Old-fashioned look is the new idea at Howard Co.'s Maple Lawn Farms

Some home designs will reflect bygone eras

August 01, 2004|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Something new is coming to a Howard County turkey farm, but it looks very, very old.

A group of 58 $500,000 townhouses planned for Maple Lawn Farms, the neo-traditional project just under way along Route 216, will look more like old Alexandria, Va., Washington, D.C.'s Georgetown, Fells Point or Federal Hill than anything yet seen in Howard's rolling hills.

"We wanted it to look like it wasn't all put there at the exact same moment," said Patti Wynnkoop, director of product development for Miller and Smith, a 40-year-old McLean, Va.-based firm.

The goal is the appearance that one house was built by a banker, another by a sea captain, a third by a merchant or a physician -- all at different times.

The firm created this idea of homes seemingly built at various times as a "story" for their development, Wynkoop said, and then researched actual homes in older areas of Washington and Alexandria to give to the architects, Lessard Architectural Group of Vienna, Va. Construction will begin sometime next year.

The neo-traditional movement that produced Kentlands in Montgomery County in the 1980s has morphed into one called New Urbanism that is increasingly popular, said Ray Gindroz, chairman of Urban Design Associates in Pittsburgh.

"I think it's people's need for a feeling of community" and a desire to escape the automobile that is driving projects such as Maple Lawn Farms, and the restoration of older areas such as Canton and Lombard Street in Baltimore, where new townhouses are replacing high-rise public housing.

The look of the Miller and Smith houses that are planned for Howard County is very different from Columbia's auto-centered suburban streets and parking lots.

Some houses have peaked roofs, some look flat, while some appear in between. Some roofs have dormers; others don't. The fronts all look different, but not with a cookie-cutter pattern of cosmetic exterior features repeated every third house. There are varying patterns of windows, shutters, trim and materials. Even the outdoor landscaping is individually designed for each home -- but with an overall effect in mind.

"Not only are we controlling the streetscape, but we are also having a unique landscape package for every one of those homes," Wynkoop said.

The house designs, she said, include Early American, Second Empire, Italianate and Colonial, with terraced front yards, hedgerows in pedestrian passageways between rows of houses, fancy gutters, walls and fences, and detached garages in the rear, facing an alley.

"They're gorgeous. I like them," said Marsha McLaughlin, Howard's planning director, who pointed out that in Howard County's hot real estate market, "you could probably sell almost anything."

"I think more and more builders are realizing that traditional architecture is what the public wants. California modern -- you find very little of that happening," said Dhiru Thadani, a principal at the Washington-based firm of Ayers St. Gross, who worked on Kentlands.

"It will feel more established, more stable -- so they didn't [seem to] just fall from the sky," said Rhonda Ellisor, Miller and Smith's vice president for sales and marketing.

"These are going to be so high quality in terms of the finish, they'll be outstanding," McLaughlin said.

But Brian Wright, town planner with Duany Plater-Zyberk, the Miami-based architectural firm whose founders are credited with inventing the neo-traditional niche, said the true test comes when construction begins.

"The builder starts cutting costs, variety and you get a more homogenous streetscape" despite the high sales tags, he said.

Howard's residents are getting used to shocking real estate values, though.

Mitchell and Best, the first builder to start selling at Maple Lawn Farms, had hundreds of customers show up for an offering of fewer than a dozen homes this spring -- at prices up to $768,000 for detached homes due for completion next spring.

Ellisor said her firm expects some customers from Washington and some from Baltimore, but "I actually think the majority of our market is from Columbia. I think there's a huge demand for sophisticated housing," she said.

Maple Lawn developer Stuart J. Greenebaum is no hero to longtime residents of once-rural Fulton who opposed his huge project -- now to hold more than 1,600 homes and 1.8 million square feet of commercial space -- but he is hoping some feelings will change once the buildings are constructed.

"People have a right to be skeptical," he said, noting that "now the actual product is coming and they're being very well received."

Still, his critics remain concerned. John Taylor, a slow-growth advocate who fought hard to limit density at Maple Lawn Farms, said "re-creations of small-town America are best left to Disney."

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