New Town at St. Charles

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New Town At St. Charles
St. Charles, MO
No matter how hard one may try not to look at an accident, you still sneak a peek. The specter of New Town hung heavy over me as reports from others who’d made the trek were trickling in, so no matter how much principles dictated not looking, I was “stuck in traffic” and might as well take a good look. Accompanied by someone brave enough to take it, we left a trail of breadcrumbs (necessary when traveling west of 270) for the long journey out to Oz in a Cornfield.

The Riverfront Times already covered this topic at length, and Jen Silverberg’s masterful, editorial photos speak loud and clear. So, I’ll just get right to the immediate impressions.

After cruising through a placeless industrial complex, you spot dots of color popping out of a defunct cornfield. There’s only one entrance into the “city,” and an old, abandoned farmhouse serves as the un-manned guard post. A quick scan of the distant layout is interrupted by a curious and wondrous sight:
A Canal.
Filled with water.
Stone foot bridges crossing it.
Like Walt Disney Does Venice & Paris.
With people paddling and floating in it!

Disney World continues, as one floats through the “It’s A Small World” theme ride, because most every nationality of traditional European residential architecture is represented (above, Italian Lite), and all within the first two blocks! And if you stop to absorb details, a line of visiting cars backs up behind you like impatient tourists waiting to get on The Matterhorn.

From flowers and trees, to porch chairs (which much be issued to NT homebuyers’ on closing day, with strong recommendations on proper placement), to sidewalk lighting, it’s impossible to escape that movie set feeling. But actually, it reminded me of the first time I walked into a Pottery Barn store, and had the queer sensation of being trapped in a catalog. Or more accurately, New Town looks just like the “Historic Buildings” section of a model train accessories catalog.

The model train feeling persisted because, Where Are The People?
Granted, it was a day so hot that local weathermen swore you’d spontaneously combust if you stepped outside. But even the perfect tableaus depicting the classic art of porch sittin’ usually lacked tables for placing beverages, or any other signs that people actually used these spaces.

Moving deeper into the vast development, we finally spotted people spilling in and out of the various model homes, so we went in the model that sports an attached “mother-in-law” cottage. Aside from battling feelings of Alice in Wonderland falling down the Barbie Townhouse hole, the interior work and layout was OK. As with most of the NT homes, they are not square footage hogs; rooms are modestly sized, with some of the bedrooms about the same size as those in a South St. Louis bungalow. The developers are truly more concerned with density than with soaring entries and great rooms with ceilings so high you can see the energy bills mounting.

(Above, left, the exterior color palette to choose from. Above, right, test patches on a common ground utility shed buck the color rules.)
More urban traits the developers got right: narrow streets (some of them one way) with cars lining the curbs; alleys with trash dumpsters, and sidewalks for loitering. From a kid’s perspective, this place should be paradise because it’s easily traversable on a bike or foot, plenty of places to play out of parental sight (like the plethora of unprotected buildings under construction – a classic hotbed of juvenile delinquency), and lots of obvious and not-so-obvious places to gather in groups.
But where are the kids?
Kids don’t care if it’s awfully hot because that’s what summer’s all about. Are their parents making them stay inside lest they melt into a puddle of Juicy Juice in the villainous heat wave? Or does New Town discourage the owning of children?

Right on cue, the sign above appears on a tiny front lawn, proving children are allowed and are being manufactured on a daily basis. Plus, this family has a pun-ridden appreciation of Italian sex goddesses, so New Town does embrace the cultural arts.

There are a few lakes throughout, and the signs posted around them warn that you use them at your own risk. But they are ambiguous about the swimming issue; doesn’t say you can, doesn’t say you can’t. So, can you swim in them?

And once again, just like a stage manager cueing the talent to take the stage, a father carrying a brightly colored floating device is trailed by two young boys in sleek black life jackets. They are headed straight for the lake. You can swim in the lakes!

Yes, you can swim, float, paddle and boat, and in the case of the above lake, they provide wide, descending stair steps that take you right to the edge of the stone-encrusted shore. And the water temperature was, of course, perfect. And it’s at this point that we asked ourselves, “Is it OK to not hate this place?”

