The Gospel According to Paul

Developer Paul McKee Jr. envisions WingHaven as a "New Urbanist" planned community where everyone will live, work and get along. So why does it look so much like suburbia?


The third phase of residential development at WingHaven, just getting under way, will feature "New Urbanist" designs: traditional housing styles set close to the street and clustered around a "village center" with small shops.

New Urbanism is an unconventional, retro school of American urban design that has gained popularity nationwide over the last 20 years. New Urbanists advocate pedestrian-friendly communities with rectangular blocks instead of winding streets, with shops within walking distance of houses. They like big front porches and small front yards; hidden garages with granny flats above; alleys; and apartments above stores. They argue that such designs connect people, creating a sense of community and reducing crime.

WingHaven developer Paul J. McKee Jr. in one of the "neighborhood electric vehicles" (NEVs) that he sells to residents for $10,000.
Jennifer Silverberg
WingHaven developer Paul J. McKee Jr. in one of the "neighborhood electric vehicles" (NEVs) that he sells to residents for $10,000.

New Urbanist design ideas will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in the city of St. Louis or any of the older suburbs; McKee likens WingHaven's to Kirkwood's or Webster Groves'. New Urbanist-designed towns have sprouted on formerly undeveloped land in Florida and California. The most famous is Disney's Celebration, but more familiar perhaps is the picture of another New Urbanist town, Seaside, Fla., which was the setting for The Truman Show, starring Jim Carrey.

"'LifeWorks' is again one of the claims made by New Urbanists, and the jury is still out on whether it is incredible hubris on their part," says Jacqueline Tatom, director of the master's program in urban design at Washington University. "It is based on an idealized representation of what cities used to be. They have an ideal that everyone walked and knew each other and got along, and we know it wasn't true, so it is a rose-colored vision of the past."

Unlike other New Urbanist communities, McEagle has managed to concentrate enough jobs in WingHaven to provide work for everyone who lives there, but the result is still a failure to break with the commuter culture. WingHaven businesses still will rely on commuters because they will have more jobs than the development has residents. That would be true even if filling jobs was just a numbers game. But it isn't.

"Job mobility and house mobility are very different," says Tatom. "People change jobs more frequently than they change houses." The whole idea of creating a noncommute community in a dispersed metropolitan area "is very problematic," she says.

WingHaven, McKee counters, is the kind of community that people who can live anywhere will choose to live in, even if they change jobs. And because they live there, more companies will come wooing them, and they will have their choice of good local jobs.

Despite McKee's repudiation of subdivisions, the initial development looks quite conventional, says Tatom, with its office buildings and apartments on the south end of the site along Highway 40, single-family homes almost a mile away on the north end of the site, and the golf course and clubhouse acting as a buffer between the two.

It is only in the third phase of residential development that WingHaven takes on the pedestrian-friendly characteristics of New Urbanism, and Tatom suspects that the demands of marketing had a lot to do with it.

McKee readily admits that WingHaven has evolved and did not begin as a pedestrian-friendly New Urbanist community. WingHaven as a whole is not designed for pedestrians: Sidewalks, for example, which run on only one side of the street, suddenly switch from one side to the other, even when the street is expected to carry 60,000 cars a day, and office buildings sit behind parking lots, creating asphalt deserts between future residential neighborhoods and between residences and the clubhouse.

McKee does hope, however, that people throughout WingHaven will choose to get around on electric carts, which he sells for $10,000 apiece and calls "NEVs," for "neighborhood electric vehicles." Looking like stylized golf carts (although they can't be used on a golf course), each NEV seats four and includes a "grocery pack" in the back so that people can use them instead of their cars to go grocery shopping -- that is, if there were a supermarket in WingHaven. The NEVs are not street-legal in most municipalities, but McEagle got O'Fallon to agree to let people drive them on the streets in WingHaven -- exit the development in one, though, and you're breaking the law. Even that limited use, however, qualifies NEV buyers for the federal government's electric-vehicle tax credit.

McKee says he did not embrace New Urbanism until after the plans for the first two phases of housing were complete. "We relied on the golf course to sell phase 1 and 2," he says. That's a typical approach for developers of suburban subdivisions, but it raised the problem of how to sell homes that weren't around the golf course. WingHaven's home sales dropped dramatically after the heady first few days. McKee's figure of 550 home sales during the first week is impressive, but as those lots bordering the golf course were snapped up, sales stalled. Only 100 additional houses were sold in the next 18 months.

WingHaven's phase 3 isn't near the golf course, McKee says, "so we asked ourselves, 'What would we use for phase 3?'"

He had reason to be concerned.

"The huge basic demand for suburban housing has been met," Tatom says, "so developers are adding amenities to try to get a market edge over their competitors." In O'Fallon, that competition is intense. At the intersection of Post Road and Highway N, at WingHaven's northwest corner, at least 20 different promotional signs for new subdivisions are crowded together like competing protesters trying to cover each other's signs in front of a television camera. With so much competition, how does one development distinguish itself from others? That was the question McEagle had to answer.

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