Originally created 09/18/00

New Urbanism redesigns cities



ATLANTA - Denise Grabowski has a special appreciation for her home in the Ardsley Park section of Savannah.

She grew up in suburban Atlanta's Gwinnett County, a land of sprawling subdivisions devoid of people most weekdays, because the occupants spend an hour or more each way commuting to their jobs in the city. A land where even a trip to the local convenience store for bread and milk requires a car.

The contrast between that childhood and Ardsley Park - with its porches, sidewalks and small-town feel - is why Ms. Grabowski, principal planner for the city of Port Wentworth, is so excited about bringing a retro concept known as "New Urbanism" to the small, industrial city along the Savannah River in western Chatham County.

"I always know someone is around. I know all my neighbors," she said. "It's a terrific lifestyle that, unfortunately, isn't available to many people.... (But) Savannah is living proof that this kind of development works."

New Urbanist communities are a throwback to the typical American neighborhood before the birth of modern suburbia, first popularized by the massive Levittown community built in Long Island, New York, shortly after World War II.

"Until the 1940s, people had always built cities or towns with walkable neighborhoods," said Steven Bodzin, communications director for the San Francisco-based Congress for the New Urbanism, a nonprofit advocate of the trend.

While the cookie-cutter houses on identical lots in Levittown and its imitators helped foster the image of the 1950s as a decade of dull conformity, those neighborhoods were immensely popular for a reason. They were affordable for the ex-soldiers returning from the war, and they offered plenty of space for raising families away from the urban hubbub.

But as the suburbs spread farther and farther from the central cities, homeowners found themselves facing longer commutes to work, contributing to worsening traffic congestion and air pollution. With subdivisions limited primarily to single-family houses, suburbanites became more dependent on cars to get them to grocery stores, movie theaters and restaurants.

Throughout America in the past decade, communities have sprung up breaking that mold. Well-publicized examples include Kentlands, Md., a suburb of Washington, and Celebration, Fla., developed by Walt Disney Co. near Orlando.

In recent years, metro Atlanta has become a popular incubator for New Urbanism in a variety of forms as a way to cope with the city's growing pains.

New Urbanist communities in the planning stages or already in place in the region range from in-town complexes dominated by apartments to suburban mixed-use neighborhoods with townhouses next to detached single-family homes, all within walking distance of new office buildings.

But two of the more ambitious New Urbanist projects are being planned in other parts of Georgia.

In Port Wentworth, which is falling victim to encroachment from an expanding Georgia Ports Authority, city officials envision relocating the entire downtown - homes and businesses - to an undeveloped area near the Effingham County line. The old city center would be replaced with a community built according to New Urbanist principles.

The Georgia Rail Passenger Authority wants to take New Urbanism a step further in Barrow County by adding a mass-transit element to the concept. The authority recently received nearly $300,000 in state and federal grants to design a "smart-growth" community centered around the proposed East Winder train station, part of a planned commuter rail line connecting Atlanta and Athens.

The goal is to give people easy access to shops and other amenities and to a rail line that could take them to and from work, said Toni Dunagan, senior planner for Parsons Brinckerhoff Quade & Douglas, the project consultant.

"Barrow County has made it very clear. They do not want to grow like Gwinnett," she said. "But that's what's happening. .ƒ.ƒ. It's been developing like every other community in the state: strip malls and single-family housing on large-acre lots.

"We're trying to get more compact housing, with the facilities people need in the same area so they can walk."

The idea of higher housing densities tends to be a turnoff at first blush to people accustomed to striving for the American dream of a large house and a large lot on a street with a cul-de-sac.

But Atlanta developer Steve Macaulay said New Urbanist communities are becoming more popular as people are exposed to the concept.

"Most market studies show at least 30 percent of the people would like to live in what we call town-planning developments," said Mr. Macaulay, who is building a mixed-use project in suburban Cobb County, complete with shops, offices and restaurants. "But we think that number is actually low. We believe once more of these are done and people can see them, the demand will be greater."

Art Lomenick, a senior executive vice president for Atlanta-based Post Properties, said interest in New Urbanist communities has risen as the percentage of Americans living in traditional nuclear families has declined.

"The single household is by far the dominant unit in America today," said Mr. Lomenick, whose company has built several mixed-use developments inside the Atlanta city limits. "(New Urbanism) is just a higher quality of life if you're not married with children."

Ms. Grabowski said the Port Wentworth residents who attended public meetings earlier this year didn't have to hear a definition of New Urbanism to endorse what officials there are trying to do. They simply asked for a community where they can walk to a grocery store.

"Port Wentworth is mainly a bedroom community now, with basically only single-family homes," she said. "We don't even have a grocery store in the city."

Mr. Bodzin said New Urbanism should not be viewed as a threat to traditional suburbs but as an additional choice.

"There are people who like cul-de-sac life, and we're not here to eliminate it. .ƒ.ƒ. (But) it's less expensive to maintain a smaller dwelling and lawn. A lot of people don't want to spend half a weekend maintaining a lawn."

While such factors as maintenance costs are tangible, proponents of New Urbanism say the benefits that can't be quantified are just as important.

"The one thing I've heard the most is that people really value the sense of community, knowing their neighbors," Mr. Bodzin said, echoing Ms. Grabowski's feelings about her neighborhood in Savannah.

"There's an advantage to creating a village (with) a great diversity of housing choices," Mr. Macaulay noted. "You create a community where all the members of a family can live and people of all incomes. .ƒ.ƒ. Today, we segregate people by incomes."

Ms. Dunagan is hoping to turn the feasibility study at East Winder into a model for development at other planned rail stations, including stops along the proposed Atlanta-to-Macon line. The project timetable calls for public workshops in January leading to a final design product late next year.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.