AND NOW...DESIGNER COMMUNITIES

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When architect Charles W. Moore received the Gold Medal last week from the American Institute of Architects -- an award considered by many to be architecture's highest honor -- the developers of a new residential community in Maryland had good reason to be glad.

The 3,000-unit Russett community will go on the market starting this spring as the latest of three large developments in western Anne Arundel County, and one of the features that sets it apart from its competitors is that the community center has been designed by Mr. Moore, a longtime friend of co-developer Curtis F. Peterson.

The community center, slated for construction starting this spring, is one of the first buildings in Maryland designed by the 65-year-old architect, whose engaging, humanistic, often whimsical projects include the Sea Ranch condominiums in northern California, the Piazza d'Italia in New Orleans, Kresge College in Santa Cruz and the Beverly Hills Civic Center.

His AIA award can only help marketing prospects for Russett, planned for a tract just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. But according to Joel Mostrom, president of Curtis F. Peterson Inc., the real reason for using an architect of Mr. Moore's stature is not to get name recognition but to get the high-caliber work for which he is known.

"The idea for this new development is to use a few initial buildings to set the tone for what will follow," Mr. Moore says. "If we do that right, it will entice people to say: 'That's where I would like to settle.' "

RUSSETT IS THE LATEST OF several residential communities in Maryland that represent a growing trend. Developers are hiring leading architects to design all or part of a large residential subdivision that typically wouldn't have a very strong design orientation. They know that today's buyers aren't just buying a home anymore -- they're buying a community. And they want the best possible designers to create it for them.

Other well-known architects who have been hired to put their stamp on a Maryland community include Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk of Miami; John Burgee and Philip Johnson, Emilio Ambasz, Arthur Cotton Moore and Stanton Eckstut.

The involvement of so many prominent designers in local residential development represents a marked change from the recent past, when leading architects for the most part had little to do with mainstream housing.

In the first half of the century, of course, many of the world's best known architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, were deeply involved in housing issues. But during the 1980s, architects such as Michael Graves, Frank Gehry and Helmut Jahn have had relatively little to do with housing, except perhaps for the one or two fabulously expensive houses a year they may design for a millionaire client. For the most part, today's best-known architects have built their reputations on public and corporate buildings, not housing.

But all that seems to be changing in the 1990s, and Maryland is on the cutting edge of the change. In an age of designer jeans, designer sheets and designer tableware, perhaps it was only a matter of time before architects would get a chance to try their hand at "designer communities."

At the start of the year, Maryland had no fewer than a dozen such communities under construction or on the drawing boards. Over the next decade, more than 5,000 residences will be built within their limits. And it's not just happening in Maryland: Robert Venturi, Robert Stern, Alexander Cooper and Jaquelin Cooper are among the leading architects working on new communities in Florida, New York, Virginia and other states.

Actually, there is no hard and fast definition for a designer community. It typically involves a sizable residential development of several hundred acres, containing hundreds or even thousands of residences of various types, including single-family detached houses, town houses, condominiums and apartments. These communities will usually be constructed by a variety of builders, who acquire lots from the land developer who TC assembles the property and obtains the preliminary construction approvals. It is the land developer who usually seeks out the designers for the community.

What most separates the designer communities from regular "planned unit developments," which civil engineers map out to show public officials that the project will comply with local building controls, is their emphasis on design as a means of achieving a better quality of life.

In some cases, the architects try to rethink the standard &L; subdivision and come up with new ways of laying out streets and buildings or mixing shops and workplaces with housing. In other cases, they focus special design attention on the public spaces and common buildings used by everyone.

Building industry observers say there are several reasons why the phenomenon is spreading. First, in areas where no-growth sentiment is strong developers are finding that hiring highly respected designers may be one way to get quicker approval from public review agencies and to win over skeptical citizens groups as well.

Developers also are discovering that well-designed communities may help give them a marketing edge. Mitchell Rouda, editor of Builder magazine, observed in a recent column that when builders have all learned to pack their houses chock-full of the same amenities, buyers decide where to live based on a different set of criteria. For many builders, "the amenities race in new homes is over," he said. "The next competition will be in the quality of communities."

ONE OF THE FIRST LOCAL communities that reflects an effort to rethink the suburbs is Kentlands, a 1,600-unit community in Gaithersburg planned by the husband-and-wife team of Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. The Florida-based architects are perhaps best known as the architects who designed the master plan for Seaside, a resort community on the Florida panhandle that harks back in feel to the small towns of the 19th century.

For them, Kentlands represented a chance to apply some of their neo-traditional ideas to create a year-round community that provides an alternative to Columbia and Reston and other auto-dependent developments built starting in the 1960s. They set out to reduce reliance on the automobile and promote interaction among residents by doing away with the squiggly streets, cul-de-sacs and single-use zoning that separates residences from shops and offices. The key to it all is a set of codes that spell out in advance where every building will go and how each will relate to the others, based on traditional methods of 19th century town planning.

"I like to think we're inventing nothing," Mr. Duany says. "All we're doing is rediscovering the best of what planners did for a long time."

Construction began last year, and land has now been sold for nearly 700 residences. Even though the real estate market is soft, Kentlands is doing well -- with hundreds of prospective buyers visiting the project on a typical weekend. William Winburn IV, vice president of Joseph Alfandre & Co., attributes the reaction to the unusual design approach. "We're very pleased. We've sold everything we can sell through the end of the year. We have a unique product, and it seems to be appreciated by the consumers so far."

Neo-traditional planning is catching on in other parts of the state as well:

*For a 100-acre tract that Kettler Brothers owns next to New Market, Lee Glenn and Roxanne Williams designed a community called North New Market, which uses traditional neighborhood street patterns to play off the fabric of the existing town.

