lancaster.

In about 10,000 square feet of space, ideas flow on sketch pads and on computers. And they are pinned to walls. Ideas range from apartment buildings that look like old industrial sites to the details of a building’s front entrance.

Every Wednesday is a “creative day” for Bowman and his team, which includes Kevin Ohlinger, vice president for design. It’s a day to metaphorically throw color on the walls or pile up drawings on the conference table, maybe the floor, and see what sticks.

“The entire single-family product line is on two walls,” Ohlinger explains during a recent visit.

There are aerial views of entire neighborhoods and close-ups of particular sections. On this day, there’s an inside view of Thea, a new restaurant planned for Arcona.  

The emphasis on aesthetics helps Bowman achieve his goal not of being the biggest homebuilder in the area, but of providing neighborhoods that can continue to stand out in 50 years. He wants Charter’s projects to be part of that future discussion about great places to see.

More importantly, Bowman wants his designers collaborating with his production staff, even if there’s a tendency for tension between the two over vision and execution.   

“Tension means it’s all working,” he said. “You want strong personalities that represent their perspective at any time doing great work. The goal of everything is not about making people comfortable or to compromise. It’s about great architecture.”

That’s one of the reasons that doors separating the design department from the rest of the office have never been closed. 

Modern yet traditional

Near Charter’s “war room” for design is its Charter Colors design studio, also a fixture in each of its neighborhoods. This is where home buyers come to make choices about fixtures and materials that reflect their style.

“People believe they want a lot of choices, but really they just want what they want,” said studio coordinator Annette Kennedy.

It’s her job to survey buyers about whether they want traditional or modern finishes and light or dark colors. From there, she builds palettes that fit their price estimates. They go room by room to make selections in a process that can last a few hours or most of a day.

Behind that customer selection process is a semiannual review program for Charter. Staff meets with material suppliers to explore new products and color options that might be added to the palette at Charter Colors.

The goal is to always be working ahead, Bowman said. But then again, today’s vision will be revised over and over before anything ever comes out of the ground.

“It’s about a house and a home, but also a neighborhood,” he said. “What we will build will stand for generations.”

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at jscott@cpbj.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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