An article in last Saturday's Real Estate section incorrectly referred to the Enterprise Development Co. as a subsidiary of the Rouse Co. The firm is owned by the Enterprise Foundation and is not affiliated with the Rouse Co.
New Towns -- self-sufficient communities of concentrated growth providing a mix of housing for a mix of people -- were the great hope of planners looking for alternatives to sprawling suburban development in the mid-'60s.
Today, with Reston and Columbia nearing maturity, planners and developers agree that the new towns were successful in many ways, but also agree that they fell short on a number of social goals and that, for a number of reasons, it is unlikely that there will be many more of them.
Planners and developers from the Washington-Baltimore area met last week in Columbia to question whether new towns were evolving or facing extinction. The session was held just days after the controversial Konterra new-town project was substantially rejected by a majority of the Prince George's County Council. And the consensus was that true new towns -- large, self-sufficient communities -- are unlikely models for ordering future suburban growth.
"Primarily because of the cost of money and the cost of land, we probably won't be seeing projects the size of Columbia or Reston again," said Jay Parker, vice president of HOH Associates, the engineering and planning firm working on the new town of St. Charles in Charles County, Md. "Instead, we will see planned developments the size of villages, with 20,000 people instead of 100,000. Instead of a single big town, you will probably see a series of villages linked together, somewhat like the network of villages in rural New England."
Reston, planned and started by Robert E. Simon, is an example of the tremendous capital and risk necessary to develop a new town. Conceived on a framework of lofty social goals, Reston began as a high-density town-house development in rural western Fairfax. In an effort to create an architectural landmark that would reflect the modern planning of the community, much of the housing was built in contemporary styles.
When sales failed to meet expectations in the mid-'60s, ownership of the undeveloped portion of the new town passed to Gulf Oil Corp., which held a $15 million loan on the property. Gulf began developing a broader range of houses, including more traditional tract houses in southern Reston, and also built some of the first commercial buildings to stimulate the commercial market.
Later, when Mobil Corp. took over the development in the mid-'70s, the economy of western Fairfax began to expand, fueling the real growth in Reston that Simon and Gulf had expected. Michael Was, executive vice president of the Mobil subsidiary finishing the build-out of Reston, said last week that Mobil is reaping the fruit of the earlier work.
John Underhill, special assistant of policy studies for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, said that HUD's program guaranteeing loans for new-town developers was closed several years ago because, "while many of the goals of the program were achieved, they were not achieved at acceptable costs."
Underhill said that the government spent nearly $600 million on new-town development in the form of grants and loan guarantees, and that a number of the towns have turned out to have unmarketable locations. He said the government had problems with inexperienced developers and difficulty projecting the market for some of the several dozen new towns assisted by HUD.
With the cost of land in suburban jurisdictions still on the rise, and interest rates in double-digit figures, developers today say it is unlikely that any one development company would have the interest and staying power to invest millions of dollars for 20 or 30 years, the usual build-out period for a new town.
Developers and planners at the conference also said that public support for new towns may be more difficult to summon today. Developers fear intrajurisdictional protests, such as those that helped undermine the case for Konterra, because they lead to costly delays and occasionally produce restrictions that are difficult for the developer to live with. The project at Konterra, planned to accommodate 40,000 jobs and 20,000 residents, was partially denied on the grounds that the new homes would overburden county services.
Parker said that one of the things that has stalled development at St. Charles is a county requirement that the community balance residential growth with commercial growth. Parker said that the county agreement with St. Charles allows for additional residential growth only when a certain level of commercial growth has been achieved.
But Parker said that the jobs and housing formula is out of kilter, and doesn't give the community the chance to build up the "critical mass" of residential development that would attract commercial development.
In an effort to avoid the problems of large new towns but still capitalize on some of the principles, developers are creating smaller planned communities. The planners said such "villages" have the advantage of requiring less capital, less land and less cooperation and support from localities.
But a number of the original new-town planners still are loyal to the concept that created Columbia, and they claim that such communities are not self-sufficient but just neighborhoods of established cities.
"The concept of a new town has been bastardized over the years," said Morton Hoppenfeld, vice president of Enterprise Development Co., a subsidiary of the Rouse Co. "The concept includes the very important idea of wholeness, and without that sense it may be something, but it does not qualify as a new town."
Hoppenfeld, who worked for Rouse when it was developing Columbia, said he had problems with the "fragmentation" of much of the new-town philosophy into pieces of good ideas instead of a whole system. He said that the infrastructure of many of the planned communities -- the schools, firehouses, roads, transit lines -- is added later by county governments rather than being worked into the basic plan for the community.
Local governments "are left trying to fill in the void, to make sense of a development," Hoppenfeld said. "But I say that is a hit-or-miss process, and if the resources of the community are meager, the services and infrastructure will be meager. Growth is an opportunity for change and rethinking. Without that planning, the best kind of growth is impossible."
M. J. Brodie, executive director of the Pennsylvania Avenue Development Corp. and a resident of Coldspring, a planned community started under the auspices of the Baltimore County government, admitted Coldspring and places like it are not new towns. But he argued that many of the goals of the original new towns, including racial integration and a mix of housing types and prices, had been perhaps even more successful in places such as Coldspring than in prestigious planned communities such as Columbia.
Partly because of the planning, landscaping, recreational facilities and open space in Reston and Columbia, housing prices have pushed both communities out of reach of many low-income people and even out of reach of lower-level manufacturing or clerical workers hired by some of the high-tech companies based there.
Ruth Keeton, a Columbia resident and member of the Howard County Council, said that one of the things Columbia has not succeeded in doing is providing a large segment of affordable housing for lower-income families, but that it is difficult to know how to solve that problem.
Brodie suggested that towns such as Columbia and Reston, with considerable acreage devoted to open space, could develop some of the open land as housing and apartments priced for moderate- and low-income families. He said that, because the land would not cost the community anything -- in most cases open space belongs to the homeowners association -- the housing would be relatively inexpensive.
Most of the planners at the conference agreed that the only way a new town could be created in the future would be if the local jurisdiction did the planning and controlled development through phasing in zoning changes.
Montgomery County is trying just such an experiment with Germantown, a planned community north of Gaithersburg on I-270. The Maryland Capital Park and Planning Commission has designed the master plan for an 11,000-acre area owned by different developers, and the county is providing economic incentives and controlling rezoning to direct growth.