Ebsco Industries commissioned DPZ to design a regional plan for a 5800-acre property southeast of downtown Birmingham. Situated on a heavily wooded, hilly ridge between Highways 41 and 43, it is similar in size and disposition to a collection of residential neighborhoods, laid out primarily in the 1920s, on the ridge just south of downtown. These successful neighborhoods were an important source of inspiration for the plan of the Ebsco property. First to be developed was Mt. Laurel, a 460-acre parcel located on the western slope of the ridge against Highway 41. As it contains practically all of the site conditions present in the rest of the property, Mt. Laurel serves as a useful model that can be applied, with care, to the remainder of the land.
The site is divided into three neighborhoods, each approximately half a mile across, a size that corresponds to a five-minute walk from edge to center. The lowest neighborhood, on the flatter portion of the property against the highway, functions as the mixed-use heart of the community, with commercial and institutional buildings and the highest density housing. The middle neighborhood is on the lower hillside and consists primarily of freestanding houses designed to respond to the steeper terrain. The upper neighborhood, centered on a green that crosses the existing ridge road, is composed almost entirely of houses on very large lots to accommodate the steep slope. All three neighborhoods have a figural center -- a green space reserved for public use -- and additional pocket parks and open spaces are distributed throughout the plan.
The site’s varied topography posed several challenges for the design team. The largely right-angle intersections in the town center had to become more irregular as they encountered hilly conditions, intersecting instead at acute angles or at triangular greens. Such design measures averted massive regrading and the loss of significant stands of mature trees. The steep terrain also prompted a rethinking of the design of individual homesites on difficult slopes. New house/street/garage relationships were conceived to fit the front-to-back slope conditions, and houses were either oriented with their narrower dimensions along the slope or stepped down the hill in small pavilions. Local building styles were explored with the hope of developing a new traditional style of architecture, and many neglected traditional building types—such as small apartment buildings and rowhouses with shops below—were reintroduced.
A wealth of institutions plan to make their homes in Mt. Laurel, including: an elementary school, a fire station, an amphitheater, a post office, a farmers market, and several houses of worship. Together with the commercial uses planned for the town center, the presence of these institutions will help to ensure that the residents of Mt. Laurel will be members of a truly vibrant, mixed-use community.