New urbanism pioneer Joe Alfandre helped build communities, and now son James looks to shake them up

Published: Friday, May 31 2013 7:10 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — The roots of developer Joe Alfandre's new urbanism, planted 25 years ago in Gaithersburg, Md., have grown into what Alfandre calls "old new urbanism," and which — under the hand of his son James — is looking to bloom on the streets of Salt Lake City.

New urbanism is an effort to reinvent the American neighborhood, the elder Alfandre said. For him, the concept goes back to his childhood in Bethesda, Md., when a step out of the front door meant walks or bike rides filled with exploration and growth.

The concept of the American neighborhood was lost when suburbia took over and towns and neighborhoods began to cater more to automobiles than people, Alfandre said, and neighbors in today's suburbs are only likely to see each other when getting the mail or taking out the trash.

His chance to become a new urbanism pioneer — "although all pioneers know that the first pioneers are the ones that end up on their faces with arrows in their back," he says — came in 1988, with the development of the Kentlands neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Md.

"I was just kind of following my heart," Alfandre said.

In designing the neighborhood, Alfandre and urban planner Andres Duany focused on building a community by getting the scale of the suburbs back under control. This was accomplished by anchoring the community with gathering centers like schools or churches, while mixed-use developments, compact neighborhoods and diverse housing options were integrated, putting many things within walking or biking distance and therefore promoting social interaction and engagement.

"That's what this is about — it's about that thread. It's a thread that isn't ripped apart; it's a thread that's woven and it can sustain you and the community and become this great fabric," Alfandre said. "When you destroy those (gathering) centers, you really rip the fabric of society, especially American society. Americans don't just want to be sealed off. They never have. They want to move on; they want to be happy, but the American dream has been to find your place in the world and know that it's yours, know that you own it, that you share it, and that you can rely on other people to help you retain it."

In Kentlands, many of Alfandre's goals were realized and recognized, with the area being featured in publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post and Time magazine. However, in the years since Kentlands was built, new urbanism hasn't managed to reach its lofty transformational goals, Alfandre said.

Although Kentlands helped sway developers to the benefits and workability of new urbanism, the industry has split and is taking two different tracks, Alfandre said. The first of these is to copy what Kentlands did to expedite the approval process and then to change their plans afterward, and the second is to actually catch the vision and want to create it elsewhere.

"In many regards, new urbanism has not done what it set out to do, and I think it ought to be able to admit that," Alfandre said. "I am, but I don't say it in a negative kind of way; it did some good things. But the city is where it's happening."

While Alfandre's vision of new urbanism builds from the ground up, as with brand-new developments like Daybreak, in South Jordan, his son James's vision of 21st-century new urbanism focuses on building upon existing infrastructure in an urban setting.

According to consumer research conducted by Maryland-based Robert Charles Lesser & Co. in 2011, 77 percent of Generation Y plans to live in an urban core, and that is where James is focusing his efforts.

"There's an underserved market," he said.

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