New Town or Old Town: What’s Next for Suburban Builder Whittaker Homes?

{images of traditional suburban homes by Whittaker}

The Urban Workshop thinks that October 20, 2009 may be remembered as the day New Urbanism died, symbolically of course. The question in a larger sense is whether or not new New Urbanism communities like New Town at St. Charles will be proposed and built in the future. The term “new urbanism” will certainly live on in some iteration, but greenfield developments like New Town.

Plenty of people disagree and five days after that post here, the Post-Dispatch ran a story titled “Whittaker bankruptcy doesn’t signal “new urbanism” faltering, analysts say.” The story states that the vision for New Town may be completed as early as 2017 and hopefully not later than 2020. That’s a tall order.

New Urbanism always looks good on paper. Twenty thousand residents is enough to support substantial retail, a significant number and variety of restaurants, provide a social scene and so on. Just 2,500 or even 5,000 results in little of that sought after community. The builder will continue to build homes and the Post-Dispatch story quotes Whittaker as saying, “People need to come back in five years and come back in 10 years.”

As of September 2009 there were fewer than 1,000 homes and about 2,500 residents in New Town. The original vision called for almost 6,000 homes and 20,000 residents. Whittaker claims that the sales goal per year at New Town was 230 units per year. At that rate it would take 26 years and one month to sell 6,000 homes.

But this post is as much about Whittaker Homes as it is their single largest development, New Town. As it stands Whittaker has filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy, but continues to plan for the future. The suburban builder of communities like “Stone Meadow” and “Eagle’s Landing” is rumored to be set to build in St. Louis itself, according to Jerry Berger. Berger quotes Whittaker’s Tim Busse as saying, “We are focusing on construction in or close to St. Louis. The big trend is leading people back to the city.”

{images of New Town homes by Whittaker}

Now “the city” means different things to different people and I think we’re more likely to see Whittaker build in Maplewood than McKinley Heights, but the fact that Whittaker is thinking about building in a more urban setting is news. A number of factors have led to this, in my opinion. Development has extended far from our urban center and people have fled the city, depressing land costs and inviting some to “leap frog” back to the city. Whittaker is poised to both ride the trend and become a prime trend setter. If you’re reading this you’re likely well aware of the benefits an urban setting provides, but the arrival of a “traditional” builder can reach a new audience.

Clearly most if not all of what Whittaker (and others of course) has built in traditional suburban developments should not be allowed in the city. However, there’s no reason that a home builder cannot build in a suitable form given any particular development criteria. In fact, many of the buildings in New Town would function as quality urban infill. I for one hope that Whittaker brings its knowledge to the city and that its future is more Old Town than New Town.


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