New Urbanism vs Old Neighborhoods

Reflections on buying a home in Louisville

I have long been a fan of the new urbanism. I appreciate neighborhoods that encourage walking, offer a vital urban core, and provide a mix of housing types and costs. We have visited Kentlands (in Maryland) and Prospect, Colorado, both of which call themselves “neo traditional,” and found them charming but distant from nearby cities and costly as well.

Crescent Hill (on the market!)

I spent my high school years in Columbia, MD, a community planned in the 60s and 70s around walkable village greens, with shopping, churches in interfaith buildings and public meeting spaces. It offered an idealistic vision of common civic life without the barriers of race, education or income. The concept worked … in part. Housing is mixed, particularly in the older neighborhoods, with low-income apartments next to townhouses next to more expensive, single-family homes. But residents commute long distances to Baltimore and Washington, and still drive to stores and schools as well as to the big box retailers which have recently arrived.

Here in Louisville, we were charmed by the look of Norton Commons. It calls itself a ‘traditional’ neighborhood, and bears the marks of new urbanism: brick homes set close to the street, sidewalks, garages and parking out of sight on back alleys, squares and parks, and a downtown designed to attract strolling families to local businesses. But, like similar communities, it is a long drive to work downtown, and is costly, putting it out of range for many and making it less diverse than the ideal.

However, Louisville offers another option: old, walkable neighborhoods close to business, parks and recreation. Two main  corridors to the east of downtown offer restaurants, bars and shopping — Frankfurt Avenue, a charming upscale corridor; and Bardstown Road, which offers an Austin vibe and even claims the slogan ‘keep Louisville weird.’ Old Louisville, just south of town, provides a more urban feel. For home buyers, Old Louisville offers 3,000 plus square foot century homes at bargain basement prices.

We have centered our home search on the Highlands area of Bardstown Road, and Crescent Hill and St. Matthews, both of which sit north of the parks and on the Frankfurt corridor. St. Matthews is a bit more suburban, but has charming neighborhoods with tree-shaded streets lined with cute capes and bungalows. Crescent Hill ranges from yuppy to urban and gritty, and the Highlands includes Leave it to Beaver small town charm, Beverly Hills glam, and Austin-style tattoo parlors and beer joints.

How do we choose? What do we value? Of course, part of home buying is pure timing: what is on the market during the search and what are they asking for it. But the other part is a balancing of act of deciding what matters most: immediate neighborhood (including walkability, safety and charm), accessibility (to work, cafes, parks), and the home itself.

I’ve written before about downsizing. Our three-story townhouse in Houston was just too big for us. We don’t require granite and stainless, though we do value lasting quality. We don’t mind redoing a bath or adding landscaping, but a fixer would be a bad fit. Mostly, we want a small place with room for books and a neighborhood made for walking.

There’s a point before the ink dries, when anything is possible. Where will we land? An adorable bungalow by the lacrosse fields of Seneca Park? The small but stunning 1920s Tudor condo? The colonial in the established neighborhood, lovely but requiring our design touch to make it livable? Or something as yet unseen?

Soon we’ll be taking our pre-dawn walks with the dogs in a new neighborhood. And soon ‘new’ will become known and worn and treasured, like a much-read book or an old friend.

We look forward to calling Louisville home.

a pedestrian “street”

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