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Photo by Martin Spilker
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Cherry Hill Verticle
The village of Cherry Hill is a development in southwest Columbia that illustrates some key principles of an intriguing development approach called New Urbanism.
Its website calls it “ideally located in Columbia’s growing Southwest … Cherry Hill adds the warmth and convenience of a small town to an energetic, diverse community. It’s a great place to work, to shop, and to live.” The Village of Cherry Hill offers a future alternative by evoking memories of Main Street.
Cherry Hill, a 43-acre, mixed-use development, blends idealism and pragmatism. Both developer Roy Finley and veteran Columbia realtor Don Ginsburg, project partners with builder Dan Kliethermes, agreed that Cherry Hill had to work financially as well as socially. Consequently, they targeted an alternative market not served by typical suburban development.
But the idealism also remains strong. The partners keep offices in their project, and Ginsburg acknowledges, “I still love coming here every morning.” Apparently, so do many others in this increasingly popular development.
A Wide Age Range
The Village of Cherry Hill differs from traditional subdivisions in more than appearance. First of all, its residents range in age from twenties to eighties, with a corresponding variety of lifestyles. That’s part of the attraction, according to Tobby Brockhouse, owner, proprietor, and employee of Shear Madness Hair Salon on Merchant Street. Colleen and Michael Clark wanted an interesting place to retire and enjoy seeing young children during their frequent walks. Not surprisingly, Brockhouse says her customers and employees feel safe in Cherry Hill.
More importantly, The Village of Cherry Hill developer Roy Finley finds that residents seek community involvement. Dermatologist John DeSpain, who opened the first Cherry Hill office, cites the importance of “being invested” beyond one’s immediate family as one of Cherry Hill’s attractions.. The community has an active neighborhood association with a newsletter and web site, even a monthly bunco game.
Community by Design
So what makes The Village of Cherry Hill different from typical subdivisions and so appealing to that alternative market? What’s different is that The Village of Cherry Hill consciously attempts to design community through some key principles of New Urbanism. The Village of Cherry Hill looks remarkably like Missouri towns built at the turn of the twentieth century. People often tell Finley that Cherry Hill “reminds them of home,” whether they’re from small towns or city neighborhoods, and people speak without irony about the “sense of history” in this development that is less than 10 years old. Cherry Hill appears to possess some surprisingly deep and traditional roots.
Cherry Hill is built upon a bedrock New Urbanist value, walking. Walking between homes and services or work places or for exercise or pleasure encourages interaction among neighbors. Finley calls Cherry Hill "a walkable community." It illustrates the higher density (i.e. units per acre) characteristic of New Urbanism, though it's not crowded. With less than one hundred families, it's small enough for neighbors to know each other.
Mixed uses demonstrate another key New Urbanist principle of community design. The Village of Cherry Hill includes civic spaces, apartments, condominiums, single-family dwellings, retail, and offices carefully organized rather than randomly scattered. The retail area contains many small stores and offices. Some have back porches, rear parking lots (a concession to automobiles), and even upstairs dwellings. While these arrangements can pose challenges, they also reinforce the Main Street character of Cherry Hill. Several people also cite the mixture of uses as a valuable security feature, ensuring that there are always “eyes on the street” at all times of the day and night, as well as residents who walk to local businesses at regular times of the day.
In The Village of Cherry Hill, automobiles take a back seat to pedestrians. Narrow streets and houses close to the sidewalks distinguish it from typical subdivisions. Garages recede rather the houses altogether and entered by alleys, like in older St. Louis neighborhoods. DeSpain notes that alleys connect residents who would not otherwise regularly meet, while builders and homeowners Doug and Gina Muzzy observe that the smaller lots and wider sidewalks of Cherry Hill encourage social interaction.
The buildings lining those sidewalks also reflect older American architectural traditions. Cherry Hill uses a “pattern book” of approved architectural styles, like the bungalows and wraparound porches found across Missouri, to guide new construction and encourage variety. According to the Muzzys, many residents socialize from their front porches. The Muzzys believe Cherry Hill’s curb appeal of historic architectural styles also encourages walking.
