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philly.com - The philly home page

Builder hopes to sway skeptics with a visit to the real thing

By Diane Mastrull

Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer

 

May 7, 2001 - Second of three parts

                                                   

He had the bus. He had the coffee and the muffins. He had the perfect weather.

All Joe Duckworth needed now were the people.

Early on a sunny Saturday last June, on a quiet street in Lower Moreland, he waited for them. Full or not, the bus would be pulling out at 9, bound for a cutting-edge community called the Kentlands 165 miles to the south.

Duckworth had high hopes for the trip - that it would persuade residents of this Montgomery County township to let him build a similar, environmentally conscious development in their midst.

His project, Woodmont, would have the look and feel of a village, with close-set homes, front porches hugging sidewalks, narrow streets, a corner store, and, importantly, broad swaths of green space.

Nothing like it existed in Lower Moreland, where the classic suburban subdivision reigned. And that was how residents intended to keep it - a position made clear to Duckworth at a rancorous public meeting three months earlier.

Betting they would change their minds if they could see the real thing - the "ah ha!" experience - he had offered to bus the crowd of 70 to the Kentlands.

Duckworth never expected everyone to show up.

He had, however, expected more than four.

On the bright side: There was room to stretch out, and then some.

John Froggatt, 69, had the back of the bus to himself and his wife, Betty, 71. Scanning the empty seats, he wondered aloud, "Can anyone explain to me why there are so few people here when there were so many people at the meeting complaining?"

The question went unanswered.

John Froggatt, a retired factory supervisor, normally would have been swimming on a day such as this. But duty called. A resident of Lower Moreland for 30 years and a fixture at municipal meetings, he felt it his civic obligation to learn about this "traditional neighborhood development," or TND, that Duckworth was pitching.

He and Betty, a real estate agent in Northeast Philadelphia, already were leaning toward Duckworth's corner.

"I want to see how this whole concept works," he said. "It sounds good."

Comprising the other half of the tour group were two of the nine township planning commissioners: Chairman Paul Synnestvedt, 48, a mason by trade, and William Hamburger, 65, a retired ink contractor.

In Pennsylvania's 2,568 municipalities, such commissions advise elected officials on what gets built within their borders.

Members are volunteers and rarely trained in land use.

Though disappointed by the turnout, Duckworth was happy to see the two men, Hamburger in particular. In the horde of critics at the public meeting, he had been the most vocal. "When you look past the thin veneer," Hamburger had said of

Woodmont's high-density housing, "all you see is greed, trying to squeeze in" more homes than zoning would allow.

Now, settling into a seat, he assured the builder, "I'm open-minded."

The 21/2-hour trip began with polite chitchat. But as the bus rolled down I-95, past formerly rural tracts dotted with cookie-cutter houses, the talk turned philosophic. The subject: social isolation in the suburbs.

Opponents of sprawl have referred to conventional subdivisions as "dysfunctional human settlement." Collections of homes surrounded by rye-grass moats, they say, do not fill the basic need for community.

No one on the bus disputed the insularity of suburban life. But was the cause a real estate pattern or a deepening disconnect in society? Were neo-villages, like Woodmont, a viable solution?

Municipalities, Synnestvedt told his companions, "need to find a way to create more of a community feel."

Hamburger objected. That isn't the function of government or developers, he said. "If I don't know my neighbor, it's not

because my house is on a one-acre lot. It's me."

People used to make more of an effort, Hamburger said. He told of growing up in Mount Airy, where block parties and rotating poker games were neighborhood staples.

Even during his early years in Lower Moreland in the 1970s, the rite of lawn-mowing brought neighbors together. But, he said, "people don't even cut their own lawns anymore."

Froggatt suggested that simply having sidewalks in developments would help: "Just a 'Good morning' as you pass someone is an icebreaker."

Duckworth said there was truth in that, having read up on sidewalks. They have to be at least five feet wide for two people to comfortably walk side by side, he reported. But under most municipal zoning, they may be at most four feet wide.

Builders, he said, would rather not put them in, considering them an "unnecessary nuisance" and expense, at about $1,000 per house.

Though he didn't show it, Duckworth said later that he was "surprised and pleased" by the conversation on the bus. His guests were talking about development not in terms of profits or politics but the human condition.

"They were actually thinking about the experience of living in a certain place," he said, adding he was relieved to have found common ground.

He knew that "a glimmer does not a conversion make." Yet he recalled that, as the cedar roofs of the Kentlands came into view, he couldn't help thinking: "We're making progress."

A village is born in rural Maryland

Set on 352 acres of former farmland in Gaithersburg, 13 miles northwest of Washington, the Kentlands is eight times larger than Woodmont would be and far bolder.

Yet it met virtually no resistance.

One reason is Gaithersburg itself, a small city in the heart of Maryland's affluent Montgomery County. During the 1990s, its population grew 33 percent, to 52,600. That increase was driven by booming biotechnology, telecommunications and software businesses, which drew young professionals from across the country - a prime constituency of the neo-village lifestyle.

