New urbanist Joseph Alfandre had hoped to slow the national growth of scattered housing developments and strip malls when he helped create the Kentlands in Gaithersburg during the late 1980s.
Fourteen years later, Alfandre is disappointed with the results - but it's not for lack of interest.
"Planners and politicians, as well as their community allies, saw the advantage of `new urbanism' and not only bought into it, but appreciated the thought and the effort behind it," he said.
But Alfandre said developers failed to follow through on the practice of targeted, urban place-making by expanding housing and creating communities in once-rural, now thriving areas. Alfandre's new urbanism aims to position a spectrum of houses around a town center, including narrow streets, sidewalks and practically everything a city offers - shops, restaurants, businesses, schools and community centers - within walking distance.
"The problem started setting in when the developers took the easy step of redoing their plans," Alfandre said. "After getting the land approved, they went back and said, `We really can't do it this way or that way. We have to modify this, or we have to modify that.'"
The end result, he said, was a compromised type of new urbanism that created continued frustration between the private and public sectors.
And so Kentlands Initiative came to be. Alfandre recently founded the nonprofit to inspire more communities to embrace new urbanist development. The business is designed to provide the professional guidance to accomplish that goal, said Alfandre, a third-generation developer.
Already, Alfandre is assisting two municipalities - one in Georgia and the other in Utah - in plans for a new urbanist town center.
This month, Alfandre presented his initiative to the Baltimore County Planning Board, winding up a speaker series on Smart Growth and community design.
Jackie MacMillan, a senior planner with the board, said individuals from all spectra are interested in learning more about new urbanism. But the urbanist development, she said, is not for everyone.
"I think the people who have studied this say that about 30 percent of the people would like an environment [similar to] what the new urbanists are doing - which is to say, a neighborhood, with destinations and a center you could walk to from all the dwellings," she said.
But some lifestyles do not fit the new urbanist design, MacMillan said. "I think a lot of people who live in suburban communities don't want to live in an urban environment. [For them,] density is a dirty word."
Others are drawn to the close placement of homes and shared open space. It all depends on which trade-offs people are willing to accept, she said.
New urbanism could find a place in Baltimore County, where few large land areas are left for development, she said. "We're a very built-up county. ... Having some of this in the appropriate place might be very good, because it creates more options. ... I think it's important to look at the pros and cons and to say this isn't for everybody, but maybe it's for some people."
Alfandre, who was born and reared in Maryland, said new urbanism differs from developments such as those found in Columbia and Reston, Va. In those towns, land isn't used any differently than how suburbs were conceived after World War II, he said. "They just organized it somewhat differently."
The distinction between new urbanism and traditional neighborhood development lies primarily in the placement of homes and businesses. In new urbanism, the goal is to intersperse the two rather than place them in separate areas.
Kentlands, therefore, bears quaint similarities to a densely organized town, rather than to a suburban housing development.
Because of the novelty of its design, the Kentlands plan initially was met with resistance from planners and the real estate community. At that time, Alfandre recalled, it took a lot of "educating and arm-twisting" to persuade builders to alter their suburban pattern of wide streets and house-front garages to include smaller lots, alleys and a mix of large, single-family houses with smaller houses.
Today, prices of townhouses in Kentlands begin in the mid-$200,000s, and Victorians sell for $300,000 to $700,000. In a little over a decade, it has become a model for new urbanist design.
Mixed-use, new urbanist development can be a lucrative and productive use of land, said Alfandre, who is optimistic that more developers soon will consider it a viable option.
He believes new urbanism eventually will become the standard in development, especially once homeowners discover its benefits. "It's a choice for suburban dwellers they very often want to make. There just aren't enough choices given to them," he said.
"By and large, the only model and the only choice that new homebuyers have these days, even in the Washington and Baltimore areas, is a single-family, large house on a large lot with low density in the suburbs. There are still people who obviously want to live in that setting, but there are more and more who would rather live in a traditional setting of mixed use, with services and neighbors and workplace convenience, where you don't have to sit in traffic."
In some ways, new urbanism mimics existing urban patterns, admits Alfandre. "If you go to Fells Point or Georgetown those are the models that we used for Kentlands in 1988. We just re- created them in the suburbs."
Alfandre hopes the Kentlands Initiative will aid jurisdictions seeking to adopt new urbanism. The need, he expects, will grow with the younger generation.
"The echo boomers really want to live this way," he said of the baby boomers' offspring.