The Exurbs: Houses, Cornfields — And Empty Lots A Pennsylvania cornfield gave way to an ambitious housing development, attracting buyers with its traditional style and open spaces. With the housing boom gone bust, this distant suburb community now struggles to fill vacant lots.

The Exurbs: Houses, Cornfields — And Empty Lots

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The urban historian Witold Rybczynski spent years writing a book about the building of a single housing development.

Mr. WITOLD RYBCZYNSKI (Urban Historian): I wanted to write about the process of how a new community is made.

INSKEEP: He wrote about an exurb, a neighborhood proposed in the countryside more than 50 miles outside Philadelphia.

Mr. RYBCZYNSKI: It made sense seven years ago when the idea was first floated because the market was so strong.

INSKEEP: Now, of course, the market is not. This case study of development at the urban fringe has become a case study of lowered expectations. That's a subject for the Urban Frontier, our series on how the world's cities develop and grow.

In American cities, the fastest changes often come at the edges of metropolitan areas, like the one we've been describing this week.

So, we're driving along U.S. Highway 1 and we are moving into one of the great urban concentrations of the world, a megalopolis that stretches from above Boston down the east coast to New York and other cities, down to Washington, D.C. One edge of it is here - Chester County, Pennsylvania where we have housing developments alternating with cornfields.

We had Witold Rybczynski's book in the back of the minivan. It's about changing a Pennsylvania cornfield into a community, so it's called "Last Harvest." It traces Chester County's development back to the man who founded Pennsylvania in the 1700s.

Mr. RYBCZYNSKI: Well, the county was really part of the lands that were given to William Penn, which was essentially a real estate deal.

INSKEEP: The king of England gave Penn thousands of acres to settle a debt. Penn gave many of modern-day Chester County to his relatives who were hoping to profit from it.

Mr. RYBCZYNSKI: Which is important, I think, for people to understand that development isn't something that we invented. Real estate development is here from the beginning. Virtually all the founding fathers were also developers 'cause they only thing of value in the new world at that point was land.

INSKEEP: One of the founders, George Washington, that one-time land surveyor, won the Revolutionary War but lost when he tried to do a real estate deal. So, if today's development in a Chester County cornfield should lose money, developer Jason Duckworth can at least console himself that are centuries of precedent.

Mr. JASON DUCKWORTH (Developer): I have, you know, quite a few friends who are not in my industry and they, of course, turn to me, you know, they see me around the neighborhood and say, so, how are things going? I say, every bit as bad as you think.

INSKEEP: We walked with Jason Duckworth through the neighborhood his father started seven years ago.

Mr. DUCKWORTH: Why don't we head down this way? Kind of an unusual design strategy.

INSKEEP: His company tried not to let it look like so many other subdivisions you've seen.

Mr. DUCKWORTH: It's interesting. For the most part, this type of development in Pennsylvania is illegal. The conventional zoning in Pennsylvania usually mandates half-acre minimum lot sizes and…

INSKEEP: Big spaces between houses.

Mr. DUCKWORTH: …big spaces between houses and doesn't require sidewalks.

INSKEEP: That's the first thing you notice about the development called New Daleville, at least the parts that are finished. Local officials allowed the houses to stand just a few feet apart. You can walk the wide sidewalks and get to know your neighbors. Building in what's called the neo-traditional style means two kids have a smaller side yard for playing Wiffle Ball…

(Soundbite of ball being hit)

INSKEEP: …but their mom, Julie Pappas, has a Victorian front porch.

Ms. JULIE PAPPAS (New Daleville Resident): This is what sold me - just the front porch and the tin roof.

INSKEEP: And this is an interesting feature too. You…

Ms. PAPPAS: The little picket fence, so we have this nice little courtyard. Yeah. Right here is an older couple; these three houses are younger couples with younger kids. So, it's really a nice mix.

