Hank Dittmar (who sadly passed away earlier this month) delivered an inspiring presentation for the Savannah Urbanism Series last fall. His visit to Coastal Georgia coincided with a Lean Urbanism exercise organized by the Savannah Development & Renewal Authority that explored ways to generate development in urban neighborhoods where investment has stalled.
Over the past three months, I’ve been thinking a lot about housing – mostly because I have been searching for it myself. After looking at dozens of homes in Ithaca I have witnessed how strong demand for rental housing has transformed the physical fabric of the city.
One thing that stuck with me nearly half a year after Hank’s presentation is a fact he shared about Washington, D.C. during World War II. According to his presentation, the city’s population soared after the war started. The city’s public broadcasting affiliate, WETA, confirms this:
Since relocating to Ithaca, I’ve been riding the TCAT bus to work. While my total commute is just under two miles, nearly 300 feet of elevation change make walking less attractive – thus my decision to ride the bus.
Before leaving Savannah, I had also started riding the bus more often. The re-configured dot shuttle to be specific. In September of last year, Chatham Area Transit (CAT) made a major service change on its fare-free downtown routes. For my two mile commute into downtown, this meant public transit was suddenly much more appealing even though I had to walk several blocks to get to the closest stop. (Full disclosure – I worked for CAT while this route change was being considered.)
While these two bus trips might seem similar – they could hardly be more different.
Recently, during a cross-country road trip, I decided to explore Richmond, Virginia.
Approaching the city from the south on I-95, I quickly realized that I did not appreciate Richmond’s size. Downtown hosts a healthy number of high-rise buildings and its suburban fringe extends many miles beyond this core. In other words, there was no way I was going to have enough time to see anything beyond a sliver of this city.
I decided to explore an area dubbed the “Canal Walk” located on the edge of downtown. There is a lot to love about the Canal Walk.
Preservation of Historic Infrastructure
The Canal Walk preserved an important element of Richmond’s industrial history – the James River and Kanawha Canal. Before the railroad, canals we’re essential mode of transportation for heavy and bulky materials. Richmond’s canal connected the city to the James River and ultimately to the Atlantic ocean.
The new Canal Walk allows visitors to see how an industrial canal worked within the city. Interpretative signs tell the story of the materials that the canal moved and the people who worked in the area – many of whom were enslaved.
In a few days, I am moving to Ithaca, New York to start a new position with Tompkins County’s Planning and Sustainability Department. Before I begin this journey, I’d like to reflect on my time living in Savannah.
I was tempted to title this post: Get Your (stuff) Together Savannah, but decided against it. Looking at the long list of things in need of attention in the city made me feel a bit hopeless. Instead, I’d like to focus on the efforts to improve this magical little city.
For the past three years I have called Savannah home. As a transplant here I’ve felt welcomed by many locals and other people who chose to live here. I have memories and friends here that I will never forget. Here are some worthwhile efforts to make Savannah a better place:
I gave myself a challenge in December: redesign the Frandor area in accordance with the master plan vision for the area while preserving the same footprint for retail currently on the site.
The entire site is 68 acres. It is bounded on the West by Homer Street (a frontage road of US-127) and on the East by Ranney Park. The site faces Michigan Ave. (M-143) on the South and Saginaw Ave. (M-43) on the North. Clippert street is the only public right of way that cuts through the site. With the exception of the new residential tower, it is exclusively retail and commercial space.
I think this site offers a compelling opportunity for a suburban retrofit because of its location. Frandor sits halfway between downtown Lansing (the state capitol) and Michigan State University. Michigan Avenue connects these two regional hubs.
Streets and Blocks
Lacking GIS data for the site, I sketched in approximate property lines and right of way using the information I could find on the city and county websites. My first step in redesigning was to come up with a system of streets and blocks. Living in Savannah has taught me the value of short blocks and alleys (or, as they’re called here, lanes) in creating walkable urban environments.
I eventually decided on a pattern of 17 blocks. The block in the southeast corner of the site contains the SkyVue apartment building. A large central block contains a public park.
