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A Village Grows Around the Green

Blueprint for old-style New Jersey community strives to create an uncrowded `sense of place'. COMMUNITY PLANNING

WHEN Bob Tuschak set out to design Montgomery Village on 200 acres in central New Jersey, he didn't start with street plans the way most developers do. Instead, he started with three hypothetical, 17th-century farms. After studying how villages had grown in this part of the country, he tried to project, step by step, how these farms might have evolved into a functioning community.

Where might the blacksmith shop have been? How might a farmhouse have grown into a residential neighborhood?

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Mr. Tuschak's purpose is not to build a theme village. Rather, he wants this development to have a sense of place - the opposite of the usual tract suburb.

``Once the seed was planted at the village green,'' he says of the early villages he traced, ``it grew as it grew.'' Making villages ``is something human beings do, the way babies say `Ma' at their first syllable. But we stopped doing it 40 years ago.''

What stopped village-building in America was the consumer boom that followed World War II, and the government programs that promoted this boom: the billions spent on highways, the FHA and VA loans, along with zoning laws that separated homes from shopping areas, requiring highways in between. The automobile, Tuschak observes, ``tore humanity apart.''

Tuschak is one of a growing number of real-estate developers and planners who want to start building villages again. Their models are not typical suburbs, or more recent ``planned unit developments'' that cluster townhouses into residential ghettos.

Rather, their models are the towns that an earlier generation grew up in, such as Lambertville, N.J., and Lenox, Mass. ``Towns that have worked and that have wonderful associations for us,'' says Hilda Blanco, a planning professor at Hunter College in New York. These developers are putting apartments over shops, houses near the village center and close together on narrow streets. They are including front porches and town squares and other inducements to neighborliness. They put offices nearby so people can walk to work.

``It's a blueprint to throw auto-driven America into reverse, restoring sanity to lives atomized by grueling commutes and concrete medians,'' declared Landscape Architecture magazine.

Developments along this line are cropping up from Manchester, N.H., to Beaverton, Ore. Even Reston, Va., the much-noted ``new town'' of the '60s, is building a new center based on the village model.

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``We are getting more and more calls,'' says Peter Brown of EDI, Architecture/Planning, who is the architect for Montgomery Village. ``People want us to come in and design a village.''

That's not surprising. The old sprawling suburbs aren't working anymore, if they ever did. Traffic is emerging as a major political issue, and a whole new vocabulary of suburban malaise - gridlock, latchkey children, and so on - is appearing in the nation's press. California's legendary freeways are so clogged that a Los Angeles radio station has traffic reports at midnight.

Underneath the congestion is an inescapable social fact. The 1950s suburb was built for an American family that doesn't exist anymore. As Jane Jacobs observed in ``The Life and Death of American Cities,'' the suburbs are a ``matriarchy'' built by men. They can function only if women are present to chauffeur kids to ballet class, do the shopping, and be there when the plumber arrives.

But today, both parents work in a majority of American families. This not only doubles the rush-hour traffic. It also turns life into a logistical nightmare, when such families - and single-parent families as well - try to navigate a world in which nobody can get anywhere without a car.

And that's not to mention the rootlessness that shows up in more subtle ways. Andres Duany, an architect and a leader of the new village movement, has said, ``The civic realm has been reduced almost entirely to malls, so when our kids hang around together they are constantly being urged to consume.''

In New Jersey, these trends are especially acute. It is the most highway-intensive state in America, and its roads are also the most heavily traveled. A recent poll by the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University found that 40 percent of the state's commuters are spending more time in the car than they were just a year ago. A majority of the state's residents say they'd rather live in a small town than in any other place.

``We didn't see a change until the traffic problem reached a peak on what had been rural roads,'' says Diane Brake of the Mercer-Somerset-Middlesex Regional Council. ``Traffic motivates people around here more than any environmental issue.''

Montgomery Village was a direct response to these trends. The township had zoned the land for offices, hoping to attract taxpaying businesses instead of families with kids. But then someone calculated that if the land were developed as zoned, the resulting traffic would be overwhelming. The township decided on a radically different approach.

``We tried a self-contained plan,'' says the township's Mayor Robert Kress, ``in which people could live and work and shop in the same area.''

As it happened, half the land was owned by the Colfax Companies, real-estate developers. Tuschak, an executive there, is a former Peace Corps volunteer and ghetto schoolteacher who had always wanted to build a new town.

``We took this as a higher order of project,'' Tuschak recalls. He visited such towns as Pittsfield, Mass., and Pinehurst, N.C., and had more than 30 meetings with a local task force. Their inspiration was drawn from a book, ``A New Theory of Urban Design,'' by Christopher Alexander.

``What are the patterns consistent in all villages?'' Tuschak asks, reflecting Mr. Alexander's approach. ``We wanted to follow those innate patterns and innate laws.''

As presently planned, Montgomery Village will be about half residential, with the other half offices and stores.

The plans show a town center with apartments over shops, and residential streets that harken back to those of the 1920s. There will be an orchard and a farmer's market. Chains and franchise stores are out. (Construction begins next summer, and should be complete in about five years.)

Tuschak knows he's treading a fine line between the authentic and the artificial. (``We are trying to make good fiction,'' he says.) Houses will start at $175,000, about average for the area. The apartments will provide some income mix, but not as much as a real village.

THERE are larger obstacles facing the new village movement. Corporate bureaucrats, for example, are often wedded to the auto-driven norm. In one village center, it took a major effort to get a movie chain to face its cinema complex towards the street instead of towards the parking lot.

Farmers and developers are generally hostile to any restrictions on their land. The major obstacle facing village development is zoning. Today, old-fashioned town centers would violate zoning laws that require strict separation of uses.

The original purpose of zoning was simply to protect city dwellers against noxious neighbors such as meat-rendering plants. But the function of zoning laws today is largely economic - specifically, keeping out people suburbanites don't want. The idea of apartments over shops - the very word ``density''- can suggest the dreaded city that suburbanites see with horror on the evening news.

``We don't want our town to look like New York City,'' is how Bud Chavooshian, former state planning director who now teaches at Rutgers University, portrays the common feeling.

Montgomery Township's village plan may signal a shift in these views. In the early '80s, the town rejected more than 35 land-use planning initiatives, Mayor Kress says. There was even opposition to bike paths.

But with traffic problems mounting, that opposition changed. In 1986, the locality elected its first Democratic mayor in 16 years, and land-use initiatives started getting consistent majorities on the council.

Tuschak says that villages make economic sense. Compact development saves money on streets, for example. Common walls cut construction costs.

A state planning commission has produced a draft report, ``Communities of Place,'' urging that growth be channeled into communities like Montgomery Village.

Tuschak, for one, is eager to do so. He left teaching to build new communities, he says, but gradually slipped into more conventional kinds of development.

``I forgot along the way what I really wanted to do,'' he recalls. ``When [Montgomery Township] put the zone into effect, I said, `Now I remember why I got into this business.'''

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