Sometimes, the buildings would elicit outright admiration; quality material choices, or proper placement of a 3-block long row of Bostonian townhouses, or ultra-wide wooden stairs leading up to a porch would signal a deep commitment to doing this right. But then you pull away from a dense cluster of Faux Brooklyn Heights to see miles of flat, treeless land bumping up against a typical McMansion subdivision in the distance, and that model train set feeling returns.

Now, if you’ve spent your entire life living in St. Charles, or similar environs, then New Town is a safe (though there sure were a lot of cop cars around) way of experiencing the joys of traditional urban life, circa Leave It To Beaver. For the older folks who long ago fled a city in a mild state of panic, this is a rarified chance to approximate the sentimental aspects of their early years. For the people who still live in a bonafide urban area, it lacks the crucial flavor of organic and ethnic evolution. New Town is the visual equivalent of the taste of low fat Pringles.

The central business district (above) was both disquieting and fascinating. It follows the model of “county seats” throughout small town America, but in this case, it was actually inhabited by people attending to business and pleasure. We finally saw all the townfolk who’d been missing during the first part of this journey.

The large-scale chess set (above) saw use, and inside the Town Hall, over a dozen tables were occupied by people of various ages deeply concentrating on chess matches. A steady stream of people were coming and going from the market, and tiny groups of people were milling about a row of food stands (below), which were made to look like miniature temples in Athens, Greece.

It was truly hot, so cold beverages were needed, and that’s where the (quick, pick the fruitiest name ever) Prancing Pony came of service. It’s billed as a cafe, but it’s a modern take on the general store and lunch counter (of which actual people were actually using) combined with a bookstore. Their architecture section puts a Border’s to shame, and the developers are dead serious about New Urbanism, with selections like A Pattern Language and How Buildings Learn. It was an impressive selection of books.

After purchasing bottled drinks (for which they provide an old-fashioned bottle opener nailed to the wooden counter), it was time to sit and observe the New Town inhabitants. And sure enough, they were walking into the town center and casually using all the amenities; bringing Prancing Pony food out onto the veranda (below) complete with overhead doors opened and closed depending on the weather, or small groups having a quick chat before attending to marketing.

I wound up in conversation with a young boy who was picking up grilled cheese sandwiches to go, and I peppered him with endless questions that he answered in a friendly and precise manner. He and his family moved here from elsewhere in St. Charles, and their house was up for sale (“oh, they sell real fast, and for more money than when buying them the first time”) so they could move into a larger model that would be ready at the beginning of September. When I mentioned the name of a realtor we’d run into earlier, he remarked, “Oh yeah, she’s always selling. Lots of stuff to sell.”

I’d noticed one church already standing, with another one under construction, so I asked him what denominations they were. “Christian. They pretty much cover everyone,” and he said people do go to them.

He confirmed that it really is a great place for kids, pointing out a shallow amphitheater where they show free movies every Friday night (King Kong and Napoleon Dynamite), and lakes to swim and fish in (“I don’t know how deep they are because I haven’t touched bottom, yet”). The school buses come right into the town center to pick them up, and they do play in the alleys. While talking, he said “hi” or nodded to every person that passed by, and I was pleasantly surprised at how willing he was to engage an obvious visitor in prolonged conversation. So prolonged, that I had to let him go before the grilled cheese (wrapped in a nifty black boutique box) got cold.

This casual exchange made me wonder how the New Towners felt about outside visitors; do they want tourists coming in to use their grocery store, eat at their restaurants, watch their free films? My travel companion made a good point: This should be no different than someone from, say, Richmond Heights popping into the Central West End for a bite. They’ve set it up as a full-blown town (albeit a just-add-water version), so they really wouldn’t want to go out of their way to discourage patrons willing to spend cash.

Since New Town is working on a 12-15 year plan, it seems logical that they would explore the options of a movie theater, library, concert hall, etc. These venues probably wouldn’t pull a CWE crowd, but St. Charles and O’Fallon folks wouldn’t have to go as far to get some form of well-considered culture.

So, what are the final impressions as one heads back up that long, solitary road?
I didn’t feel as creeped out as I had expected, and I begrudgingly admired a large chunk of the architecture in much the way the newfangled Las Vegas bowled me over with how expertly it recreates landmarks from around the globe. It’s fun to occasionally check out a dog & pony show, and the people sure were nice, but I was relieved to see the highway that leads back to a real city.