In order to encourage people to walk throughout the site, I laid out streets that are safe, comfortable, and desirable for pedestrians.
I had two primary goals for the buildings: to meet the residential density target set in the Lansing Comprehensive Plan and to accommodate the existing large-format retail properties. To achieve these goals and provide housing for a broad mix of people, I incorporated 30 different building types on the site.
The video below illustrates a conceptual design for the Frandor area. The buildings are simplified massing models which lack fenestration and other ornamentation. I’ve included a few elements such as trees, parked cars, and people to scale the site. Otherwise I have kept the model simple to focus on the urban form.
This design achieves an overall site density of 25 dwelling units per acre – which aligns with the city’s vision for the area. The table below describes the commercial and residential development potential for each block. (Block ID labels shown above.)
Commercial Gross SF
Residential Gross SF
Dwelling Units per Acre
What about the zoning?
My cursory overview of the zoning for this area indicates that the current rules would not allow many elements in the design I came up with. Most of the land is zoned F (commercial). Buildings in this zone are required to include front yard setbacks (20 feet), limit height (40 feet), and provide parking. (The parking requirements took up three pages of zoning ordinance text.) This would make it impossible to establish the type of environment I’ve sketched for the area. Unfortunately, these requirements are also out of step with the Comprehensive Plan’s goals as they artificially restrict the density allowed in the area.
A savvy developer approaching this entire site would likely attempt to rezone it to a PUD (planned urban development) classification. In essence, that proposal would initiate a long and complex negotiation between the developer and the city. Only the biggest developers can afford to engage in projects like these due to the high legal costs and uncertainty.
Mending the Urban Fabric
There is one major capital investment that might make the Frandor site much more attractive for redevelopment: a lid over highway US-127. This limited access road creates a noisy, hazardous moat between Frandor and the remainder of Lansing. Cities around the country are exploring the possibility of capping urban highways. Each of these projects offers unique benefits to the surrounding community such as increased green space, improved connectivity for pedestrians and cyclists, and even additional potential for urban development.
Yet, for communities with tight budgets, these projects can feel like an unnecessary luxury. The capital required to pull off a successful highway cap project may simply be outside the range of possibility. Thankfully, communities with similar issues are finding ways to make highway underpasses more attractive, pleasant and safe.
Finally, if this site is going to be developed in the manner I’ve shown, it will need frequent transit service. This service needs to connect the development to major employment nodes in the region (such as the capitol, MSU, Sparrow Hospital, etc.). The provision of useful transit will substantially reduce the need to build parking on the site.
What makes an apartment building fit well into a neighborhood? My first reaction was that I know a good apartment when I see it. While this view might work for the US Supreme Court definition of “hard core pornography” (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 1964), it’s not particularly helpful for figuring out what sorts of apartment buildings fit into urban neighborhoods.
I went in search of multifamily buildings in Savannah that seem to fit well within their surroundings.
106 West Gwinnett
This six story apartment building is the tallest structure adjacent to Forsyth Park. Its first floor is occupied by commercial tenants (currently a vintage clothing store and a bicycle shop). The yellow brick tower has long been one of my favorite buildings in the city.
The building hugs the lot line and is surrounded by streets on three sides. These streets allow plenty of light into all of the windows. The top floors peek over the tree canopy to provide unparalleled views of the park and city. The building’s stylish parapet makes it recognizable from a great distance.
Over the long run, I suspect that efforts to preserve historic buildings and sites will be hindered by improvements to augmented reality.
I’m old enough to remember when Google Glass was the hot new thing. This wearable technology promised to blend physical reality with digital information. While Glass was a commercial flop, it laid the foundation for other innovations in the field. It’s not hard to imagine architecture and engineering offices using technologies like Microsoft HoloLens or similar visualization gadgets in the very near future.
Given enough time, the hardware cost will drop to a level where any enthusiastic consumer can own an augmented reality headset. Once this happens, historic preservationists may face unique challenges – especially in cities with high pressure for development. A developer may claim to be able to simultaneously preserve a building (through 3-D digital capture) and satisfy a market demand (by razing a historic structure).
