Rethinking suburbia

Trend: New mixed-use developments seek to blend modern comforts with urban design - and density.

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 old-time places like 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.

Whichever, it's coming soon on the 507-acre Maple Lawn Farms tract in southern Howard County, which is about to become a town designed for 3,000 residents and as many as 4,000 workers. Workers will break ground 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.

Solution to sprawl?

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 in.

"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."

Some opponents

This is not a lifestyle that appeals to some residents, in particular those 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.

It's a fundamental difference in opinion: They like homes on larger lots. They think houses, townhouses and apartments knitted together - and offices that could reach as high as eight stories - will be a horrible intrusion into the southern Howard landscape.

And they don't buy the arguments about traditional neighborhood design's benefits.

"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.

Greenebaum expects the range of housing to sell for $160,000 to $600,000, although nearly 10 percent of the homes will be subsidized for moderate-income workers such as teachers and firefighters. He's planning to offer four general types of houses, from cottages on lots of about 40 feet by 100 feet to "single-family estates" on up to three-quarters of an acre.

A community for walkers

This will not be a cookie-cutter development, Greenebaum promises. When the builders get to work, they'll have to conform to design standards requiring each building to have a distinct appearance, 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.

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