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Going to Town

Hot new ‘old style’ neighborhoods protect Up North’s beauty, prosperity

May 8, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Young Jack Lanford enjoys a neighborhood park in Traverse City—something that New Urbanists regard as a necessity.

Sherry Constantine thinks that she and her husband, Steve, have added another 10 years to their lives by moving to Midtown, a new neighborhood in the heart of Traverse City.

They walk or bike almost everywhere they go, whether dining out on Saturday night or going to church on Sunday morning. Ms. Constantine walks to art classes near the hospital and Mr. Constantine rides the BATA bus to Suttons Bay and bikes all the way home, just for fun. On a recent Friday they walked over to the Old Town Playhouse to buy tickets to Anatomy of a Murder and still had plenty of time for a bite to eat back home before curtain time.

With so much to see and do in Midtown, it’s hardly surprising that 35 out of the 36 luxury condominiums and moderately priced townhouses in the project’s first phase sold in just over a year. The new approach to development is so popular simply because it meets the needs of so many different people.Children walk to schools along safe, tree-lined sidewalks. Teenagers beg for fewer rides. Couples paint the town without constantly jumping in and out of cars. Professionals trade stressful commutes for pleasant bike rides. Seniors do all sorts of things on their own.

A special report by the Michigan Land Use Institute, Going to Town: New Urbanism Arrives in Northwest Michigan, documents newfound interest among the area’s developers and government officials in neighborhoods like Midtown. The report—the subject of four community meetings in northwest Michigan over the next four weeks—found that rising gas prices, escalating traffic congestion, and a rapidly growing population wary of both and eager for a healthier lifestyle are fueling the growing interest.

Today traditional-style neighborhood or town center developments are being planned, are already rising, or are now full of satisfied residents not only in larger towns such as Traverse City, Manistee, and Petoskey, but also in villages like Empire and Harbor Springs, and even rural townships like Acme. Some are “infill” projects, built on old brownfield sites; others extend a town’s existing neighborhood street grids; still others transform greenfields into bustling new centers of commercial, public, and home life.

All of them draw on a new vision for building neighborhoods and downtowns called New Urbanism. Whether this trend again dominates housing patterns in northwest Michigan—after decades of suburbanization that many longtime residents find worrisome—depends on whether more newcomers can be convinced that their vision of living out in the countryside can become instead one of living in a town where the countryside is close by, gorgeous, and carefully preserved.

Going to Town documents, explains, and encourages New Urbanism because it is essential to curbing the rapidly worsening sprawl in the region, the state’s fastest growing, and preserving the scenery and natural resources essential to the economy.

Easy to Love
The rise of New Urbanism is one of the most profound changes in American housing and commercial development patterns since the 1950s. That’s when heavily subsidized freeways, the country’s blossoming love affair with the auto, and revisions to zoning laws drove new homes, businesses, and stores away from each other, birthed the modern suburb and, with it, the country’s expensive, severe sprawl problem.

New Urbanism is a response to a different set of market signals prompted by sweeping changes in 21st century economy and culture. According to a University of Southern California study, developers are seeing a wealthier and healthier generation of approaching retirees and young adults becoming interested in alternatives to suburbs.

The study, published by national mortgage lender Fannie Mae, found that middle-aged and older households now place a higher priority on living in walkable communities close to shopping, health care, and public transportation than do households headed by adults between the age of 35 and 44. But with the size of that younger group shrinking in coming years, and very young adults embracing both urban and suburban models, the study concludes that New Urbanist development is good business.

Researchers project that, based on demographics alone, over one-quarter of American households shopping for homes in 2010 will seek compact, walkable neighborhoods—a huge leap in demand. Other, younger people tired of worsening traffic congestion will also soon discover the charms of walkability, too.

The trend will build on itself as developers respond to the new market and expand the supply of new neighborhoods and town centers. Their projects will become more affordable, eliminating suburbia’s price advantage, which rising gas prices are already undermining.

Price: Good and Bad News
There is no disputing that, currently, New Urbanist developments cost more. One study by the University of Maryland’s National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education found that, on average, homebuyers were willing to pay a 15.5 percent premium for New Urbanist homes. Such neighborhoods are definitely hot commodities.

Without economic incentives, changes in zoning laws, affordable housing trust funds, the some units dedicated to families with modest incomes, location-efficient mortgages that offer financial rewards for living with just one car—many families with modest incomes will be unable to afford such neighborhoods. While most New Urbanist advocates support affordable housing, they assert that, as such developments become mainstream, prices will fall.

Local officials are also discovering New Urbanism and lending it their enthusiastic support. Many are seeing that it can boost their government’s tax base without exploding their budgets, because the projects take advantage of existing sidewalks, roads, sewers, water mains and fire and police protection. They also like New Urbanism because it greatly reduces traffic congestion, bad air, polluted pavement runoff, and view-ruining sprawl.

Northern Michigan, with its beaches, dunes, forests, farmland, and small towns, has a long history of attracting entrepreneurs, artists, and people in search of a lifestyle that allows them to appreciate those impressive and increasingly precious qualities. But for that to continue, Going to Town concludes, the development that the continual influx of new people moving to the region is triggering must preserve the spectacular landscape and bounteous natural resources.

That is where, the Institute study said, New Urbanist neighborhoods come in: Great new neighborhoods and town centers attract great employees and customers while preserving those features. There are now many indications that, in northern Michigan, build it and they will come, and stay, and prosper.

The Michigan Land Use Institute will host four community forums about New Urbanism in northwest Michigan between May 10 and June 8. This article is excerpted from Going to Town: New Urbanism Arrives in Northern Michigan. Carolyn Kelly is the Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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