W. Joseph Duckworth, 70, of Narberth, a developer whose forceful arguments in favor of walkable villages with clustered housing and green space helped win national acceptance for that kind of suburban community, died Thursday, April 25, of complications from the flu at Kindred Hospital South Philadelphia.
Mr. Duckworth was fighting an uphill battle in May 2001 when he asked officials in Lower Moreland Township to embrace his ideas about land use for a development known as Woodmont. Instead of huge houses on large lots that ate up space and required a car to get anywhere, he wanted a simpler model with small lots and sidewalks.
Those in attendance saw Mr. Duckworth’s notions as a return to the crowded cityscape they had fled. They liked big homes on big lots, and their rejection was so resounding that Mr. Duckworth sat with head in hands at the presenter’s table.
But Mr. Duckworth was not to be stopped. By the late 2000s, as available space dwindled in the suburbs, his ideas caught on. Woodmont was finished, and other walkable developments followed. In 2009, Woodmont won the Montgomery County Planning Commission’s Award for Excellence in Planning and Design.
Starting in 1998, Mr. Duckworth was a founding partner in Arcadia Land Co., a real estate development and services firm, and he later brought in son Jason.
Developer Paul Robertson, a friend and early adviser, said Mr. Duckworth succeeded because he was patient, and because he knew how to leverage a technique called “show me.”
“If you can show [officials] something in another community that you’ve done, and it looks sharp, then you get a leg up. That’s how he did it,” Robertson said.
“My dad would run bus tours,” his son said. “We did trips to our projects.”
In addition to Woodmont, the fruits of his labor include Sadsbury Park in Sadsbury Township, Chester County, which was recognized by the Delaware Valley Smart Growth Alliance; New Daleville community in Londonderry Township, Chester County, which was the subject of a book; and Narberth Arbors on North Wynnewood Avenue in Narberth.
“Joe Duckworth was determined to build suburban developments that preserved open space and in a format that wasn’t widely accepted around Philadelphia when he first proposed it,” said Inquirer staff writer Diane Mastrull. “Now walkable communities are in high demand.”
Before creating Arcadia, Mr. Duckworth worked in real estate and land development for Toll Bros., mastering how to steer development proposals through the municipal approval process.
In 1985, Mr. Duckworth joined Realty Engineering Co. as president and CEO. The company split, and one branch became Realen Homes. In 1992, as CEO of Realen, he was named National Builder of the Year by Professional Builder and Remodeler magazine.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Glenolden, he graduated from Interboro High School, and earned a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from what is now Carnegie Mellon University. Later, he earned a master’s in business administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
He lived in Easttown Township before moving to Narberth in 2011.
Mr. Duckworth was a member of the Chester County Planning Commission and served as its chair for three years. He was on the boards of the Natural Lands Trust, the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, and the Franklin Institute.
Starting in 1999, he served on the board of the National Constitution Center and was “central to the founding of the center,” said president and CEO Jeffrey Rosen.
Vince Stango, executive vice president and COO, said, “We absolutely took great advantage of his wisdom.”
Construction began in 2000. The center opened in 2003.
He was married to Sharon Thomas. They had two children before divorcing in 1978. He married Loretta Ciocco in 1981. They hosted social gatherings, traveled, and enjoyed Phillies baseball, University of Michigan football, and Bob Dylan concerts. She died last September.
In addition to his son, Mr. Duckworth is survived by another son, Christopher, and two stepchildren, Sheara Ginsberg Graber and David Ginsberg. He is also survived by his first wife, Sharon E. Parker, and a brother.
Services were Monday, May 6.