Brave New Town

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

New Town St. Charles

Contact the author chad.garris [email protected]

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."

If Greg Whittaker is the quiet mastermind behind New Town, then Tim Busse is the big-top ringmaster, overseeing everything from the sublime to the mundane.

The town architect might spend an entire day scratching his goatee as he contemplates the finer details of how a public park might best serve the community. The next day might find him buried in paperwork, signing off on what species of shrub a resident may plant in her yard.

The gregarious Busse also serves as New Town's official tour guide. In the past year he's shuffled through the streets visitors ranging from members of the local Rotary Club to foreign dignitaries. Last November he played host to 23 mayors from China.

It's difficult to take more than a few steps with Busse without him commenting on some unseen nuance of New Town. There's the manmade sledding hill that faces north to prevent snowmelt. In the center of town, a four-by-eight-foot sign titled the "Shades of New Town" displays the 32 eye-pleasing colors residents may paint their homes. New Town also features dozens of acres of canals and lakes stocked with smallmouth bass, bluegill, catfish, flathead minnows. Busse notes that the town's litter bins, bollards and streetlamps come from the finest British foundries.

In front of the children's stage is a yellow-brick path, à la The Wizard of Oz. In 2004 Whittaker successfully lobbied for state legislation allowing New Town to institute a sales tax to support public arts and entertainment, including its children's plays, free concerts and Shakespeare performances.

Along the northern edge of town lies an old barn spared by the bulldozers, which will someday house the town's organic farm. Off in the distance, thousands of saplings rise up on yet another undeveloped swath of land. A placard in front of the nursery announces that the field contains the "Future Trees of New Town."

"No Bradford pears and ornamental trees," says Busse. "The streets will be lined with real trees: elms, sycamores and maples."

The narrow streets of New Town, laid out in sharp, orderly grids, naturally slow the flow of traffic, making it safer for pedestrians and bikers to share the roadways. Lot sizes are one-third to one-fourth the size of most of those found in St. Charles neighborhoods. Homes sit close to the street, with garages tucked away in alleys. By design, all porches rise at least 30 inches above the sidewalk so passersby are at eye-level with homeowners seated on their front stoops.

It's a staggering list of particulars, with most of the details stemming from a design charrette Whittaker hosted prior to construction.

"'Charrette' is French for 'little cart,'" explains Busse. "Back in the 1800s, art and architecture students would go off to the countryside to work on their projects and later a cart would come by to take them back to school. Oftentimes they'd finish their drawings on the cart. So a 'charrette' became this vehicle for creativity and ideas."

Today the term is commonly used to describe a brainstorming session among architects and designers. On hand for the February 2003 New Town charrette were New Urbanist planners from around the world — Argentina, France, Canada, Chile and the United States — accompanied by legions of civic engineers, city officials, landscape architects and interested residents.

It was a draining experience, recalls Busse, with the group furiously casting and refining ideas for the development, sometimes working through the night as they raced to meet deadline.

On the seventh day, they emerged with plans for a new town.

With just one-tenth of New Town complete, not everything makes obvious sense, including Town Hall. The massive, faux limestone structure sits completely finished — and is entirely hollow. Though some call it nothing more than a studio prop, Busse says it was never intended to serve as a government center as its name suggests. (New Town, in fact, has no municipal government. The City of St. Charles annexed the property before the first shovel broke ground.)

Instead, Town Hall is meant to serve the needs of the community and is available for rent for everything from wedding receptions to theater troupes. Currently, the building plays host to the St. Louis Juggling Club each Wednesday evening. Like the outdoor concerts and movies planned nearly each week in the town center, all the amenities of New Town are open to the public.

"We're the complete opposite of a gated community," says Busse. "We want people to come to New Town. This doesn't work without support from the outside."

Passing the town amphitheater, Busse stops to chat with newlyweds Michael and Claudia Hall, who enjoy the distinction of being the first couple to marry in New Town. Their ceremony was held last January in front of the fountains of the Grand Canal.

"We looked at other places but everything was so expensive," says Claudia, a personable 25-year-old whose long brown hair spills down to the small of her back. "Besides, we think this is one of the best backdrops around."

Unfurled on the amphitheater floor on a recent sunny spring afternoon lies a gigantic canvas tarp on which the Halls are making a prayer labyrinth. The Christian sacrament, explains Claudia, dates back to the Middle Ages, when worshipers would move through a maze, stopping periodically to give praise to the Lord.

As a pastor with a St. Charles church that's looking to build a chapel in New Town, Claudia plans to use the labyrinth during one of her services. So far, she says, residents have been receptive to her goal of establishing a church in New Town but she knows she has much more work ahead.

"When starting a new church, the first thing you usually have to do is convince people that they need to be part of a community," she says. "In New Town, people already feel like part of a community. Our challenge, as a church, is to take it to the next level and help them engage with the rest of St. Charles County and the world."

