I was dusting in my upstairs hall this past weekend, using a damp cloth to clean the plexiglass covering my model neighborhood. Yes, I own a 4-foot by 8-foot topographically accurate model of a neighborhood I thought I was going to build once upon a time. It has 52 houses of all kinds the size of the end of my thumb, and trees made out of moss, and itsy-bitsy cars.
It’s very, very beautiful, the model; I could have bought a brand-new Mini Cooper and paid cash for it, for what I spent on that model. My hope was that the model would demonstrate to the neighbors and townspeople that I didn’t want to build anything terrifying. I just wanted to build an ordinary neighborhood that looked like the rest of my town.
Why did I want to build a neighborhood? Because I was interested in town planning and urban design, and I wanted to demonstrate that it was possible to create a new part of town that looked just like the old part of town people love. That every new development didn’t have to have wide streets, and unattractive houses that are all the same. I wanted to build something where you could rent a garage apartment when you were 22; and buy a house when you were 30; and add onto the house when you were 40; and move into an backyard cottage when you were 70.
People who live in my town, and who remember the long, drawn-out war for Larrabee Street (that was to have been the name of the major street), think that I got interested in zoning regulations because I was a developer (cue the ominous music). Actually, I wanted to develop because I was interested in town planning. My husband and I and our four noisy children were living in very tiny town in a very old house which was threatening to fall into the cellar hole. We sold the falling-down house and moved to a rental house in the town we now live in. Eventually, we started thinking about buying another house. We couldn’t find anything we liked for what we could afford. So I suggested we build a house.
“We did that once,” Hugh said.
“I know,” I said. “We’re still married.”
So I started asking around about a house lot. A friend had 23 acres right in town, wedged between two streets, adjacent to the elementary school, a 10 minute walk to the library. We bought it, and while I was walking the parcel with my good friend Swift, Swift said to me, “Ivy, you need to build a neighborhood here. This is where the houses should go. Pine Street on Halloween should be your model.”
As soon as Swift said it, I knew he was right. I had been reading and thinking and talking about town planning and urban design for years. (See How I Became an Urbanist) Here was my chance to demonstrate that a better model was possible. So I started researching how I would do this. I went to a conference on “Building the New Traditional Neighborhood”; I met a lot of really smart, funny people who kept telling me I could do this. I hired a fancy New Urbanist planning and design firm to hold a public charrette in my town and I invited everyone to come and help us design this beautiful new neighborhood.
I was so naïve. I really thought that if people understood what I wanted to do, and why it was a good thing, they would be enthusiastic about it.
They were not. They were convinced it was a terrible idea, and I was a terrible person for wanting to do it. I needed a permit to put in a through street and the opposition that appeared was astonishing. I was going to ruin everything. Their real estate agent had told them that land would never be developed; their uphill cellars would flood; they would have to see the houses; car lights would shine in their bedroom windows. Children would be killed.
I ended up having to hire an archeologist to do a survey (there was nothing there of interest); and a wildlife biologist to do an assessment of my wetlands and woods (he nominated my wetlands as most likely to be improved by paving); and an assessor to demonstrate that having more houses in a residential neighborhood would not depress the existing houses’ value.
It took forever and cost an amazing amount. I was once in a meeting with three lawyers, two architects, and a civil engineer that I figured out was costing me $100 a minute. And then the kicker: Even though what I wanted to build was explicitly called out in the town’s master plan as what people had said they wanted (housing choices, walkability, in-town development instead of rural sprawl) it was not possible to create it because the town’s zoning required a minimum of ½ acre per house lot with 100 feet of frontage. You can’t build a neighborhood that matched what was built a century ago, and that we love, with those parameters. We managed to come close to what we wanted, that’s what the model shows, but it was hard and awkward and not really as good as it could have been and certainly not as good as it should have been.
We worked for three years and spent every penny we had, and then some, on Larrabee Street and we never put a shovel in the ground. We never built a single cottage.
I never got to demonstrate that it is possible to build a new neighborhood as beautiful as anything we have now.
But, I have a fabulous model. My husband buys me tiny construction equipment and hides it in the model. I guess I think that’s funny.
We lost the battle of Larrabee Street but I’m still fighting for regulations that will allow towns to build beautiful, functional places just like we used to. And, after all, that’s where it all started. Maybe some other, deeper-pocketed person will eventually build Larrabee Street. If they do, I’ll give them the model.