A Bedroom Community With a Farmland Feel

Prairie Crossing, a 668-acre development in Illinois, outside Chicago, is billed as a fresh alternative to suburban sprawl.

As the name connotes, Prairie Crossing has a country flavor to it, partly because of its distance from the city (36 miles from the Loop), but also because of its commitment to the area's farming heritage.

In fact, the development's architects studied Midwestern farmhouses in coming up with their house plans. A community center occupies a restored barn. Nearly 70 percent of the property is protected open space, with 150 acres of that devoted to active agricultural enterprise by resident farmers, including an organic vegetable and fruit operation.

There is no convenience store yet, but there is a farm stand and, in the summer, a weekly farmers' market.

Many of the residents are businesspeople who can't readily articulate what has drawn them here, says Michael Sands, who oversees the development's agricultural and ecological activities. "They see it as an aesthetically very nice place to live, then learn about the ecology and become attuned to ... how the environment is treated."

One of Mr. Sands's duties is developing programs that teach homeowners how to care for their homes in an environmentally sound way. This can mean demonstrating the advantages of native plants over sod lawns or improving the yards as habitats for birds, butterflies, and other wildlife.

Still, Prairie Crossing is basically a bedroom community that has no commercial center. Children are bused to school. Residents drive two miles to shop in the center of Grayslake, Ill., a town that includes Prairie Crossing

Many of the commuters catch the train at a new station built on Prairie Crossing's southern boundary."This is a growing area and even without the train station this was going to be a market for homes," says Sands.

When the development opened in 1994, sales were slow. Potential buyers wondered "whether this was for real," Sands says. " 'How do I know that it will be built to fruition.' But now we're selling at our target pace of 40 or 50 homes a year." Existing houses range from just under $200,000 to more than $450,000. Eventually Prairie Crossing's developers hope to create some smaller, more affordable units on smaller lots. Open space will not be sacrificed, however, since it is integral to the overall plan.

Sands says the way in which Prairie Crossing protects the natural resource base is perhaps its most important characteristic. Houses are clustered together as in New Urbanist design, but "the open space is not pushed over to one side. It is designed to move through the home sites, so even someone on a very small lot feels like they are in a rural setting."

It is in this regard that Prairie Crossing veers from the kind of intimate streetscapes, with facing houses, associated with the New Urbanist movement. Instead, all the houses are oriented so they have views into open areas - farmland, prairie, or wetlands.

"We've tried to marry some competing interests," Sands says. "We created a community and a sense of interaction among people, but at the same time the design visually and emotionally provides a connection to the land."

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