My fellow explorer hit upon the obvious: Sure would have been nice if they’d tried this experiment on the Old North Side. And he hit upon a missed opportunity: If they feel compelled to do something like this, why does it have to be a pastiche? Why not go for ultra-contemporary, sleekly modern homes, with minimalist boxes lining the lakes?

If a developer is sinking this much money into such a (by Midwestern standards) radical concept, they could also push the envelope a little further, and change up the architecture on the back acres of the town. There’s still time, and people will buy anything as long as it’s expertly marketed. New Town is both a marketing campaign and a misplaced experiment, kind of like New Coke capitulating to Classic Coke with vanilla. But for those who prefer their caffeine via coffee, it’s a moot point.

25 thoughts on “New Town at St. Charles

  1. The last few posts are misleading. Building is robust and expansion is everywhere. My wife and I moved to NT a month ago after looking all over the St. Louis and surrounding communities for a place that felt right. After two years of open houses, we found NT. We just returned from a vacation to Hilton Head Island, in South Carolina. When we got home, we felt more like we were on vacation, then when we were at Hilton Head. Screw the nay-sayers like Annie from Detroit. You can’t come here and not enjoy the scenery, the vibe, the lifestyle, unless you’re someone who can’t remove your nose from your smart phone.

  2. I had to go to this place today and it was the most fucked up separatist bullshit I’ve seen in my life.

    Give me the ‘hood any day.

  3. Lena G hits the nail on the head. But, New Town can be saved. I don’t know exactly what the current owners, WBI or something like that, have planned but if they don’t want it to become crime ridden delapidated neighborhood, I feel they need to get some professional property management people in there to run the General Assembly. Right now, it’s pretty much like high school. If you’re in the “in group” you get your way. If not, you are on your own. We moved here recently when we had trouble renting our properties there. Yah! In this rental market which is HOT, we can’t get renters. Many are scared away about what they heard about the strict rules enforced by the GA. My house in STL County rented to the first person who saw it the day I listed it on Craigslist. They called the next day and set up an appointment on the weekend to sign the lease. I can’t wait til I can move back into my home in STL County, but I do hope the new owners can turn it around. It was a really great place with so much potential. It is sad the such a small, small group of people have brought it to its knees.

  4. Since the time this article was written and present day much has changed. The town hit it’s zenith in 2008 with hopes high and every day brought something new and wonderful. There were new business’s, new restaurants and a constant conversation about what would be built next. Things begane to decline about the time the builder went bankrupt. The people began to fight and bicker. Things began to close and events were less frequent. The fireworks display was cancelled two years in a row. The two docks were taken away. The infrastructure began to buckle and crack. The local news reported the substandard siding that was having to be replaced. The charming gas lights were shut off. The charm is gone and what is left behind is empty shops and worried home owners. Many are in foreclosure. The town that once had so much hope is now owned by a bank and the mood is somber. Anyone who can move out is doing so before it becomes nothing but an empty movie set. I watched from afar, visiting often and attending events. Not anymore. The town has died a slow death.

  5. the first time I drove through NT, I was intrigued by the concept, loved the house’s, condos , water ways, lakes and parks. My wife and I were there this past weekend, thought we would drive out and have lunch, Nothing was open, very few people out an about on a very beautiful fall afternoon, Kind of struck me as odd. To be honest, the place really kind of freaked us out. Beautiful community, but kind of strange

  6. I have lived in New Town for 4 years. I LOVE IT. My fiance moved in with me about 6 months ago, after discussions about how he thought New Town was weird, etc.. He thought he wanted to move out soon into a different neighborhood. After living here with me he LOVES IT TOO! We just put a contract on a lot for a bigger home off of one of the lakes, and we hope to sell our current home soon so we can get into it! He said he couldnt imagine living anywhere else now that he has been out here. We run to the grocery store all the time when I have forgotten items for a recipe (often!), we sit on our front porch and listen to people in the playground. We are in a sand volleyball league with some friends, and everyone likes to meet at our house. We go fishing and go swimming in the kick butt pool (with a lazy river!) It is such a dream!!!! New Town ROCKS MY SOCKS!

  7. We have lived in New Town for almost 3 years.

    It’s like coming home to a resort. We love it. We are not the mingle with your neighbors type and we don’t.