Gaithersburg's planning director, Jennifer Russel, said the Kentlands also benefited from the rare confluence of a supportive city hall, a locally respected developer, and a nationally renowned architectural team.

The designers were no less than Andres Duany, considered the father of the TND movement, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, his wife and a Paoli native. Their showcase had been the Florida panhandle town of Seaside, one of the country's first TNDs.

To plan the Kentlands in 1988, Duany led a weeklong design session with residents, the City Council, and the school board. From the collaboration came a $200 million whopper of a project, comprising 1,700 homes, 100 stores, one million square feet of office space, an elementary school, and three lakes. It had all the components of a TND, from the small yards and narrow streets to the rear garages.

And virtually none of it complied with Gaithersburg's zoning codes.

Rather than reject the plan or force its modification, city officials created a development zone to accommodate it.

Construction started within 18 months; with the final phase nearly complete, the population is 4,580.

Maryland's anti-sprawl governor, Parris Glendening, has singled out the Kentlands as a model for suburban development, turning it into a must-see for planners and design students.

Duckworth's tour was about to join the rubberneck parade.

Shortly after noon, the bus passed the twin brick pillars at the entrance and crawled along Kentlands Boulevard, the spine of the retail district.

On one side was Market Square, a trendy enclave of hair salons, restaurants, a six-screen movie theater, a gym, and boutique businesses selling crafts, clothing, even pet supplies. On the other, more utilitarian, side was a shopping center anchored by a Giant supermarket, a Lowe's home-improvement mega-store, and a Kmart.

The stores were a 10-minute walk from anywhere in the Kentlands. Instead of vast parking lots, there were bike racks and wide sidewalks - emblems of a community made for pedestrians.

For buses, it was a tougher go. On the way to the residential district, Duckworth's had to negotiate a traffic circle, eliciting the first moans.

"No traffic circles allowed" at Woodmont, Synnestvedt warned wryly.

"Too many people with memories of New Jersey," Hamburger chimed in.

Soon the bus was rolling down leafy streets lined with homes of all sizes and shapes. Townhouses (starting at nearly $300,000) sat next to brick-face Colonials ($400,000 and up). Just strides from tiny "carriage" apartments (minimum monthly rent, $1,000) were $1 million mansions.

The array of housing has brought a wide range of age groups to every block, from young families to retirees. What it has not produced is socioeconomic diversity, a recurring criticism of not only TNDs but also of high-end development in general.

The Kentlands, however, may be illustrative of a more common objection to such developments: the power of the rule book.

Six pages of standards ensure order. To wit:

Nearly every home must have a fence, white for wood and black for iron. Flower boxes, the regulations say, "are strongly encouraged." Bird baths in front yards are not, unless they are of "museum quality."

The Duckworth group left the bus for a closer look at brick Colonials fronted by white columns and strips of meticulously cut lawn.

"The houses I like," Hamburger said, but stopped short to glower at an alley.

He, like many Lower Morelanders, had drawn the line at the notion of alleys in Woodmont, contending they would be magnets for crime and trash.

"Remember the people who came from the Northeast?" he reminded Duckworth. "They see this, and they're going to say,

'We're back in the Northeast.' "

The alleys, Duckworth argued, were indispensable to a traditional neighborhood development. They allowed garages to be relegated to the backs of houses, freeing up space in the front for porches. "I'd rather call them 'rear driveways,' " he said.

Replied Hamburger: "It's called snake oil."

The group moved on to a neighborhood that would have been even more of a code-buster in most municipalities. Here, homes had been built hard by a Colonial-revival mansion that held a cultural center and catering hall - the scene of many Kentlands weddings, and the source of background music for the block.

In the mix, too, were real estate and architectural offices, and - the payoff for high-density living - a park. Slightly smaller than a football field and ringed with trees, it is the site of a large annual Octoberfest. On this, more ordinary day, a half-dozen people sat and watched their dogs play.

By putting houses on smaller lots, "you get places like this," said Duckworth, who had a similar park planned for Woodmont.

Synnestvedt saw the potential. "This is a nice size," he mused, "for a pickup softball game."

The tour ended where it had begun, at Market Square. It had lasted two hours, though what it had produced, Duckworth wasn't sure.

All said they liked the feel of the Kentlands, and that no photos or videos could do that justice. "Those people who have been complaining at meetings should have had their butts here," John Froggatt declared.

The two members of the planning commission, however, were far from becoming converts to the cause.

"We don't have ordinances to support this type of development," Synnestvedt told Duckworth.

"Are we guinea pigs?" Hamburger asked, sounding as if he already knew the answer.

Duckworth ended the day without the commitments he had hoped for. But he still had some cards to play.

He owned a 42-acre chunk of Lower Moreland, and building nothing was "not an option," he cautioned his guests. "In two years, there will be close to 100 homes on this site.

"It's just a question of how you would like them arranged."

ŠPhiladelphia Inquirer 2001 

 

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