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May 16,  2006

 Sixty years ago a homebuilder named Bill Levitt bought a thousand acres of Long Island farmland near Hempsead, N.Y., and set about following through on an idea he and some buddies had talked about during wartime service with the Navy Seabees in the South Pacific. In so doing, he set into place a pattern destined to dominate middle-class American life for more than half a century. Modern suburbia -- bounded by the P.T.A., Little League, civic association and a never-ending battle against crabgrass -- was born at a place he called Levittown and proclaimed to be the long-sought American dream come true. It quickly begat Vilone Villages, Fairfaxes, Graylyns and countless clones.

Now comes another developer, Christopher Leinberger, whose résumé claims he's "helping to create the next American dream" as suburbia gives way to "environmentally, fiscally, socially and financially sustainable development of walkable spaces." Just as Levitt determined that the Depression-World War II generation was ready to abandon the inner cities where they had grown up for a patch of green of their very own midway between urban and rural, Leinberger said the current generation is ready to resurrect something like -- but, of course, not exactly -- the lifestyle their parents and grandparents knew.

"The market has changed. ... It's what people want; more and more of us want it," he told an assemblage of local  movers and shakers the other day. What is desired is a 'livable' community where folks can walk to many of the places they want to go and talk to neighbors along the way.

At the same gathering, Parris Glendening, former governor of Maryland, former county executive of Prince Georges County adjacent to the Washington, D.C., and now, as president of Smart Growth Leadership Institute, an apostle of that 'new urbanism', said there really is no alternative if society is to survive inevitable population growth. He wanted that to be taken literally, citing ill effects on health and climate and war as consequences of continuing policies which promote urban sprawl.

Walking, he pointed out, is exercise and exercise helps prevent heart attack, stroke and other ills. Walking also cuts down on the use of automobiles and that reduces emissions, which contribute to climate warming. And the gasoline needed to fuel those vehicles comes mostly from the Middle East and the effect of that on U.S. foreign policy is obvious.

The seminar was organized by county government with corporate sponsorship at the instigation of Bob Weiner and John Cartier, members of County Council who thought folks hereabout ought to hear first hand about 'smart growth' as it was presented at a national conference they attended last winter. Both are deeply involved with the Claymont Renaissance movement. Weiner was one of its  founders and can rightly claim credit for sustaining it for more than five years when its viability was frequently open to question. Pending  redevelopment of the Brookview Apartments complex, a direct outgrowth of the Renaissance, seems likely to offer a pilot-scale model to demonstrate the validity of the theories.

Their timing is appropriate because the county currently is engaged in the quintenial revision of its comprehensive plan and there is increasing concern in several quarters about how best  to channel future growth and development. Many issues are involved in that discussion and civic activists in Claymont, Hockessin, Centreville want a place at the table.

Also open for possible major revision is the Unified Development Code. Enacted at the end of 1997 as a supposed blueprint for all development, it has been found lacking in several respects. Basically, it is argued that its provisions are directed toward so-called 'greenfields' -- new locations -- but do not work well when it comes to putting previously developed and now underused or blighted areas back into productive condition. The third presenter at the seminar, Michael Watkins, of Duany Plater-Zyberk & Co., a firm which specializes in producing project-specific development designs, offered a possible approach. He advocated separate codes -- which also could be sections of a comprehensive code -- governing areas in which varying degrees of density would be appropriate.

None of that is to say that the future of New Castle County rests with putting houses up close to the sidewalk and bringing back the corner store. Not everyone by a longshot agrees with achieving better living through greater density. As one seminar attender put it privately, "Where does government get off legislating how someone has to invest his money?" Opening up the portion of the county south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal through conversion of farmland into traditional suburban developments has already acquired an irreversible  momentum of its own.

As Glendening put it at the seminar: "People don't like sprawl; people don't like density; and they will fight both of them."

 Just a thought, but has anyone noticed the wholesale slaughter of street corner mailboxes in recent weeks? Postal officials say it's because folks aren't using them like they used to. But they won't say how many have disappeared so far and how many are likely to follow.

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