Brave New Town

Some call it a well-ordered paradise. Others say it's just plain sprawl.

As folk tales go, The Pied Piper isn't a logical choice for a children's stage production. All the children die.

Set in the year 1284, the fable tells the story of a mysterious piper who arrives in the rat-plagued village of Hamelin, Germany. The town founders offer to pay the musician handsomely if he rids the village of its vermin, and the piper takes out his instrument and begins to play. Mesmerized by the music, the rodents follow him to a nearby river and drown. When the founders refuse to pay him, the piper lures all the village's children to a nearby cavern where — as legend goes — they perish.

More than seven centuries later, the real city of Hamelin remains notorious for the improvidence of its founding fathers. The modern-day hamlet of New Town St. Charles isn't about to share a similar distinction.

So it was that for two weekends last month, residents of one of the largest housing developments ever built in the St. Louis region gathered on a grassy plot of soil amid hundreds of acres of upturned dirt. On the lawn before them stood a brightly painted stage designed specifically for the children of New Town to explore their creativity. The Pied Piper would be their first-ever production.

Under the guidance of Richard Kennison, a squat and bespectacled man who's paid to serve as New Town's entertainment director, the children acted out the story of the ill-fated rats and Hamelin's short-sighted leaders. It wasn't until the final chapter of their adorable presentation that things got off-track.

Left without their children, the villagers gather to demand that the town founders pay the piper, but only on the condition that they promise to establish a waste-management and recycling program, so as to deter future rodent infestations. The leaders agree, the piper is paid and the children return. Presumably, everyone lives happily ever after.

As Missouri's first-ever foray into "New Urbanism" — an architectural concept that advocates close-knit, diverse and high-density neighborhoods — New Town St. Charles promises plenty more storybook endings.

When fully complete, sometime in the next dozen years, the development will feature parks, churches, stores, businesses and 5,700 living units. By 2020 as many as 14,000 residents are expected to call New Town home, easily dwarfing in size the populations of inner-ring suburbs such as Maplewood, Normandy and Rock Hill. Located about 30 miles northwest of downtown St. Louis, New Town already boasts some 1,000 inhabitants. It is, quite literally, a city rising up on the plains.

Visitors to the development exit Missouri State Highway 370 at New Town Boulevard and head north past an industrial park, a cement factory and a cornfield. A mile down the two-lane blacktop, a 50-foot-tall obelisk marks the entrance to New Town.

At first glance, the place looks something like a model-train set, minus the choo-choo. There's the white clapboard chapel of the St. Charles Christian Church, the general store, Marsala's Market, and the Prancing Pony, a coffee shop/bookstore whose name is derived from the watering hole in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

The goal, says developer Greg Whittaker, is to create a self-sustaining community where nothing is more than a five-minute walk away — an oasis free from the rat race beyond New Town's orderly borders.

A quiet and reserved 41-year-old, Whittaker dreamed of New Town during the many years he spent vacationing in Seaside, Florida. Completed in 1981, the Gulf Coast resort town is considered the first New Urbanism development in the world. But it is perhaps best known as the setting for the 1998 flick The Truman Show, which portrayed actor Jim Carrey as an unwitting reality-television star trapped in a Rockwellian world of pastel houses and mind-numbing routine.

Whittaker hired the same people who designed Seaside — Miami-based architecture firm Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) — to create New Town. Last year Whittaker was among the first residents to move into the community. He is currently constructing a tidy brick building 150 yards from his home that will serve as headquarters for the 50 or so office workers employed by his Whittaker Homes construction company.

"This is stepping back in time," says Whittaker. "I created something I wanted to live in. There's nothing wrong with driving, but if you don't have to, then that's great. A development like this breaks all the rules."

Critics contend that the only thing "ground-breaking" about New Town is the churning up of yet more rural farmland for residential housing. What's more, there's nothing "new" or "urban" about it, they say. New Town merely mimics the style and layout of neighborhoods such as Soulard, Lafayette Square and the Central West End, without providing the cultural and ethnic diversity of established urban communities.

Like the townsfolk of Hamelin, their fear is that the development will only lure more people away from the region's urban core.

"It's just another excuse for sprawl," scoffs Rollin Stanley, executive director of the St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency. "They could have called the project 'urbanism' if they put it in Wellston or some other area of the region with existing infrastructure. But they didn't. It's in the middle of a flood plain."

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