By Diane Mastrull
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER May 6, 2001 Philadelphia Inquirer
Joe Duckworth is a builder, but on this spring night, he was a preacher
peddling salvation from Devil
With a crowd of 70 to convert, Duckworth conjured a promised land, free
from subdivisions of bloated homes on boundless
Picture a development, he exhorted, where front porches are close enough
for neighborly chats, where you can stroll to the
corner store for a loaf of bread. Imagine a place without cul-de-sacs but streets that lead somewhere. Imagine, by God,
But no cries of "Amen!" rang out in the municipal meeting room in Lower
Moreland. What Joe Duckworth had to offer, no
one wanted. He was stunned.
The project he was proposing would nudge this Montgomery County township
back to the future: 107 homes built as a
village, to be called Woodmont.
It represented a smart-growth concept spun from America's founding blueprint
and backed by land-use experts nationwide.
The subdivision that now defines suburbia, they warn, is an open-space eater, environmentally indefensible. A village on the
same tract, with tiny yards and large parks, would both spare land and create community.
This "traditional neighborhood development," or TND, has caught on in
many high-growth states. Yet it remains a rarity in
the Philadelphia area.
Joe Duckworth has found out why, the hard way. For 14 months, he has
tried to build a village in a place nearly out of open
land. That tale stands as a lesson on the difficulty - some say the impossibility - of curbing sprawl in these suburbs.
In that time, both the Pennsylvania and New Jersey legislatures have
endorsed TNDs, also called "walkable communities,"
as a way for municipalities to save green space without having to buy it.
So Duckworth and like-minded developers are not fighting the state.
What they are up against, they say, is a state of mind. As
Thomas Comitta, a West Chester-based planner, summed it up: "One acre on the cul-de-sac equals nirvana."
That attitude has shaped local land-use laws, which often prohibit undersized
lots and the mixing of residences and
businesses - both hallmarks of TNDs.
There is a reason why the standard subdivision is so enshrined here, experts say.
Across the nation, areas that have welcomed village-style development
typically are those that have seen real population
growth, from outside their immediate regions. But Philadelphia's suburbs have for decades been filling with Philadelphians -
people leaving the city for, literally, greener pastures.
"If you start to reduce the size of lots and move houses close together,"
said Carlos Rodrigues, a New Jersey state planner,
That is just what Duckworth heard on the March night last year when
he took his $32 million Woodmont project to Lower
Propped on an easel was a sketch of a conventional development, the
kind permitted by township ordinances - the kind that
Duckworth, 52, had spent half of his life building.
"This no longer interests me," he said and switched on a slide projector.
"I want to suggest an alternative. I hope you'll see it's better."
Up flashed images from some of the most famed of the nation's estimated
150 nouveau villages: Disney's Celebration outside
Orlando, Fla., the Kentlands in Gaithersburg, Md., and Harbor Town in Memphis, Tenn. There were narrow, tree-lined
streets; porches running right up to sidewalks; rear garages linked by flower-festooned alleyways; fountains burbling in
This was what he envisioned for 42 acres at Byberry and Heaton Roads. "A new logic," he called it.
Resident Michael Dunn saw nothing new about it.
If houses set 12 feet apart on specks of lawn are "the ideal," he said,
"I guess rowhouses are the ultimate. We should go back
"This reminds me of Oxford Circle," said Stephen Pollock, a zoning lawyer
and township planning commissioner. He was
not sounding nostalgic about the old Philly neighborhood.
Duckworth slid into his seat at a table down front and sank his head in his hands as the criticism piled up.
Some said that a neighborhood of densely packed houses, even priced
at $250,000 to $400,000, would lower nearby
property values. Some predicted that the alleys would become crime- and trash-ridden, and the store a magnet for young
With every objection, applause.
"That tells me something: People don't want this," said William Hamburger,
a retired ink contractor and planning
commission member. Referring to the kind of classic subdivision in which much of the audience lived, he asserted, "People
are very comfortable with that."
Duckworth might have expected a rebuff. It had happened to others.
In Buckingham Township, Bucks County, lauded nationally for its land-preservation
efforts, officials tried for two years
during the early 1990s to win public support for a "walkable community," but failed.