Greg Whittaker doesn't care much for television news. "Too depressing," he says.

As for the daily paper, he may flip through a copy at work, but a meticulous reader he is not. So it's not all that surprising that a week after Jane Jacobs' death this spring, word of her passing comes as news to Whittaker.

He is, of course, keenly aware of Jacobs and her profound influence on urban planning. Just recently Whittaker finished reading her 1961 tome, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a revolutionary text that criticized urban planners for turning city centers into soulless voids, thanks to freeways, housing projects and segregated neighborhoods. Jacobs advocated diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods that placed an emphasis on pedestrians over autos — tenets later adopted by the New Urbanism movement.

One need not venture farther than the Prancing Pony to learn all there is to know on New Urbanism. The coffee shop's bookstore contains arguably the region's largest collection of works on the subject, with titles such as The Collapse and Revival of American Community, New Urbanism and The Christian Faith, and Home from Nowhere: Remaking Our Everyday World for the 21st Century.

As owner of the Prancing Pony, Whittaker has a say in the type of books the store carries. It's not uncommon to find the graduate of University of Kansas' prestigious architecture school poring over a text as he enjoys his meals at the coffee shop. When he's finished reading for the day, Whittaker simply puts a marker in the book and returns it to the shelf.

The Bible of New Urbanism, several copies of which are for sale at the Prancing Pony, is Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. Written by the designers of New Town — husband and wife Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk along with former colleague Jeff Speck — the book details the post-World War II origins of sprawl.

With federally subsidized mortgages for new home construction and a massive expansion of the interstate highways, the authors write that America's view of housing changed from historic city neighborhoods to auto-dependent enclaves, miles removed from the urban center. Along with the changing mindset came the hallmarks of sprawl — meandering subdivisions, stand-alone shopping centers, suburban office parks and multi-lane highways.

With Seaside, DPZ set out to remake what they viewed as a traditional neighborhood. The development called for stores and services within a five-minute walk of residential homes, narrow streets, fixed urban centers and zoning that allows for mixed-use development. The success was almost too good. Within a few years, demand for the project skyrocketed, increasing lot prices thirteenfold from $15,000 to $200,000, placing Seaside out of reach for all but the wealthy.

Since then, more than 600 projects worldwide have used the principles of New Urbanism, including Disney's 5,000-acre Celebration, Florida, which went up in the mid-1990s, and Poundberry, England, a traditional village being developed by Prince Charles of Wales.

Recent plans for similar developments in the hurricane-wrecked regions of the Gulf Coast have not been as well-received. In Biloxi, Mississippi, a New Urbanism community is on hold, in part because displaced residents balked at the $140,000 starting price for the proposed homes. Reporting on the subject last month, the New York Times compared New Urbanism to health-food retailer Whole Foods.

"It's meant to be good for you, but it's expensive, at least on the front end," wrote Times contributor Jim Lewis. "And it comes with a set of cultural connotations that generally play best among the prosperous and the self-consciously progressive."

Marina Khoury, the project manager of New Town for Duany Plater-Zyberk, says the project, with its 700-plus acres, is one of the larger developments her firm has designed — and one of the fastest to come to fruition.

"We did our charrette in February of 2003 and got our permits in June or July, and broke ground in September," recalls Khoury. "That's phenomenally fast."

Further setting New Town apart, she adds, is its affordability. Residences start at $120,000, but some single-family homes sell for more than $1 million.

"This is really changing the mindsets of what a suburban development can be," comments St. Charles City Council member John Gieseke, who moved into the neighborhood last year and pens a column for the monthly broadsheet, the New Town Courier. "Initially, I think there was a bit of resistance from City Hall because they had to rewrite a lot of the existing ordinances to allow for something like New Town, such as allowing for narrow streets and mixed-use development."

Economically, New Town has already been a boon for St. Charles, says Gieseke. The development employs hundreds of construction workers. It's been estimated that New Town's direct construction costs alone are the equivalent of constructing two St. Charles Convention Centers each year. When all is said and done, the project is expected to cost upward of $1.5 billion.

Yet even some of the staunchest supporters of New Town question the lasting impact the project may have on regional development.

"I think it's one of the finest developments ever done in the St. Louis region, from the land planning to the architecture to the diversity of housing and income levels," says Richard Ward, senior principal of the St. Louis-based real estate consulting firm Development Strategies. "My concern is the precedent it sets of building in the flood plains. I understand that land wasn't inundated in the flood of '93, but any further expansion of New Town would enter those areas."

Whittaker maintains that only a sliver of New Town is located in the so-called 100-year flood plain. The rest of the development lies in the 500-year flood plain, none of which held water in 1993. Whittaker further argues that New Town is smart development. For years developers, including himself, have built farther and farther west into O'Fallon and Wentzville. New Town, by comparison, is relatively close in — just three miles north of downtown St. Charles.

