Photo: Crystal Lagoons
The Global State
Crystal Lagoons builds projects in Florida
A Chilean company hopes four projects in Florida will help it establish recreational lagoons as a real estate amenity in the U.S. market.
In the mid-1990s, a Chilean real estate developer named Fernando Fischmann was building a large beachfront resort in his country near the seaport city of Valparaiso.
The site of the San Alfonso del Mar resort lies on an inhospitable stretch of central Pacific coast known for frigid waters and rip currents. To make swimming and watersports such as kayaking available to resort guests, Fischmann decided to build what would become essentially the world’s largest pool — a 20-acre saltwater lagoon dug between the ocean and development’s condominium buildings.
Fischmann reckoned he could replicate the clear, turquoise waters of the Caribbean by using existing filter technology. The lagoon’s waters soon became contaminated, however, and Fischmann, who had studied biochemistry at the Universidad de Chile, turned his attention to developing a better way to keep the water from turning brown.
Over the next decade, he developed his own filtration system. Instead of saturating the entire body of water with chlorine and other chemicals, as with a traditional swimming pool, Fischmann positioned sensors throughout the lagoon to detect bacteria when it began to appear. Valves, also spaced throughout the lagoon, then release targeted doses of disinfectants to kill the growth. Meanwhile, ultrasound pulses and chemicals called flocculants make dirt and debris clump together and fall to the bottom, where a vacuuming device removes them.
By 2007 — 10 years after it opened — the lagoon at San Alfonso del Mar had indeed become Caribbean blue, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest swimming pool. And Fischmann had turned his technology into a company, Crystal Lagoons, to market artificial lagoons as an amenity for high-end real estate projects.
The Santiago-based company has since licensed its technology to dozens of real estate projects in Latin America and the Middle East, including a 30-acre lagoon in the Egyptian desert. Crystal Lagoons oversees the lagoons’ health remotely via electronic devices and is paid a fee based on a percentage of total sales.
In 2013, the company made its first foray into the U.S. by opening a sales office in Miami, led by Kevin Morgan, a former executive at international real estate development firm John Buck. Florida is now both the staging point for international expansion and also the site of Crystal Lagoons’ first projects in North America.
A year ago, the company joined with Chilean construction firm Inmobiliaria Aconcagua on plans for an eight-acre lagoon at a new subdivision at the Tradition development in St. Lucie County. Inmobiliaria’s purchase of the site stalled, and that project is on hold, Morgan says.
Meanwhile, Tampa’s Metro Development Group had begun efforts to capitalize on the recovering housing market. Greg Singleton, Metro’s president, heard about Crystal Lagoons and flew to Mexico to see a 10-acre lagoon at the Diamante golf resort in Cabo San Lucas.
“Starting off, my biggest concern was, ‘Will the water be clear? I don’t want it to turn into a pond. I want a lagoon,” Singleton says.
The visit convinced him that the technology works. “The water is so crystal clear. If you hold up a bottle of Aquafina, that’s what it looks like,” he says.
After the trip, Singleton worked out a deal with Crystal Lagoons, which in June announced a partnership to build and maintain four lagoons, each between five and 10 acres, at four master-planned communities that Metro is developing in southwest Florida.
Metro expects to begin construction next year on a six-acre lagoon that will serve as the centerpiece of a 2,000-home development on what is now a cow pasture near Wimauma in southern Hillsborough County. The lagoon is equal to about 20 Olympic-size swimming pools — enough room to operate a paddleboard or kayak.
Singleton estimates it will cost several million dollars to build and about $25,000 in monthly upkeep. Residents will pay a homeowners association fee of $15 to $20 a month for lagoon maintenance.Home prices likely will start at just under $300,000.
The lagoon, which will hold 15 million to 18 million gallons of water, will use freshwater from local wells under existing irrigation permits. The lagoon only has to be filled once, using rainfall to compensate for natural evaporation.
Metro also plans two more lagoons at a pair of housing developments in Pasco County and another in Lee County. “For me to go to the beach, I’ve got to load up my car. And it’s a 45-minute drive to Passa- Grille or Clearwater Beach from where I live,” Singleton says. A lagoon, he adds, brings the beach to residents and creates an amenity that draws them together.
He — and Crystal Lagoons — are counting on water bodies to be a compelling proposition in Florida, where the coastline is crowded and developers are pushing inland. “We all know the value of water and the impact that water can have on a real estate project,” Morgan says. “This is a tool for developers to change the old adage ‘location, location, location.’ ”
Florida has seen its share of efforts to engineer water amenities over the years, some more successful than others. In the 1920s, Fort Lauderdale’s Charles Rhodes dug canals and called the lots next to them waterfront property to charge premium prices. Around 1970, Cavanagh Communities launched a circular community called Rotonda West in Charlotte County, after dredging canals to promote water-view homes and boater access to the Gulf. Demand fell far short of expectations, however, and Rotonda still has “plenty of lots available today,” says Tony Polito, a Tampa-based regional director for housing consultancy Metrostudy.Fort Lauderdale, by contrast, became the so-called Venice of America, and “you’ve seen builders try to re-create it in other places.”
While it remains to be seen whether a walk to a lagoon can replace a trip to the beach, consumer demand for water views and water-related recreational opportunities has only increased in recent years, says John Rymer, a housing industry consultant based in Tampa.
“If I was to poll people 15 years ago about the type of community they’d aspire to live in, things like golf courses and a well-appointed clubhouse would come up near the top. Today, those have come down in priority, but one thing that has gone up is water,” Rymer says. “Water is something in Florida you get to use 365 days a year.”
Crystal Lagoons, in fact, is marketing its lagoons as an alternative to golf courses both for new development projects and existing neighborhoods. Morgan says lagoons will have more appeal to younger home buyers. Some developers, he believes, could consider replacing some or all of the holes on a golf course with a lagoon.
“It can be a turnaround to distressed golf courses. In our state, there are almost a thousand golf courses,” he says. “That’s a thousand prospects right there.”
The Crystal Lagoons Technology
Crystal Lagoons’ patented technology involves digging out the lagoon area, then lining it with a light-colored plastic liner. The project is outfitted with sensors to detect bacterial growth and valves that release concentrated doses of disinfectants near the bloom. Ultrasound pulses and chemicals called flocculants force dirt and other debris to clump together and fall to the bottom, where they’re removed by a vacuum system. Crystal Lagoons says its patented technology uses only a fraction of the energy and chemicals of a conventional pool-filtration system and much less water than a typical golf course.