The same occurred in Kennett Township, Chester County. Rosedale Village
was to have 190 homes and sundry shops set on
55 acres, with 845 acres of open space. Neighbors fought the project, and in 1999, after kicking around for two years, it
In the Pennsylvania suburbs, only one TND has gotten further than the drawing board.
On 800 acres just off the turnpike exit at Downingtown sits a work in
progress called Eagleview. Born as a corporate park
in 1988 and still 15 years from completion as a walkable community, it eventually will comprise 800 single homes,
townhouses and apartments, a small hotel, shops, and 200 acres of open space.
When he wanted to add homes to Eagleview in 1992, Chester County builder
Robert S. Hankin met such resistance in
Uwchlan Township that, after a year, he withdrew the plan.
Rather than abandon it, however, he spent several months educating officials
on neo-traditional development. And as a
concession to residents, he widened streets and set houses farther apart.
Ultimately, though, Hankin credits his father's coattails with pulling
the project from the brink. For 40 years, Bernard Hankin
had been a highly regarded builder in the county. Shortly before his death in 1994, Eagleview got the go-ahead.
His father's reputation seems to have taken Hankin only so far. Since
then, two more of his village proposals - in West
Vincent and Wallace Townships in Chester County - have run afoul of the citizenry.
Most developers would rather avoid the battles engendered by TNDs, said
John Dewey, a Paoli builder. "[They] take too
much time, too much effort, too much money."
Joe Duckworth thought he could get by without a fight in Lower Moreland.
He believed he could persuade, if he tried hard
So at the end of that first, contentious public meeting, he made an
offer: On his own dime, he would take everyone to the
Kentlands, an acclaimed TND in Maryland.
"When I've shown other people the community, they have fallen in love with it," he said, then vowed:
"If you go see [it] and don't like it, I'll go away."
A bored developer has an epiphany
Helen Kessel has lived in Lower Moreland for 18 years, in a development
of two-story Colonials on half-acre lots. She sat
for more than three hours listening to Duckworth's impassioned pitch for the village lifestyle.
"You say how wonderful this is," she finally piped up. "I kind of think you don't live in this."
She was right.
Duckworth, the father of four grown children, lives in a six-bedroom
home on five wooded acres in Chester County, where
he is chairman of the planning commission. He lovingly calls it his "retreat," where "I can't hear anybody and can't see
Yet he concedes to some embarrassment over the house he built 12 years ago, well before his epiphany.
At the time, he already was a force in the sprawling Philadelphia-area
real estate market. He had entered it in 1976 as an
assistant to builder Robert Toll, whose Huntingdon Valley firm was doing $8 million annually in new home sales. Nine
years later, he was chief operating officer, and Toll Brothers sales had hit $100 million.
When he "realized I wasn't going to be a 'brother,' otherwise owning
part of the company," he said, he left Toll for a small
real estate and engineering firm. As president and chief executive, he built it into Realen Homes.
Catering to the suburban appetite for subdivisions had made Duckworth
rich. But after 10,000 new homes, he recalled, "I
was not excited getting up on Monday mornings."
Four years ago, he began casting about for a new idea.
He found it over lunch with Florida developer Robert Davis.
In the early 1980s, turned off by the condominiums overtaking the Gulf
Coast, Davis built Seaside: a panhandle town where
colorful houses with high-pitched roofs and front porches were mingled with shops and offices, where children played in a
central park from which all streets radiated.
Seaside became the fountainhead of New Urbanism, a movement promoting
mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods -
new and restored - as an antidote to sprawl and the social isolation of spread-out living.
While steadily gaining disciples, New Urbanism has not been universally
embraced. The unconverted complain that nouveau
villages are too sanitized, like movie lots. Picture-perfect Seaside was, in fact, the setting for the Big Brother send-up, The
At Disney's Celebration, begun in 1994 and still growing, rules limit
exterior house colors to white, gray, and pale yellows
and blues, and dictate the types of trees and shrubs in yards.
Duckworth acknowledges that village living is not for everyone. But
surveys of homebuyers, he says, have found that as
many as one-third would be interested in TNDs.
"There is," he said, "an unserved market to be met."
Aiming to do just that, he joined with Davis in 1997 to form Arcadia
Land Co. For home base, Duckworth chose the Main
Line town of Wayne, where he can grab lunch, see a movie, do his banking, and get a haircut - without using his car. Wayne,
he says, "exemplifies what we're trying to do."