In terms of the architecture, even critic Rollin Stanley has got to hand it to Whittaker. The head of the St. Louis Design agency has, in fact, used photos of New Town to show investors how blighted areas of the city might be redeveloped using New Urbanism.

What's missing from New Town, he says, is a connection to the greater whole of the city.

"You see these developments and they look like something out of the magazine from the Urban Land Institute," says Stanley. "They say they're sustainable developments but they're in the middle of a friggin' desert. They're not connected to any public transportation. You still have to drive to get out there.

"You know what the greatest housing subsidy in the history of the world is?" he continues. "Highways. Everyone thinks it's public housing, but that doesn't come close. [New Town] would not be possible if our taxes weren't paying for highways and roadways getting people out there. That's a direct housing subsidy."

Stanley's concern is shared by Washington University's Eric Mumford. As director of the school's Urban Design Program, Mumford incorporates New Town into his lessons plans, going as far as shuttling students to the development for class field trips.

"A lot of the students aren't all that impressed," comments Mumford. "They point out the stage-set atmosphere of the place, and I somewhat feel the same way. Architecturally it's impressive, but I'm skeptical in terms of the location. It's not linked to any major transit. In that sense, I can definitely see the 'sprawl' argument."

Whittaker, for his part, says it's impossible to assemble enough contiguous land in the City of St. Louis to replicate a project like New Town.

It's not as if no one has ever tried.

In the early 1990s, DPZ teamed with local architecture firm Lawrence Group for the proposed redevelopment of 40 blighted acres in the Gate District in south St. Louis. But the New Urbanism-style project never got off the ground. Today the site is being developed piecemeal, with many of the lots sporting the type of tract housing popular in St. Charles.

Like New Town, many of DPZ's projects lie on previously undeveloped land, leading some to label the company's design practices as closer to "New Surburanism" than "New Urbanism."

"I saw Andres Duany talk once," recalls Stanley. "And afterward I came up to him and asked what New Urbanism had to do with true urban development, and he said, 'Nothing.'"

But to dismiss New Town as sprawl would be both short-sighted and naive, says DPZ's Khoury.

"Yes, New Town was farmland, but as communities continue to grow, farmland is going to be developed," she says. "It's just a matter of time, so why not develop it in a pedestrian-friendly, environmentally friendly way?"

New Town, notes Khoury, is quickly becoming the kind of neighborhood it was designed to be. "Already you're starting to see the bond in the community," she says. "People know each other. They walk their dogs together. They hang out in the coffee shop. Last time I visited I was there for four days and never had to get in a car if I didn't want to."

Skeptics say it's unclear what role, if any, design plays in influencing people's lives. The invisible hand of New Urbanism may draw them together, but it doesn't mean they'll suddenly behave in any enlightened self-interest. For that matter, it doesn't even guarantee they'll take up an interest in the architecture that surrounds them.

When asked about sales of the vast selection of titles on architecture available at the Prancing Pony, a stone-faced barista replies as if responding to a punch line: "I can't say I've ever sold a book."

Before moving into New Town, residents receive a twenty-page document titled "Rules and Regulations." It is, says town architect Busse, not unlike the provisions of many suburban homeowners' associations, only a bit stricter.

Personal mailboxes, for instance, are a no-no in New Town. Residents walk to community mail centers where they can interact with their neighbors. Banned too are gas-powered lawn mowers and trimmers.

Other New Town edicts include: No molded plastic furniture on front porches, patios or terraces. Outdoor clotheslines are prohibited. No trees or bushes with trunks greater than two inches in diameter may be removed from lawns without first obtaining approval of New Town's architectural review board. Under no circumstances shall aluminum or vinyl fences or pre-cast concrete retaining walls be permitted. No colored window shades or blinds. No storm doors. Within three weeks of a general election, residents may place in their yard one sign not exceeding three square feet in area for each candidate or position they wish to promote. No real estate brokerage signs.

If residents want to make any improvement or modification to the outside of their homes, such as painting a door or installing a satellite dish, they must first submit an application and pay a fee (up to $50) to the review board. Those who don't follow the rules and procedures are subject to fines.

As the most visible member of the board, Busse is a well-known figure in New Town but insists his methods are more Andy Griffith than Dirty Harry. The board has never fined anyone, though it has sent out a few letters informing residents of their misdeeds. In general, says Busse, the folks of New Town do a good job of policing themselves.

"I see my job more as educating people on how New Town is designed to work," he says. "I'm sure there are some people who think of me as the enforcer, but in actuality I have more people calling me up to report on things they don't think are up to New Town standards."

