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Developers Improvise As Economy Falters

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Developers Improvise As Economy Falters

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Developers Improvise As Economy Falters

Developers Improvise As Economy Falters

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/93815130/93823496" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Developers in Chester County, Pa., are trying new ways to lure homebuyers to their community. Jim Wildman/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jim Wildman/NPR

Developers in Chester County, Pa., are trying new ways to lure homebuyers to their community.

Jim Wildman/NPR

Chester County, Pa., lies at the heart of a northeast metropolitan region that stretches from Boston to Virginia. Courtesy of the Chester County Planning Commission hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the Chester County Planning Commission

Chester County, Pa., lies at the heart of a northeast metropolitan region that stretches from Boston to Virginia.

Courtesy of the Chester County Planning Commission

In Depth

Read previous Urban Frontier reports from Karachi, Pakistan and Mumbai, India.

It's a buyer's market in the distant suburbs of Chester County, Pa. One development has slashed home prices by almost $100,000. Its realtor tells a client, "You would be absolutely psychotic not to sit down and absorb this, and not move forward."

That potential homebuyer, however, didn't jump at the offer. He and others remain reluctant to purchase homes in today's sluggish economy.

Now, developers, real estate agents and architects are having to change the way they think about their work in the suburbs.

Brian O'Neill, a developer, hopes to take advantage of all the busy corporate campuses in Malvern, Pa. Major companies like Vanguard and Wyeth are based there, and hundreds of thousands of people live within a short drive of where he wants to build.

O'Neill says he wants to create a different kind of suburban development, calling it Uptown Worthington. He is spending over $540 million to remake a former steel mill into a new town center. Residences will live above office space. He's building wide sidewalks and restaurants with lots of outdoor dining.

"You'll be able to live, work and play here like the early villages in the United States," he says.

Author Witold Rybczynski traced some of Chester County's development in his book, "Last Harvest." With developments like Uptown Worthington, he doesn't think of the community as being at the urban fringe, even though parts of it are more than 50 miles from Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. Instead, he sees Chester County as the center — within driving range of several big cities.

"My friends who are very pro-urban see high gas prices as a terrific boost to urban living," Rybczynski says. "I'm not so sure. As a culture, we've bought into the notion of spreading out. We're going to do our darndest to make it work."

Chester Country resident Rick Derr is trying hard to make suburban living work. He commutes 70 miles — each way — to his job at a pharmaceutical company, and his wife commutes 47 miles to her job at a school.

The Derrs have managed their schedules so they don't have to commute to work every day, but it's still a sacrifice. Gas prices hurt their budget, but moving closer to their jobs simply isn't an option.

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