Will 'Street Of Dreams' Make Comeback?

A popular way to promote new luxury homes hit its peak in 2006, with shows around the country. But "Street of Dreams" promoters say they're not giving up: They believe 2010 will be the great comeback of gawk-worthy suburban houses.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The housing market has been so bleak lately, it's hard to recall that many Americans once enjoyed thinking about real estate. NPR's Martin Kaste has found one man who believes those days may soon come again.

MARTIN KASTE: Cast your mind back, back to a simpler era, say 2007, when it was still fun to gawk at marble countertops.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Street of Dreams")

Unidentified Woman: I feel like I'm on the set of some fancy gourmet cooking show, but we're not. We're at the "Street of Dreams" at the lakeside home, also known as Oslin(ph). And this is Tracy, the builder.

TRACY: Hello.

Unidentified Woman: And Tracy, gorgeous kitchen.

KASTE: That was local TV coverage of a 2007 "Street of Dreams" home expo in Oregon. These shows were common during the boom years. Developers built luxury houses on spec and people lined up to pay 15 bucks or more just to take a peek inside.

Unidentified Woman: I'm so caught up on - there's a buffet and the pantry…

KASTE: Ah, the good old days. Needless to say, "Street of Dreams" tours have fallen on hard times. Bryan Ashbaugh owns Street of Dreams Incorporated in suburban Seattle. He's the country's biggest promoter of these shows. He's done 82 over the decades, but this year, not a one.

Mr. BRYAN ASHBAUGH (Owner, Street Of Dreams Incorporated): The whole formula is based on luxury housing and of course that's taken a bit of a pounding in the last three years.

KASTE: It's not just about economics. With this crisis, big luxurious houses have an image problem. Last spring near Seattle, another promoter's "Street of Dreams" houses were torched, possibly by radical environmentalists. But none of this deters Ashbaugh. He predicts a big comeback for upscale housing.

Mr. ASHBAUGH: The logic is, you know, the time to invest is when the things are down and all these developers and builders are saying - we've got a golden opportunity if we can just get new houses because there's nothing else out there. No one else has been building for the last two years. And when you wrap a big "Street of Dreams" promotion around it that becomes the major real estate event in all of these cities, it's a big deal.

KASTE: He's planning five "Street of Dreams" shows next year. They won't be quite as grand as their predecessors. 4500 square feet houses instead of 6500. And there will be more green features. One of the shows is tentatively scheduled for The Georgia Club - a planned community outside Atlanta. Sales director Tom Valdes says focus groups are telling him that the American dream house is a bit smaller now.

Mr. TOM VALDES (Sales Director, The Georgia Club): It's hard to imagine that we will turn back quite as far as a single room cabin, but we may well be cutting back on the amount of public rooms in a house available for entertaining and those kinds of things.

KASTE: That trend is being seen across the country. The last 20 years saw a boom in big houses. They peaked in 2006, but since then the numbers have been falling. And the most expensive houses, those costing more than a million and a half are selling worse than the rest of the already lousy housing market. But that's okay with Bryan Ashbaugh. He says he never really understood the appeal of 10,000 square foot houses anyway. At the same time, he says, when you're talking Street of Dreams there is a limit to how much you can downsize.

Mr. ASHBAUGH: We tried to do a lower price "Street of Dreams" show about 10 years ago in Jacksonville. And the houses were 250 to 300,000. And they were beautiful houses and it was a nice show. But the reaction we got from the public was, we can see houses like this every day of the week. If we're going to pay admission, we want to see something a little more dreamy.

KASTE: So he's betting that that appetite will still be there for the next "Street of Dreams" shows in 2010. Assuming there are any "Street of Dream" shows, building has yet to start on any of the houses because the developers are still trying to find financing.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

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