Cul-de-sacs meet the square

New Urbanism: Suburban planners introduce a grid system for streets, sidewalks and stores in the community.

September 29, 2002|By Tim Swift | Tim Swift,SUN STAFF

A stalwart design is re-emerging among developers and community planners that is decidedly square.

A grid-like network of streets, stores and homes within walking distance, and sidewalks - all once thought of as the antithesis of suburbia - are gaining sway with homebuyers as the suburban rings around cities like Baltimore and Washington become more crowded.

"The typical form of suburban development is creating the sprawl that everyone is complaining about," said Stewart J. Greene- baum, whose Baltimore company is developing Maple Lawn Farms in Howard County. "This type of development is anti-sprawl."

Subdivisions dominated by cul-de-sacs that rely on a single entrance and exit are creating traffic gridlock, transportation experts say, leading planners to advocate a grid-like network of streets rather than winding roads with no outlets. By placing businesses inside the neighborhood, designers hope to encourage walking or, at the very least, cut down on driving time.

Although typical suburban cul-de-sac communities vastly outnumber these more city-like developments, they are increasingly cropping up in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Tennessee and Texas and especially in Montgomery County.

Nationwide, about 250 of these developments have been built with hundreds more planned, said Steven Bodzin, a spokesman for the San Francisco-based Congress for the New Urbanism.

The Kentlands in Gaithersburg has been around since the late 1980s, slowly becoming popular with homebuyers. Others, such as King Farm in Rockville, have public transportation built in; shuttle buses connect King Farm residents to Washington's Shady Grove Metro Station.

With its businesses, schools and a mix of condominiums, townhouses and detached larger homes, Maple Lawn Farms fully embraces the trend that planners call New Urbanism or traditional neighborhood design, said Matt D'Amico, a senior associate with Design Collective, the Baltimore firm that planned Maple Lawn Farms.

Terra Maria in Ellicott City and Castlestone in White Marsh feature some elements of New Urbanism, but don't integrate homes with businesses - something planners say is essential to the concept.

D'Amico said the design behind Maple Lawn Farms and others like it helps create a sustainable community, where a lot of daily needs are provided in the neighborhood.

With work beginning next year, the 507-acre Maple Lawn Farms is designed for 1,116 houses and about 1 million square feet of office and retail space, Greenebaum said.

The mix of housing types, D'Amico said, allows residents to stay in the neighborhood even if their taste in housing changes, creating stability. For example, young professionals can move from rented apartments to single-family houses, and older residents can buy a smaller home once their children have grown - all while staying in the neighborhood.

"It's not a niche. These are the kind of places and the kind of lifestyle that a majority of homebuyers prefer. The problem is there are no places like that," D'Amico said.

The design represents a risk for builders because New Urbanist communities are relatively rare and require builders to veer from their design templates, he said. "But builders already are starting to change the housing product to meet the design standards of traditional neighborhood design."

Jackie McMillan, a senior planner for Baltimore County, sees the New Urbanist communities as a way to give areas a greater variety of developments and even to highlight the strengths of older communities - prominent in the county - on which the new designs are based.

"In a lot of suburbs across the country, people haven't had alternatives," McMillan said. "Not everybody wants the same thing."

However, Joe Rutter, director of planning and zoning for Howard County, cautions that the New Urbanism movement has its limits. A grid pattern may provide more outlets for drivers, relieving congestion, but traffic will be increased on smaller side streets.

And environmental regulations in most areas would tie up these communities; the straight, parallel streets require flat land without waterways. He noted that many areas of Columbia could not apply New Urbanist design even if the developers wanted to because of the topography.

McMillan agrees that New Urbanism isn't a cure-all for suburban development, but another option. "It's a matter of tradeoffs and a matter of choices," he said.

Rutter says traditional neighborhood design can work well in parts of Maryland because of its flat land and access to major transportation routes.

But even with those advantages, the road to Howard County's first New Urbanist community was a rocky one. Those living near the Maple Lawn Farms site in more typical suburban communities fought hard to stop it, saying the development was too dense, the homes and streets too small.

The opponents weren't able to stop the development but were successful in scaling it back. Despite the opposition, Greenebaum, developer of Maple Lawn Farms - his first New Urbanism project - is sold on the concept.

"New Urbanism is the wave of the future, and if the opportunity presents itself we'll do it again," Greenebaum said.

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