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?

McKee calls it "managing the intersections" where people meet so that they are forced to get to know each other and learn to live together. Part of managing the intersections involves managing recreational choices so that the community clubhouse, for example, becomes a place that everyone in the community uses for summertime recreation, which is why every homeowner at WingHaven gets a free social membership. Another part of managing the intersections involves managing the effect that someone's property exterior has on other people in the community. WingHaven has a detailed set of building and landscaping standards, even covering such things as mailboxes and sprinklers, written into each deed as indentures. "Even the mailboxes are the same," says McKee. "The houses are different, but the amenities are the same. That's the idea of trying to create the individuality of the home but create the commonness of the community."

Pressures, both legal and economic, are mounting on suburban cities to create economically diverse communities. St. Charles County's conservative county executive, Joe Ortwerth, has already sounded the alarm over high housing prices in his county. The lack of affordable housing, he says, threatens to derail the county's economic growth. How? By keeping "entry-level labor" out of the county. Without such workers, the service sector can't expand to serve the growing population of affluent residents, and the quality of life begins to suffer. Ortwerth has embraced McKee's market approach, even though it can't accommodate the low-wage workers St. Charles needs, and is encouraging more developers to build subdivisions with a broader range of prices.

At the same time, restrictive covenants and zoning laws are coming under legal attack around the country, says Tatom. About 15 years ago, a court in New Jersey ruled that the affluent community of Mount Laurel could not use zoning or income covenants to bar the construction of low-income apartments. Since then, she says, the idea that every community has a legal responsibility to provide housing for a broad range of people has spread. More recently, courts have forced affluent suburbs near Baltimore and Dallas to accommodate public housing.

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.

Though such issues are still in the courts, Tatom says, the consensus among planners is that those restrictions ultimately will go the way of restrictive racial covenants. New Urbanism offers a blueprint for varied housing on which a community could argue it is providing housing to a broader range of people.

Even if the range of housing at WingHaven is limited, the idea behind the mix still is "an incredibly intriguing concept," Marske says. "We are an incredibly segregated area.... If he is able to attract a large number of minorities, it could say that if people feel comfortable economically; race isn't as important as we thought. On the other hand, if he doesn't attract minorities, it is a reminder that race is a powerful separator."

Marske says his gut feeling is that race "is a major, major factor separating people, even if the standards of living are very similar." He calls McKee's statement that people lived together well in the past as Pollyanna-ish. "People moved to the suburbs to get away from blacks," he says. His own ancestors moved to the Hyde Park neighborhood of St. Louis after the Civil War, and the family stayed there through births and deaths until after World War II. "I know why they moved away -- they moved because blacks were moving into the neighborhood," he says.

With about half the planned homes already built and sold, it seems Marske may be right. A cursory drive through WingHaven on a recent weekend revealed people on the golf course, at the pool and barbecuing in their back yards. But the only nonwhites were Hispanics cutting the grass along the roadways.

Eilermann, president of the primary homebuilder at WingHaven, says most homebuyers at WingHaven have moved there from Chesterfield or elsewhere in St. Charles County. Tatom isn't surprised by that and notes that both of those communities are very white. Attracting buyers from Chesterfield and St. Charles "doesn't do anything for changing the social mix," agrees Marske, himself a Chesterfield resident. "If they really wanted to bring African-Americans in, they probably need to do some target marketing and recruitment in the suburbs where they live." The question is whether African-Americans would want to live at WingHaven. "O'Fallon is pretty far from where most blacks in St. Louis live," Tatom notes.

Of course, it is the homebuilder rather than the developer who markets new houses to potential buyers, but McKee, who says WingHaven will be a showplace for living with diversity, also insists that no targeted efforts are needed to include minorities. He stands firm in his belief that "economic diversity drives all other diversities."

That belief, says Tatom, contains racial stereotypes: "It assumes that blacks need lower-cost housing. But there is a black upper-class market." Plenty of middle-class blacks have left the city of St. Louis, she adds, but, for the most part, they have not moved into white subdivisions.

Despite all their concerns with McKee's plans, Marske and Tatom both applaud his effort, if only because American suburban life is so dismal. "There are so many cookie-cutter developments, I'm impressed by people who are thinking, even if I don't agree with their thoughts," Marske says. "I'm glad to see the guy playing around with this stuff. It will be interesting to see if it does trigger some things."

Even falling short of McKee's professed ideals, WingHaven really is different, Tatom says. "If he didn't claim quite so much, we would appreciate better what he is trying to do," she says. "Maybe it will be better [than a conventional subdivision development]. It certainly can't be worse."

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