Sprawling 'burbs tighten up

Developers are taking lessons from traditional city and village neighborhoods to save open spaces, money, and quality of life.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Developer John Chamberlain is walking through the woods of one of this area's more desirable plots of undeveloped land, pointing out hills that will be bulldozed into an old gravel pit to make room for his company's proposed subdivision.

The farmhouse facing Route 1 will be knocked down to make way for more than 400 units of new housing. Woods will be cleared to make way for homes and rowhouses, parks and roadways.

You might think sprawl opponents and environmentalists in this coastal town of 12,000 would be up in arms about the proposed development. But Mr. Chamberlain's ambitious, high-density Dunstan Crossing project is being championed by Maine's leading smart-growth advocates as the cure for the state's increasingly serious sprawl problem. Local conservation groups back it as well.

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"Here's a case where the developers genuinely want to do the right thing," says Richard Barringer, a professor of public policy at the University of Southern Maine in nearby Portland. "The town will be better, society will save more resources, people will live better, and the developers will make more money."

The idea behind Dunstan Crossing is simple: Build a traditional village-style neighborhood instead of a car-oriented subdivision. Plans include public parks, tree-lined streets, and a mix of buildings including single-family homes, brick rowhouses, shops, and apartments. Streets, parks, and hiking trails will be open to the public, and homes will be close to the streets - with front porches, even stoops.

Advocates of this "back to the future" approach say that by encouraging walkable, compact, and diverse neighborhoods, towns and suburban cities can reduce traffic, preserve open space, and grow at the same time. These are the features that define the most beloved villages and neighborhoods in the country, they say, from Greenwich Village in New York and the French Quarter in New Orleans to the picturesque villages of New England.

"It's the human habitat and it serves us well," says Miami-based town planner Andres Duany, father of this so-called "New Urbanist" movement and coauthor of the book "Suburban Nation." "Today's suburbs have all the ingredients of a livable place - office parks, service centers, and a range of housing - they just aren't being assembled correctly."

Pods of housing, schools, and businesses connected only by highways make current development unhealthy and unsustainable, says Mr. Duany. Rearranging those elements "put[s] the pieces back together again in a way that makes sense."

Dozens of such developments are now under way across the country. The Maryland and Virginia suburbs of Washington host more than a half dozen. Arlington, Va., a city in its own right, allowed mixed-use high-rise development along a rundown corridor above a major subway line, transforming it into a thriving urban district.

But not everyone is taken with New Urbanism. Dorn McGrath, professor of urban planning at George Washington University, says New Urbanist designs are a fad, catering mainly to affluent homebuyers looking to try something new. Besides, he says, they fail to accommodate cars, which families depend on to get to and from these "traditional" neighborhoods.

New Urbanism is usually promoted as a way to make suburbs more livable. But in Maine - a poor, rural state with an aging population and no large cities to speak of - it is seen by some as a way to forestall creeping suburbanization.

The state's southwestern coast is rapidly being transformed from a rural landscape of farms, woodlots, and waterfronts to sprawling suburbs. The region grew 10 percent during the 1990s, while Portland, the state's largest city, experienced the worst sprawl in the northeastern US, according to the Brookings Institution. Many Mainers were shaken when Evan Richert, former director of the state planning office, predicted that the southern and central coast would become a suburbanized extension of Greater Boston by 2050.

"The way that we're consuming the landscape threatens the very nature of Maine as we know it," says David Keeley, the office's current director. Ironically, the Augusta-based agency has found that 60 percent of prospective homebuyers in the area expressed interest in living in a picturesque village like colonial-era Wiscasset, whose compact streets are lined with trees, shops, and apartments.

The problem is, current zoning rules in most Maine towns virtually mandate sprawl, says Ed Suslovic, a Portland realtor turned smart-growth advocate. "If Wiscasset village burned down today it would be illegal to rebuild it anywhere in the state ... because of minimum lot sizes, road frontage, growth caps, and extensive street-width requirements," he says.

Indeed, Chamberlain and his brother have fought an uphill battle to get their Dunstan Crossing project approved. The town of Scarborough ordinarily requires a couple of football fields of open land around every home, so the Chamberlains needed special permits to build their neighborhood. Finally, after three years of soliciting public input, and offering $1 million to the town to buy other farmland, the Chamberlains have gained the support of the town council.

"We could build a 65-unit big-box colonial subdivision here without any special approval," Chamberlain says, but by his calculations the town would lose $40,000 a year because services to the area would exceed revenues. He says the higher- density plan would result in a net gain of $250,000 a year for the town.

"It's doing development in the right direction," he says. "Everybody wins with this."

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