Developers Improvise As Economy Falters
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
If you're shopping for a house in the most remote suburbs, it's a good time to buy.
Ms. ROBIN CHASE (Sales Agent): Hi, Ryan. I have very good news for you.
INSKEEP: That's the sound of a sales agent calling a potential buyer.
Ms. CHASE: You excited?
INSKEEP: Robin Chase is negotiating the purchase of a home lot 53 miles outside Philadelphia. The development is advertising price cuts of up to $87,000.
Ms. CHASE: You would be absolutely psychotic not to sit down and absorb this and not move forward.
INSKEEP: You might wonder why developers would be psychotic enough to build out here. The farthest suburbs have suffered so much from falling home prices and expensive gas, it raises the question of whether Americans can continue their habit of suburban sprawl. We got a surprising answer when we put that question to the urban historian Witold Rybczynski.
Does it make any sense to build anything this far out at this point?
Mr. WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI (Urban Historian): Somebody's building down the street here. So the answer is yes, it makes sense to some people.
INSKEEP: Even now, as we're about to hear, developers are making big plans in Chester County, Pennsylvania. That's where we're reporting the next two mornings on the Urban Frontier, our series on how the world cities develop and grow.
We've charted the way cities like Karachi and Mumbai are handling their explosive growth. In American cities, you often find the fastest changes at the edges of metropolitan areas, like in Chester County. It seems remote, until you visit a certain county office, where a child's lined paper hangs on the wall.
Mr. RONALD T. BAILEY (County Officer): My dad works at the planning office.
INSKEEP: That's a homework assignment decorating the office of Ronald T. Bailey.
Mr. BAILEY: He plans where a new house will be. He also plans where the new building will be - by Adam B.
Adam, that was when he was in the first grade.
INSKEEP: The dad who was featured in that first grade paper unrolls a laminated map for us.
Mr. BAILEY: And I have my staff produce this from north of New York to south of Washington, D.C., and you can see where Chester County is located and...
INSKEEP: It shows more than Chester County. It shows a good portion of the northeastern United States.
Mr. BAILEY: If you really take some perspective and stand back a little bit and look at this from space, you realize that we're really dealing with a metropolitan complex that extends Boston in the north and Richmond to the south, and Chester County's right in the middle of that.
INSKEEP: On Ronald Bailey's map, Chester County is not at the urban fringe, even though parts of it are more than 50 miles from Philadelphia's Liberty Bell. Instead, Chester County is the center, within driving range of several big cities. Which is exactly how Rick Derr sees it. We met him in the driveway of the house he bought in Chester County.
Mr. RICK DERR: It's actually halfway between my job and my wife's job. I work outside of Baltimore and my wife works right outside of Philly.
INSKEEP: Some hardcore commuting.
Mr. DERR: It's big commutes. Seventy miles for mine one-way, and 47 for her.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: Even though gas prices hurt them, it's not so easy to just move closer to work. He wants to keep his job at a pharmaceutical company; she wants to keep teaching at a private school. They're in opposite directions, and that's no surprise to Witold Rybczynski, whose book "Last Harvest" traced some of Chester County's development.
Mr. RYBCZYNSKI: My friends who are very pro-urban see, you know, the high gas prices as a terrific boost to urban living. I'm not so sure. As a culture we really bought into the notion of spreading out. And we're going to do our darndest to make it work.
INSKEEP: American cities are spreading so far that they're starting to merge into what is sometimes called mega-regions. Cincinnati is stretching closer to Columbus; Phoenix is creeping towards Tucson. In the northeast corridor, in one of those areas between cities, planner Ronald Bailey has been watching Chester County's population climb rapidly toward half a million.
Mr. BAILEY: Given our location and given transportation facilities through this area, we're going to continue to see a lot of demand for development. The challenge is going to be to accommodate that development in ways that create a more sustainable community.
INSKEEP: Notice though that Bailey said sustainable community. He doesn't think the farthest suburbs can keep on expanding exactly as they always have.
Has the price of gas altered the way that you look at this map and think about what you want to be on this map in ten years?
Mr. BAILEY: Well, combine the increase in the price of gas with the increased awareness of the bad effects of greenhouse gas emissions and it is making a change.
INSKEEP: Ronald Bailey is hoping today's economy will intensify efforts to build a different kind of suburb. Maybe you don't need every house to be on a one-acre lot. Maybe people don't want to drive every single place they go. A different Chester County is already under construction in a few places, like the massive construction site where we met a local developer.
Mr. BRIAN O'NEILL (Developer): Hi, Brian O'Neill. How are you?
INSKEEP: Brian O'Neill's earthmovers have flattened a good portion of Malvern, Pennsylvania.
Mr. O'NEILL: Probably if we step up on this mound of dirt, it'd be the best vantage point.
INSKEEP: This is huge. We've got a highway on one side, we've got a hillside on the other side that earthmovers are digging into, and you've got activity almost as far as you can see. I mean, over to these light poles several hundred yards away. How many acres is this?
Mr. O'NEILL: This is over 100 acres and we're spending $540 million on this site.
INSKEEP: Brian O'Neill looks a little like the actor Jack Nicholson when he smiles. He accents that look with dark sunglasses, a blazer and an open-collared shirt.
Mr. O'NEILL: What we're doing is providing a new town center for all of the commerce and residential development that's occurred in this neck of the woods over the past 100 years.
INSKEEP: A new town center - that's what O'Neill is building on the site of a former steel mill. It's surrounded by busy corporate campuses - companies like Vanguard and Wyeth. The development will follow principles of what's called new urbanism. You pack homes, offices and stores close together so people can walk.
Mr. O'NEILL: This will be just like a village when it's finished.
INSKEEP: What's that mean?
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, there will be lots of meandering cross streets, all of the cafes and restaurants will have outdoor dining. Each of the buildings has a residential component above the retail so that people actually will live here. You'll be able to live, work and play here like the early villages in the United States.
INSKEEP: Take a look at the plans and you do see compromises. The retailer Target is part of this project - sort of. Its big-box store will sit off by itself way across a giant parking lot in the manner of suburban Targets everywhere. But overall, O'Neill believes he is shaping a project that will outlast this tough economy.
Mr. O'NEILL: You know, there's never a good time to not start a development. If you have all the components, starting with location, location, location, then it pays to proceed.
INSKEEP: It sounds like you think the far out suburbs are sustainable, even if there is $4 gas, $5 gas.
Mr. O'NEILL: Well, this is not a far out suburb. You know, you're on the absolute bull's-eye of commerce in the state of Pennsylvania right here. Just look around.
INSKEEP: Thirty thousand people work within walking distance. Hundreds of thousands live within a short drive in Chester County, Pennsylvania.
Mr. O'NEILL: And that's why we decided to proceed despite the state of the economy.
INSKEEP: What used to be the edge is now the center. That's what O'Neill is counting on most to get him through a changing world.
We're on the Urban Frontier, reporting on how our metropolitan areas grow. And tomorrow we'll hear how an exurban development struggles to be sustainable.
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