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Retrofitting Suburbia

Three Alabama towns are robust examples of New Urbanism — traditional communities designed to be practical rather than nostalgic. One was named the National Association of Homebuilders’ 2014 Community of the Year.

ABOVE Fresh and inviting yet walkable and neighborly, Hampstead offers homes surrounding a town center.
 

It is called New Urbanism, a design concept in which communities are compact and connected. A place where children can walk to school, families can walk to church, and many of the necessities of daily life, such as food and health care, are also just a short stroll away. Where the sidewalks are wide and the front porches deep, and neighbors actually know each other.

Actually, this concept isn’t new at all. It is the way almost all communities throughout the world, including neighborhoods in larger cities, were structured for hundreds of years — before automobiles sent us sprawling into the suburbs and brought an abrupt end to the pedestrian way of living.

“It’s really a return to pre-World War II city building and planning,” says Anna Lowder, co-director of design and development for the New Urbanism community of Hampstead, in Montgomery. “So the name is somewhat of a misnomer. We’ve really just gone back to more traditional planning. It’s creating an environment like what we used to see, when things were pedestrian oriented instead of car oriented.”

Much of the origin of the New Urbanism movement — also referred to as Traditional Neighborhood Development — can be traced to the Miami-based architecture firm DPZ. Founded in 1980 by Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the primary objective of DPZ was to replace suburban sprawl with sustainable development that was more neighborhood focused and pedestrian friendly.

“Before the car, your elementary daily needs needed to be within walking distance, so all the public spaces were walkable,” Duany says. “Then they changed the system to accommodate the car, and in the process they inadvertently made pedestrianism unlikely, if not impossible. No one said they didn’t want pedestrians. It just became so unpleasant to walk that it disappeared.”

DPZ’s initial project under this banner was the town of Seaside, in the panhandle of Florida. Working with property owner Robert Davis, the great grandson of Pizitz department store founder Louis Pizitz, DPZ created the United States’ first traditionally organized new town design in several decades. Duany and Plater-Zyberk then founded the Congress for New Urbanism, and a movement was under way.

“The promise of suburbia was to live in nature and enjoy free-flowing traffic instead of the congestion of downtown,” Duany says. “That promise was not delivered. In the 1980s, people in the suburbs realized that they were not living in nature, and that traffic congestion was a misery. When that occurred, New Urbanism was seen as part of the solution.”

Duany rejects the notion that New Urbanism is simply a wistful desire to return to the way things used to be. Instead, he believes, the concept takes the best parts of suburban life — easy parking, diverse retail options — and merges them with the convenience of a true neighborhood environment.

“The reason it’s New Urbanism and not old urbanism is that it combines elements of both,” Duany says. “We are non-ideological. This is not a nostalgic movement. It’s a pragmatic movement about whatever works best in the long run. And it turns out that what works best tends to have a lot of the characteristics of old-town planning, but with some of the things that suburbs do well. So it’s actually ruthlessly pragmatic.

“Essentially, suburbia, as we’ve known it, is obsolete. Office parks and malls are closing. People want the main streets. So now New Urbanism is dedicated to retrofitting suburbia and repairing urban sprawl. One of the most exciting things we’re doing now is taking all this great investment in suburbia that is losing value, and we’re fixing it. We’re making it walkable and diverse. This isn’t some kind of intellectual movement. It’s driven very much by reality.”

There are several communities in Alabama that fit within the definition of New Urbanism. Some, such as the Village of Blount Springs and the Village of Tannin in Orange Beach, have struggled to make the concept work. But others are thriving, finding that there is a market in Alabama for this type of lifestyle. Here is a look at three of them.

Hampstead 

MONTGOMERY

After living in London for several years, Anna Lowder and Harvi Sahota moved to Montgomery in 2005 and began renovating some of the city’s older downtown buildings. But they kept thinking about the close-knit nature of many of the European communities they had seen and wondering whether people in Montgomery would be receptive to that kind of lifestyle.

“We had been reading and learning about New Urbanism, and thought this was a good chance where we could bring something different to Montgomery,” Lowder says.

So, working with DPZ, Lowder and Sahota spent more than two years planning the design and preparing 416 acres of property, located just outside the perimeter parkway southeast of downtown. They had watercolor sketches made of the proposed town center, so prospective buyers could see what the community would look like. Finally, construction began on the first buildings in 2008, just as the recession and housing crisis was hitting the U.S.

Harvi Sahota and Anna Lowder in Hampstead, the town they helped imagine.

 

“It was hard for a while,” Lowder says. “But in retrospect it made us see where there were opportunities, and we were able to pivot a little bit here and there where we needed to. Since larger homes weren’t selling, we switched and focused more on smaller, more affordable homes. That shows the flexibility and opportunities of designing a neighborhood like this, as opposed to a traditional subdivision, where you’re stuck with a lot of similar-sized lots.”

