Photo by Lillian Bernstein

Developing Community

By Alexandra Rivers

Driving through Allentown’s West End, I realize how familiar the grand houses and towering trees feel. This area has become home to me at some point in these last few years. It’s not until we get past the Cedar Crest Target that I begin to notice a change in scenery. Things begin to spread out. The roads narrow. The houses become more sparse, less grand, and much older. Suddenly, in the five-or-so minute drive from my home at Muhlenberg College, I have been transported into the rural countryside that defines South Whitehall Township. It’s hard to believe that just a ten minute drive away is the downtown of Pennsylvania’s third largest city.

To my right, I see a vast farm. It seems apropos for this area, as we are now deep into the countryside, or so it feels. This farm, if everything goes according to plan, will soon become Ridge Farms, Kay Builder’s newest project that “will integrate active adult homes, apartments, commercial and dining, and medical office space into a new smart growth community in South Whitehall,” according to the Ridge Farms website. The proposed plan will bring in 780 units. It’s hard to imagine these acres of dead corn fields (with a few farm houses situated upon them) as much more than, well, this. But I have a feeling that no one will stop Kay Builders, and in a few years, if not months, their plan will be underway. I kind of like the idea of having a new community center. That’s something I think a lot of towns are missing these days, and when I had one where I used to live in Florida, I thought it was a lively and warm place to build connections. Especially in a more rural area, it’s sometimes hard to find places to interact intentionally with your neighbors. The plan begins to feel promising to me. But I do sympathize with those who aren’t so excited about Ridge Farms- undoubtedly, if this project goes through, something will be lost. The old farm houses with so much history and charm that define South Whitehall are likely to be no more. At the very least, their farm, which defines them, will be taken away. The great big open spaces of nature will be gone. But is a corn field really a valuable piece of nature? I’m sure the trees that came before them could put up a strong fight against this. But nonetheless, it really does seem like we have to build on any nature or fields we have left these days. Is it necessary? Will it do more good than harm? I don’t really know. I understand both sides. Standing on the side of the road, taking in the acres of rolling fields, the wind blowing my hair every which way, it occurs to me that this situation can’t be totally new. Mixed-use developments are popping up everywhere.

When I arrived back in my hometown for winter break after being away at school last semester, I was surprised to find construction underway on two different mixed-use communities within a few miles of my home. If I could think of two of these projects right off the top of my head, I wondered how many more must there be? So I did what any other Gen Z college student would do, and I googled some variation on “suburban mixed-use communities.” I found a 2017 survey asking adults from across the U.S. what they are looking for in a community. Fifty-three percent would prefer to live in communities containing houses with small yards but within easy walking distance of the community’s amenities, as opposed to living in communities with houses that have large yards but they have to drive to all amenities. The survey, published by the National Community and Transportation Preference Survey, furthered the narrative that mixed-use communities may be the new way of living. The demand is high. These communities are popping up everywhere. I had hundreds of results showing up on my screen, and some of these communities had been around for years now. In my hand I held a device that would likely foretell the fate of South Whitehall Township. I clicked away.

A Welcomed Addition in North Carolina

Way out in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina you’ll find Rea Farms. Much like Ridge Farms, Rea Farms comprises 455 residential properties varying from apartments to single-family homes to 55+ housing. There are commercial spaces, offices, parks, and its website boasts of its walkability and community feel. The communities are alike in both description and name. The biggest difference between the two developments is that Rea Farms has been fully built for about two years.

On the Rea Farms Facebook page, one of the first reviews you’ll see boasts, “I just love the walkability of this place. It feels so removed from the urban hustle, it’s even peaceful.” Just a 20 minute car ride downtown, it’s an impressive accolade to acquire. Another review expressed gratitude for the existence of Rea Farms, saying, “We are very blessed to be in this beautiful development!” One Google review praises that “most of the businesses are locally owned and not big national chains,” a hopeful sign that these new mixed-use communities do not always run out small businesses.

Reviews for one of the apartment complexes at Rea Farms show 13 reviews boasting 5 stars. One shining rating shared, “My wife and I have lived here since December and have had nothing short of an outstanding experience here at Rea Farms. The staff are incredibly courteous, helpful, and passionate about creating a wonderful community. I give this community my very highest recommendation!”

Any negative reviews seem to mirror the concerns of South Whitehall Township citizens. One review said “The construction traffic is horrible and is going to cause accidents.” A few others agreed, but negative comments are few and far between. There were no more traffic-related comments to be found beyond this one.

While Rea Farms is still new, residents and visitors alike seem hopeful that the development will only further positive growth and bring an increasing sense of peaceful community to the area.

Developing Community in Florida

Straddling the border of Southwest Florida’s Manatee and Sarasota counties, Lakewood Ranch was the 2nd fastest selling master-planned community in the United States in 2019, with 824 new homes purchased in the first half of the year alone. The Ranch is built on land that was once largely occupied by mines, cattle ranches, citrus groves, and timber farms, up until construction began on the mixed-use community in 1994. In February 1995, the first house in the 31,000-acre development was sold. 25 years later, Lakewood Ranch boasts 19 schools and colleges, several shopping centers, a medical center, a sports complex, country clubs, the largest business park in the region, and far more, all for its 36,000 residents and visitors to enjoy. Lakewood Ranch takes mixed-use to a very large scale.

