Kentlands 'New Urbanism' views Columbia as old hat


GAITHERSBURG -- The newest America has bypassed the "Next America." Kentlands -- a 4-year-old development on 352 acres in this Montgomery County city -- reflects the very latest ideas on suburban planning, ideas that resurrectAmerica's roots with narrow streets, alleys, town squares, front porches and an eclectic mix of housing.

These traditional small-town elements are cropping up more and more in new housing developments throughout this region and nationally. They are even being promoted by Maryland state planners.

But these new ideas have little in common with the design of Maryland's largest planned community: Columbia, the suburban Howard County new town that was proclaimed three decades ago as a path-breaking model for the "Next America."

The differences have to do with pedestrians vs. automobiles, streets that lead somewhere vs. cul-de-sacs, downtowns vs. shopping malls, stimulating "streetscapes" vs. suburban blandness. And therein lies a critical view of what has been achieved by Columbia since its plans first were approved 30 years ago.

There is no question that to compare Columbia and Kentlands is to compare a city with a housing development: Columbia has 40 times Kentlands' land and more than 30 times its population. Columbia also set new suburban standards for orderly growth, environmental preservation and racial and economic integration.

But Kentlands' planners and other architects and planners who adhere to a philosophy known as the "New Urbanism" dismiss Columbia as an irrelevant period piece.

These "neo-traditionalists" say Columbia fails to solve many suburban problems: isolated neighborhoods, inefficient road systems, housing segregated by social classes and arbitrary divisions between residential and commercial areas.

Columbia, they say, did little to break the debilitating marriage of suburbanites and their cars.

The new town is "green, perhaps prettier, but in the end it's a suburb just like any other suburb," says Neal Payton, associate professor of architecture at Catholic University in Washington. "It's an interesting moment in time. It represents where we were in the 1960s, but I don't think in the end it was a huge success. That doesn't mean it was a failure either. But it didn't ultimately influence a lot."

In a Kentlands promotional video, New Urbanism guru Andres Duany -- whose Miami architectural firm designed Kentlands and is working on similar projects in six other states -- describes Columbia not as a town, but a "standard pod development with great marketing."

Cy Paumier of Columbia's LDR International planning firm, who helped design several Columbia villages, now regrets its planning accepted the dominance of cars.

"Neo-traditional neighborhoods are far and away better than a cul-de-sac neighborhood," Mr. Paumier says. "Today, Columbia would be a much better place if that was the way it was designed. These are subtleties, but subtleties have a lot to do with how people interact."

Columbia defenders are quick to stress that the new town is a much more diverse project than Kentlands, covering a land mass the size of Manhattan and now home to 82,000 residents and 2,500 businesses. It has been embraced by consumers, been widely emulated across the nation and made millions of dollars for its developer, the Rouse Co.

To Kentlands and its clones, Alton J. Scavo, Rouse's Columbia ** manager, offers the challenge: "Let's make sure the project has met the test of time. I don't want to hear about something built yesterday."

Columbia's accomplishments "are incomprehensible," Mr. Scavo adds, waving a Rouse brochure touting its broad business base and educational, health, cultural and recreational offerings. "There wasn't a lot here to grow out of. Please don't take that accomplishment for granted."

Moreover, John W. Hill, professor of architecture at the University of Maryland and a former Columbia resident, credits Columbia for having developed some of the principles now serving as the foundation for the newer neo-traditional developments.

"Columbia was very important in its demonstration that you can build a new community," he says. "You should see New Urbanism and Columbia as a continuum."

But even Columbia's most ardent backers agree it didn't solve the suburban problems sparking the New Urbanists' revolt.

For instance:

* Columbia depends on a pedestrian-unfriendly road network -- cul-de-sacs feeding collector roads feeding arterials -- that isolates rather than connects neighborhoods. Pedestrians are channeled onto wooded paths behind houses.

"The moment you take pedestrians off the street, that's the moment you turn it into a utility for the car rather than a civic and social place," says Peter Calthorpe, planner of one of the largest New Urbanism projects, Laguna West near Sacramento, Calif. "They didn't figure on the corrosive impact of the auto."

* Columbia lacks visually stimulating civic places, street corridors and a vital downtown. New Urbanists prefer New England-style downtowns centered on town greens.

Columbia's Town Center is a lifeless place where pedestrians must dodge traffic to get to the main destination -- an enclosed mall surrounded by asphalt. "There's nothing happening," says Helen Ruther, a Town Center resident. "There's nothing to attract people to walk to."

* Columbia segregates types of land uses -- retail, residential and office -- and separates housing into clusters by size and value. Rental properties are set apart as well.

New Urbanists say this leads to sterile environments and suburban bigotry based on income. They prefer mixing housing types -- not just within neighborhoods but from home to home along the same street.

All are problems that Kentlands' planners claim they have solved in a suburban community that tries to evoke the charm of Annapolis or Georgetown and sells itself "as a way of life that is not new, merely forgotten."

The development -- to increase from about 2,500 residents to 4,000 at completion in 1998 -- will offer single-family homes, small cottages, townhouses and apartments above garages. Homes are on small lots with dark brick exteriors, steeply pitched roofs, front porches and picket fences.

To encourage interaction among residents, homes are close to each other and to sidewalks, streets and town squares. To promote walking and slow traffic, streets are narrow and arranged on a grid. Traffic is dispersed. Alleys behind homes are lined with garages, hiding vehicles.

Some Kentlands residents say it is far preferable to the more impersonal suburbs from which they moved. "You walk about your neighborhood," says retiree Ted Gross, who had lived in a typical suburb in New Jersey. "That's the whole concept. Neighbor greets neighbor and neighbor is concerned about neighbor."

The state Office of Planning is encouraging similar suburban developments on the theory that they mirror Maryland's traditional settlements. Neo-traditional projects under way or planned in this region include ones in Ellicott City, near Union Bridge and in Loudoun County, Va.

But in many jurisdictions, certain neo-traditional elements -- such as apartments above stores or by houses -- are prohibited by regulations favoring more inefficient, large-lot residential growth and sprawling commercial projects. And Kentlands itself is hardly turning out to be a nirvana.

Chevy Chase Federal Savings Bank foreclosed on the project in 1991 and has been developing it since. Residents now are in a tug of war with the bank over whether it will carry out plans for Kentlands' Georgetown-style business district in a way faithful to the project's original concept. One corner of Kentlands already includes a large, typical suburban shopping center.

"The long tentacles of money are superseding the wishes of the community," Mr. Gross says.

Also -- despite its planners' rhetoric -- Kentlands' apartments are mostly separate from single-family homes. Housing density is about twice Columbia's.And its homes are hardly inexpensive -- starting at about $220,000, about average for Montgomery County.

Despite these failings, Mr. Paumier says, Rouse may have missed a chance to learn a few new tricks from the New Urbanists in planning Columbia's last village, River Hill, which primarily features single-family homes along traditional cul-de-sacs.

However, Lloyd Bookout of the Urban Land Institute in Washington says the decision likely was smart business. Homebuyers "tend to be very conservative and conventional," he says, preferring "the house on the cul-de-sac."

And that may be the final barrier to changing American suburbia, says Roger K. Lewis, a neo-traditional design proponent and University of Maryland architecture professor.

"A lot of people who live in Columbia think it's a slice of bread

and apple pie," he says. "What we idealize as designers and theoreticians -- what we all believe consumers should think is wonderful and love -- they really don't."

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