A New Town
Its developers are proud to call Norton Commons, a traditional neighborhood going up outside Louisville, Ky., “the hottest thing in town.” Housing sales are clicking along well, they report, despite a soft residential market. But what really distinguishes Norton Commons among TNDs is its success on the commercial side. Even at this early stage, with only about a tenth of the housing entitlement built, Norton Commons has several specialty retailers. The development has even drawn a couple of significant employers. As David Tomes, managing director of Traditional Town LLC, puts it, “It’s not just a neighborhood; it’s a town.”
Norton Commons is named for George W. Norton, a 20th-century visionary with two passions, progressive farming and television. He combined them in his TV station, WAVE-TV. It went on the air in 1948. Many of the agricultural shows it broadcast originated from a small studio on “the WAVE farm.”
By the mid-1980s, suburban growth was encroaching, and Norton’s heirs began to look for a new purpose for the farm. This led to an alliance of the George W. Norton Jr. Trust with the Traditional Town, LLC, developers, and Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company, the firm that created the master plan. “The land wasn’t sold for the same old same old,” said David Tomes. “It’s a progressive development from a progressive farm.”
Norton Commons incorporates six basic traditional housing styles. Credit: Traditional Town LLC
Norton Commons is 600 acres, with 150 acres set aside for park space, which makes it one of the largest traditional neighborhood developments. It has been permitted 2,800 housing units of all kinds, including live-work units, multi-family buildings, and some senior housing that will rent for $450 a month.
Dwellings available for purchase range from condo units at $139,000 up to million-dollar homes. There’s been a lot of diversity of price points, not just by streets but within individual blocks. “I used to worry about this,” Tomes said, “that we were too diverse within the blocks. But it’s turned out to be a great mix.”
Construction is set to begin shortly on a new fire station, which will include a public meeting room. There is a public elementary school, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Louisville is planning a church and a school there as well.
Tomes is particularly proud of all “the civic stuff” that has been part of the development. “That’s part of what makes it exciting for me.” There was a Fourth of July parade, and over the summer, live outdoor concerts on Thursdays and “movie nights” on Fridays. That residents have responded to all this makes him feel that Andres Duany is right to insist that “design affects behavior,” Tomes says. “People do seem to behave differently here.”
The law firm of Goldberg & Simpson moved into its new three-story building in Norton Commons Aug. 20 after 30 years of having its offices in a downtown Louisville high-rise. What managing partner Jonathan Goldberg calls the “new digs” give 63 people -- 26 lawyers and their support staff -- a reason to come into the development every weekday. Developers are hopeful some of them will eventually buy homes there, too, and save a commute.
But for a lot of the Goldberg & Simpson staff, the move from downtown has already saved them much of their commute, said Goldberg, noting that many of them already live near Norton Commons. He added, “I personally could not be more happy to be here.”
Construction is underway on a new facility for Kleinert Kutz, a specialized hand-surgery practice that is locating in Norton Commons. Goldberg said he understands why: Kleinert Kutz surgeons have the same incentive as Goldberg & Simpson lawyers to work closer to home. Affluent Prospect, the town where Norton Commons is located, is full of doctors and lawyers.
Prospect is also full of children -- which is why Norton Commons is attractive to downsizing empty-nesters who want to live near grandchildren. “There’s a mix of ages” in the development, Goldberg said, but he observes a slight skew toward seniors.
Retail shops in a TND often seem like hothouse plants -- lovely but a little fragile, and not all that obviously rooted in meeting people’s daily needs. Didn’t Main Street used to have a hardware store? And what about a full-service grocery store?
In Norton Commons residents enjoy eating out at gourmet eateries they can walk to. But to provision their own kitchens, they have to get into the car and drive to an outside supermarket -- maybe even the local Costco.
David Tomes acknowledged that this is something of a “hot button” issue. “People always want a grocery store,” he said. But with the population in Norton Commons just brushing up against 400, the numbers just wouldn’t work for a typical suburban superdupermarket -- not that such a thing would fit into a TND very well anyway.
What has worked for Norton Commons is some specialty retail and service providers. Saratoga Design and Accessories, which sells jewelry and antiques, last fall became the first shop to open there, and from the start drew business from outside the neighborhood -- with no advertising except word of mouth. “There’s no way Norton Commons isn’t going to make it,” owner Susan Vervilles told the Louisville Courier-Journal when she opened.
The logic of a specialty shop is that however small and specialized it is, it really takes a large population base to support it. It will naturally tend to draw customers from across a relatively large area. It helps to be close to concentrations of potential customers, though, and on that point, the upscale demographics of Prospect can’t hurt a shop like Saratoga.
Karem’s Pub and Grill opened in January and has been packing customers in, bringing what one local restaurant reviewer called a “Cheers-like atmosphere” to the suburbs. Justin and Kristin Gilbert’s Gelato Gilberto opened May 31; in addition to serving walk-in clientele, they provide Goldberg & Simpson with a weekly supply of their gourmet Italian-style ice cream.
A pediatrics practice and a skin-care establishment are two other businesses that have opened in Norton Commons.
Town Architect Mike Watkins points out how a more appealing a built environment helps a business like the Gilberts’: Patrons can enjoy a stroll through the neighborhood as they enjoy their sweet treats. But if a gelato shop is located in a strip mall, he asked rhetorically, “what are people going to do -- eat their gelato in the parking lot, among all the cars?”
For Watkins, the real success of Norton Commons isn’t the numbers, gratifying though those are. When he talks about the “commercial side,” he’s referring to the “third places,” those areas that are neither private home nor workplace but that are places people informally make their own: cafes, pubs, parks or public squares.
“For me the most valuable part of it is the community life,” and the way residents are already beginning to use the public and civic space -- even only 18 months after the first residents moved in, said Watkins.
He added, “You can’t imagine moving into a house and occupying only the bedroom.” But that’s what many people do when they move into a community and never connect with its public spaces -- such as they may be. He compares the public spaces at Norton Commons to the family room of a house.
“Was the tradeoff worth it?” he asked rhetorically, referring to the loss of the farmland in favor of development. “I hope the people would feel it has been. I remember the first time I walked through on a Friday night with David [Tomes]. People would greet David and thank him for building this.”
Ruth Walker is a longtime journalist and writer with an interest in urban issues. She is based in Boston. Contact her at email@example.com.
Location: Prospect, Ky. (outside Louisville)
Size: 600 acres
Developer: Traditional Town LLC
Designer: Duany Plater-Zyberk
Groundbreaking: November 2004
Percentage complete: Commercial, 5 %; residential, 10%
Population: +/-400 residents
Condominiums: From $137,000
Townhomes From $295,000
Single-family: $290,000 to $900,000
Directions: From I-71 exit onto Gene Snyder Freeway. Proceed 1/2 mile to Highway 22 (Brownsboro Road) and turn left. Go about 1 mile to Highway 1964 (old Brownsboro Road) and turn left. The site is 3/4 mile ahead on the left.