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ARCHIVED  June 1, 1997

A cure for the common suburb

New urbanism takes hold

Bruce Hendee, president of BHA Design in Fort Collins, has seen it first-hand in new neighborhoods across the country – a resurgence of housing developments sporting quaint homes, tree-lined streets and a corner store is gradually wending its way from both coasts inland.

It’s called new urbanism, or traditional neighborhood design, and emissaries such as Hendee are bringing word of the trend back to their communities and encouraging them to give the tried-and-true American suburb the boot and adopt an old-is-new-again approach to home building and community planning.

It seems the American dream of a spacious home nestled in a bucolic suburb has developed nightmarish qualities. Adherents to new urbanism argue that those who moved out of the city’s core in search of a safe, countryside setting discovered it was only a phantom opportunity – the impression of space only lasts until someone else puts in another suburb.

And someone always puts in another suburb. Subdivisions continue to ooze out from the cities, and the proliferation of isolated developments in outlying areas increases our dependence on the car. Our addiction to the automobile brings more noise, pollution and congestion, and continued sprawl increases social stratification and isolation.

A trip through a typical modern suburb along wide, winding streets inevitably ends in a cul de sac. And these days, the prevalent suburban home design features an expanse of garage dominating the streetscape – another sign of obeisance to the auto – and privacy fences and backyard decks to ensure that neighbors rarely have to meet.

In response to this suburban malaise, and some home buyers’ desire for a friendlier “old-fashioned” home and neighborhood, groups of planners, designers and builders have banded together to create an alternative.

New urbanism offers neighborhood streets laid out in a grid to provide several connections to main roads; traditional architecture featuring decorative trim, front porches, and picket fences; garages at the back of the houses with alleyway access; narrower streets with trees and grass between the curb and sidewalk; smaller lots, with a mix of housing types; and a civic facility or town center, within walking or biking distance from any point.

“New urbanism has grown out of a sense of frustration with the typical suburb,” Hendee said. “It’s part of the zeitgeist happening around the country. People are looking for an alternative to a suburban model that has decreased their quality of life.”

As near as anyone can tell, new urbanism started with the Seaside subdivision in Florida. Sixteen years ago, Robert Davis started a community of charmingly simple homes, pavilions, a village green, shops and restaurants. His idea was to create the beach community of his childhood, and he did it with the help of Andres Duany, a Miami-based architect Hendee credits with leading the charge for new urbanism.

On the west coast, new urbanism is championed by maverick architects such as Berkeley, Calif.-based Peter Calthorpe. Calthorpe contributed to Fort Collins’ City Plan and advocated the plan’s policies for higher densities and mixed-use neighborhoods.

City Plan dictates that new developments in Fort Collins will incorporate aspects of new urbanism, but elsewhere around the region, new urbanism projects have cropped up without a mandate.

Hendee is working on one in Loveland called Seven Lakes.

“For the last 17 years, I’ve laid out subdivisions, but this is the first time I’ve felt like I’m planning in a thoughtful way,” Hendee said of the 147-acre project, which will include about 700 homes of varying sizes, wide boulevards with grassy medians and a town center.

Vicki Wagner a partner in the development, said that in phase one of the project, 59 typical suburban homes were built, but the theme has been changed to new urbanism.

“The hard part is that building codes lag behind new building ideas, but the city has been very receptive,” she said

Hendee also designed the landscape architecture for a project in Windsor. New Windsor is a 250-acre development off Highway 392, which will include more than 500 single-family homes starting at $110,000, town homes, apartments, and a commercial district all designed to capture the feel and charm of old Windsor.

“New Windsor will be a complete neighborhood with homes, schools, parks, shopping, jobs and services all linked by a network of tree-lined streets and pedestrian and bike trails,´ said project developer Dan Palmer. “We’re building a town to accommodate the natural expansion of Windsor and providing a complimentary land-use pattern and esthetic that is an evolution of Windsor’s small-town character.”

Palmer, who shies away from labels such as new urbanism, said he’s taken inspiration from other new urbanism projects, but Colorado has its own character and scale, and the state’s older neighborhoods are the only real precedent for the project.

“A project in Florida or New England doesn’t translate here,” he said. “We’re developing from scratch what we feel best exemplifies the existing community.”

Palmer is confident that New Windsor will be a hit in the marketplace, as is Jay Stoner, a broker associate/partner with The Group Inc. who is handling residential marketing for the project.

“The builders and architects have really captured the spirit of what we’re trying to do, and I think other builders will buy into it when they see it can be profitable,” Stoner said.

