Engineering A New Neighborhood

May 28, 2004
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SPARTA — Like every occupation, civil engineering has its share of routine projects: Lay out the sewer lines, draw up the property lines, carve out the access roads — all in accordance with a jurisdiction's ordinance, mind you — and then turn off the office lights and go home.

But every now and then a truly challenging project comes along, one that gets a civil engineer's adrenalin and creative juices flowing in sync with each other.

Bedford Falls was that kind of project for Williams & Works, a prominent civil engineering and surveying firm in Grand Rapids.

Bedford Falls is a new residential project that has been approved by the Village of Sparta. It will bring 161 single-family homes, condominiums and rental apartments to 41 acres on 12 Mile Road, just east of the village's business district.

The Grand Valley Land Development Co. of Tallmadge Township, headed by company president Randy Smith, is building it. G.L. Haisma Residential Design of Grand Rapids has designed it, and Williams & Works has done the civil engineering for it.

"It's a very exciting type of development because it has so many things that have to be done," said Smith, whose firm is famous locally for its condo developments.

"It's multi-generational," he added. "Families will be able to live in this community, even if they're in different age brackets."

As Smith pointed out, Bedford Falls is different. It's not the standard suburban project that has, until recently, dominated the residential market with one house being built on two acres of land.

"We're living in exciting times," said Todd Olin, project manager for Williams & Works.

"The reason I say that is there is another alternative of development out there. It's the traditional neighborhood development."

TND goes by other names. It's also called "new urbanism" by some and "smart growth" by regional planners. But whatever it's called, what it represents is what's important.

TND is a return to the past, a residential arrangement that reaches back to the WWII era when developers created neighborhoods by incorporating stores, parks and other necessary items of daily life into their designs.

"It is about 180 degrees off what has been the norm for years and years, since post-war times. The homes are close together, they're close to the road and you get that sense of a neighborhood," said Olin.

Density does that. Although Bedford Falls will encompass 41 acres, it won't be built on all 41. Over eight acres will be set aside as natural undisturbed land. Three more will be used for common areas, while the stormwater detention will take up another 2.4 acres.

Not building on those acres means Bedford Falls will have five living units for each acre.

"It really serves a lot of needs. It curbs growth, requires less land, less utilities and less infrastructure, yet serves more customers," said Olin of TNDs. "That's what we are when we live in a community. We are customers of water, sewers and roads."

Although Olin sees a TND as being more exciting to work on, he knows it is also more difficult to get approved, because it is far from the residential zoning norm in most parts of the country. Bedford Falls was in front of the village's planners and the village board for 18 months before it was green-lighted.

"There is a lot of coordination that has to happen," he said.

Also, engineering a TND from the first site plan to the final design is a much tougher task than the normal suburban residential project. Just fitting all the utilities into a smaller site with more than the usual number of residences can engineer a hefty headache.

"It's a lot more difficult, a lot more," Olin confirmed.

"For a conventional development, we'll put in the roads, the bridges, the sewer and the water. After we get approved, then we'll work with an architect to build to suit. So all the architectural features are designed after the fact," he explained.

"What a TND requires us to do is to coordinate with landscapers, with architects — with the community, even — to design all those items within the development as it's going through the approval process. So we look at all that detail now."

For Williams & Works, that meant the firm had many more particulars it had to pay close attention to on this project. Just one of those finer points was that windows couldn't be designed to line up with those of the house next to it. Why? That would allow someone in one house to peek into the houses next door. Multiplying the total units in Bedford Falls by the average number of windows each has is, well, a lot of pane for an engineer to deal with.

In comparison, a homeowner in the usual two-acre suburban development might need binoculars just to see the nearest house.

The extra effort that is needed to engineer a TND and get it approved isn't a downer for Olin and others like him. In fact, they hope they have more of those adrenalin-filled workdays in their futures. And they might, as the TND seems to keep chugging along.

"It has really gained steam, I would say, in the last four or five years," Olin said.

"They have been progressing northward and some of the more progressive developers have really grasped onto this," he said of the development style that got its start a decade ago in warmer climates.

"For those in my profession that aren't doing it, they really should be, or at least learning about it. It's a continually changing environment, right now."    

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