What makes an apartment building graceful?

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.

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Upload your old building to the cloud

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.



Institutional Neighbors

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

’tis the season for temporary markets

I believe temporary markets are an indicator species for a healthy neighborhood economy. Today I visited two: the Forsyth Farmers Market and Craft Scout Holiday Market.

Craft Scout Holiday Market

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.

The price of getting there

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.)

Toll sign on I-66 (WJLA)

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.

A plaza in name only

Lansing, Michigan is perhaps best known for being the state capitol and neighbor to Michigan State University – my alma mater. It is also home to the Frandor Shopping Center, the second oldest suburban shopping center in the state. As an undergrad student, I often found myself imagining redevelopment scenarios for this site.

Frandor – facing south (Lormax Stern Development Company)

Frandor’s 450,000 sq. feet of retail floor space surround a massive 1,000-car surface parking lot. Whenever I shopped at Frandor, I felt like it was missing something important. Few major improvements have been made to the site over the nearly fifty years from its construction in 1954 and my first visit.

While the site typically felt busy and seemed to have few vacancies, it also felt strangely isolated. The three state highways bordering the site fed shoppers in automobiles but also served as trenches separating it from the rest of the city.

I still believe that Frandor offers a unique opportunity for urban infill. And I’m not alone.

The 2012 Design Lansing Comprehensive Plan (PDF) classified the Frandor area as a “Community Mixed Use Center” in its Future Land Use Map. The plan defines typical densities and building heights for the district as follows:

Building heights of 4-6 stories (25-60 dwelling units per acre) transitioning to 2-3 stories (6 -20 dwelling units per acre) and a more residential emphasis on neighborhood edges. (Page 195, Design Lansing Comprehensive Plan)

Two years ago the Lansing State Journal reported on a development called “SkyVue” which proposed to add 359 new residential units to the southeast of Frandor on the site of a former Oldsmobile dealership. The 9-story building  will bring roughly a thousand new residents within walking distance of the shopping center. I wonder how the tastes and preferences of these new customers will affect the retail offerings inside Frandor. The Google Streetview image below shows the development underway.

In spite of this progress, Frandor remains a plaza in name only. Its central courtyard could be an attractive public space. Instead it is used as a parking lot. Given the site’s location within the region and the age of the existing development, it is only a matter of time before all new buildings take shape. In future posts I will explore some desirable urban development futures for the area.

Driving into the blizzard

You can’t do a thing about yesterday. But when costs increase, imaginations wane and options narrow.

I was inspired to write this after reading another article on Plant Vogtle. A recent Georgia Public Service Commission report found that the nuclear reactor will cost $1.6 billion more than energy from other sources. Vogtle is the only active nuclear power project underway in the United States. It is notoriously behind schedule, over budget, and troubled by a revolving door of contractors managing the project.

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Taras Grescoe presents a transit-oriented travelogue of ten global cities in his 2012 book Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile. While Grescoe advocates strongly for public transportation, he has intentionally chosen to visit locations where transit has stagnated and conduct interviews with people who fervently believe in the superiority of private automobility. For the transit-curious reader, this book presents a broad and detailed picture of the state of the industry in large cities in the Americas, Asia & Europe.

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Where have all the shoppers gone?

This weekend, I spit up my coffee laughing at a Saturday Night Live segment lampooning over-the-top “Black Friday” sales events.

I wonder if future generations of Americans will laugh at this. As Seth Godin and others have observed, the era of race-to-the bottom retail pricing is coming to an end. Brick and mortar retailers who compete primarily on price are waging a losing war with online retailers. Will the shopping stampede mentality be recognizable in ten or twenty years? I doubt it.

Interestingly, this trend can be observed in real time. The Strong Towns weblog challenged its followers to document parking lot conditions on the Friday after Thanksgiving. A brief scan of the pictures uploaded using their #blackfridayparking tag shows countless acres of empty asphalt. (At a public meeting earlier I once heard a municipal engineer proclaim that requiring a parking lot to serve the maximum potential attendance for a stadium was like “building for Easter Sunday.” I wonder if he would extend this thinking to retailers.)

As a planner this trend leaves me with a few unanswered questions:

  • what will happen to this under-utilized retail space?
  • how much will retail employment shrink?
  • how will cities of the future link their virtual economies (online shopping) with physical spaces?

[p.s. the title of this post was inspired by the Paula Cole song, Where have all the cowboys gone?]

Seeing my neighborhood through new eyes

Three weeks ago, my wife gave birth to our first child. He is adorable and healthy. I could go on and on about the “wee bairn” as we’re fond of calling him. But I’d like to focus on another aspect of this experience for the moment.

Fortunately, I was able to take off some time from work to spend with my family during this special time. This meant that I started experiencing my neighborhood from a new point of view

During this time I got to understand the rhythms of weekday life on my street. As Jane Jacobs called it, “the ballet of the good city sidewalk.” For several days I observed the dog walkers, mail carriers, church goers, students, tourists, and other sorts of people traversing our street. I got to understand how disruptive events (like fire trucks racing away from the station or a neighbor power washing his fence) punctuated the relative tranquility.

I also started to see familiar places in my neighborhood from a completely different perspective. I found that my walking behavior changed substantially when I wore the baby on my body. I crossed intersections feeling more vulnerable and exposed. A crosswalk I would have eagerly approached in October seemed suddenly less hospitable.

In an age before the auto, it’s easy to imagine how my street would have fostered children playing. Tall trees provide shade. The houses face the street allowing parents to watch over the little ones. The brick road surface should slow down traffic. However these factors can’t fully overcome the visceral threat that parents feel about allowing children to play anywhere near streets intended to move cars efficiently.

Thankfully there are many people advocating to make public spaces suitable for children. A few years ago I learned about the 8 80 Cities organization which was founded by Guillermo Penalosa. They focus on creating great public spaces that work for 8-year-olds and 80-year-olds. Now more than ever I realize the importance of this mission.