    What’s really nice in NT is the varied prices of the homes. Basically a condo is affordable for anyone or you can have a million dollar plus home.

    It’s just perfect for my family!

  8. I think New Town is for a certain type of people. People that are comfortable in a well organized environment for one, and don’t mind living “by the rules” to have it. After all, they do go hand in hand.

    My experience with my visit there left me yearning to live there. And I hope to someday. I’m a middle-aged divorced female who depends solely on one (meek) income so it will take some time to get to the place I need to be financially in order to afford the move there. But if I want it bad enough (and I do) I will get to that point. Actually, I can’t wait. The people are really nice and the community has so much to offer. It’s clean and also gives you the feel of being in a safe haven. I love the whole concept of feeling like you really are part of the community too. And the fact that you can walk to church, many park-like settings, the market or your favorite eatery or pub..along with so many more amenities that New Town has to offer, is nothing more than a big plus in my book.

    I did want to leave a comment to the one’s that said they felt like it was a ghost town or it gave them a Stepford feeling: When New Town was first going up it did appear to be those things to an outsider looking in. But you should go back because it’s not like that at all now. I also think that like many of us that have lived in St. Louis all our lives have grown up feeling that the older you get the more you have to be on guard about your surroundings. Did you ever stop to think that maybe the new residents at New Town just had to get use to feeling safe again in their neighborhood? It will take me a while to get use to just walking out and talking to a neighbor or taking my dog for a walk without feeling like I might be mugged or approached by an unknown person…but I bet once I get the opportunity to live there, I’ll get use to it real quick 🙂

    I visit there often, for if anything, just to see what is new! And they always amaze me with someting new to look forward to. I haven’t came across any newly added detail that I felt wouldn’t be a wonderful asset towards happy living.

    I’m soooo looking forward to living in New Town. Wish me luck!

  9. We have lived in New Town for six months and I couldn’t love it more. It is a friendly place and everything is in walking distance. I love it to pieces.

  10. My huband and I are moving there in a few weeks. We can hardly wait to live in a town where people walk to the market and stop and chat. We have lived in towns where neighors let their yards go and things are stressful. We love everything about New Town and plan to stay for at least three years.

  11. I think before we focus on recreating st. louis, we need to focus on rebuilding St. Louis. Its kind like of saying “I dont care for you, but I sure do like your ideas.”

    P.S. I dont see why the don’t deliver mail. That makes NT fall short of its long preceder St. Louis. Ever since St. Louis’s was established they’ve been delivering mail into every house’s door. With people’s busy lifes, the last thing they want to do Is be inconvenienced by doing a chore that 99% of all americans have brought to their door almost every day.

  12. My wife and I just moved into NT, This is out first home and we really like the whole concept. As far as the mail center, i asked about that when we bought the house, apparently the postal service no longer offers hand deliverd mail to homes, at least new homes. They still walk the mail in the city and areas that orginally had this type of service. So it was either build a mail center or throw a pole and box in front of every house…with the planned 5,200 homes, thats a lot of mail boxes!! Not to mention all the cars parked on the streets…No carrier would want that route!!

  13. Yes, we love visitors. 🙂 The fireworks on the 4th of July are fantastic, although there is usually a 3 hour wait to get out of the neighborhood. The display is set to music and larger than the St. Louis city display.

    Come back sometime and check out the new Irish Pub and Wine Bar!

  14. New Town is the coolest neighborhood I have ever been to. My cousins live there any everytime we go, i get SO excited. I think it takes more than just driving around in a car to see why exactly new town is such an awesome place.

  15. My husband and I just moved into New Town and we couldn’t be happier. We love the community and we LOVE our new house. I work at home and it can be very lonely and isolating in a regular subdivision. To be able to go for a walk to get the mail (no I don’t mind the mail box center) and find lots of people to talk to along the way is great. Also I discovered that I can be more casual when I go outside here. In our old neighborhood I always had makeup on when I went outside. Here so many people go outside in casual clothing and without makeup, hair pulled back and what not that I got over that feeling like I had to be perfectly dressed each time I went outside very quickly. It’s great to be able to go the events and see people you know and all sit together and talk. You don’t have to plan excursions with friends because you know your friends are going to be at the New Town event already. This is the first time in my life that I’ve felt like I was living in a home, not just a house!

