The Exurbs: Houses, Cornfields — And Empty Lots

A rainbow arcs over a house in the New Daleville development.

New Daleville's developer promises rural living in Pennsylvania's Chester County, well outside of Philadelphia. Empty lots provide much of the development's green space. Jim Wildman/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jim Wildman/NPR

In Depth

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

Urban historian Witold Rybczynski says building communities like New Daleville, in the distant suburbs of Philadelphia, "made sense seven years ago when the idea was first floated, because the market was so strong."

Now that the national real estate market has collapsed, New Daleville has become a case study of lowered expectations. The community is only about half built, with dozens of empty lots where homes should be.

But Jason Duckworth, the developer for New Daleville, says he has no choice but to keep going. "We get bank financing for the site improvements," he said. "The bank needs to be repaid, and so we're committed to keep things moving."

Sometimes, keeping things going means that Duckworth slashes home prices in half to get them off the market.

More Modest Choices

In the parts of New Daleville that are finished, there are signs that the residents are adapting to a more modest vision.

Original house plans in the development called for elegant brick facades, in what is called the neo-traditional style — think porches and sidewalks. Instead, almost every home buyer chooses vinyl siding, because it's cheaper.

Recent retirees Diane and Paul Roberts relish the sense of country life they get in New Daleville. They sometimes see ducks flying overhead. Still, exurban life isn't convenient. There is no nearby store, and the space New Daleville's developers planned for a coffee shop or ice cream parlor is still a vacant lot.

"When you have to go four miles to get a carton of milk, that's rural!" Diane Roberts said.

Added Expenses

The couple is on a fixed income, so they feel it when it costs more to drive the car. Exurban residents pay more to get rid of sewage and even to heat their houses. The Robertses were disappointed to find out that New Daleville's distance from traditional gas lines forced them to heat their new home with propane.

It makes them wonder whether moving to Chester County's exurbs was the right decision, after all.

But even if the Robertses decided to sell, they probably couldn't: Their next-door neighbor's newly built home has been on the market for more than a year.

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