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philly.com - The philly home page

A Solution to sprawl is stymied

By Diane Mastrull

Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

 

May 6, 2001 - First of three parts

                                                   

Joe Duckworth is a builder, but on this spring night, he was a preacher peddling salvation from Devil Sprawl.

With a crowd of 70 to convert, Duckworth conjured a promised land, free from subdivisions of bloated homes on boundless lawns.

Picture a development, he exhorted, where front porches are close enough for neighborly chats, where you can stroll to the corner store for a loaf of bread. Imagine a place without cul-de-sacs but streets that lead somewhere. Imagine, by God, sidewalks.

But no cries of "Amen!" rang out in the municipal meeting room in Lower Moreland. What Joe Duckworth had to offer, no one wanted. He was stunned.

The project he was proposing would nudge this Montgomery County township back to the future: 107 homes built as a village, to be called Woodmont.

It represented a smart-growth concept spun from America's founding blueprint and backed by land-use experts nationwide.

The subdivision that now defines suburbia, they warn, is an open-space eater, environmentally indefensible. A village on the same tract, with tiny yards and large parks, would both spare land and create community.

This "traditional neighborhood development," or TND, has caught on in many high-growth states. Yet it remains a rarity in the Philadelphia area.

Joe Duckworth has found out why, the hard way. For 14 months, he has tried to build a village in a place nearly out of open land. That tale stands as a lesson on the difficulty - some say the impossibility - of curbing sprawl in these suburbs.

In that time, both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey legislatures have endorsed TNDs, also called "walkable communities," as a way for municipalities to save green space without having to buy it.

So Duckworth and like-minded developers are not fighting the state. What they are up against, they say, is a state of mind. As Thomas Comitta, a West Chester-based planner, summed it up: "One acre on the cul-de-sac equals nirvana."

That attitude has shaped local land-use laws, which often prohibit undersized lots and the mixing of residences and businesses - both hallmarks of TNDs.

There is a reason why the standard subdivision is so enshrined here, experts say.

Across the nation, areas that have welcomed village-style development typically are those that have seen real population growth, from outside their immediate regions. But Philadelphia's suburbs have for decades been filling with Philadelphians - people leaving the city for, literally, greener pastures.

"If you start to reduce the size of lots and move houses close together," said Carlos Rodrigues, a New Jersey state planner, "God forbid."

That is just what Duckworth heard on the March night last year when he took his $32 million Woodmont project to Lower Moreland residents.

Propped on an easel was a sketch of a conventional development, the kind permitted by township ordinances - the kind that Duckworth, 52, had spent half of his life building.

"This no longer interests me," he said and switched on a slide projector.

"I want to suggest an alternative. I hope you'll see it's better."

Up flashed images from some of the most famed of the nation's estimated 150 nouveau villages: Disney's Celebration outside Orlando, Fla., the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md., and Harbor Town in Memphis, Tenn. There were narrow, tree-lined streets; porches running right up to sidewalks; rear garages linked by flower-festooned alleyways; fountains burbling in parks.

This was what he envisioned for 42 acres at Byberry and Heaton Roads. "A new logic," he called it.

Resident Michael Dunn saw nothing new about it.

If houses set 12 feet apart on specks of lawn are "the ideal," he said, "I guess rowhouses are the ultimate. We should go back to Philadelphia."

"This reminds me of Oxford Circle," said Stephen Pollock, a zoning lawyer and township planning commissioner. He was not sounding nostalgic about the old Philly neighborhood.

Duckworth slid into his seat at a table down front and sank his head in his hands as the criticism piled up.

Some said that a neighborhood of densely packed houses, even priced at $250,000 to $400,000, would lower nearby property values. Some predicted that the alleys would become crime- and trash-ridden, and the store a magnet for young troublemakers.

With every objection, applause.

"That tells me something: People don't want this," said William Hamburger, a retired ink contractor and planning commission member. Referring to the kind of classic subdivision in which much of the audience lived, he asserted, "People are very comfortable with that."

Duckworth might have expected a rebuff. It had happened to others.

In Buckingham Township, Bucks County, lauded nationally for its land-preservation efforts, officials tried for two years during the early 1990s to win public support for a "walkable community," but failed.

The same occurred in Kennett Township, Chester County. Rosedale Village was to have 190 homes and sundry shops set on 55 acres, with 845 acres of open space. Neighbors fought the project, and in 1999, after kicking around for two years, it died.

In the Pennsylvania suburbs, only one TND has gotten further than the drawing board.

On 800 acres just off the turnpike exit at Downingtown sits a work in progress called Eagleview. Born as a corporate park in 1988 and still 15 years from completion as a walkable community, it eventually will comprise 800 single homes, townhouses and apartments, a small hotel, shops, and 200 acres of open space.

When he wanted to add homes to Eagleview in 1992, Chester County builder Robert S. Hankin met such resistance in Uwchlan Township that, after a year, he withdrew the plan.

Rather than abandon it, however, he spent several months educating officials on neo-traditional development. And as a concession to residents, he widened streets and set houses farther apart.

Ultimately, though, Hankin credits his father's coattails with pulling the project from the brink. For 40 years, Bernard Hankin had been a highly regarded builder in the county. Shortly before his death in 1994, Eagleview got the go-ahead.

His father's reputation seems to have taken Hankin only so far. Since then, two more of his village proposals - in West Vincent and Wallace Townships in Chester County - have run afoul of the citizenry.

Most developers would rather avoid the battles engendered by TNDs, said John Dewey, a Paoli builder. "[They] take too much time, too much effort, too much money."

Joe Duckworth thought he could get by without a fight in Lower Moreland. He believed he could persuade, if he tried hard enough.

