Bottom line: Will it sell in suburbia? Neo-traditional style debated

June 27, 1993|By Timothy J. Mullaney | Timothy J. Mullaney,Staff Writer

Architects have loved neo-traditional suburban developments like Kentlands since before anyone built any. But when an auditorium full of architects, planners and builders got together at the Maryland Institute of Art 10 days ago, they clashed over the bottom-line question: Will anyone buy it?

That question is highlighted by the fact that Kentlands was taken over by its lender, Chevy Chase Federal Savings and Loan, in 1991. But Andres Duany, the Miami architect and neo-traditional suburbia guru who served as a consultant to Kentlands developer Joseph Alfrandre, insisted that Kentlands' financial failure was a fluke.

He said Mr. Alfandre's $40 million debt was supposed to be cut to $23 million by selling a $17 million piece of land to a shopping mall developer. When the recession in the retail industry forced the mall to be put on hold, the residential development failed to support the whole debt -- but it was never supposed to, he said.

"It wasn't that the residential didn't sell," he said, insisting that Kentlands homes actually command 15 percent more than comparable homes nearby. "Not only do neo-traditional communities cost less [to build], they sell for more. What's overbuilt is what's identical. The neo-traditional town is the under built niche."

That has always been the rub about communities built on the Kentlands model. More than 45 years after World War II began a revolutionary two generations of suburban development, there are armies of customers who are used to what is by now the accepted suburban model of cul-de-sacs feeding collector roads, lined by large homes set well back from the street on large lots.

Many customers like it, and some builders fear customers will be too attached to what they call "Plan A" to welcome a Kentlands-style community, either for themselves or as the neighborhood next to their own.

"Those people who are living in Plan A don't want to hear about it and that's a fact," one member of the audience told the panel.

Neo-traditional design is inspired from late 19th century and early 20th century towns, which put homes -- from a broad price range -- close to parks, shops and work.

Martin K. P. Hill, chief executive of Masonry Contractors Inc., Carroll County's leading homebuilder, said his company has successfully experimented with developments that offer housing to people in different income ranges, a prime feature of neo-traditional planning. But even so, some traditional suburban preferences come to the fore. For example, homes on cul-de-sacs sell fastest, he said.

But Randall Arendt, a land consultant, said the neo-traditional suburb has selling points more conventional suburbs lack, especially because building at greater density leaves land available for common green space like parks and walkways.

"Developers have to stress that they are not selling smaller, they're selling open space," he said.

One speaker insisted that precedents for good developments are already there -- even in suburbia -- if builders will look at them.

David Thaler, an engineer who is president of D. S. Thaler & Associates Inc., pointed to the success of the Rodgers Forge neighborhood just north of the city-county line as an example. He pointed to the Baltimore County community's narrow streets, parallel parking, alleys and Williamsburg-style brick houses -- as well as its rising property values. Downtown Ellicott City, he said, is another example.

"People love this," he said. "Property values are very high. The irony is, you couldn't build it today."

That's because suburban zoning codes usually demand houses be set back from the road, that roads be wide to make it easy to get in and out of a neighborhood, and that townhouse communities have parking lots rather than the on-street parking Mr. Thaler admires in Rodgers Forge.

"Not only is this legal, it's what you've got to do," he said in a disgusted tone as a slide of Security Boulevard flashed on the screen. "If you want to build a lousy project, it sails through."

"Builders and developers will buy it if the incentives are such that neo-traditional gets approved faster," said Gary Blucher, president of the Home Builders' Association of Maryland.

Mr. Duany said it will take a lot of consumer education by the development and planning industries to convince customers that if they try neo-traditional developments, they'll like them. But he said focus groups in which consumers chose the re-emerging model over tract-style suburban homes convince him that Kentlands' successors will sell.

And Mr. Duany warned that low-quality development in the suburbs is much more dangerous to property values over the long term than high-density building.

"Junk has always turned into slums," he said.

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