All construction and modification of new and existing homes must be approved by the neighborhood association. That includes architectural modifications to the exteriors of homes as well as major changes to the property, such as fences and significant landscaping modifications. While many Missourians might object to such restrictions on their property, DeSpain suggests the strict architectural standards actually unify the community. The overall effect appears to be one of compatibility rather than uniformity.
Even with the restrictions, residential space is in high demand. There are only 69 homes in this community. At this time, all residential lots have been sold, and homes that go up for sale take a lot less time to sell than the average home in Columbia, Ginsburg says. All but one of the eighteen condos in the community are sold, and apartment rentals are scarce as well.
Don believes the location and the atmosphere of the area are key components to the community’s success, “Cherry Hill is in a very desirable location, and I believe for a certain population that likes what Cherry Hill has to offer, there is nowhere else they can find it in Columbia.”
Finally, the Village of Cherry Hill follows the fundamental New Urbanist principle of caring for civic spaces, highly reminiscent of Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. DeSpain notes that the town square was developed first and provides a civic centerpiece. New Urbanism, it turns out, is really not so new.
Three Lessons Learned
So what can The Village of Cherry Hill offer Missouri life? First of all, design quality affects a sense of community. For example, DeSpain cites the importance of little details such as placing utilities underground or attention to landscaping in the town square. Brockhouse also notes that her clients respond very strongly to the design quality of Cherry Hill. In fact, people often say they “love this place.” While not every small town and city neighborhood can start new like Cherry Hill, any community can demonstrate pride of place.
The second important lesson is that The Village of Cherry Hill is not a typical small Missouri town or neighborhood. It is, as Brockhouse concludes, “a small town in a big town,” intimately connected to greater Columbia.
Few local merchants can survive entirely by walk-in trade from Cherry Hill residents alone, and restaurants here in particular have not been immune to the competitive Columbia restaurant scene. As many New Urbanist developments have discovered, the success of retailers and restaurants depends upon their relationship with the larger city. During the seven years since Cherry Hill has been in existence, businesses have come and gone; however, the community boasts a 90 percent commercial occupancy rate for finished space, Finley says.
Ginsburg also agrees, “We have done quite well with retail and office space. Many long term successful tenants are here.” Some local businesses have had a more challenging go of it in Cherry Hill. “Restaurants have the hardest time succeeding, which is no different than locally owned restaurants anywhere in Columbia,” Ginsburg says. Although most of the existing space is occupied, five commercial lots are still available as well as thousands of feet of shell space, which can be tailored to the needs of a specific business.
People may say they want a “place where everyone knows your name” but may actually make purchases on the basis of low prices and more choices. Small Missouri towns and urban neighborhoods need to rethink and expand their roles and markets without abandoning their local communities and special identities. A third important lesson from The Village of Cherry Hill is a sense of control over community design that can help foster a sense of community. The New Urbanist master plan works in Cherry Hill, and DeSpain views its townbuilding approach as a balanced, middle path between government control and unregulated development. Legal covenants and design guidelines do restrain property owners in Cherry Hill more than in most new subdivisions. However, the Muzzys suggest that the strict guidelines and design review ensure The Village of Cherry Hill’s special character.
In his best-selling book Bowling Alone, Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam shows that we Americans have not taken care of our communities in recent decades. Putnam further argues that personal health, well-being, and even our identities require healthy communities. Like Putnam, Cherry Hill residents and frequent visitors emphasize “paying attention” to community life as well as to the natural and built environments. The Village of Cherry Hill is really about paying attention to all aspects of community life. Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Our Town powerfully dramatizes how little attention we usually pay to community life. In the play, Emily Gibbs, a young woman from tiny Grover’s Corners who died while giving birth, receives her fondest wish to return to Grover’s Corners for just one day, unseen, to observe daily village life. However, the lost opportunities quickly become too unbearable for Emily.
“I can’t. I can’t go on,” she cries. “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back–up the hill–to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look.”
Like Our Town, The Village of Cherry Hill directs our attention to the drama of community life. It’s not Utopia, but it is a thoughtful alternative to thoughtless development that reminds us of our rich cultural heritage here in Missouri and America. Design can foster or frustrate community, but it cannot create it. Community can only be improvised by us, the actors; it’s the ultimate reality show. Nevertheless, The Village of Cherry Hill provides its actors with a magnificent stage setting and valuable cues for a drama whose script is just beginning to be written.