Everything old is new Community: "The New Urbanism" is an approach to reinventing the suburbs, using the best elements of the past.

June 16, 1996|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

Just past the suburban homes, shopping strips and fast-food outlets that outnumber the occasional farm, two nondescript brick signposts appear to lead to yet another of the sprawling developments that have come to define late 20th-century American life.

But venture off busy Darnestown Road into Kentlands, on 352 acres of hills and valleys 13 miles northwest of Washington.

Here, not much feels like suburbia. Driveways are missing. Garages are nowhere in sight. No speed bumps cross streets. Nothing faintly resembles a cul-de-sac.

Instead, narrow, tree-lined streets interconnect, made intimate by homes huddled side by side and close to the street in the manner of a Georgetown or Annapolis.

Residents jog or walk dogs along brick walkways, passing wide front porches and pocket-sized lawns with white picket fences.

An elementary school, a day-care center, a church and a lot for a corner store form a public square -- no farther than a quarter-mile from any of the 900 homes.

A half-million-dollar house seems fitting next to a townhouse and an apartment over a garage in back.

Automobiles -- "anti-social devices" as Kentlands founders deemed them -- have their place, hidden in garages accessible through rear alleys or restricted to on-street parking or to a slow crawl through narrow streets.

That's by design.

Planning for people instead of cars lies at the heart of "traditional neighborhood developments" such as 6-year-old Kentlands, the state's first and best-known community built on the tenets of "new urbanism."

This back-to-the-future movement is emerging in the design of more and more communities hoping to reinvent the suburbs using small-town planning principles.

To rein in sprawl, new urbanists redraw roads in grids to ease congestion. They mix land uses to encourage walking to public places -- schools, public squares, libraries, shops and offices -- all designed as visual focal points and gathering spots.

They cluster varying housing types and sizes, so a Victorian home might share a block with a Federal-style home and a cottage.

Over the next 20 years, says one marketing analyst, up to 40 percent of new home developments will likely be built this way.

"There is a little nostalgic architecture involved in these projects," says John Schleimer, a Sacramento, Calif., real estate consultant who has studied each of the nation's neo-traditional communities. "The baby boomers are reaching 50. They're remembering the houses they grew up with Mom and Dad in."

Valerie Ellenberger echoed such sentiments on a recent sunny afternoon, balancing her youngest daughter on her hip as she walked up the block to meet her two older daughters at Rachel Carson Elementary School.

The interior designer moved with her family from San Francisco and rented a house at Kentlands near her husband's job in Rockville. A week later, the couple decided to stay and have a house built.

"I walk the kids to school -- it's like how I grew up," said Ellenberger. "There are parks and lakes and walking paths. We bought the community."

Critics say suburbia has mistakenly put cars first -- offering livability and aesthetic appeal as an afterthought.

To the new urbanists, that's backward thinking.

They fault modern public buildings as too bland, cul-de-sacs and deep front-yard setbacks as too exclusive, wide streets as too treacherous for crossing.

And a looping hierarchy of roadways merely funnels traffic to a single point and eventual gridlock, they complain.

For solutions, they look to the past, with an eye to the future.

"We don't invent anything. Everything we do is learned from the past," said Mike Watkins, Kentlands' town architect. "It's not a nostalgia trip. The intent is to learn the best lessons of the past and improve on them."

Kentlands' planners converted a barn, a farmhouse and sheds into focal points with practical uses as offices.

Then they built nearby homes in a similar pattern of varying sizes, which works, Watkins says, because all homes share similar brick materials and the same relationship to a public green.

A one-story building houses a branch office of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Architects, where Watkins works.

The Miami-based husband and wife team pioneered new urban design in 1981 with their now-famous planned town of Seaside on the Florida panhandle.

They also designed Kentlands. It will have 1,500 homes and 800,000 square feet of retail and office space once the last of five neighborhoods and a Main Street of shops and apartments get Montgomery County approval.

Maryland has seven neo-traditional communities built or planned. Two in Baltimore will replace the public high-rise apartments the city has torn down or plans to demolish.

"You could say historic Baltimore exhibits a lot of the planning principles that new urbanism is based on," said Cheryl A. O'Neill, associate principal with CHK, the Silver Spring architecture firm that designed two rowhouse-style communities that will replace the Lafayette Courts and Lexington Terrace complexes.

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