INSKEEP: The mix is so nice that Julie Pappas can almost forget that she is 50 miles from her job as a medical researcher. She can almost, though not quite, forget that her family took months to sell their old house after moving here.

Ms. PAPPAS: We put it on the market, I want to say, like, 350, and we sold it for 300.

INSKEEP: Ooh. After eating an extra year of mortgage payments.

Ms. PAPPAS: Yes. That's why you don't see any furniture in the first few rooms in my house.

INSKEEP: Construction began in this development just as the national real estate market started to collapse. New Daleville is only about half built. Dozens of home lots stand vacant. Developer Jason Duckworth and the building company say they have no choice but to keep going.

Mr. DUCKWORTH: We get bank financing for the slight improvements and we're committed to keeping things moving in this community so we have the ability to repay them.

INSKEEP: Whether these houses move right away or not.

Mr. DUCKWORTH: Exactly.

INSKEEP: So, they better move.

Mr. DUCKWORTH: They better move.

Right here on this boulevard we have a home that sold more than $500,000.

INSKEEP: Just a couple years ago.

Mr. DUCKWORTH: Just a couple years ago.

INSKEEP: And now I can get something…

Mr. DUCKWORTH: Two-hundred and eighty to three hundred thousand dollars will give you a new home in New Daleville.

INSKEEP: How about 250?

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: Two-forty, 240?

Mr. DUCKWORTH: I'll have to take you in and see if you she can make a deal with you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of trucks)

INSKEEP: Jason Duckworth says the builders can keep throwing up houses, as this construction crew is doing now, because the neo-traditional design keeps some buyers coming. That design is not dead though parts of it are slipping away. Plans called for elegant brick facades on the houses. Instead, almost every homebuyer chooses vinyl siding, which is cheaper.

Jason Duckworth says the buyers are also picking smaller floor plans.

Mr. DUCKWORTH: The homes have actually come down in square footage and it's generally the smaller models that are selling better at this point.

INSKEEP: People are choosing more modest lives at the frontier of this giant metropolitan area. Some people in New Daleville are struck with their choices. Consider Diana and Paul Roberts, who let us step up to their porch to watch an afternoon rainbow.

Mr. PAUL ROBERTS (New Daleville Resident): That's one of the things we do like out here is at night you get an unbelievable star pattern. The sky is much clearer and a lot of ducks are flying through here. And it's really country.

INSKEEP: Which is the upside as well as the downside. The space where New Daleville's developers plan for a coffee shop or ice cream parlor is still a vacant lot.

Ms. DIANA ROBERTS (New Daleville Resident): This is, to me, it's very rural. When you have to go four miles to get a carton of milk, that's rural.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: The Roberts retired early. They were 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 the house.

Mr. ROBERTS: The homes in this neighborhood are heated by propane. Therefore, the cost of the heat is directly affected by the cost of a barrel of oil.

INSKEEP: Um-hum.

Mr. ROBERTS: If I had known that we never would've bought the house.

Ms. ROBERTS: But if you're out here in a rural area, you don't have the gas lines.

INSKEEP: If you had this choice to make over again, you would not make this choice?

Ms. ROBERTS: I don't know.

Mr. ROBERTS: I would not.

Ms. ROBERTS: You would not. I guess it's just what you like and how much the economy is going to make your decision for you.

INSKEEP: The man who wrote a book about New Daleville says its problem is simple: in this economy it's just a little too far out, even for Chester County, Pennsylvania, where everything is far out. Yet Witold Rybczynski also noticed something when he drove out here to see us - a few cornfields away, he saw that workers were preparing the ground for some entirely new housing development.

Mr. RYBCZYNSKI: Developers are gamblers and they're incredible optimists.

INSKEEP: And a little economic trouble has not stopped the sprawling development that started so long ago with William Penn.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: We're on the Urban Frontier, our look at developing cities. You can hear yesterday's report from Chester County and earlier stories from South Asia at NPR.org.

On Monday we'll return to Chester County to ask how its development may be changing its presidential politics.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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