Todd Swanstrom, professor of public policy studies at Saint Louis University, questions whether developments such as New Town can ever live up to their billing. Whereas Jane Jacobs championed chaotic neighborhoods where people interact in functional interdependence, Swanstrom says, developments like New Town tend to place greater emphasis on order and social relations.

"Is it an urban community with freedom of choice, or is it a homogenous community in which people's similar tastes and backgrounds serve as an emollient?" says Swanstrom. "If it's the latter, then it really becomes a lifestyle choice more than a new form of community."

To date, the demographic makeup of New Town mirrors that of St. Charles. It is predominately white, Christian and middle class. Though — as many residents are proud to note — the community has Asian and African-American families. Even a few homosexual couples call New Town home.

While book sales have yet to take off at the Prancing Pony, what does sell well is New Town garb. The store offers everything from caps to postcards to water bottles, all of it bearing the development's distinctive red, white and blue logo. New Town T-shirts read: "New Town, Old Way."

Every Friday is movie night in New Town. Recently, about 100 residents — many of them toting the $30 New Town lawn blanket — gathered at the amphitheater for a screening of The Chronicles of Narnia. Joining the crowd were several members of the Riley family.

So enamored are the Rileys of New Town that eight families related by blood or marriage to brothers Joe, John and Michael Riley are building homes there or have already moved into the community.

"Yeah, we all drank the Kool-Aid," jokes Joe Riley, a real estate agent who's selling his home in another of Whittaker's St. Charles developments to move to New Town. "This is definitely not a community for the reclusive. It's much more of a social setting, which is something I value and like."

Comments Joe's sister-in-law, Peggy Riley: "There's no one out here that I wouldn't want to be next-door neighbors with. Everyone has such an adventurous, pioneer spirit. It's like you went on vacation and stayed. Once you drive in you just say, 'Aaahh.' You don't want to leave."

Electing to forgo movie night this evening is Christopher McCullough. Sucking down Budweisers on his back patio with a few out-of-town guests, McCullough says he can't help but feel isolated in New Town. It takes fifteen minutes to get to the nearest supermarket, and few restaurants will deliver to the subdivision. Until recently, even MapQuest had trouble finding the place.

"It recognized our street for the first time last week," says McCullough. "I was so excited, I ran to tell my wife. We couldn't believe it. It was like, 'finally!'"

But the recognition comes too late for the McCulloughs. Christopher says they already have plans to move to a St. Charles community closer to Interstate 70. He only hopes that his daughter will find as many play friends at their new home as she did in New Town.

"Oh, yeah, everyone's real friendly here," comments McCullough. "I feel like my arm's going to fall off sometimes when I'm driving through the neighborhood. It's almost like you have to wave to everyone."

That's not to say New Town is without its problems and unrest. They may not be big-city dilemmas yet, but they're a start.

In a well-publicized theft last month, pranksters made off with one of the decorative cows that accent New Town's public greenways. (The fiberglass bovine was recovered after Whittaker put up a $1,000 reward for its return.)

It seems, too, that more and more residents are questioning the rules. Last month, Paul Hurley posted a message on the subdivision's online message board ( questioning the town's lawn-mower provisions. Like other residents of New Town, Hurley complains an electric mower takes twice as long to cut the grass as a gas mower.

New Town has space for an elementary school, but whether it's built depends on attracting enough young families. Superintendent Dan Dozier says the community provided his Orchard Farms School District with only 36 new students last year.

Meanwhile, a YMCA scheduled for New Town has been put on hold, angering several residents who say they moved to the community because of the promised fitness club.

For the most part, though, things are calm in New Town and most people hail the project as a success. In April New Town ranked as the best-selling development in a survey of some 17,000 real estate projects for sale in sixteen states, with more than 600 houses sold in the past year. What's more, investors and speculators are selling homes in New Town for 20- to 30-percent premiums over what they paid for the houses last year.

On a recent May afternoon, the serenity of New Town is broken only by the din of the street cleaner that vacuums the roads each day and bell chimes emanating from speakers hidden atop Town Hall.

Pedaling by Marsala's Market on his beach cruiser, Greg Whittaker stops to buy a few provisions for supper. Looking around the gigantic canvas before him, Whittaker imagines the day when New Town nears completion.

Whittaker sees a "Hill District" emerging, with sloping, cobblestone streets, stone bridges and Italian villas. People kayaking across the harbor, with the glow of shops and an art-house cinema behind them — and families bustling down sidewalks, businessmen leaving their offices to dine in open-air cafés.

"We have a lot of sites," he says, "for a lot of dreams."

If, like the village of Hamelin, the future and reputation of New Town lies with its children, Whittaker's vision seems to have already taken hold.

Asked his opinion of New Town, five-year-old resident Drew Statler responds with unrehearsed glee: "I don't like New Town. I love it!"

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