By Alexandra Cronin | Originally published in Plano Profile July 2017
Jeff Blackard speaks softly about changing the world. He declares that he knows what the problem really is and how to fix it. But here’s the kicker: people are listening. This year, 12 world leaders, experts and guests gathered in Dallas to discuss his vision, the culmination of years of work, in part to learn and in part to confirm that he’s right.
“Otherwise,” he explains to me, weeks later in his bell tower office, “it’s just someone in McKinney, Texas with an idea. I can say this is how we change the world and this is the solution, but I still need other people to verify it.”
Jeff used to be one of the largest lot developers in the State of Texas, working with budgets in the millions to plant subdivisions, suburbs and shopping centers like summer crops. Famously, he dropped those projects in favor of a new way of building communities. As he sees it, the world is dying of disconnection. His solution is a new way of building that is actually the old way: villages. He now develops villages for people of all walks of life to encounter one another and get to know people they may not ordinarily meet. He places $1.6 million houses next to apartments that go for $700 a month, next to $500,000 condos, next to $350,000 houses.
“I always thought something was wrong. I made a lot of money, but I hated it,” he says. A tall man with a hint of polite good-old-boy about him, Jeff’s reputation casts a long shadow, but his quiet presence belies the vivid life he has led. He has traveled to over 50 countries doing mission work, landing in a small Croatian village, Supetar, before he came to understand the twist in the fabric of his own life.
“It was almost like…” he trails off, handpicking his words. “You know how doctors used to bleed people back in the 1800s? It’d be like being a doctor back then, bleeding people out for fifty years, and all of a sudden realizing that you’re not helping—you’re actually killing your patients. I’m causing the problem in this country. It didn’t make sense to me until I understood what a village was and learned what I was doing wrong.”
To Jeff, the disease is urbanism. It isn’t development itself, but the way we have developed. “We’ve segregated our society using zoning, and put everybody into categories,” Jeff says. “We have destroyed ourselves and nobody knows it. I’m the one now saying ‘stop.’ We take categories like money, we congregate, and we push away other people. We let that happen,” In doing so, we’ve shut off parts of ourselves from each other. He describes the soul-deep deterioration that develops when people are segregated by salary and property values. Of his own wealth, he’s ambivalent. “I’ve been blessed by circumstances, nothing else.” But when wealth is used to divide people, it is no longer just circumstance but a wall.
“In a village you aren’t phony because I know where you live, how much money you make; we’re all just real. I know you. There’s a relationship,” he explains. “A village in the Amazon is no different than a village in Croatia, than a village in America pre-1920s,” he says. “We all evolved exactly the same way. Our cultures are different, materials are different, but at the heart it’s all the same. After work in every village in the world, people walk into the center and see their friends. They can eat there. It’s where they go to church. There’s a surprise around every corner.”
It’s only been in the last 80 years that the modern world has moved away from the village model. “We should all be able to live together. We all want relationships.” Villages, as Jeff plots them out, are typically a half-mile. Village retail doesn’t fail, because it serves only the needs of its residents. Dentists, shops, doctors, cafés and grocers are placed in the center and housing is built around that. Everyone meets in the middle.
He calls his concept NeoRetroism, and it is not so much a philosophy on building but on how humans are meant to live. The most important tenants are ownership, a sense of place and community.
“What we are really trying to accomplish is ‘placemaking.’ It sounds strange,” he admits. “But the demand is huge.” To prove it, he built Adriatica, a half-mile development in McKinney based on Supetar, Croatia. The village is self-contained, a center of commerce with a clinic, restaurants, shops, the Bella Donna Chapel, a working bell tower which doubles as Jeff’s office and most importantly, housing for all.
The chapel functions as a meeting ground, a popular wedding spot. It was named after Jeff’s wife, Donna, with pieces of Europe knitted into it—a bell from Croatia, a facade of Jesus over the door salvaged from a bombed church. Deeply personal, this is the heart of the development. Adriatica is nostalgic with a definitively European design, beautiful and cohesive with red-tiled roofs, sunlit, winding roads and a waterfront. Village living in a modern age is a simple concept. Accomplishing it is complicated.
Adriatica, though a stunning development, is just a step on his learning curve. Even as construction in McKinney continues, Jeff’s eyes are on the horizon, on the 10,000 villages that, in his opinion, need to be built in America.
“I did a terrible job here,” he says frankly. “Future villages that we’re doing now, in other places, are much better than what I did here. But this is the first. The first lightbulb that flickered.”
Wolf Lakes, a new development on the horizon in Georgetown, Texas, is next. Competing with four other major developers for the project, he studied the history of Wolf Lakes and its relationship with Georgetown and the San Gabriel River, designing the village with its unique history and culture in mind, recreating what actually used to be there—and should be again.
“I came up with a story,” he explains. “How do you design the evolution of that village? It’s rarely done this way in the development world. I discovered how to do it, and this was my first experiment. Think of me as an archeologist.” He traced out Wolf Lakes’ history, all the way to the early 1800s, when Manifest Destiny coaxed travellers west, dreaming of fortune, adventure and opportunity. The flooding of the San Gabriel River—which nearly killed a group of settlers travelling into Georgetown to trade—led to a small community settling at Wolf Lakes. When a church was needed, it was built. When a bigger church was needed, that was built too and when newcomers arrived, they put down roots. Houses and barns cropped up, better waterways were dug and a new trading post was established. Finally Wolf Lakes emerged as a buzzing center of commerce that rivalled nearby Georgetown. By following the natural evolution of Wolf Lakes and proposing a return to it, Jeff won the bid.
“I live in the real world,” he adds wryly. “So there are hotels and things. But the fundamental village is still there. You’ll travel down to the old village to shop at Nordstrom or something.” With such a personal design, each of Jeff’s new passion projects will be different because each one has a different history. They will have the same functions, but their unique cultures will be celebrated in their design. Jeff is rejecting cookie-cutter neighborhoods in favor of gathering places, where people of all walks of life can converge. The bug is spreading. He mentions offhand that the day after our interview, he’ll be jetting off to India to discuss development there, on the behest of their Head of State. As he has always planned, Jeff is moving beyond McKinney and taking NeoRetroism worldwide.
“This is the future,” Jeff says. “This is me doing something good for our world.”