The 48-acre parcel, shaped like a smoker's pipe, once was viewed as a solution to a rapidly expanding Catholic-school population. Not so long ago, it may have been a coveted site for homebuilders.

Now, later this month, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia will put up for auction the tract it has owned for the last half-century in the heart of Bucks County, and it is unclear just how much the land will fetch.

Time has brought changes for the financially struggling archdiocese and the housing market.

The land, on Wismer Road in Plumstead Township, is the largest of eight properties across the region that the archdiocese plans to auction.

It is being offered at a time when residential development is at a historic low in Bucks County and the new-housing market is just beginning to blink back to life.

Real estate specialists say Americans' tastes are shifting from the large housing plots that could be built on larger tracts to smaller homes in urban settings.

"The [new-housing] market is coming back, but the question is, what do people want to buy?" said economist Joel Naroff, who is based in Bucks County. "There's clearly a changing taste that's going on in the market. And it's going to a very large extent toward downsizing."

Plumstead is a scenic township of 12,000 people about an hour's drive from Philadelphia. It is part of the Central Bucks School District, whose three high schools are ranked among the top 40 in Pennsylvania, according to U.S. News and World Report.

The archdiocese bought the land in 1964 in anticipation of growth such as a school or parish, according to a news release from Max Spann Real Estate & Auction Co., in charge of the sale. But, almost 50 years later, the archdiocesan school population is contracting, not growing.

The sale would help reduce the archdiocese's budget deficit, which results in parts from lawsuits, investment losses, and bad loans to some parishes. Church attendance and Catholic-school enrollment also have fallen, leading the archdiocese to merge parishes and close schools.

Chuck Breder, division president at Toll Bros. Inc., said someone likely would develop the land, which he estimated to be worth about $1 million.

The property is zoned rural residential, which means each house must sit on a plot of at least two acres. A lack of public water and sewer lines also restricts the number of homes, because room must be set aside for wells and septic systems. The land is divided nearly in half by Wismer Road.

A developer could realistically build eight to 12 houses there, with selling prices between $500,000 and $1,500,000, Breder said.

But Bucks is seeing a record low in the number of proposed homes, according to the county Planning Commission's annual report. Last year, developers proposed 487 homes, the lowest since 1970, and about 12 percent of the nearly 4,000 residential plans submitted in 2005.

The plunge undoubtedly reflects the effects of the recession and the ensuing collapse of the housing market as well as the mortgage crisis and other economic factors. But the market is inching back, experts say.

"The market is improving all the way around," Breder said. "The only reason we see less subdivisions in the areas we build in is because there's just not that much land available to subdivide. You don't really see large-tract land anymore. Developers have to get creative with land they wouldn't have bought five or 10 years ago."

Brewer said he had seen a huge increase in the number of people who want to live in Philadelphia. But he said professionals who are over 40 and with higher incomes still value new, larger homes in the suburbs - and some are buying them.

Naroff said some people still will want to buy tract homes on two-acre plots. But he said those people are in a minority. The increasing cost of gasoline is a factor, as is a growing aversion to longer commutes. And baby boomers who once fled the city to buy bigger homes in the suburbs now are empty nesters looking to downsize, often in the city. Their children lack the desire to live in a McMansion as well.

Baby boomers' children have been mowing their parents oversize lawns their whole lives, "and they don't want to do it anymore," he said.

"It's a different taste."