Backers of `walkable' towns hitting Pennsylvania streets

New Urbanism urges suburbanites to return to cities

September 23, 2001|By Diane Mastrull | Diane Mastrull,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA - The apostles of New Urbanism have come to Pennsylvania with a message for suburbanites squeezed by sprawl: Move.

Not deeper into the rural frontier, but back to the city, or to the small, aging towns on the inner rim. And if you must build, raise pedestrian-friendly villages instead of space-eating subdivisions.

That's one tough sell to Philadelphia-area denizens, whose passion for single-family houses and big yards is among the most intense in the nation. But the fledgling Association for the New Urbanism in Pennsylvania is just as committed to an opposing dream: to rein in runaway development by promoting the kinds of communities that flourished until the last half of the 20th century.

Fundamental changes

"New Urbanism is about changing very fundamental things about how we live," Will Selman, a Lancaster County, Pa., planner and a founder of the group, said at the group's first public meeting in West Chester, Pa., recently.

The movement already has taken hold in other parts of the country, particularly the South and West. In the process, though, "we fight so many uphill battles," he warned the 20 potential recruits to the cause.

The Pennsylvania association is modeled after the San Francisco-based Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit with 2,300 members nationwide. It grew from the work of a cadre of architects, planners, developers and public officials who in 1993 began crusading for reinvestment in cities and towns.

They also advocated building "walkable communities" in the suburbs - close-set houses of varied styles commingled with businesses, parks and schools.

The patriarch of these neo-villages is developer Robert Davis, who in the early 1980s built the Florida panhandle town of Seaside. There, colorful houses with front porches and tiny yards sit among shops and offices - a model embraced by smart-growth advocates as an antidote to sprawl and the social isolation of spread-out living.

About 400 projects

As a measure of the movement Davis inspired, New Urbanism projects nationwide (counting inner-city redevelopment) now number about 400.

No more than a few of those, however, are in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Public ignorance is largely to blame for that, say the local organizers - seven architects, planners and neighborhood activists from areas of the state hit hard by sprawl. So for starters, they plan to roll out a public-education campaign, with workshops and slide shows on New Urbanism-style communities.

At the association's meeting on Aug. 30 in West Chester, however, many in the audience of developers, planners and architects suggested a bolder move: lobbying for state funding for New Urbanism projects.

The timing could be right. Last year, Pennsylvania legislators made the first substantial changes in state land-use law in decades. In the landmark revisions, they endorsed "traditional neighborhood development" - the walkable-community concept - as a way to revive cities and towns and contain sprawl.

The author of that part of the legislation was state Rep. Robert Freeman, a Northampton Democrat and a founding member of the Pennsylvania New Urbanism association.

New Urbanism, Freeman said, "speaks to a yearning for some sense of place that doesn't exist in a sprawling nowhere."

Yet the high-density development espoused by the movement has attracted critics in droves. Among them is Dan Hoffman, a health-care consultant fighting a village-style project in Wallace Township, Pa., where he lives.

Though he supports the concept of walkable communities, Hoffman worries that New Urbanism provides builders with a ruse to cram more houses on a tract than they could with a standard housing development.

Such skepticism has stymied developer Joe Duckworth in Lower Moreland Township, Pa.

His effort to build a neo-village has been bogged down in protest for more than 18 months. "Woodmont" would have 107 single-family houses, one to a quarter- acre, with front porches and back garages reached by alleys. It would include a deli or general store that would be within a short walk of every house. Nearly 40 percent of the 42-acre tract would be kept as green space.

Since Duckworth made his proposal, it has been denounced by dozens of Lower Moreland residents. A development with houses as close together as 12 feet, they say, would lower neighboring property values, despite evidence to the contrary in similar communities elsewhere in the nation.

Duckworth is still pressing his case with Lower Moreland officials, although he has concluded that in Pennsylvania, "developers trying to sell this stuff are basically masochists." Tired of feeling like a one-man band beating New Urbanism's drum, Duckworth said he would join the New Urbanism association.

Joyce Marin, another organizer for the association, intends to keep the group's sights on not only new walkable communities, but the old ones, too. She lives in one of them, the 142-year-old borough of Emmaus, Pa. "It's not practical to dispose of cities and towns and have people vacate them as they build new communities," she said.

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