Duckworth's entree into Lower Moreland came by way of the Pitcairn Group,
representing one of the area's wealthiest
families and a major landowner in the township. In 1997, he had bought a Pitcairn parcel to build Inverness, a conventional
development of 25 homes priced at just under $1 million each. Nonetheless, the project was considered environmentally
innovative because he had kept one-third of the tract as open space.
By 1999, the Pitcairns were looking to sell more: 42 acres of a former
tree farm near the old Woodmont train station.
Spokesman Alvin Clay said they wanted the property to be turned into "an example of what good land planning is all about."
In Duckworth, Clay said, they saw a buyer with not only an "economic
interest in development, but a deep sense of doing the
The right thing for the township, Duckworth was sure, was a traditional neighborhood development.
Lower Moreland is nearly built out, with only a half-dozen sizable tracts
undeveloped. A first-ring suburb of just 6.5 square
miles, it underwent an intense building boom in the 1960s and 1970s. Philadelphians tired of cramped rowhouses and
beleaguered public schools were relocating over the city border, into the ranch homes and split-levels that still define much
of the township.
In the decades since, its population has hovered around 11,000, slipping
4 percent in the 1990s. Many of those moving out,
Township Manager Alison Rudolf said, are empty-nesters who no longer care to rattle around in big houses. But townhomes
are scarce in Lower Moreland. Residents looking to downsize, she said, have few options but to leave.
Woodmont, Duckworth believed, would suit their needs, as well as those
of young families and single professionals with
better things to do on weekends than yard work.
By any measure of a TND, the Woodmont plan is about as modest as it
can be. It calls for just one market and, possibly, an
office. There would be only single-family homes, 2,500 to 4,000 square feet, with garages in the rear and porches in front;
they would be clustered around commons. One corner of the tract would be occupied by an eight-acre nature preserve.
With such a configuration, at least 35 percent of the tract could be
preserved as open space - four times the amount as in a
The problem? According to township zoning, nearly everything.
For the most part, Lower Moreland's rules require half-acre lots; Woodmont's
would be a quarter acre. Streets must be 30
feet wide; Woodmont's would be closer to 20. Houses are supposed to be at least 20 feet apart; Woodmont's would be as
close as 12. As for the alleys, the store, the office? Forget it.
But if Duckworth hoped to change zoning, he had to first change minds.
In the stormy aftermath of the public meeting, more than 60 letters
went out from the Arcadia office to Lower Moreland
residents, inviting them on a daylong trip to the Kentlands on June 24. Phone calls to all followed.
Finding a bus for a summer Saturday wasn't easy. A staffer contacted 18 companies before coming up lucky, for $600.
Then it was just a matter of waiting to see who'd show up. Duckworth would be surprised.
May 7, 2001 - Second of three parts
hopes to sway skeptics with a visit to the real thing
By Diane Mastrull
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
He had the bus. He had the coffee and the muffins. He had the perfect weather.
All Joe Duckworth needed now were the people.
Early on a sunny Saturday last June, on a quiet street in Lower Moreland,
he waited for them. Full or not, the bus would be
pulling out at 9, bound for a cutting-edge community called the Kentlands 165 miles to the south.
Duckworth had high hopes for the trip - that it would persuade residents
of this Montgomery County township to let him
build a similar, environmentally conscious development in their midst.
His project, Woodmont, would have the look and feel of a village, with
close-set homes, front porches hugging sidewalks,
narrow streets, a corner store, and, importantly, broad swaths of green space.
Nothing like it existed in Lower Moreland, where the classic suburban
subdivision reigned. And that was how residents
intended to keep it - a position made clear to Duckworth at a rancorous public meeting three months earlier.
Betting they would change their minds if they could see the real thing
- the "ah ha!" experience - he had offered to bus the
crowd of 70 to the Kentlands.
Duckworth never expected everyone to show up.
He had, however, expected more than four.
On the bright side: There was room to stretch out, and then some.
John Froggatt, 69, had the back of the bus to himself and his wife,
Betty, 71. Scanning the empty seats, he wondered aloud,
"Can anyone explain to me why there are so few people here when there were so many people at the meeting complaining?"
The question went unanswered.
