Nudging developers forward to the past

February 02, 1997|By Elise Armacost

BETTER DAYS SEEM to be dawning for those of us who fear that our children are destined to inherit a Maryland that looks like a mess.

All of a sudden the Powers That Be are taking a close look at what we have created these past 30, 40 years -- the tacky commercial strips, the charmless developments repeating themselves across the countryside, the architecture ranging from mediocre to atrocious, the miles of road connecting isolated subdivision dwellers with shops and offices.

And they are seeing that it is not good. What's really heartening is that change is occurring on two levels.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is tackling the big picture. His ''smart growth'' plan will light-handedly control where building occurs by directing state money to projects serving urbanized areas, growth centers and established neighborhoods.

A huge step

Meanwhile, local jurisdictions are starting to become more particular about what kind of building occurs. This is a huge step. Since World War II the recipe for development has been residential and commercial segregation, super-wide streets, big lots, large setbacks, conspicuous seas of parking. Most zoning ordinances allow nothing else. Little by little, however, the arguments of neo-urbanist architects, planners and other advocates of ''traditional neighborhood development'' have started to sink in.

Governments are realizing that, while there will always be a market for the house on a big lot on a cul-de-sac, plenty of people would rather inhabit something resembling a real town. They're starting to see that building nothing but sprawl costs too much in services. They're changing zoning codes so that somebody who wants to build another Annapolis can. They're learning to appreciate aesthetics -- the importance of roof lines, ''street walls'' created by trees and structures and buildings worth looking at.

Back to the drawing board

In Anne Arundel County last month planners refused to accept a developer's design for what is supposed to be a prototype mixed-use suburban community. The county created a special zoning category to allow something ''town-like'' for the first time. Officials told the developer to be creative with the Village at Waugh Chapel. When the resulting proposal came out like a typical suburbia, with commercial areas floating in parking, beyond walking distance from residences, the director of planning and code enforcement, Steven Cover, told the developer to try again.

The Carroll County town of Sykesville revamped its zoning code to encourage traditional development. The town fathers want to avoid communities segregated by income and designs that revolve around cars. Their code even allows old-fashioned two-story buildings with offices below and apartments above, a staple of older towns.

Howard County, wouldn't permit developers of the new neo-Federalist Terra Maria project to build two-story commercial space, but it relaxed zoning rules to permit other neo-traditional principles.

Harford County Councilman Barry Glassman recently spearheaded ''flexible design'' legislation, that, he says, ''scraps county codes'' and allows builders to design the best project they can invent. He intends to follow with ''design code'' legislation that sets forth guidelines (not requirements) for aesthetic factors like roof pitch, architectural consistency and open space. And he's eager to find a way to create crossroads hamlets and rural villages.

Stricter standards

The Baltimore County Council appears set to approve detailed traditional neighborhood design requirements for Honeygo, a planned 4,800-home community in White Marsh. The rules govern everything from the appearance of the rear of the buildings to materials. Even some neo-urban enthusiasts wonder if this isn't excessively strict. But Planning Director Arnold F. ''Pat'' Keller said if the county allows too much flexibility builders will stick with the standard subdivisions they know, even though traditional neighborhood design costs no more to construct.

Last week the Homebuilders Association of Maryland's director of governmental affairs sounded leery. We don't know if consumers will like traditional neighborhood design, he said. Kentlands, the landmark neo-urban development in Gaithersburg, he noted, has suffered financial problems.

In fact, Kentlands' financial troubles resulted from a retail deal that went bust during the recession, not a concept customers didn't like. Sales at Kentlands have been successful since its inception.

David S. Thaler, a Baltimore engineer and proponent of traditional neighborhood design who has studied such projects nationwide, says most new neo-urban communities are doing well. Five out of six in Memphis are ''spectacularly successful.'' After one year, the first phase of Celebration, the Disney Co's. mixed-income neo-traditional town near Orlando, is 95 percent sold-out.

Slowly, slowly, the tide toward better development is beginning to turn.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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