Monday, February 9, 2009

was east county ready for a little georgetown on the patuxent?

Hampshire Hamlet's developers promised to bring Georgetown to this site in Colesville, near New Hampshire Avenue and the InterCounty Connector. BELOW: The homes feature more detailed fa├žades than you'd see in most new developments.

East County has never attracted developers who wanted to take risks. Most new homes that get built here are your typical four-bedroom Colonials - family room, two-car garage, quarter-acre lot. Nothing special. As a result, it was surprising when high-end builder Mitchell and Best came in promising to build something that "could easily grace the streets of Georgetown, Annapolis or Alexandria," as their own marketing propaganda said.

At Hampshire Hamlet, a development at New Hampshire Avenue and Cape May Road, Mitchell and Best promised a real traditional neighborhood, with big front porches, garages tucked in back and homes pushed up against the street. And it wasn't just any street - it was New Hampshire Avenue, a rural byway-turned-suburban arterial that sees more backyard fences than front porches. It's a big gesture to put houses facing a major street like that, and it says you want to be noticed.

These are the kinds of homes you'll see in King Farm and Kentlands, two New Urban neighborhoods in Rockville and Gaithersburg where Mitchell and Best has been active in the past. Or in actual old neighborhoods like in Bethesda or outside of Downtown Silver Spring. They're designed to encourage community-building - if you give people a porch, hopefully they'll sit on them and meet their neighbors. And they charged top-dollar for that potential sociability: when I visited in the spring of 2007, prices started at $788,000.

so much more AFTER THE JUMP . . .

"The Hamlet," a much more conventional home being built at Hampshire Hamlet. BELOW: A proposed site plan from 2007 shows homes with rear garages.

And while the economic crisis has hit everyone hard, it's been especially cruel to a developer trying to sell Georgetown in the suburbs. While the traditional houses were completed along New Hampshire Avenue (three of which have yet to sell, even at discounts of nearly $200,000), Mitchell and Best introduced a new model for the rest of the subdivision's lots. It's a design that planner-types call a "snout house" - living space in back, garage way, way out in front. They provide a little more privacy for the occupants at the expense of the neighborhood, which now enjoys a streetscape of garage doors and cars. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is more of the same we've had in East County, which is disappointing.

Which leads me to ask: super-suburban East County not ready for something so "urban," even after homes like this have been built in King Farm or Kentlands for twenty years? (Though, of course, Hampshire Hamlet is only "urban" in appearance, because unlike actual urban neighborhoods - say, near Downtown Silver Spring - you couldn't walk to any stores or schools from here, though there is a bus stop nearby.) OR was Mitchell and Best just unwilling to wait for the right people to buy into their vision?

A developer makes an investment and, especially in this economy, is anxious to get a return. It's hard to make a bet on innovation, but it's a shame that Mitchell and Best wasn't willing to give the east side more of a chance.


Robin Ficker said...

If District 4 had a homeowner-friendly county councilman representing it, this project would have located in District 4.

Robert said...

What are you supposed to do to get your car in and out of the garage in
"The Hamlet?" The drawing shows the driveway stopping well short of the street!

Thomas Hardman said...

Dan writes:

They're designed to encourage community-building - if you give people a porch, hopefully they'll sit on them and meet their neighbors.

Funny thing about that, Dan, is that I have a fairly nice porch in a great position where I could sit on it and play guitar and wave at the people I saw walking by every day. I could also make sure that any of the kids getting off of the school buses made it home safely, or at least that nothing would happen anywhere I could see it and call 911.

I sure stopped doing that in June of 2007, when packs of assholes circulated around in their cars, flinging nasty crap out of their windows and shouting imprecations at me, mostly in foreign languages.

Maybe someone can translate for me exactly what means "chingar a se, vampiro".

Most of the houses here have porches. Almost nobody sits on them. I liked my porch, though, because I could sit on it in the afternoon and get a tan.

jen said...

Building front porches and moving garages to the back, in themselves, are pretty useless attempts at "community building." I love my front porch on a quiet street in Takoma Park, but I wouldn't want to sit looking out at New Hampshire Avenue. Without a reason for your neighbors to walk by and without front yards for the neighbors to see each other working in, just sitting on your front porch looking at a busy street isn't exactly going to be a social experience.

They would have done better to leave the garages near the street, and build back porches facing a common green space with paths for taking walks and kids to ride bikes.

Thomas Hardman said...

My neighborhood is characterized by a lot of 1/4-acre lots generally with fences, a holdover from the days when people kept dogs.

I've always thought that it might be more useful in the modern day to simply fence between the sidewalks and the yards to create a common perimeter around the block and then to yank out the fencing between the facing back yards, where the kids and pets and wildlife could all mingle. Of course this would require that people were all dog lovers, I suppose.

As for my porch, nowadays it's nothing more than something I walk past going in and out of the house, and my yard is pretty much offlimits to me; I just cross it going to and from car to door.