John Froggatt, a retired factory supervisor, normally would have been
swimming on a day such as this. But duty called. A
resident of Lower Moreland for 30 years and a fixture at municipal meetings, he felt it his civic obligation to learn about this
"traditional neighborhood development," or TND, that Duckworth was pitching.
He and Betty, a real estate agent in Northeast Philadelphia, already were leaning toward Duckworth's corner.
"I want to see how this whole concept works," he said. "It sounds good."
Comprising the other half of the tour group were two of the nine township
planning commissioners: Chairman Paul
Synnestvedt, 48, a mason by trade, and William Hamburger, 65, a retired ink contractor.
In Pennsylvania's 2,568 municipalities, such commissions advise elected
officials on what gets built within their borders.
Members are volunteers and rarely trained in land use.
Though disappointed by the turnout, Duckworth was happy to see the two
men, Hamburger in particular. In the horde of
critics at the public meeting, he had been the most vocal. "When you look past the thin veneer," Hamburger had said of
Woodmont's high-density housing, "all you see is greed, trying to squeeze in" more homes than zoning would allow.
Now, settling into a seat, he assured the builder, "I'm open-minded."
The 21/2-hour trip began with polite chitchat. But as the bus rolled
down I-95, past formerly rural tracts dotted with
cookie-cutter houses, the talk turned philosophic. The subject: social isolation in the suburbs.
Opponents of sprawl have referred to conventional subdivisions as "dysfunctional
human settlement." Collections of homes
surrounded by rye-grass moats, they say, do not fill the basic need for community.
No one on the bus disputed the insularity of suburban life. But was
the cause a real estate pattern or a deepening disconnect
in society? Were neo-villages, like Woodmont, a viable solution?
Municipalities, Synnestvedt told his companions, "need to find a way to create more of a community feel."
Hamburger objected. That isn't the function of government or developers,
he said. "If I don't know my neighbor, it's not
because my house is on a one-acre lot. It's me."
People used to make more of an effort, Hamburger said. He told of growing
up in Mount Airy, where block parties and
rotating poker games were neighborhood staples.
Even during his early years in Lower Moreland in the 1970s, the rite
of lawn-mowing brought neighbors together. But, he
said, "people don't even cut their own lawns anymore."
Froggatt suggested that simply having sidewalks in developments would
help: "Just a 'Good morning' as you pass someone is
Duckworth said there was truth in that, having read up on sidewalks.
They have to be at least five feet wide for two people
to comfortably walk side by side, he reported. But under most municipal zoning, they may be at most four feet wide.
Builders, he said, would rather not put them in, considering them an "unnecessary nuisance" and expense, at about $1,000
Though he didn't show it, Duckworth said later that he was "surprised
and pleased" by the conversation on the bus. His
guests were talking about development not in terms of profits or politics but the human condition.
"They were actually thinking about the experience of living in a certain
place," he said, adding he was relieved to have
found common ground.
He knew that "a glimmer does not a conversion make." Yet he recalled
that, as the cedar roofs of the Kentlands came into
view, he couldn't help thinking: "We're making progress."
A village is born in rural Maryland
Set on 352 acres of former farmland in Gaithersburg, 13 miles northwest
of Washington, the Kentlands is eight times larger
than Woodmont would be and far bolder.
Yet it met virtually no resistance.
One reason is Gaithersburg itself, a small city in the heart of Maryland's
affluent Montgomery County. During the 1990s, its
population grew 33 percent, to 52,600. That increase was driven by booming biotechnology, telecommunications and
software businesses, which drew young professionals from across the country - a prime constituency of the neo-village
Gaithersburg's planning director, Jennifer Russel, said the Kentlands
also benefited from the rare confluence of a supportive
city hall, a locally respected developer, and a nationally renowned architectural team.
The designers were no less than Andres Duany, considered the father
of the TND movement, and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk,
his wife and a Paoli native. Their showcase had been the Florida panhandle town of Seaside, one of the country's first
To plan the Kentlands in 1988, Duany led a weeklong design session with
residents, the City Council, and the school board.
From the collaboration came a $200 million whopper of a project, comprising 1,700 homes, 100 stores, one million square
feet of office space, an elementary school, and three lakes. It had all the components of a TND, from the small yards and
narrow streets to the rear garages.