It also took some time for people in Montgomery to embrace the New Urbanism concept, Lowder says, adding that most of the buyers were either new to the city and had experienced these types of communities in other places, or locals who were familiar with Seaside and similar New Urbanism communities in Florida.

“But about three or four years ago things really picked up, and it started to catch on with the average person from Montgomery,” Lowder says. “We have more than 200 residents now, and we can’t build the houses fast enough for the market.”

Hampstead follows the traditional New Urbanism approach of creating a variety of different housing price points to attract a wide range of people. Some homes at Hampstead sell in the low $200,000s, she says, while others cost more than $2 million. There are also rental units, which Lowder says are an attractive option for people who are temporarily stationed at Maxwell Air Force base, as well as for those who want to experience life in the community before committing to buying a house.

Hampstead’s Town Center is filled with restaurants, shops and small businesses, along with a Montessori School, a YMCA gym and a public library. Recently the community opened the Lido Pool, which Lowder describes as “the largest neighborhood pool in the Montgomery region.” The pool overlooks a green space next to Hampstead Lake, creating a picturesque location that Lowder says is becoming a central gathering spot in the community.

“There has been a fundamental shift in recent years of how people think about living in a place,” Lowder says. “People are interested in places that offer something more than just a home. They want to have an experience.”

Village of Providence

HUNTSVILLE

David and Todd Slyman grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland that had many of the characteristics of what is now referred to as New Urbanism. So, when the brothers purchased some land in Huntsville in the 1990s, they decided to create a community that reminded them of their youth.

“We wanted to do something that was a little more special than just another apartment complex,” Todd Slyman says. “Where we grew up, you could walk to stores and restaurants and the dry cleaners and things like that. That was the norm. We didn’t have anything like that in Huntsville.”

So, working in conjunction with DPZ, the Slymans opened the Village of Providence in 2002. The community was an immediate success, with more than half the lots in Phase 1 of the development sold in less than two weeks from the initial offering.

There are now nearly 400 homes in Providence, ranging from 1,800-square-foot cottages to three-story estate houses, along with an existing apartment complex and a second one that is under construction. The community also has three hotels on site, with a fourth in the planning stages.

“The growth has gone beyond everyone’s expectations,” Slyman says. “There was a huge response at the very beginning, and that has continued.”

In addition to the requisite offices, restaurants and shops in the town center, Providence also has a sprawling green space that is used for public events, such as movies and concerts. Slyman says about 6,000 people showed up for the community’s Fourth of July fireworks show last year.

Providence benefits from its location, according to Marketing Manager Donald Dickey. The community is located less than a mile from the edge of Cummings Research Park, and approximately two miles from the Redstone Arsenal.

“Because of the location and foot-traffic design, it’s a great place for hotels,” Dickey says. “People can stay at the hotel and have plenty of options for places to eat and things to do, all within walking distance. So it’s very convenient.”

In 2014, the National Association of Homebuilders named the Village of Providence the Community of the Year. “That’s because every aspect of every home — its placement on its street, the width of the sidewalk, the width of the street, the height of the porch, the setback of the porch — is all done for a very specific reason,” Dickey says. “And that’s to create both a sense of privacy and a sense of community.”

Mount Laurel

BIRMINGHAM

Ray Jackson, the vice president of sales and marketing for Mount Laurel, compares the community to the fictional bar in the old television show Cheers. “This is a place where everybody knows your name,” Jackson says.

That’s because when Mount Laurel was created in the late 1990s on the side of Double Oak Mountain south of Birmingham, it was designed after the small mountain villages of Europe, where all the residents literally did know each other. Wide sidewalks and big front porches encourage people to get outside, and a trail system helps connect the entire community.

“We have front-porch friendliness,” Jackson says. “We require a minimum of an 8-foot deep front porch, and all the sidewalks are more than 5 feet wide. So we encourage interaction in the community, where people know each other and enjoy each other and visit each other.”

Mount Laurel has grown at a slow pace, averaging approximately 15 new homes each year. There are now around 250 homes on the 550-acre site, with projections for a total of about 500.

But Mount Laurel feels more populous because it has a strong connection with many of the nearby neighborhoods, Jackson says, including the golf course communities of Shoal Creek and Greystone. For example, since the Double Oak Community Church opened 10 years ago in Mount Laurel, Jackson says the congregation has expanded from about a dozen members to nearly 1,500. The church now has three services each Sunday, along with a Bible School.

There also is a fire station on site (made out of rock from Double Oak Mountain) that serves part of Shelby County, and a popular farmer’s market every Saturday morning from spring through fall that attracts people from throughout the area.

For many, the highlight of Mount Laurel is the natural beauty, with a lake and numerous hiking trails. And, of course, there’s the small-town feel.

“The town doctor makes house calls and the pharmacy delivers,” Jackson says. “We have benches in shaded areas where people can sit and eat or read. There are just all these little things at Mount Laurel that have been lost in suburban sprawl.”

Cary Estes and Art Meripol are freelance contributors to Business Alabama based in Birmingham.

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