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The New Town at St. Charles
St. Charles, MO
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August 1, 2007
New downtowns cultivate old ambiance
St. Louis Post Dispatch
By: Stephen Deere


Jeff Bedard was cleaning out his swimming pool one day when it hit him: The only time he ever got in the pool was when he cleaned it.

And the yard at his Oakville home? The only time he was out there was to cut the grass.

"I can't think of an existence any more futile than fertilizing my lawn to get it grow beautiful and green only to cut it when it did," he said.

So a few years ago, Bedard and his wife, Loraine, began searching for a place that offered more than just a home - something different from a bedroom community. They wanted to live where they didn't have to rely on their cars and where they felt safe.

They found it in downtown Belleville, where the couple operates a martial arts studio in the first floor of a building on Main Street. They live on the second floor with their two young children.

Just outside of Bedard's business, Main Street is getting a boost. Much of the pavement has been reduced to chunks of concrete and gravel - part of a project to improve downtown streets.

From Belleville to Dardenne Prairie, cities across the region are reinvesting in their downtowns or creating new ones out of empty fields - all in the hopes of luring or keeping folks just like the Bedards. And they're spending millions of public and private dollars to do it.

The concept, called new urbanism, is a return to a simpler, more intimate way of life that has swept the country during the past 20 years. Urban planning experts say young adults who are children of the suburbs have grown disenchanted with life in subdivisions and crave a more stimulating living environment.

While some may head to the big city, others seek out an urban experience in suburban towns that feature pedestrian-friendly, high-density, mixed-use developments.

The new urbanism movement is a grand social experiment that has come a little a late to the St. Louis area, said Bob Lewis, president of Development Strategies Inc. in St. Louis, a real estate planning and research firm.

"Yeah, we're behind," he said. "But we always are, and that's not a bad thing. Let California and New York and Florida test a few things out."

Still, there are numerous questions facing many of suburban cities that are developing or redeveloping their town centers. Among them, will the population sustain all the new development?

"I think that's a critical question," Lewis said. "We don't have the growth to drive some of this."

New urbanists have criticized the generation of city planners that came before them for building communities that were too disconnected, forcing residents to drive to get groceries, eat at restaurants or shop for clothes. But will today's developers veer to the other extreme and create places that lose the sense of privacy?

"The only drawback I can see to something like that is that everybody knows your business," said Dardenne Prairie Mayor Pam Fogarty.

Last month, Dardenne Prairie's Board of Aldermen voted to rezone about 285 acres of property to build a new downtown. It would include shops and restaurants.

Fogarty says her city has "zero identity," and building a downtown from scratch will give the residents a greater sense of place.

"The United States is the only country in the world that has suburban sprawl," she said. "I think (an urban environment) is what people want. I think they are finding out what is missing from their life, and it is community."

The area city leaders want to develop has multiple property owners and single homes that sit on acres of land, Fogarty said. They hope to have a private developer start buying property, she said.

Meanwhile, city leaders in Manchester are just starting to discuss building a main street that would be located just south of Manchester Road.

"Our goal is to try and recognize the historic elements of our community," said Franz Kraintz, the city's economic development director. "It's really just building on the way things used to be."

The stretch of road is only about 3,000 feet long, and Kraintz said its possible it could contain smaller boutiques and sidewalk cafes and even some type of residential component.

In May, Chesterfield-based Sachs Properties, a private developer, broke ground on downtown Chesterfield, which will include office buildings, walking trails, a few lakes and eventually high-rise condominiums.

"Chesterfield has never really had a downtown where people could come and congregate," said Jaimie Marx, Sachs Properties leasing director.

Established new-urbanist projects in the area have received mixed reviews.

Planners tout Manchester Road in Maplewood, downtown Kirkwood and Washington Avenue in St. Louis as premier examples of vibrant business and residential districts created by refurbishing existing buildings.

In Wildwood's town center, leaders say some businesses have thrived, though some residents have been disappointed at the pace of the residential development.

"It's been slower than most people expected," said Joe Vujnich, the city's park's and planning director.

At the WingHaven development in O'Fallon, businesses have come and gone. Merchants complain that the one-block boardwalk sitting amid a 1,200-acre housing development area is too small to thrive.

"It was supposed to be bigger," said Pam Liston, owner of Seamus McDaniel's West.

Elsewhere, the reviews are more positive. A few weeks ago, Lee Ann Borcherding sat on her front porch with her daughter Lisa, 20, in St. Charles' New Town, where hundreds of homes rise out farmland and are connected by canals.

There's a small market, a frozen custard shop, real estate offices and restaurants. People kayak, bike, skate and drive golf carts around the neighborhood.

"On the weekends you can't sit out here without seeing 20 bikes go by," Lisa Borcherding said.

Often sightseers show up just to look at the place. There are concerts at a local amphitheater, and people gather at the town hall to watch movies and drink martinis. "We are like in a zoo," Lee Ann Borcherding said, adding that it's a little difficult to get in and out of the area.

Richard Ward, a local real estate consultant, said New Town is probably the best example of new urbanist development built from scratch.

"They really thought that out well," he said. "I'm not sure they are far enough along to judge them a success. But they are on the right path."

Ask Jeff Bedard about his new life, and can't stop talking about his freedom - he no longer has a lawn to mow or pool to clean.

"But we have parks," he said. "So we just get on the bike and ride to the park."

His kids go to a private school five blocks away, and the Bedards know every business owner up and down Main Street. Bedard still drives once in a while, but now it's just to take care of the vehicle more than anything else.

