The cul-de-sac concept hits a bump in the road

Balance: Baltimore County planners want to see a mix of street types in future developments.

April 16, 2001|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

The porches of Lark Meadow Court are cluttered with children's bicycles, doormats are piled with small, muddy shoes, and yards are forested with basketball hoops.

The houses at the end of this Baltimore County cul-de-sac aren't big. Nor are they new. They don't even have garages. But they retain a strong appeal - to couples who have raised families there, and to new buyers who have snatched up the handful of homes that have gone on the market during the past few years.

"If we ever moved, I'd love to find a place like this again," said Lynda L. Gillis, a mother of six who moved there with her husband, Ron, when the homes were built 24 years ago. "It's really good for having children."

And it's exactly the kind of development the Baltimore County Planning Department hopes to discourage.

The county's Planning Department is putting the finishing touches on a plan that would determine how an area east of Lark Meadow in White Marsh should be developed.

Tucked into a section of proposed residential design standards is a paragraph stating that cul-de-sacs should be used only when through streets aren't feasible, and that builders should create subdivisions with a mix of both kinds of streets.

Planners in other suburban counties in the Baltimore area said they're familiar with the case against cul-de-sacs and are sympathetic to it, but Baltimore County would be the first to put it in writing. The County Council is scheduled to consider the standards today.

As planners see it, the winding roads of cul-de-sac communities hide one neighbor from another in unconnected clusters and force residents into their cars and onto increasingly clogged streets.

But one person's isolation is another's peace, quiet and safety. Unless someone is driving home, there is no traffic, and the lacrosse, basketball and hopscotch games on Lark Meadow Court are on.

The Gillises moved to Lark Meadow in 1977 and had their first child about two years later. Because the court is the most secluded in the development, it has been a gathering place for children from the other cul-de-sacs that branch off the main street, Bennerton Drive.

"It's a part I really like - with all my [children's] different ages, they've always got someone to play with," Lynda Gillis said.

The adults on the court aren't so tight-knit. A few families have lived there from the start, but about half of those at the end of the street are new. They don't know the old families, and the old families don't know them.

Robert H. Kuzniarski, an auto mechanic for the U.S. Postal Service, has lived on the court with his wife, Valerie, since the beginning. During the first few years, residents would sometimes put out picnic tables, get a keg of beer and set up a volleyball net between houses. But that hasn't happened for a long time, he said.

As children get older, things change, said Diane E. Smith, a mother of four who moved to Lark Meadow Court 18 years ago looking for the peace and safety of a cul-de-sac. "Every night, everyone would sit out on the porch and have iced tea and watch the kids play in the court," she said. "Nobody does that anymore, because now we're all running to lacrosse and soccer. Life was simpler then."

Although everyone interviewed on the court said they like living there, a few people said life and neighborhoods are not the same as they used to be. Bonnie J. Moscynski, an original owner whose three children are grown, said young people are not so involved in the community, and the neighborhood isn't like the one where she was raised. "I grew up in the city, and it was different. You'd walk everywhere you needed to go, and you knew everybody for five blocks," she said.

Lark Meadow residents can walk to a small grocery a half-mile away to pick up a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. But the nearest supermarket or mall is a five- or 10-minute drive.

County planners don't want to ban cul-de-sacs but to restore a balance between them, older-style grid patterns and other street types, said Planning Director Arnold F. "Pat" Keller III. With a better mix, developments can achieve the convenience and connectedness of old-style neighborhoods without sacrificing the safety and intimacy of cul-de-sacs, he said.

"Trying to re-establish some connectivity again within neighborhoods is what this whole thing is all about," Keller said. "A development with all cul-de-sacs is just as dysfunctional as a development that is gridded one end to the other. Development should represent a balance."

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