By Ted McIntyre

When an award comes from your own clients, it carries a special weight.

“I was definitely surprised and appreciative. It’s nice to be recognized in that category, because it’s a vote by the populous,” acknowledges Marz Homes president Dan Gabriele, whose firm claimed the second annual People’s Choice Award at the Ontario Home Builders’ Association’s 2015 Awards of Distinction for its South Coast Village development in Crystal Beach, a coastal-inspired resort community on the northern edge of Lake Erie.

Features of the 71-unit development, which was built upon the former Crystal Beach amusement park car lot, include a clubhouse, swimming pool, tennis courts, shops and access to a private beach.

Another lure for buyers is affordability, with prices beginning at just under $300,000. But it’s the successful marriage of architectural concept with the attractive Crystal Beach location that has struck a chord for voters.

“You walk up the street and think, ‘Hey, this is really cool.’ It’s just such a departure from what we do every day,” says Gabriele. “I think it’s because the community matches the natural feature, which is the beach. Everybody loves to be able to enjoy that natural amenity. And the feel of the whole community revolves around it. But whereas Crystal Beach used to be the Muskoka for Americans, in the last while we’ve seen Canadians migrating there now and reclaiming their recreational community.”

Gabriele and company, however, had to be steadfast in their approach to the development. “One of the things we did, and we’re glad we did it, was to fight the market,” says Gabriele. “When South Coast Village first opened up, the market came to the site and basically wanted the cheapest house possible with the largest garage possible. We said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. That’s not our vision for the community.’ We wanted to stick close to what a coastal community looks like and wanted to recreate that feel. At first it took a while to get that through to the market, but eventually people recognized the benefit of the features of what we are offering.

“And the municipality was incredibly cooperative,” notes Gabriele. “It is a little bit different down there, where you’re into large lots, like 60’x150’. What we were proposing was not quite as deep or large, but at the same time with a lot of architectural styling of a coastal community. We had to do a lot of revisions to the existing zoning bylaws to accommodate the type of community that we were envisioning, which was basically large porches and sidewalks being very close to the street.

“This is the way we’d love to do any type of community,” Gabriele continues. “The Town of Fort Erie wasn’t tied to these old engineering standards, where you need a trench here and massive boulevard there to make sure everyone has enough space for their utilities. We discussed what we wanted and they were readily adaptable to new designs we envisioned.”

The community is attracting a mature move-down market, but also some younger Niagara crowd, Gabriele notes. “There’s great value down there, but also a different lifestyle and a different world. It’s more of a smaller, relaxed, walkable community with lots of natural and commercial amenities. And you’re only 90 minutes from Toronto in decent traffic. And if you wanted to go to Buffalo to catch a Sabres or Bills game, or to catch a flight out of Buffalo, it’s a short drive.”