So at the end of that first, contentious public meeting, he made an offer: On his own dime, he would take everyone to the Kentlands, an acclaimed TND in Maryland.

"When I've shown other people the community, they have fallen in love with it," he said, then vowed:

"If you go see [it] and don't like it, I'll go away."

A bored developer has an epiphany

Helen Kessel has lived in Lower Moreland for 18 years, in a development of two-story Colonials on half-acre lots. She sat for more than three hours listening to Duckworth's impassioned pitch for the village lifestyle.

"You say how wonderful this is," she finally piped up. "I kind of think you don't live in this."

She was right.

Duckworth, the father of four grown children, lives in a six-bedroom home on five wooded acres in Chester County, where he is chairman of the planning commission. He lovingly calls it his "retreat," where "I can't hear anybody and can't see anybody."

Yet he concedes to some embarrassment over the house he built 12 years ago, well before his epiphany.

At the time, he already was a force in the sprawling Philadelphia-area real estate market. He had entered it in 1976 as an assistant to builder Robert Toll, whose Huntingdon Valley firm was doing $8 million annually in new home sales. Nine years later, he was chief operating officer, and Toll Brothers sales had hit $100 million.

When he "realized I wasn't going to be a 'brother,' otherwise owning part of the company," he said, he left Toll for a small real estate and engineering firm. As president and chief executive, he built it into Realen Homes.

Catering to the suburban appetite for subdivisions had made Duckworth rich. But after 10,000 new homes, he recalled, "I was not excited getting up on Monday mornings."

Four years ago, he began casting about for a new idea.

He found it over lunch with Florida developer Robert Davis.

In the early 1980s, turned off by the condominiums overtaking the Gulf Coast, Davis built Seaside: a panhandle town where colorful houses with high-pitched roofs and front porches were mingled with shops and offices, where children played in a central park from which all streets radiated.

Seaside became the fountainhead of New Urbanism, a movement promoting mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods - new and restored - as an antidote to sprawl and the social isolation of spread-out living.

While steadily gaining disciples, New Urbanism has not been universally embraced. The unconverted complain that nouveau villages are too sanitized, like movie lots. Picture-perfect Seaside was, in fact, the setting for the Big Brother send-up, The Truman Show.

At Disney's Celebration, begun in 1994 and still growing, rules limit exterior house colors to white, gray, and pale yellows and blues, and dictate the types of trees and shrubs in yards.

Duckworth acknowledges that village living is not for everyone. But surveys of homebuyers, he says, have found that as many as one-third would be interested in TNDs.

"There is," he said, "an unserved market to be met."

Aiming to do just that, he joined with Davis in 1997 to form Arcadia Land Co. For home base, Duckworth chose the Main Line town of Wayne, where he can grab lunch, see a movie, do his banking, and get a haircut - without using his car. Wayne, he says, "exemplifies what we're trying to do."

Duckworth's entree into Lower Moreland came by way of the Pitcairn Group, representing one of the area's wealthiest families and a major landowner in the township. In 1997, he had bought a Pitcairn parcel to build Inverness, a conventional development of 25 homes priced at just under $1 million each. Nonetheless, the project was considered environmentally innovative because he had kept one-third of the tract as open space.

By 1999, the Pitcairns were looking to sell more: 42 acres of a former tree farm near the old Woodmont train station.

Spokesman Alvin Clay said they wanted the property to be turned into "an example of what good land planning is all about."

In Duckworth, Clay said, they saw a buyer with not only an "economic interest in development, but a deep sense of doing the right thing."

The right thing for the township, Duckworth was sure, was a traditional neighborhood development.

Lower Moreland is nearly built out, with only a half-dozen sizable tracts undeveloped. A first-ring suburb of just 6.5 square miles, it underwent an intense building boom in the 1960s and 1970s. Philadelphians tired of cramped rowhouses and beleaguered public schools were relocating over the city border, into the ranch homes and split-levels that still define much of the township.

In the decades since, its population has hovered around 11,000, slipping 4 percent in the 1990s. Many of those moving out, Township Manager Alison Rudolf said, are empty-nesters who no longer care to rattle around in big houses. But townhomes are scarce in Lower Moreland. Residents looking to downsize, she said, have few options but to leave.

Woodmont, Duckworth believed, would suit their needs, as well as those of young families and single professionals with better things to do on weekends than yard work.

By any measure of a TND, the Woodmont plan is about as modest as it can be. It calls for just one market and, possibly, an office. There would be only single-family homes, 2,500 to 4,000 square feet, with garages in the rear and porches in front; they would be clustered around commons. One corner of the tract would be occupied by an eight-acre nature preserve.

With such a configuration, at least 35 percent of the tract could be preserved as open space - four times the amount as in a standard development.

The problem? According to township zoning, nearly everything.

For the most part, Lower Moreland's rules require half-acre lots; Woodmont's would be a quarter acre. Streets must be 30 feet wide; Woodmont's would be closer to 20. Houses are supposed to be at least 20 feet apart; Woodmont's would be as close as 12. As for the alleys, the store, the office? Forget it.

But if Duckworth hoped to change zoning, he had to first change minds.

In the stormy aftermath of the public meeting, more than 60 letters went out from the Arcadia office to Lower Moreland residents, inviting them on a daylong trip to the Kentlands on June 24. Phone calls to all followed.

Finding a bus for a summer Saturday wasn't easy. A staffer contacted 18 companies before coming up lucky, for $600.

Then it was just a matter of waiting to see who'd show up. Duckworth would be surprised.

©Philadelphia Inquirer 2001 

 

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