And virtually none of it complied with Gaithersburg's zoning codes.
Rather than reject the plan or force its modification, city officials
created a development zone to accommodate it.
Construction started within 18 months; with the final phase nearly complete, the population is 4,580.
Maryland's anti-sprawl governor, Parris Glendening, has singled out
the Kentlands as a model for suburban development,
turning it into a must-see for planners and design students.
Duckworth's tour was about to join the rubberneck parade.
Shortly after noon, the bus passed the twin brick pillars at the entrance
and crawled along Kentlands Boulevard, the spine of
the retail district.
On one side was Market Square, a trendy enclave of hair salons, restaurants,
a six-screen movie theater, a gym, and boutique
businesses selling crafts, clothing, even pet supplies. On the other, more utilitarian, side was a shopping center anchored by
a Giant supermarket, a Lowe's home-improvement mega-store, and a Kmart.
The stores were a 10-minute walk from anywhere in the Kentlands. Instead
of vast parking lots, there were bike racks and
wide sidewalks - emblems of a community made for pedestrians.
For buses, it was a tougher go. On the way to the residential district,
Duckworth's had to negotiate a traffic circle, eliciting
the first moans.
"No traffic circles allowed" at Woodmont, Synnestvedt warned wryly.
"Too many people with memories of New Jersey," Hamburger chimed in.
Soon the bus was rolling down leafy streets lined with homes of all
sizes and shapes. Townhouses (starting at nearly
$300,000) sat next to brick-face Colonials ($400,000 and up). Just strides from tiny "carriage" apartments (minimum
monthly rent, $1,000) were $1 million mansions.
The array of housing has brought a wide range of age groups to every
block, from young families to retirees. What it has not
produced is socioeconomic diversity, a recurring criticism of not only TNDs but also of high-end development in general.
The Kentlands, however, may be illustrative of a more common objection to such developments: the power of the rule book.
Six pages of standards ensure order. To wit:
Nearly every home must have a fence, white for wood and black for iron.
Flower boxes, the regulations say, "are strongly
encouraged." Bird baths in front yards are not, unless they are of "museum quality."
The Duckworth group left the bus for a closer look at brick Colonials
fronted by white columns and strips of meticulously
"The houses I like," Hamburger said, but stopped short to glower at an alley.
He, like many Lower Morelanders, had drawn the line at the notion of
alleys in Woodmont, contending they would be
magnets for crime and trash.
"Remember the people who came from the Northeast?" he reminded Duckworth.
"They see this, and they're going to say,
'We're back in the Northeast.' "
The alleys, Duckworth argued, were indispensable to a traditional neighborhood
development. They allowed garages to be
relegated to the backs of houses, freeing up space in the front for porches. "I'd rather call them 'rear driveways,' " he said.
Replied Hamburger: "It's called snake oil."
The group moved on to a neighborhood that would have been even more
of a code-buster in most municipalities. Here,
homes had been built hard by a Colonial-revival mansion that held a cultural center and catering hall - the scene of many
Kentlands weddings, and the source of background music for the block.
In the mix, too, were real estate and architectural offices, and - the
payoff for high-density living - a park. Slightly smaller
than a football field and ringed with trees, it is the site of a large annual Octoberfest. On this, more ordinary day, a
half-dozen people sat and watched their dogs play.
By putting houses on smaller lots, "you get places like this," said Duckworth, who had a similar park planned for Woodmont.
Synnestvedt saw the potential. "This is a nice size," he mused, "for a pickup softball game."
The tour ended where it had begun, at Market Square. It had lasted two
hours, though what it had produced, Duckworth
All said they liked the feel of the Kentlands, and that no photos or
videos could do that justice. "Those people who have
been complaining at meetings should have had their butts here," John Froggatt declared.
The two members of the planning commission, however, were far from becoming converts to the cause.
"We don't have ordinances to support this type of development," Synnestvedt told Duckworth.
"Are we guinea pigs?" Hamburger asked, sounding as if he already knew the answer.
Duckworth ended the day without the commitments he had hoped for. But he still had some cards to play.
He owned a 42-acre chunk of Lower Moreland, and building nothing was
"not an option," he cautioned his guests. "In two
years, there will be close to 100 homes on this site.
"It's just a question of how you would like them arranged."