What's an ideal home? Let the people choose

Survey: To help guide suburban development, Baltimore County planners asked a group of residents to rate slide images of house styles.

October 28, 2001|By Robert Nusgart | Robert Nusgart,SUN REAL ESTATE EDITOR

It was a simple exercise. Either you liked it, or you didn't.

There was the slide image of a simple cottage home. An American flag hanging from the awning over the wooden front porch. A home of stone and shingle, mellowed by age and surrounded by trees and shrubs. A warm fuzzy feeling - home, sweet home.

Give that one a thumbs up.

Now the slide of the modern-day "McMansion." A dominating, protruding front-entry three-car garage. A home situated on a cul-de-sac that overpowers the streetscape.

Couldn't they do better than this? Thumbs down.

And so it went last month when about 120 Baltimore County residents took part in a visual study and survey sponsored by the county's Office of Planning and the Maryland Transit Administration to begin a process of how planners and designers will guide suburban development and redevelopment.

Tomorrow night at Milford Mill Academy, officials from the Office of Planning will hold the first of seven town hall meetings - one in each council district - to discuss the findings of the survey and gather additional opinions on how neighborhoods should look and work.

The survey, conducted by Anton Nelessen, a professor of urban planning at Rutgers University who operates his own planning firm in Princeton, N.J., asked participants to rate slides from plus 10 to minus 10. The slides showed various types of buildings, streets, lots and open spaces.

A written survey also asked residents about their neighborhoods and the quality of community design within Baltimore County.

"Why we are having the follow-up meetings is to try to engage people in discussion. It is a learning process for everybody," said Jackie MacMillan, who is in charge of the Quality Community Survey for the planning office.

"We want to start talking about quality communities and what kinds of factors are in quality communities. ... We did the Quality Community Survey to try and get people to look and respond to images ... what do you like about it and what don't you like. Hopefully, we as design professionals have some expertise and can help point out things to people."

Last July, the County Council adopted a set of performance standards for nonrural areas submitted by the Office of Planning. The survey and the town hall meetings are intended to refine those guidelines - addressing such design details as house orientation, open space, parking, street widths, landscaping, decks and garages - and make further recommendations to the council next year.

What the future holds is "based on the community's perception, not on ours," said Pat Keller, director of the Office of Planning.

"How do we use what [land] is left, wisely?" Keller said. "What we've found in the communities is that when they are not given a lot of choices or a lot of understanding ... what they are reacting to is the best choice - a single-family detached house on a lot.

"That is a good part of the mix, but is that the total answer to everything? And so we are trying to get people to think about communities. ... Forget zoning, forget density. What would you like to see on that site?

"This also deals with redevelopment of communities. ... I think the health of those communities are in many respects more important than the new ones that are available. The new ones have to be done right, but the old ones need a lot of attention."

Another purpose of the meetings is to get a more representative sample of Baltimore County residents. For instance, the September grouping tended to be older, as 63 percent said they were between the ages of 35 and 61. That age group makes up 36 percent of the county population. Likewise, the September group was more affluent, as nearly half - 46 percent - said they had incomes of $75,000 or higher, whereas the median income for Baltimore County is $51,700.

Nevertheless, the initial survey did show some consensus on what people liked and disliked.

There was a strong preference for the ability to walk to destinations from neighborhoods. Sixty percent indicated that they would like to be able to walk to a convenience store, and 70 percent said they would like to be able to walk to churches, libraries or parks.

And the respondents wanted open space within their neighborhoods. When asked: "What is your current degree of satisfaction regarding your neighborhood's open space?" only 22 percent said they were very satisfied, while 30 percent were dissatisfied.

When the respondents went through the images, those that scored the highest were streets that had lush vegetation and mature trees.

"The highest scores on any images, by far, were green. It is incredible. People like some nature in their lives," Keller said.

Among some of the other findings were:

Images of front-entry garages were rated negative or zero except where the garage was set back behind the main front building line.

The highest-rated images of houses, regardless of housing type or density, exhibited thoughtful design, rich architectural detail and landscaping.

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