*At Worman's Mill in Frederick, developer Robert Wormald has created a real-life version of Our Town, complete with a town square and bandstand, English Tudor and Colonial houses, and a 65-acre working farm along Tuscarora Creek.

*Nottingham Properties and Crozier Associates have drawn high praise from Baltimore County officials for a proposed community off King Avenue in White Marsh in which most of the houses will face parkland. For nearby Middle River, Emilio Ambasz is designing a residential community as part of the 1,000-acre Worldbridge Center complex.

*The 80-unit Brightwood retirement community in Brooklandville has residences framing a central lawn in an arrangement that is intentionally reminiscent of the University of Virginia's campus. A retirement community planned for the Annapolis area, Crab Creek, has been designed by Cochran, Stephenson and Donkervoet Inc. to have a radial plan that echoes the original plan of Annapolis.

A somewhat different approach was taken at Russett, where the streets won't all be on a rectilinear grid and houses and shops won't be so intertwined. Instead, Russett will be something of a hybrid between Kentlands and Columbia, planners say, because even though old-fashioned town planning ideas have received a lot of attention lately, many builders still like the privacy of curving roads and cul-de-sacs, and Russett's hilly terrain lends itself to less grid-like street patterns.

At Russett, the developers are placing special emphasis on protecting the natural environment and creating memorable public spaces. They plan to leave one third of the 613-acre parcel in its undeveloped state and create a wildlife sanctuary. They have asked Mr. Moore to design the community center and possibly an adjacent library as signature buildings that would form the beginnings of a village square that would help set the tone for the community.

Mr. Moore said Russett is one of the first residential communities he has helped design since he began work on Sea Ranch in the 1960s.

Asked whether his approach is as effective as the one taken by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, he said he was uncertain.

"I'm not sure which is the right way," he said. But "I'm not at all opposed to doing it this way. . . . Everyone wants to see how much an architect can achieve. Everyone wants to get the maximum effect from their investment, the biggest bang for the buck."

In a rendering, the community center looks like a gingerbread cottage that Hansel and Gretel might find in the woods, and its quirky, 1920s German Bungalow style belies its rather large size.

"The image at Russett is more conservative, more familiar and traditional, than Kresge College or Sea Ranch," but it still has to be memorable, Mr. Moore said.

"It's a matter of doing something that's familiar in its general tone and style but something that's also sort of fresh and interesting and carefully designed. That's a lot of what we're after."

pTC Other designers went in still other directions:

*For Oxford Landing, the residential portion of PortAmerica development in Prince George's County, John Burgee and Philip Johnson took a purely historicist approach and designed three-story town houses and five-story condominium buildings in the Regency style of 18th century England. "It's every architect's dream to build a town, a whole environment," Mr. Johnson wrote in an article for Architectural Digest. "In this case the dominant style for the houses is Regency because that's the best style for urban housing."

*For HarborView, the 1,590-unit waterfront community off KeHighway in Baltimore, a group headed by Columbia Design Collective designed a series of high-rise towers evoking the solidity and grandeur of pre-World War II apartment buildings.

*Across the harbor, developers of the 800-unit Inner Harbor Eascommunity plan to build low- and mid-rise housing all along the waterfront, with a promenade reminiscent of the one at Battery Park City in lower Manhattan. The master planner is Stanton Eckstut, one of the original planners of Battery Park City.

*In Jessup, developer Ethan Grossman worked with architect Arthur Cotton Moore to design Signal Hill, a community of modular housing in which each factory-built residence has been dressed up in one of 11 different "stick-built" facades to create more architectural variety. "The whole purpose is to break up the facades so it looks like every house is different," Mr. Grossman says. "Otherwise, this would have seemed like the Fort Meade barracks."

AS THESE COMMUNITIES take shape across the state, some observers are beginning to question whether they really represent an improvement over previous generations of housing. The designers of neo-traditional communities, particularly, have drawn some criticism for capitalizing on the craze for nostalgia and having an illogical distaste for cars.

One group that will be monitoring these developments is Partners for Vital Communities, a recently formed organization that seeks ways to promote sustainable living places where "the experience of mutual support and belonging becomes commonplace."

Charles Brenton, a landscape architect and member of the group, says he believes designers such as Andres Duany "are definitely on to something." But he says some members of the group question whether their plans will yield a significantly better way of living or whether they are simply inserting a different planning module into the typical subdivision. "Is it really more livable," he says, "or just imaginative marketing?"

Jay Parker, president of HOH Associates, a design consultant working with Mr. Moore at Russett, says he has detected a backlash of sorts against the neo-traditional communities on the part of some builders, who are unhappy that the planners exert more control than usual over what is built. At Russett planners are putting more design attention on the common areas and public buildings than on individual houses, he says, because they don't want to impose so many restrictions that they scare off all the builders.

UNTIL MORE OF THESE COM- munities take shape, their full impact will be unknown. It stands to reason, though, that any designer community will only be as good as the design on which it is based and how well it is implemented. No matter who is hired, prospective residents must evaluate it the same way they always have: for the quality of life it provides, as measured by the location, the amenities, the ability to foster a sense of place and sense of community.

Although much of this movement has yet to leap from paper to reality, the positive aspects of designer communities are hard to ignore. For the first time in many years, large numbers of talented, influential architects are helping plan communities that might not have had the benefit of their involvement five or 10 years ago. And they are increasingly focusing their attention not only on the residences themselves but their surroundings as well.

Clearly the best of the plans will be the ones that go beyond stylistic considerations and successfully address design issues that affect everyone. As architectural historian Phoebe Stanton has noted, "The time has come when almost none of us can afford to live in a building designed by an architect. But we can all afford a piece of a good site plan." In many ways, that is what these new communities are all about.

EDWARD GUNTS writes about architecture and development for The Sun.

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