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VOL. 5, NO. 5 -- WINTER 2003

Kentlands' Evolution Continues

We Americans crave sense of place -- settlements graced with time, spanning generations, with tree-lined streets and squares, human-scale architecture defining the public realm. Our postcard images of these places sharply contrast today's generic suburbia, the strip mall and its big box. Charleston, age 330 years; Savannah, age 270 years; Alexandria, age 250 years; San Francisco, age 160 years.

These settlements were conceived according to the idea that places are for people. Today, communities are typically regarded as collections of consumer amenities to which we drive: disposable buildings surrounded by parking lots.

New urban communities seek to reconnect to the original values of these treasured settlements, in defiance of the current paradigm: Kentlands, Maryland, age 15 years, is a town conceived nearly from scratch that recently held its second charrette.

Kentlands was designed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) for developer Joe Alfandre in a 1988 charrette and is one of new urbanism's early projects. Conceived as a series of neighborhoods modeled after towns like Annapolis, the urbanism is fine-grained. Many of the streets are narrow. Trees with 15 years of growth now frame both buildings and streets.

Urbanism is never finished. When Kentlands, a town of 354 acres, 1,700 homes, and a commercial center, celebrated its 15th anniversary, the original designers celebrated by holding a charrette reunion to map the next stages of the town's future.

In what was described as a homegrown affair, the group of about 20*, including both original charrette members and volunteers, convened for three days. The group walked about town, assessing the built results, imagining future possibilities. Town residents welcomed the volunteers in their homes. Local restaurants catered while the group worked.

DPZ's Mike Watkins, town architect at Kentlands since its first charrette, said, "It was encouraging to have so many like-minded passionate designers working on the neighborhood I live in, especially the fresh eye of Léon Krier." Watkins, 15 years ago just out of architecture school, insisted in participating in the original charrette, having been exposed to the work of DPZ while at school. He considered his own evolution as a designer: "Kentlands was my first exposure to new urbanism. I'm much more aware now of how much I didn't know then. I'm also much more aware now that the work that we do impacts people's quality of life." He adds, "From the charrette, we are advancing a set of design principles that will shape positive, welcome change."

The designers recommended phasing-out the surface parking lots, replacing them with streets and blocks. These would be lined with multi-story, mixed-use buildings serviced by structured parking placed behind. The group proposed a light rail connection from Kentlands to the nearest station in the Washington, D.C., Metro system. Other proposals involved enhancing the public realm thru design: the reworking of traffic circles to better frame public buildings; additions to civic buildings to be in scale with the size of their public space; modifications of buildings to properly terminate vistas.

Kentlands and the adjoining neighborhood of Lakelands are now mostly built out, comprising about 3,100 households, which, with the additional demographic supplied regionally, is enough to sustain a more diverse, intense town center than exists so far. The existing surface parking lots, originally designed with infrastructure in place for eventual phasing of streets and blocks, are now ready to be replaced with the next phases of mixed-use commercial buildings.

Says DPZ designer Brian Wright, "People in Kentlands value density. Some people understand that density can add to the value of a place. [At the charrette] Andrés [Duany] started talking about Market Square being five stories, and people cheered." He continues, "Even though the residents here are serviced by places like Lowe's and K-Mart, they realize that the commercial area could be designed in a better way." Wright, who recently purchased a townhouse in Lakelands, said, "Any property value is going to go through the roof as the town center improves."

Watkins describes the first phase of this concept as already underway. An Upton's big box retail store was demolished earlier this year and will be replaced by several well-designed apartments with structured parking at the rear.

As a result of this charrette, a group of citizens formed the Kentlands Midtown Coalition, composed of resident volunteers who are interested in seeing a good master plan adopted by the city for the downtown.

Resident and community activist Diane Dorney says, "It's extremely useful to have these ideas on paper, something you can refer to when speaking to the city or other residents, which can be used as a benchmark for new proposals.

"We can gauge whether what is being proposed is not as good, as good, or better than what was proposed by the charrette team. The June tune-up charrette educated the community in a really big way. The event gave us all a preview of what we could look forward to seeing, if it is done right."

For more information about the 2003 Kentlands charrette, see the Kentlands/Lakelands Town Courier insert (requires Adobe Acrobat).

*1998 and 2003 charrette participants: Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Mike Watkins, Rick Chellmann, Bill Dennis, Tarik El-Naggar, Bill Lennertz, Patrick Pinnell, Dhiru Thadani. 2003 charrette participants: Léon Krier, Chuck Bohl, Susy Lee, Galina Tahchieva, Brian Wright and Mark Zonarich.