There are tremendous advantages to preserving historic buildings. Last May, I felt positively inspired about the topic after hearing Stephanie Meeks deliver the keynote address at the Congress for New Urbanism.
Yet, if the experience of the building can be preserved digitally, some may argue that the physical form is no longer worth preserving. With political pressure to build more housing or foster economic development, some politicians may sympathize with the argument.
Should this come to pass, I have four brief thoughts on the matter:
Digital preservation is not equitable. While anybody can experience the exterior of a historic structure simply by witnessing it from the street, a digital version requires some hardware. This places a cost burden on people who want to see old buildings.
Digital preservation should not be controlled by a monopolistic software developer. It is essential that open source standards be used for any digital preservation project.
Even digital preservation isn’t necessarily permanent. A computer record is only useful as long as technology exists to process it. Digital archivists can ensure that projections of historic buildings will be accessible for generations to come.
If a historic building is to be demolished, its components may still have lasting function. With proper deconstruction practices, many building materials can be salvaged in a condition suitable for re-use. Groups like Emergent Structures in Savannah are closing the loop on building material waste cycles.
About a month ago I became very familiar with our local hospital (especially the maternity wing and the cafeteria). This got me thinking about how institutional buildings fit into the urban transect.
Hospitals and other institutional buildings typically have rigid architectural programs. Unlike commercial office or retail spaces, institutional tenants have specific needs for their buildings to accomplish.
Unfortunately, architects rarely find ways for these unique structures and campuses to blend into the urban fabric of the city. Instead, institutional buildings tend to feel isolated from their immediate neighbors. Continue reading →
For the past three years I’ve visited the Craft Scout market to do Christmas shopping. The market attracts about two dozen local craft makers to the ballroom of Savannah’s American Legion. Vendors sell jewelry, leather goods, ceramics, art prints, and other crafty sorts of gifts. The market attracts a healthy crowd.
Forsyth Farmers Market
Savannah’s Forsyth Park hosts a weekly farmers market. While cool weather likely kept many folks home today, the market often draws many shoppers. The market managers do a great job of retaining a variety of vendors. While we could potentially do almost all our grocery shopping at the farmers market, we rarely are organized enough to pull that off.
I find it fascinating that in spite of the year-round farmers market in Savannah, the vendors still rely on portable structures. While this approach allows the market to adapt to seasonal changes, it places a burden on each vendor to supply a table and shelter. It also makes the market look more improvised than established.
Market Stalls outside the Grove Arcade in Asheville
I was impressed by the approach that I witnessed in Asheville, North Carolina. These simple structures near the Grove Arcade provide vendors with a bit of shelter and a surface to display their goods. They fit neatly between the sidewalk and a row of parked cars. They also show a graceful approach to accommodating a temporary market in an urban area.
Commuters heading to Washington DC were surprised to see tolls as high as $40 earlier this week. A congested 10-mile segment of I-66 in Northern Virginia opened to solo drivers as long as they were willing to pay a premium price. (Vehicles with two or more people are exempt from the toll.)
The state’s highway department is legally required to set the toll at a level that will allow traffic to flow freely (55 mph). This means the tolls have to be set high to prevent the lanes from becoming overcrowded and congested. In an unusual way this high toll illustrates the high cost of roads that are under used.
I recently learned of a different approach to managing congestion called Pico y Placa (peak and plate). This rule restricted a portion of the city’s cars from driving during peak commuting hours based on the last digit of the license plate. This rule forced drivers to find an alternative method of getting around during peak hours of congestion. Enrique Peñalosa pioneered this approach in Bogota, Colombia.
While drivers in Northern Virginia are understandably upset about the high cost of the toll road, I doubt they would be any happier with the Pico y Placa rule. Americans tend not to like restrictions on their freedom.
There are no quick fixes to auto congestion. Eventually, drivers pay for the privilege of traveling in crowded places. The city of London has charged drivers who enter the center city for nearly 15 years. Yet I’m not aware of any North American cities that have followed their lead.
The only long term solutions involve building communities that allow us to remove the auto from the equation by enabling citizens to make trips on foot, bicycle or transit.