Town in country - battling sprawl

A new book chronicles two developers’ struggle to battle the trends of suburban sprawl and create a neotraditional neighborhood in rural Chester County.

Posted: May 18, 2007

Ah, the poor, maligned suburban developer. Finding someone to speak up for the breed is almost as difficult as securing approvals for a big, buildable tract in Chester County. But now comes Witold Rybczynski, the best-selling author, distinguished Wharton School professor, accomplished architect, and Chestnut Hill resident.

In his latest book, Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville, he tells of the trials and tribulations of Joseph and Jason Duckworth, father-son developers from Wayne-based Arcadia Land Co., as they struggle to create an old-timey, walkable small town in a time of PVC keystones, composite floorboards, and factory-manufactured production houses.

Chronicling the birth of the Duckworths' neotraditional town in Chester County's rural Londonderry Township, Rybczynski experiences an epiphany: He realizes that his genteel Chestnut Hill neighborhood started out as a developer's rote subdivision. So did Forest Hill Gardens in New York, Palos Verdes Estates in Los Angeles, and many other desirable communities. Why, even Philadelphia's prettiest rowhouse blocks were thrown up by a developer on a tear. Today's profit-driven arrays of ticky-tacky boxes, Rybczynski concludes, may be tomorrow's cherished neighborhoods.

"For better or worse," he writes, "America has always approached community building as a business."

America, Rybczynski riffs, owes its existence to developers eager to make a buck. George Washington, before going off to become father of the nation, was a land surveyor, which was an early form of developer. And Thomas Jefferson? Didn't he lay out a college campus before building that fancy house on the hill? No wonder we declare the right to subdivide to be self-evident, and that all cornfields are endowed with certain inalienable property values.

Last Harvest (Scribners, $26) may be an unabashed paean to suburban developers and their developments, but Rybczynski has picked one of the Philadelphia region's best professionals. After a career devoted to cultivating housing monocultures, Joe Duckworth became an early convert to New Urbanism. The movement's followers, who are holding their annual convention in Philadelphia through this weekend, are more interested in creating textured, mixed-use places that mimic older towns like Wayne or Haddonfield than in simply throwing up more rows of single-family houses.

By focusing on Duckworth, along with a cast of Chester County characters, including planner Tom Comitta and architect Tim Cassidy, Rybczynski ends up shining a spotlight on the efforts of the New Urbanists to fight sprawl and create more neighborly places to live.

For all their good intentions, the book makes clear that their built results often fall short of the movement's goals. New Daleville, the subject of Rybczynski's book, is no exception.

Strange as it sounds, Rybczynski says he wasn't all that interested in New Urbanism when he started Last Harvest. He's not much bothered, either, by sprawl. He just wanted to know more about the creation of a typical subdivision.

"I went to look for a case study of a suburban development and couldn't find anything," explains the strapping Canadian, who previously explored the uncharted territory of our built environment with breezy studies of domestic living (Home), residential architecture (The Perfect House), and public parks (A Clearing in the Distance).

The absence of case studies may have something to do with the fact that developers tend to be tight-lipped about their methods. But because Rybczynski had known Joe Duckworth for years, he was able to persuade the affable developer to give him a seat at the table during the long process of creating a new neighborhood in the middle of a cornfield.

Since writing the book, he says, he has discovered two things: One, "no project is typical." And two, housing developments take a lot longer to jell than books of narrative nonfiction take to write.

As you drive through New Daleville's main entrance, you might think you've arrived at one of Chester County's old crossroads towns. The gable-roofed, porch-fronted houses sit on small, almost urban lots, and their front doors virtually spill out onto the sidewalk, as they might in nearby West Chester. Just as in that old town, the private space is separated from the public by the thin white line of a picket fence.

The difference is that New Daleville's fences are made from vinyl, as is nearly everything else on the exterior of the houses. Once you cross the picket fence, you can easily tell the shutters and siding are hollow fakes. All the architectural cues that make the facades look like something you'd find in Annapolis vanish as soon as you walk around to the sides. The houses, built by Ryan Homes and starting at $270,000, aren't nearly as real as they seemed through the car's windshield.

Nor does New Daleville, with its tic-tac-toe board of completed houses and cleared building lots, remotely feel like one of the county's existing towns. Proposed shops, a ballfield, and a Londonderry municipal building, all penciled in for the far corner of the development, have yet to materialize. As with real old towns, it will take time for this new one to mature.

Still, New Daleville counts as an improvement on a typical subdivision. Thanks to the existence of sidewalks, a playground, and a perimeter walking trail, you actually see people strolling around.

But that modest success hasn't kept New Urbanists from worrying that projects like New Daleville will give their movement a bad name.

"New Urbanism is a lot more than houses on smaller lots," says Steve Filmanowicz, communications director for the Congress of New Urbanism. With just 125 houses planned, one of New Daleville's problems, he suggests, "is that it's too small to have a diversity of building types and uses."

The Duckworths admit they, too, are a bit disappointed in New Daleville. Jason Duckworth, who oversaw the development, says it might have more heft if Londonderry had allowed more density, and if the housing market hadn't slowed. He also regrets that an adjacent subdivision, Country Walk, didn't connect its streets to New Daleville's. As an added insult, Country Walk's conventional houses, on sprawling one-acre lots, have sold faster than New Daleville's architecturally inflected, anti-sprawl designs.

The cornfield that became New Daleville was probably the wrong candidate for a New Urbanist project. New towns work best when they can be grafted onto settlements. New Daleville is a true exurb, untethered to Philadelphia, Wilmington or even Kennett Square.

Its failings seem to confirm Rybczynski's market-oriented perspective. "Despite the sensible arguments in favor of small lots, narrow streets, walkability and density, buying a house is not, for most people, about ideology, it's about fulfilling personal dreams and practical needs," he argues.

It's never clear in the book whether he actually supports the New Urbanists, though he clearly admires the designs produced by the older Garden City movement. He spends a good deal of ink defending sprawl on the grounds that if people want big houses on big lots, they should be able to buy them. He even repeats the now-disproved canard, popularized in Robert Bruegmann's Sprawl, that low-rise Los Angeles is more dense than high-rise New York. The Big Apple is actually four times as dense, according to a Los Angeles group's recent study.

The book's strength is that it casts an unsentimental eye on New Urbanism and shows how market forces conspire against its admirable, progressive goals. As Jason Duckworth concedes, it will be a long time before New Daleville ever succeeds in attracting retailers to its town center. "Even Starbucks won't look at you unless you have 20,000 cars a day and a traffic light," he complains.

Others, like architect Cassidy, a member of Londonderry's planning commission, suggest that a greater commitment to New Urbanist design standards might have made a difference. Planner Comitta argues that the Duckworths could have subsidized the retail to demonstrate to potential buyers what the place could become. Rybczynski's friendship with the Duckworths keeps him from offering such observations.

The Duckworths aren't giving up on New Urbanism. They have more projects in the pipeline. "I'm of the view that there is a strong demand for more neighborly neighborhoods," says Jason Duckworth, a Narberth resident.

"A lot of people would love to live in Narberth," he added, "but there aren't enough houses there to go around."


Visit New Daleville

The Londonderry Township neighborhood, located at Routes 926 and 796, will host a block party, with snacks and kids' events, from noon to 4 p.m. tomorrow. Witold Rybczynski, author of "Last Harvest: How a Cornfield Became New Daleville," will sign copies of his book.


Inga Saffron blogs about Philadelphia architecture at http://go.philly.com/skyline


Contact architecture critic Inga Saffron at 215-854-2213 or isaffron@phillynews.com.

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|