While no other project provides direct proof that New Windsor will sell, Stoner said the best analysis is to look at the steep prices people will pay for a little two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow in old town Fort Collins.

“The demand for this is definitely there locally,” he said. “And frankly, a lot of the new developments around here are butt-ugly. I think the change is for the better.”

Traditional neighborhood design projects are under way in Berthoud and Longmont as well.

Mary’s Farm, at the southeast corner of Berthoud, is a 163-lot subdivision being developed at the rate of 35 new homes a year, and broker Marion Maggi of Maggi Town & Country Real Estate says they can’t build them fast enough.

“People really like the look of old Berthoud, but as more move here, those smaller houses in established neighborhoods are harder to come by,” Maggi said. “You can find tract houses anywhere, but as land became available, everyone involved in the project was headed in the same direction: to build good quality homes in the style of old Berthoud small enough to be affordable.”

Maggi said she and others didn’t realize they were in line with a national revolution called new urbanism, they were just responding to what they understood people wanted.

So far, more than 50 homes have been completed, at least half have been sold, and the others are going quickly. Prices range from $110,000 to $145,000 with the option to add a garage at the back for about $10,000 more.

Maggi attributes the project’s success to the type of people moving to Berthoud. She said it’s a diverse group with a common appreciation for Berthoud’s sleepy-town qualities.

Larry Kendall, chairman of The Group, also asserts that new urbanism is becoming a decidedly market-driven phenomenon in Northern Colorado. In Fort Collins, The Group is handling home sales in Indian Hills Village on East Stuart Street, Red Fox Meadows on Prospect Road, west of Shields Street, and Siena, a development near West Elizabeth Street and Overland Trail, all of which incorporate elements of new urbanism.

“Indian Hills has been a very successful project,” Kendall said. “Out of 47 homes, we have maybe five left to sell.”

Red Fox Meadows is similar in concept to Indian Hills, with alleyways and garages in back. But the houses, which sell for an average of $120,000, look like Tudor-style English cottages. Kendall said sales there are also going well.

He also anticipates strong interest in Siena, a hybrid of a typical suburb and new urbanism currently under construction.

Positive market response indicates that new urbanism is a bonified trend and not just a figment of some architect’s imagination, Kendall said, but despite new urbanism’s growing popularity, many builders remain critical.

“Builders are skeptical of anything new because it means the industry has to retool their product to accommodate it,” Kendall said.

He added that resistance to new urbanism is magnified in Fort Collins by some builders’ distaste for City Plan. Many see them as one and the same – a mandated design code that hasn’t been proved practical or marketable.

Kimberly Maevers, director of governmental affairs for the Home Builders Association of Northern Colorado, said new urbanism is fine, but people need a choice.

“What you’re talking about with new urbanism is social engineering, and the question is, will it work?” Maevers said. “A lot of people still want a big lot in a cul de sac, a lot of people want a big back yard and upgraded carpet more than a front porch and an alley, and a lot of people will still drive eight miles to the supermarket rather than walk to the corner store. Are we going to say to them, “Sorry, you can’t have that?’

“As builders, we have to show product that meets the needs of every sector of the population and will sell. We need to give people from all economic levels an affordable choice. Otherwise, they’ll move somewhere else.”

Proponents say new urbanism can work for all socio-economic groups, and neo-traditional homes aren’t necessarily more expensive than newer designs. Traditional designs are often simpler and use space more efficiently, and higher density means lower land costs. New urbanism fans also point out that the trend isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition, as is evident in hybrid projects such as Siena in Fort Collins and Prospect in Longmont.

Perhaps the greatest testament to new urbanism in Colorado is the redevelopment plan for the old Stapleton International Airport, Kendall said. The plan calls for 10,000 new traditional-style homes to be built over the next 30 years.

“That’s a huge commitment of prime property, and Denver doesn’t have a city plan mandating this sort of development,” he said. “It’s all market driven.”

New urbanism takes hold

Bruce Hendee, president of BHA Design in Fort Collins, has seen it first-hand in new neighborhoods across the country – a resurgence of housing developments sporting quaint homes, tree-lined streets and a corner store is gradually wending its way from both coasts inland.

It’s called new urbanism, or traditional neighborhood design, and emissaries such as Hendee are bringing word of the trend back to their communities and encouraging them to give the tried-and-true American suburb the boot and adopt an old-is-new-again approach to home building and community planning.

It seems the American dream of a spacious home nestled in…

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