In 2005, Lakewood Ranch’s Main Street opened. The Main Street serves as the central hub for all of Lakewood Ranch, its website boasting of its “stylish boutiques, acclaimed restaurants, miniature golf, a cinema, concerts, festivals and more.” Main Street and its surrounding neighborhoods are a microcosm that function as a small city. And for those who want to be located just a stone’s throw away from the action at any given time, there are several apartment, townhome, and single-family residences within walking distance.

Former Lakewood Ranch resident, Lilly Felder, lived just a few minutes walk from the town center. Felder spoke of her time living here, saying “The walkability was great. It helped keep me active.” Felder found herself using her car less than she had in the past, an unforeseen environmental benefit for many residents. But her favorite part of living there was the social benefits it had. As someone who has lived in rural areas for a majority of her life, Felder added that “It was enjoyable to see everyone socializing at outdoor seating areas of the restaurants and bars. I definitely prefer living closer to entertainment, shopping, restaurants and bars.” Main Street offered a real sense of community. And Felder is not the only one enjoying the countless amenities and advantages that come with living near the town center. A quick Facebook search yields hundreds of 5-star reviews for the location. Comments say things like “As a resident of Lakewood Ranch, I have to say Main street has everything I need and more” and “I live across the street from Main Street and love hearing the music on the first Friday of the month.” The kindest comment comes from David Paliotta, who writes, “It’s my town, what’s not to like? It’s heaven on earth here!”  The positive reviews go on and on, with the most negative comment pertaining to a negative interaction between another visitor and the reviewer’s son. The post was met with apologies from other community members.

But the Main Street area is only one of many neighborhoods within Lakewood Ranch. CORE at Lakewood Ranch, “a cutting-edge life sciences research campus,” states on its website that The Ranch’s various neighborhoods are intended to “appeal to various age, income, and household segments.” Lakewood Ranch is designed so that there is a “right place” for everyone- quite the task to undertake. Yet once again, a quick Facebook search shows hundreds of 5-star reviews for the Lakewood Ranch page, and the high sales rate of residential properties seems to support the claim.

Even skeptics eventually turned fans. The late Gloria Rains, a local environmental icon who wanted the hinterlands the community was built on to be left alone, eventually praised Lakewood Ranch’s preservation of natural features. 40% of the land was left for conservation and parks, and 14,000 acres have been certified “green” by the Florida Green Building Coalition, according to CORE. Their website details the environmental impact of the community, adding that the community has “made considerable efforts to set aside large tracts of land, eradicate invasive species that have overtaken them, and restore their native flora and fauna… Through the use of a combination of habitat management techniques, nuisance and exotic plant overgrowth has been reversed. There is also a 38-acre preserve for the gopher tortoise, a threatened and protected species.” It seems as though the community has figured out a way to make this the right home for everyone, or at least really try to.

And there is no plan to stop growing anytime soon, whether it’s in the area of sustainability, commercial growth, or residential growth. In its 25 years, Lakewood Ranch has brought over 36,000 residents and over 16,000 jobs to the area, and its website states that even still, “there is plenty of room to grow.”

No End in Sight

As I clicked through article after article and website after website for suburban mixed-use communities across the country, it became clear to me that the results I was finding were all going to be pretty similar. The reviews were always glowing. Any problems these communities faced seemed to be quickly resolved. The residents of the developments and surrounding locations always appeared to welcome these types of communities and the ways in which they added to the area.

Boarding the bus back to school and leaving Ridge Farms behind, I couldn’t help but feel that the fate of Ridge Farms was already decided. I think the construction of Ridge Farms is inevitable. It doesn’t seem like there’s much that usually gets in the way of projects like this. But I wondered how the residents of South Whitehall Township would end up feeling about Ridge Farms once it was built. Would they like it as much as community members seemed to love Rea Farms and Lakewood Ranch? Or is South Whitehall just not the place for a project like this? Surely every town is different. New developments like these aren’t the only way to achieve community, and South Whitehall Township’s social media may be a testament to this.

The main group pushing back against the project, “South Whitehall Concerned Citizens,” have a Facebook group where hundreds of neighbors have come together to support each other and a common cause. One of the top posts on their page is a picture of a lawn sign thanking volunteers for supporting their community every day through the coronavirus outbreak. The caption reading, “What an uplifting sign, and what a great, supportive community we have here in South Whitehall!” Another recent post praised a local Josh Early Candies for giving away candy to foster children in the wake of a global pandemic. The page boasted how citizens are “so proud to have [this business] right here in South Whitehall!” Another post, this one pertaining to the issue of Ridge Farms, began with a friendly “Hello neighbors. How are you doing today? Take care and hang in!”

Perhaps South Whitehall had already achieved community, just through a different medium and in a different way.

Alexandra Rivers

Alexandra Rivers is a theatre and media & communication double-major at Muhlenberg College.
As an extrovert who has lived in both mixed-use and strictly residential neighborhoods, she is
interested in what brings people together and creates a true sense of community. When she is not
doing extensive research into what makes a community, Alexandra enjoys spending time with
her own community of friends and family. She has recently succumbed to creating a Netflix
account and is proud to now say that if she were any character on “The Office,” she would be