  16. Me and my husband are moving into Newtown this June and can not wait. I have read so many comments about Newtown it thrills me to see how many people there are that are so interested. We are one of several black familys moving in. I only note this because there is so much talk about how minoritys are not moving in or welcomed(what BS). Let me tell you this, I have never felt so welcomed anywere eles. I could acutally understand why someone might say that there is forced mingling because everyone really is that nice, you can’t fake something like that all the time(understand). If people are not in the mood for chit chat it’s ok with me I understand, Im sure I will have my days, were all intitled. The people of newtown I think might be looking for what we are, it’s simple, the good old fashioned neighborhoods we remembered growing up in. My husband the projects and me in good ol Kirkwood. Do you remember what it was like?,really knowing who your nextdoor neighbor is even from the other side of the block, the piano teacher Ms. Seagrave or getting in trouble by Mr. Loudenslager(the Principal) or Mrs. Washington (the stay at home Mom) playing kickball or flash light tag (at night), pranking the next door neighbor(Mr.Straka)ring and run if my memorie serves, We got busted. Getting out, out of the house rain, snow, sleet, or shine and making an adventure of your own,yea Newtown is just like that, for the children and adults alike. I can’t want to see what adventure awaits us. I know not everyone will like Newtown, but if we all liked the same things life sure would be boring. I would also like to say for some of you out there give NT a chance after all it may creep you out, but it is still very NEW, just wait once it matures it’s going to be something to see and experiance. One last thing what are you doing on the Fourth of July? I have seen many of firework displays in my life time but none have topped the display last year in NT, come check it out if you don’t have something eles to do you will not regret it I promise.

  17. There was a project by DPZ to do a similar project in the near South Side. Planning actually made it almost all the way done, but the city killed the project.

  18. My father currently lives in New Town and I have to admit that when he described the town to me I was absolutely creeped out in that Stepford kind of way. I had the chance to visit the town over Thanksgiving this year and I was charmed by the town and the feeling of the place. The homes are beautiful, and while there may be some truth to the “enforced milling about”, there’s also a feeling of community that I definitely don’t remember getting in any of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in. Overall, the charm of the place has mostly changed my opinion of New Town.

  19. I live near (not in) New Town. It totally creeps me out with just too much of that ghost town feel. It’s also too contrived. There are aspects, as you mention, that are positive. But the whole thing is simply too contrived and artificial. The huge, blank obelisk and the upcoming New Town Organic Farm serve to further creep me out. This coming from someone who was born and raised in Los Angeles in a real urban setting.

  20. Well, I was gonna post a piece on NTSC, but you’ve pretty much covered it. I suppose I could add a few thoughts, though:

    1) Don’t forget: If they tried to build something like this within the St. Louis city limits, it would require…TEARDOWNS.

    2) I’m a little put off by the fact that residents don’t have their own mailboxes, and they have to go to the New Town Post Office to pick up their mail. It seems kinda like “enforced milling about.”

    3) Speaking of which, I made my New Town trek on a perfect spring day and found people of all ages strolling, chatting and throwing a ball around–so, at least until the novelty wears off, the New Townies do seem like an active, sociable lot. (Or maybe the developers had paid actors to portray townspeople…)

    4) Nice of them to provide so many home formats and architectural styles…but the “our way or the highway” color scheme rubs me the wrong way, and I hear you can’t even choose the color of your own venetian blinds. Makes me wanna park an “art car” in the driveway.

    5) I enjoy a good experiment, so I gotta say I kinda like the place overall. I hope I’ll be around to see what it looks like in 30 years.

  21. The city is fine for college students and childless adults, but a person has to be nearly a millionaire to give a kid the kind of education and safety in the city that he or she’d get for free in the suburbs. That’s not to mention the difference in house and yard space. So to the extent that these people are trying to design from the ground up a fun, safe place for kids, I think it’s a great idea. The animus towards this place is lost on me.

  22. Go back sometime on a pleasant Friday evening (when I made the foray from Shaw). Loads of people milling about and socializing, music, kids, swimming…

    it ups the creep effect, but it also ups the grudging admiration. Just a bit.

  23. “Christian. They pretty much cover everyone,”

    Classic. Think I’ll stay in the “planned community” of University City.

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