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?

Early last year, McKee and his senior staff at McEagle jetted to Florida to visit Celebration, Disney's New Urbanist community. "They had neotraditional architecture and a town center geared for walking, and homes around their town center sold a lot better than homes around their golf course. So we studied other New Urbanist communities."

Then they took six months to plan phase 3 as a pedestrian-friendly New Urbanist community.

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.

McKee, however, insists that diversity was a goal at WingHaven long before his journey to Celebration. "We set out as a goal when we began that economic diversity was a driver here," he says, because "if you have true economic diversity, all the other diversities will find their home. Whether it is racial, religious or ethnic diversity, it will follow economic diversity." Then, if the community is designed correctly, "people will learn to live together, like in old-time cities, like they did in St. Louis 100 years ago."

He says that what McEagle "set out to do is make it so anyone can live in WingHaven and work in WingHaven." They planned 23 "villages" with different price ranges, starting at $90,000 for a condo in a "four-family flat," stepping up to a $125,000 home, and so on, up to $600,000 townhouses in a private gated neighborhood. And there are apartments -- eventually there will be a total of 650 -- with rents starting at $700 a month.

Those price ranges, however, target only "a limited part of the [economic] spectrum," says Charles Marske, chairman of the sociology department at St. Louis University. There are many people who can't afford a $90,000 home or monthly rent of $700, he says. So the "anyone" in McKee's market-oriented approach is anyone in the market for a new house, not anyone in society.

How wealthy does someone have to be to afford a $90,000 home? According to a local mortgage-loan counselor, if someone saves $5,000 for a down payment, which many people can't, and their monthly payments on other debts (credit cards, car loans, student loans) total no more than $200, that person would still need an annual income of nearly $37,000 to qualify for a mortgage to buy a $90,000 condo. Because that income is nearly equal to the median income in metropolitan St. Louis, the economic diversity targeted by McEagle is a diversity shorn of the bottom half of society. And because only 84 of the 1,264 for-sale homes are priced at $90,000, even this nod to the middle seems little more than a token effort.

The $90,000 condos are sold out. So are the small number of $125,000 villas and houses. Aside from some $93,900 row houses under construction in phase 3, the next-lowest housing price in WingHaven is $140,000, which requires an income substantially above the median St. Louis-area income. The nine WingHaven "villages" have recently been advertising houses ranging from $140,000-$500,000. But even that limited range is much broader than what's targeted by the typical subdivision, says Tatom. "Typically you build to a very narrowly defined market," she says. McKee adds that homebuilders "thought we were crazy."

The argument -- from McKee and New Urbanist advocates -- that part of the fragmentation and segregation in modern society is a result of development practices that target particular income groups is widely accepted among architects and planners, says Tatom. "If you have a subdivision that only has three-bedroom houses, you will have segregation. There is no doubt about that," she says. At issue is how to overcome it. WingHaven, she says, "is part of a larger discussion where everyone is trying to figure out what to do about the very real income and lifestyle segregation in modern developments."

Although he's pushing for "economic diversity," McKee says, he never intended to imply that a cashier making $7 an hour at the planned Walgreen's or a gas station would be able to afford to live in WingHaven, if that was the household's sole income. He's a businessman, after all, and such language must be interpreted in terms of the market -- in this case, the new-housing market. "What I do believe is that the mix of housing at WingHaven is relatively rare in the region," he says. "It allows a senior company executive and her family to choose to live in the same neighborhood as her administrative assistant -- and vice versa."

Making that mix work takes more than just throwing different housing styles together, he adds. It takes careful design and layout, which is why WingHaven is experimental.

Americans have always been ambivalent about small-town life and the past it represents. For every Disney-inspired view of idyllic small towns, there's an equally negative view. Where some people see a Mayberry R.F.D., others see the prison village of The Prisoner, with its equally quaint architecture and pedestrian town center. Where McKee looks in the rear-view mirror and sees a world where everyone got along, others see a world of Jim Crow laws, repression and routine violence.

New Urbanism is not free from that duality, either. "There's an element of physical determinism ... [and] modern social determinism to it," Tatom says. "They believe they can influence how people live by manipulating their environment. They claim that simply by the physical design of the community they can change some very fundamental cultural and commercial ways of doing things."

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