"If I don't drive my a car occasionally, the battery goes dead and the tires rot," he said. "So I've gotten in the habit of driving two or three times a week even if it just means driving around for no reason."

Jeff Bedard was cleaning out his swimming pool one day when it hit him: The only time he ever got in the pool was when he cleaned it.

And the yard at his Oakville home? The only time he was out there was to cut the grass.

"I can't think of an existence any more futile than fertilizing my lawn to get it grow beautiful and green only to cut it when it did," he said.

So a few years ago, Bedard and his wife, Loraine, began searching for a place that offered more than just a home - something different from a bedroom community. They wanted to live where they didn't have to rely on their cars and where they felt safe.

They found it in downtown Belleville, where the couple operates a martial arts studio in the first floor of a building on Main Street. They live on the second floor with their two young children.

Just outside of Bedard's business, Main Street is getting a boost. Much of the pavement has been reduced to chunks of concrete and gravel - part of a project to improve downtown streets.

From Belleville to Dardenne Prairie, cities across the region are reinvesting in their downtowns or creating new ones out of empty fields - all in the hopes of luring or keeping folks just like the Bedards. And they're spending millions of public and private dollars to do it.

The concept, called new urbanism, is a return to a simpler, more intimate way of life that has swept the country during the past 20 years. Urban planning experts say young adults who are children of the suburbs have grown disenchanted with life in subdivisions and crave a more stimulating living environment.

While some may head to the big city, others seek out an urban experience in suburban towns that feature pedestrian-friendly, high-density, mixed-use developments.

The new urbanism movement is a grand social experiment that has come a little a late to the St. Louis area, said Bob Lewis, president of Development Strategies Inc. in St. Louis, a real estate planning and research firm.

"Yeah, we're behind," he said. "But we always are, and that's not a bad thing. Let California and New York and Florida test a few things out."

Still, there are numerous questions facing many of suburban cities that are developing or redeveloping their town centers. Among them, will the population sustain all the new development?

"I think that's a critical question," Lewis said. "We don't have the growth to drive some of this."

New urbanists have criticized the generation of city planners that came before them for building communities that were too disconnected, forcing residents to drive to get groceries, eat at restaurants or shop for clothes. But will today's developers veer to the other extreme and create places that lose the sense of privacy?

"The only drawback I can see to something like that is that everybody knows your business," said Dardenne Prairie Mayor Pam Fogarty.

Last month, Dardenne Prairie's Board of Aldermen voted to rezone about 285 acres of property to build a new downtown. It would include shops and restaurants.

Fogarty says her city has "zero identity," and building a downtown from scratch will give the residents a greater sense of place.

"The United States is the only country in the world that has suburban sprawl," she said. "I think (an urban environment) is what people want. I think they are finding out what is missing from their life, and it is community."

The area city leaders want to develop has multiple property owners and single homes that sit on acres of land, Fogarty said. They hope to have a private developer start buying property, she said.

Meanwhile, city leaders in Manchester are just starting to discuss building a main street that would be located just south of Manchester Road.

"Our goal is to try and recognize the historic elements of our community," said Franz Kraintz, the city's economic development director. "It's really just building on the way things used to be."

The stretch of road is only about 3,000 feet long, and Kraintz said its possible it could contain smaller boutiques and sidewalk cafes and even some type of residential component.

In May, Chesterfield-based Sachs Properties, a private developer, broke ground on downtown Chesterfield, which will include office buildings, walking trails, a few lakes and eventually high-rise condominiums.

"Chesterfield has never really had a downtown where people could come and congregate," said Jaimie Marx, Sachs Properties leasing director.

Established new-urbanist projects in the area have received mixed reviews.

Planners tout Manchester Road in Maplewood, downtown Kirkwood and Washington Avenue in St. Louis as premier examples of vibrant business and residential districts created by refurbishing existing buildings.

In Wildwood's town center, leaders say some businesses have thrived, though some residents have been disappointed at the pace of the residential development.

"It's been slower than most people expected," said Joe Vujnich, the city's park's and planning director.

At the WingHaven development in O'Fallon, businesses have come and gone. Merchants complain that the one-block boardwalk sitting amid a 1,200-acre housing development area is too small to thrive.

"It was supposed to be bigger," said Pam Liston, owner of Seamus McDaniel's West.

Elsewhere, the reviews are more positive. A few weeks ago, Lee Ann Borcherding sat on her front porch with her daughter Lisa, 20, in St. Charles' New Town, where hundreds of homes rise out farmland and are connected by canals.

There's a small market, a frozen custard shop, real estate offices and restaurants. People kayak, bike, skate and drive golf carts around the neighborhood.

"On the weekends you can't sit out here without seeing 20 bikes go by," Lisa Borcherding said.

Often sightseers show up just to look at the place. There are concerts at a local amphitheater, and people gather at the town hall to watch movies and drink martinis. "We are like in a zoo," Lee Ann Borcherding said, adding that it's a little difficult to get in and out of the area.

Richard Ward, a local real estate consultant, said New Town is probably the best example of new urbanist development built from scratch.

"They really thought that out well," he said. "I'm not sure they are far enough along to judge them a success. But they are on the right path."

Ask Jeff Bedard about his new life, and can't stop talking about his freedom - he no longer has a lawn to mow or pool to clean.

"But we have parks," he said. "So we just get on the bike and ride to the park."

His kids go to a private school five blocks away, and the Bedards know every business owner up and down Main Street. Bedard still drives once in a while, but now it's just to take care of the vehicle more than anything else.

"If I don't drive my a car occasionally, the battery goes dead and the tires rot," he said. "So I've gotten in the habit of driving two or three times a week even if it just means driving around for no reason."