A Separate Peace

By staff March 1, 2003

Take heart: There is an alternative to the gated community, and it can be seen in some of the new developments sprouting around our still-not-ready-for-prime-time urban core.

For want of a better term, let's call these new residential groupings "private neighborhoods," although that appellation, too, may be too snooty for what they really are: pleasant groupings of handsome houses in a graceful setting, set apart but not gated. Possibly unwittingly, they are excellent examples of the ideals of New

Urbanism-that city-planning approach that the city commission, working with architect Andres Duany, wants to see shape the growth of downtown Sarasota.

New Urbanism is about much more than just a walkable downtown or a safe, human-scale residential fabric. It's really about the things that help people to live together in an urban context: sharing responsibility for our conduct in shared space, communicating in the simple daily commerce of our lives, accommodating each other's needs for the commonweal, the good of the whole body politic. If this sounds snooty, too, it isn't; it's what our nation used to be about.

Think of it: When our forebears set up those New England towns for which we have such nostalgia today, they built houses close together, around the village green. Yes, they may have wanted to control the lives of their constituents, particularly their religious orthodoxy, but the result was an urban fabric for which many yearn.

Why? Because we "remember" a simpler time, when children were safe on the streets, when neighbors greeted each other from sidewalks and front yards, when trees met in an arch over welcoming streets.

The gurus of the New Urbanism built a town that serves as a laboratory for their theories of town development, both residential and commercial: Seaside, Florida. Yes, there is much that is contrived about Seaside (The Truman Show was not entirely fanciful) but there is much more that demonstrates how we can change our lives by changing the way we build our towns.

In Seaside, the lessons taught are easily learned. People, even visitors, find themselves exchanging hellos as they walk past the front porches and picket fences that define the domestic landscape there. They feel safe doing so, as do the young folks playing tag or hide-and-seek around the alleys that link the streets.

Yet there are those who believe that gated communities are safer and-more important?-better investments than traditional neighborhoods. We have only to look at the history of burglaries in some of our tony gated enclaves to realize that safety is not improved when streets are deserted, when there is no life seen behind the walls. As for property values, just try to buy in Seaside, or neighboring Rosemary Beach, both in the Florida Panhandle. You will blanch, visibly. In fact, both towns are almost too successful, often out of reach for young families or those of average means. Nonetheless, they work as towns, places in which people know each other. Yes, they mind each other's business from time to time, but that may be a reasonable trade-off for the sense of safety and community that pervades the towns.

Which brings us to two encouraging new places in Sarasota, one carefully designed to be upscale, the other upscale by chance and choice, or so it seems. The first is Lincoln Park, a neighborhood of houses just south of the Hudson Bayou, off South Osprey Avenue. No forbidding gate, just a "Private" sign at the entrance, which offers a view of handsome houses around a central green, dotted with old trees. The houses, which share a vaguely New England style, are subtly different from each other and-mirabile dictu!-don't display their garages as trophies for everyone to see. Lots of fine wood, charming details, welcoming front porches-this is a neighborhood for sure, if admittedly upscale. But (here it comes again) these houses are not behind hostile gates.

The same is true, in a less coordinated way, within another fine new neighborhood: Old Oaks, off Indian Beach Drive, in what's generally considered to be the museum area. Here, each house is clearly the dream of its owner, for the styles range from Georgian severe to Med-Revival flash, with several just-plain-comfortable types in between, along a street that leads to an old bayfront estate. These are not cookie-cutter houses; they are quirky, unpredictable, personal. Here, too, a plaque on the entrance pillars says "Private." But here, too, the prospect is charming and welcoming. These folks will have their privacy, you can be sure, but it won't be because a massive gate holds back the uninvited. It will be because the owners of these houses are aware of each other and of their common space.

One of the homeowners is Sarah Pappas, president of Manatee Community College. She says she and her husband found just what they wanted in Old Oaks: the chance to build a new house in an old-fashioned neighborhood. Besides, she adds, "We could have a white house, something that wasn't allowed in a gated community we did consider. Imagine! Not being permitted to paint your house white!" As for community life, she says, "we have it all, with wonderful neighbors. This past Christmas we were constantly in and out of each other's houses."

Rick McCleod, who developed Old Oaks on land he inherited, says that the results have been "extremely gratifying, fitting my vision almost perfectly." And he notes that no gate was needed to fulfill that vision. "In fact, a prospective homeowner suggested a gate and was roundly voted down by everyone else."

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