Buyers favor cul-de-sacs, big yards, 'automobility'

Nation's Housing

June 02, 1996|By KENNETH R. HARNEY

THE 1996 NATIONAL homebuyers community preference vote has just been tallied, and it looks like a rough year for the suburbs -- at least suburbs of the typical, sprawling variety.

But there's also sobering news for planners and developers who advocate the "new urbanism" as an antidote to ticky-tacky suburban sterility. "New urban" communities try to recreate the feel of traditional small towns with quaint town centers, narrow, grid-pattern streets, small yards with houses close to the street, heavy use of traditional architecture and a strong de-emphasis of automobiles, especially in the town centers.

By a margin of nearly 4-to-1, homebuyers and shoppers across the country say that although they're attracted to at least some of the design concepts of "new urban" housing developments, they're not willing to give up themost highly prized features of existing suburbs. Tops on the list: cul-de-sacs, big yards and privacy, plenty of parking near stores, and freedom in architectural styles.

The community preference vote comes out of an extensive, unreleased study conducted through interviews with a sample of 1,650 active homebuyers and shoppers in Florida, California, Texas, Michigan, Colorado and the state of Washington. The survey was prepared by the San Francisco-based consumer research firm American Lives Inc.

What the interviews pinpointed, according to Brooke H. Warrick, president of American Lives, is that consumers of the late 1990s have "a nostalgia to return to communities with a distinct identity and character," places to meet and socialize in small shops downtown. But they also have practical needs that can't be met by towns patterned after those of 19th-century New England or Southern towns.

Community planners and developers "have to tap into both" sets of preferences to capture today's new homebuyer, in Warrick's view. "People can't stand the cookie-cutter suburban look where you've got rooftops marching to the horizon," according to Warrick. New buyers "reject that whole image," he says. But what do they want instead? Here are some key themes from the study:

Give us a town center with small shops and green space, but make sure it has convenient parking or "automobility."

Give us a mix of housing styles and densities, but be sure to provide some neighborhoods that offer large, well-buffered lots, cul-de-sac street designs, and houses set back from the street.

Other strong messages:

Don't put every house's garage out front on the lot facing the street. Hide it or push it back toward the rear of the lot.

Along with sensitivity to the practical demands of automobiles, don't forget bicycle trails and walkways.

Kenneth R. Harney is a syndicated columnist. Send letters care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20071.

Pub Date: 6/02/96

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