Recent Development

An insider’s look at the building of a suburb, and what it tells us about the way we live

 

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By Witold Rybczynski

Credit: Scribner

Last Harvest:
How a Cornfield Became New Daleville

By Witold Rybczynski
Scribner, 320 pages, $27

Everyone likes to discuss real estate, but hardly anyone knows much about it. Those who do understand it well—developers, builders, investors, and others whose livelihoods rise and fall with the housing market—have little desire to share their expertise with the general public. And business journalists, who have become adept at interpreting Wall Street and the Fortune 500, have historically left the industry alone. The real estate pages of even the best newspapers in America rarely provide much insight into the subject.

And so, for virtually all of us, one of the most important sectors in America is essentially a black box. We put money into it when we buy a house; we take money out when we sell. But how the house came to be there, why it looks the way it does, how its price was determined—these tend to be mysteries to the nonprofessional.

Witold Rybczynski, the architect and critic, has done all of us a favor by venturing into the black box and emerging with a wealth of information about how it works. Last Harvest is the story of New Daleville, a modest development of 125 houses in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia, from its birth in the imagination of developer Joe Duckworth in 2002 to the time families began to move in, more than four years later.

If Last Harvest were simply a workmanlike account of the development and construction process, month by month and crisis by crisis, it would be well worth reading. But it is a great deal more than that. Rybczynski intersperses his narrative with graceful excursions into almost every topic that bears upon it: architectural history, city planning, the early days of American suburbia, the rise of New Urbanism in the 1990s. In breadth of vision as well as attention to detail, the book is a tour de force.

At the micro level, we learn, for example, why virtually no one-story houses are built in this country anymore. The reason is that once property tax limitations shrunk the local revenue base in much of the country, starting in the 1980s, communities began refusing to pay certain costs associated with new projects, and developers had to meet these costs. The price of land rose dramatically, and a taller house on a smaller lot became more cost-effective than a sprawling ranch house.

We learn that the eight-foot ceiling, standard in the suburban houses of the 1950s, is becoming a rarity as well. Today's buyers prefer nine feet, and builders frequently entice them into ordering 10-foot ceilings for a higher price.

There are dozens of little lessons like that—and many larger ones as well. Rybczynski shows us how the neotraditional idea—walkable neighborhoods, with houses spaced close together for a renewal of sociability—has become part of the repertoire of even the most conventional large-scale builders. He also shows us some of the little-noticed consequences of that trend: Developers tend to go neotraditional because it allows them to cram more houses onto a given piece of property. And they have become so good at doing walkable neighborhoods that they do them even in places like New Daleville, so far out in the country that there is nothing to walk to. The development has a central public area, with space for a community hall, but no retail commerce of any kind. Residents have to get in their cars to buy even the basic necessities.

But of all the many subplots in Last Harvest, the most intriguing is the complex interplay of developer and builder. Joe Duckworth buys the property, obtains permits from the local government, hires an architect, and produces detailed plans, but ultimately he is at the mercy of the two national construction companies, Ryan Homes and NVR, that buy the lots from him and then sell them to homeowners for a profit.

Duckworth is an intelligent, creative man who wants New Daleville to be genuinely neotraditional and more attractive than conventional suburbia, but the builders are willing to go only so far. "We make hamburgers and cheeseburgers," the chairman of NVR likes to say. "That's it. We don't customize the designs of our houses." The company is happy, for example, to add shutters for a more traditional look. But it makes them in only one size. If they don't quite fit the window, as is the case in New Daleville, then that's something the homeowner has to live with.

And if the housing market turns down during the construction process, as was also the case in New Daleville, then costs have to be cut somewhere, and some of the classier elements simply have to go. The brick pathways and varnished front doors that Duckworth and his architect wrote into the design don't end up in the final product. Even the trees along the walkable sidewalks are smaller than in the plan—again, a builder's decision.

Duckworth has seen all this before, and he is resigned to it. "It's not as good as I hoped it would be," he admits to Rybczynski when the job is almost finished. "But it's not a tragedy." Indeed, New Daleville is not a tragedy; it will likely be a pleasant place to live for most of its families. It's just not quite what Duckworth had in mind.

The reader can't help but sympathize with him, and admire the author's achievement. Rybczynski has not only written an engrossing and informative book about a mysterious subject, he has written one in which a developer is the hero. That, I am relatively certain, is a first.
Alan Ehrenhalt is executive editor of Governing magazine..

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