`Dead ends' alive, well

Cul-de-sacs: Buyers love them for their cozy ambience, but government planners bemoan their aura of isolation.

September 19, 2004|By Bob Erle | Bob Erle,SUN STAFF

Real estate agents love them because they make homes more desirable to potential buyers. Most planners hate them, claiming they clog traffic and don't foster a sense of community.

But for the people whose opinions matter the most - the families who live there - the pros of living in cul-de-sacs far outweigh the cons.

"We love it," said Kim Hazlett, who lives with her husband and three children in Mount Augustine, a cul-de-sac community in Elkridge. "We have great neighbors and a place where children can play without traffic. It's a very peaceful place."

Cul-de-sacs are clusters of fewer than 20 homes on dead-end streets with traffic circles to turn around in. They are popular with families because of their lack of through streets and the sense of safety they instill.

But many government planners complain the communities contribute to traffic congestion because they reduce the number of exits and entryways to a community. Many planners have sought to promote other types of neighborhoods by placing restrictions on cul-de-sacs to help improve traffic patterns.

Despite those efforts, builders are still turning them out for the simple reason that customers demand cul-de-sacs and they're willing to pay the higher prices often associated with such street designs. Also, Realtors acknowledge that buyers have a preference for homes on cul-de-sacs.

"I think you could describe it as an extra selling point, especially compared to a more busy street," said Anne Hruby, an agent with Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage in Ellicott City who has been selling homes for more than 20 years.

Gopal Ahluwalia, staff vice president of research at the National Association of Home Builders in Washington, said that cul-de-sac popularity has been increasing nationally during the past two decades.

"Any subdivision that you see now is a cul-de-sac," he said. "It has been happening for a while; people like cul-de-sacs."

Planners also believe that these dead-end streets isolate communities from one another, violating the basic tenet of their offices, which is to tie neighborhoods together.

According to Michael Lang, an urban studies professor at Rutgers University, Camden (N.J.), cul-de-sacs first became popular during the 1950s.

"It's an early form of traffic calming, where in many areas we're trying to slow it down for safety reasons, where children can play and don't feel so assaulted by speeding trucks, cars, the noise and fumes," he said.

Lack of traffic

The lack of through traffic is what attracted Tammy Lang and her husband to choose a home in Elkridge a year ago. Lang, who has a 13-week-old son, said living on a cul-de-sac was a big selling point for her because of safety concerns.

"It's safer than in a neighborhood with through streets," she said.

Frank Hertsch, president of the Abingdon-based engineering and architectural firm Morris & Ritchie Associates Inc., said security is what attracts many to cul-de-sac life.

"There are some people that seek out cul-de-sacs for their privacy, for the kind of closed-in feeling you can get," he said.

Although inhabitants say they feel safer in cul-de-sacs, Moe Davenport, chief of development review at the Harford County department of planning, said this perceived safety can cause isolation as people rarely venture outside their immediate areas.

"Their community is the 12 homes on that cul-de-sac, as opposed to walking around the block, or around their neighborhood," he said. "I think they are their own little isolated community."

Whether it keeps a community divided or not, the perceived safety of living on a cul-de-sac is an added value. Earl Robinson, vice president of sales and marketing at homebuilder Ryland Homes, said houses on cul-de-sacs often cost about 10 percent more than other houses in a new development. Also, he said, demand for those homes always is high.

"When we are designing communities today, we attempt to design in as many cul-de-sacs as possible," said Robinson, noting that Ryland's Wexford community in Aberdeen was designed as "a big cul-de-sac."

Mary Jane Macgill, a Long & Foster agent in Ellicott City, said that not all houses are created equal.

"If I had two houses of equal value, most of the clients would prefer the cul-de-sac," she said. "That's why Realtors highlight the fact that the house is located in this type of community."

`Negative impact'

Although Davenport understands the perceived value of the cul-de-sac, as a county planner he views their impact from a different perspective.

"Cul-de-sacs have their place and are very desirable from a buyer standpoint, but they have a negative impact on the surrounding network of streets," he said. "If you have a through road and cul-de-sacs coming off that ... then everybody gets out of their cul-de-sac and goes to the artery."

The result is a buildup of traffic at main arteries that people use to get to and from their homes.

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