SERRELL AND JOHN Stoke are in search of a neighborhood. A real neighborhood, with parks, sidewalks, houses intimately placed and people you can't help bumping into. Some place like Federal Hill, which they love but now feel it's time to leave, for all the usual reasons.

A lot of their neighbors -- 30-somethings with small children, worried about schools and safety -- are in the same boat. "We're all leaving," Ms. Stoke says, "but we go 'round and 'round about where do we go? We don't have many choices." The older neighborhoods they like are close to the city and not safe enough to justify leaving Federal Hill. They feel secure further out, but all they see are subdivisions, the same recipe repeated ad nauseum.

"I hate them," says Ms. Stoke, who sells commercial property for the investment arm of USF&G.; "I just can't stand the concept of driving up to your little plot of land, getting out of your car in your garage, going into your house, and that's it."

She puts a colleague on the phone to show she's not alone. David Porter rents near Washington D.C.; he and his wife have put off buying because they can't find a place with a "neighborhood feel. We don't want to be out in a traditional off-the-highway development with pseudo-brick gates and a maze of cul-de-sacs where nobody knows their neighbors."

A neglected market

Not long ago Ms. Stoke thought a new Pulte project in Glyndon might be what she and her friends were looking for. Ads made it sound like a village. Instead, she found a standard upscale development appended to a village. The big houses no doubt contain every modern convenience. "I thought they were ugly," Ms. Stoke said.

Do she and David Porter represent the majority of the housing market? Obviously not, given the continuing popularity of classic suburbia. But are there more like them than developers realize? Are their numbers growing? And is there money to be made by offering a product they want?

Many in the development community are quick to answer no -- perhaps too quick, if the Stokes and Porters are to be believed when they say their circles include plenty who would gladly pay a bit more for a more architecturally interesting, higher quality house in a town-like setting.

Recently Pulte announced it would not build in Honeygo, a planned 5,100-unit community near White Marsh. Baltimore County officials want Honeygo to have that neighborhood feel David Porter is after. They want a village layout and have imposed design restrictions and guidelines that have turned off some developers and builders. They recommend, for example, that projects include at least some brick; they require a steeper roof pitch than seen on most tract houses and -- horrors! -- garages at the rear.

The garage rule is a well-gnawed bone of contention. "Everybody" wants a front-facing garage, builders insist. The truth more likely is that buyers who choose from standard models are most likely to choose designs with a family room behind a conspicuous garage. But you see older houses that don't fit the formula selling, too. There's a segment of the market that either doesn't care about or actively dislikes the current popular floor plans.

"Most of my friends laugh at the idea of all that garage," Mr. Porter says. Ms. Stoke says gaudy garages "make me ill."

Honeygo, a worthwhile risk?

There's no denying projects like Honeygo entail more risk. Honeygo diverges from what's been tried, true and ingrained since the end of World War II. It asks builders to innovate, reach out to an unfamiliar market, bear somewhat higher costs in the expectation that buyers will pay more for a better product, perhaps wait for a slower return on investment. Other builders will make the same decision Pulte did.

This does not mean county planners are rushing to weaken the guidelines, or that they should. They not only expect cookie-cutter builders to keep a distance, they prefer it. Pulte's declaration notwithstanding, there's no reason to believe at this point that developers and builders can't be found willing to do what the county wants.

Perry Hall Farms, a 1,050 unit piece of Honeygo, will be the only project exempt from restrictions because plans for it were submitted before they were conceived. Yet the developer has volunteered to follow many of the guidelines. Plans for a 190-home section and several smaller projects have been approved. Veteran realtors believe there is a market for Honeygo, that the guidelines will yield an appealing result, and that the odds of long-term payoff are good for builders willing to exercise a little creativity and patience.

Likewise, there's no reason to believe "everybody" wants what developers and builders are offering now.

If that were so, village projects wouldn't be selling well in the growing number of places bold enough to try them. And Serrell Stoke wouldn't still be driving around, looking for a neighborhood to make her own.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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