In search of a more town-like suburbia

Development offers urban design amid protest in Howard

October 28, 2001|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

A fresh vision of suburbia is headed for the Baltimore region.

Small lots. Narrow streets. Condominiums near townhouses near houses, each looking a little different from the one next door. Garages tucked discreetly out of view, facing alleys. Stores, offices, parks and a field filled with schools just a stroll away.

No cul-de-sacs. Not one.

If it sounds more like a city than the suburbs, that's because its planners are taking their cue not from post-World War II living but from older places such as Roland Park and Annapolis.

Smart Growth advocates say this is the way suburban developments should look in the future. But to suburban traditionalists, it's an urban mess on a turkey farm.

Either way, it's coming soon on the 507-acre Maple Lawn Farms tract in southern Howard County, which is about to become a home designed for 3,000 residents and as many as 4,000 retail and office workers. Construction is set to begin next year.

"This is the wave of the future," said Stewart J. Greenebaum, whose Baltimore firm is developing the community. "This is an improvement on Columbia."

Maryland has about a half- dozen communities built in this "traditional neighborhood design," most in Montgomery County, according to the New York-based New Urban News, an industry newsletter.

State and local planners say that while a few suburban Baltimore developments borrow some of the elements -- like Terra Maria in Ellicott City, which has neotraditional houses but no businesses -- Maple Lawn Farms will be the first to have the full package.

It's not likely to stand alone here for long.

State planners, who think "mixed-use" developments are an antidote to sprawl and traffic, are encouraging other counties to change their zoning and welcome such traditional neighborhood designs.

"Obviously, people are still going to be driving when they're living in a place like this, but they don't necessarily have to drive to get a quart of milk or to go to the park ... whereas, in many communities today, you're driving for everything," said Kristen Forsyth, a spokeswoman with the Maryland Department of Planning. "We look at it as a way to give people transportation options -- and also give people the option of living in a different type of community."

This is not a lifestyle that appeals to some residents, in particular the ones living near the site where Maple Lawn Farms will rise. They battled the change in zoning in 1993 that allowed mixed-use development there and fought for months to reduce the community's density.

"They've created this aura of small-town America to mask the fact that people are paying more and getting less," said Highland resident John W. Taylor, one of the development's most vocal opponents. "The townhouses are narrower, the streets are narrower, everything is closer together. You lack privacy and personal space."

Maple Lawn Farms' developer, Greenebaum and Rose Associates, hasn't tried traditional neighborhood design before. But its planners staunchly defend the idea. They believe the development will be a quaint alternative to conventional suburban life.

"It's really planned to have the character of a small town," said Matt D'Amico, a senior associate with Design Collective, the Baltimore firm that planned the project.

Once the community at U.S. 29 and Route 216 is filled, Maple Lawn Farms will be nearly as populous as Columbia's Town Center. In 12 years or so, the place will hold 485 houses, 395 townhouses, 236 condos and 1.2 million square feet of office and retail space.

This will not be a cookie-cutter development, Greenebaum says. When the builders get to work, they'll have to conform to design standards requiring that each building look different, he said.

In Midtown, the focal point of the community, multifamily housing and a recreational center will stand across the road from shops and restaurants designed with an old-town Main Street feeling. Offices will be clustered in the southeast leg of the parcel, filled, Greenebaum hopes, with high-tech and health science businesses. Three schools -- Fulton Elementary, Lime Kiln Middle and Reservoir High -- will be nestled in between.

The plans show meandering streets about 10 feet narrower than typical to discourage speeding, parking lots largely hidden behind businesses and little parks tucked throughout.

It's for this reason that Greenebaum promotes Maple Lawn Farms as a community designed for walkers instead of drivers. Eighty percent of residents will be able to walk to all the shops, offices and other services in 10 minutes -- and to most of those buildings in half that time, D'Amico said.

Greenebaum said he knows Maple Lawn Farms will pull in people who have jobs elsewhere, which is why he's planning to hire a full-time carpool coordinator authorized to pay for the occasional emergency trip by taxi that carpoolers need.

But -- although opponents are extremely skeptical of the claim -- Greenebaum is convinced that at least some of the residents, if not many, will also work in town.

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