If you're following the Mueller development, take a look at Last Harvest by Witold Rybczynski. It's about a "neotraditional development" in the Philadelphia exurbs. Rybczynski is an architectual writer who teaches at Penn's School of Design. In other words, he writes as someone who cares about good design. He covers the developer's acquisition of the land, the first homeowners' move in, and the four years in between.
The development, New Daleville, is a lot smaller than Mueller, and it's out in the middle of nowhere rather than in the middle of a city. But it will give a sense of the problems that these Mueller-type developments face. (You might want to skip the book if Catellus-bashing is a hobby you'd like to keep.)
New Daleville, like most neotraditional developments, was illegal under existing zoning laws, so the first step was to convince the township to pass a special ordinance authorizing the development. It got a hostile reception at the first public hearing:
"We know what's in it for the developer," someone says brusquely, "but what's in it for us?" He doesn't mean the people who are going to live in the new houses -- they are not represented in this room -- he means the people who currently live in the township. Benner points out that the developers will donate land for a future township building and that the open space on the site will be for everyone. Is it really going to be public? "It's up to you," says [the developer]. "We could deed it to an agricultural trust that would keep it as farmland, or give it to the township for recreational uses, ball fields, and so on." This sounds too good to be true -- a developer giving something away. "The proposed ordinance says that there may be up to twelve thousand fie hundred square feet of retail or office space," says a woman who has obviously taken the trouble to read the document. "I'd hate to see golden arches here." "Or a Wal-Mart," someone chimes in. [The developer] assures them that 12,500 square feet is very small, not a large building, something like a convenience store or a professional office.
. . .
Despite [the developer's] well-considered attempt to persuade the audience, the general mood remains one of mistrust and antagonism. It's clear that if a floor vote were taken, a majority would vote against New Daleville. These people have not been impressed by neotraditional development. Walkability, the village concept, even the large amount of public open space, have not swayed opinion. As far as they are concerned, New Daleville could be as pretty as a Currier & Ives print but it's still a new development, that is, it's new houses on what was previously farmland. New houses mean extra cars, extra traffic at rush hour, more kids in the schools, and in the long run, higher taxes. Above all, new homes mean more people. The residents of Londonderry live here because they like the remoteness and the open countryside. They put up with driving some distance to work and to shop. Their isolation will be diminished by any development, whether on big lots or on small. Arcadia has a long way to go to convince them that New Daleville is a good idea.
The development ultimately was approved after the developer took the supervisors on a field trip to a Kentlands, a neotraditional development in Maryland. (Mueller, fortunately, had the support of the city and the surrounding neighborhoods.)
Here is the developer's assessment of neotraditional "town centers":
"The hardest thing to make work in a neotraditional development is the town center," observes Duckworth [the developer] as we stand on a street corner looking at the empty sidewalks. Although Kentlands has about two thousand families, and neighboring Lakelands is approaching a thousand households, that is still not enough people to support a large number of stores. The problem is that, despite their often stated preference for walking, Americans have developed a taste for low prices and variety, and they don't mind driving great distances to get them. "Nontraditional development is definitely a good idea," says Duckworth, "but we still haven't found the right model for how to put together a successful town center. It's not Seaside, whose town center works but is really a beach resort. Nor is it Disney's Celebration, whose downtown is a tourist destination. It's certainly not this place."
To drum up extra business for New Daleville's town center, the developer insisted that it be clearly visible to drivers on the adjacent highway. Catullus essentially has done the same thing: Drivers on Airport Boulevard will have an unobstructed view of the Mueller town center thanks to the lake on the western edge of the property.
A couple of other interesting points:
- Homebuyers in the South and Texas are generally more satisfied with their homes than buyers in California or the Northeast. The reason (according to New Daleville's developer) is that it is easier to build new developments in the South and Texas, forcing home builders to compete intensely on design. There is little permitted land in the Northeast and California, so there is less competition between developers on the basis of design.
- Some production home builders are so efficient, they can build a home for less than $50 per square foot.
- One of the main battles in neotraditional developments is between the developer, who generally wants good design, and the homebuilders, who want to build homes that cost $50 per square foot.