At Maple Lawn Farms, old look is the new thing

Old-fashioned look is new idea at Fulton's Maple Lawn Farms

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 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 the development, Wynkoop said, and then researched homes in older areas of Washington and Alexandria to give to the architects, Lessard Architectural Group of Vienna, Va. Construction will begin 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. "What's happening nationally is that developments built to New Urbanist principles sell faster, and at higher prices," he said.

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; some appear in between. Some roofs have dormers; others don't. The fronts all look different, but not with a cookie-cutter pattern of 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 garages detached in the rear, facing an alley.

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

"They are different. I think they're cool. I think they're funky," said County Councilman Ken Ulman, the young west Columbia Democrat who represents the 602 acres that will become Maple Lawn Farms - and lives in a more conventional-looking townhouse in River Hill.

"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.

The builder will use stone, brick and more detailed touches to present a finished appearance for the 2,600-square-foot homes. "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 building 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.

That firm's first nine townhouses - priced starting at $555,000 - will be offered to buyers in a lottery Aug. 21.

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, pointing to the firm's Stone Lake gated townhouse community on Gorman Road in Savage, where the last home sold for $719,000.

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