“If you get the ground plane right you can put what you want on top”.Transit is nice to have but the real success comes from the experience on the ground”
“You see if your open space design works if kids find something to do there”
“In the first phase [of development], sacrifice density to create a there”
“Bad suburban road standards compromise the value and success of your retail”
“TOD always starts with larger infrastructure investments and somebody has to carry that burden.”
“Open space is important but it is not about its size but its quality and programming”
"I really like eminent domain”
These are quotes from people describing what they believe the best approach to master planning and design to be. These people are not architects, urban designers, planners, or economic development officials. No, they were developers at an Urban LandInstitute (ULI) gathering about appropriate design around transit. Specifically, the quoted investor/developers were Phil London, Senior VP of Comstock Partners and Don Briggs, President Federal Realty.
In this postmodern world, broad abstract intellectual constructs about urban design or architecture are as rare as new ideas about the world itself. This is not a time to cast the net wide, write chartas or develop doctrines. Instead, we muddle through. It is hard to know if a time when international movements agree on a whole set of ideas will ever emerge again. “Isms” of all kinds are discredited today, whether it is modernism or socialism, existentialism, or positivism. Even the Pope is questioning some of what seemed to be immutable truths of Catholicism. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the biggest damage seems to consistently originate with those who are so damn sure about everything.
|Navy Yard redevelopment District of Columbia at the Anacostia river|
Today, an era in which diversity is considered better than homogeneity, most pick their intellectual constructs eclectically from all kinds of sources, taking a page from nature instead of philosophy. Purity isn't nature's thing, after all.
Consequently, architects and planners look for guidance in urban design not so much from “grand masters” but from pragmatists, people who have succeeded in building something. They look for precedents instead of ideological models, and check performance metrics instead of intellectual purity. Collin Rowe described the eclectic approach in Collage City. Jane Jacobs taught planners to observe ordinary people instead of following a school of thought and broke open the field of urban design and planning to laypeople such as herself, a journalist. The Danish architect Jan Gehl who elevated observation as a guide for architectural and urban design practice, became an internationally sought after expert for his pragmatic implementation of observed preferences, not for his ingenious design theories. It makes a lot of sense then, to ask investors and developers who have worked with a great number of designers and planners what worked best for them.
An organization such as ULI is perfect to do so, as it reflects the views not only of design professionals but the views of all practitioners who participate in real estate and in the process of building cities and developments. People who are active in ULI include architects, planners, landscape architects, academics, economists, real estate agents, investors and developers. At ULI there is more than just opinion, there is research, there are fellows, there is an ever more global reach and there are publications and conferences in which results are shared.
A small such “conference” took place in mid-November at the “NavyYards” in DC, a 3 million square foot redevelopment area in the District of Columbia that brought together Mid-Atlantic speakers and the members of ULI councils in DC and Baltimore to learn about successful transit oriented development (TOD). The quotes at the beginning of this article are from that event; but those and many others could have been collected in a myriad of similar smaller gatherings or in big ones, such as the ULI fall conference earlier this year taking place in New York City with 6000 ULI members gathered to listen to Rob Speyer, CEO of Tishman Speyer speak about what is driving the resurgence of cities worldwide.
It is noticeable how the observations from developers about what projects work and why have shifted from quantitative to qualitative aspects. Of course, cost and benefit expressed in the quantitative metric of dollars is still the ultimate guide, but it is now widely realized that inclusion of some kinds of costs that would have been in past times characterized as external costs can be part of a project’s value proposition, and ultimately improve returns. Often, investments that used to be financed with public funds need now to become development cost due to the scarcity of public funds. Examples presented at the Navy Yard gathering included infrastructure investments in transit (building a new transit stop along a line where there was none before such as in the case of Assembly Row in Somerville, MA) but predominantly how strategically placed open spaces and parks can be openers and value enhancers for projects of various kinds.
|Assembly Row, Sumerville MA|
An example that has long been used to illustrate value creation through private and public park investments is Bryant Park in Manhattan. It was mentioned numerous times as the model for the Yards Park, a waterfront park that preceded much of the development in the Navy Yards redevelopment area and created a brand and presence in the District by drawing thousands of visitors to the area through events and the general attractiveness of the park. The second park in the Navy Yards development, the Olin designed Canal Park, is also well-programmed, attractive, and doubles up as a stormwater management facility. However, both parks were funded through the District and are maintained now by BID (the local business improvement district), still with public funds, not the special tax assessments that BID collects.
It was maybe the developer-turned-advocate-for-smart-growth Chris Leinberger who originated the the trend of developers emphasizing quality over quantity, having become prominently regarded for his warnings that the US builds too much of the wrong kind of stuff in the wrong places. Leinberger recognized early on that demographic shifts have created a new demand for high quality urban settings and expresses these views frequently from his pulpit as a Brookings Institution fellow.
At the ULI event, architects from Cooper Carry, Torti Gallas, and WDG had the floor to teach lessons about good development around transit as well. ("Start with an armature of infrastructure, streets, and open space – only then fill in," David Kitchens, of Cooper Carry about a Leesburg Pike TOD). Still, the most memorable lessons came from the developers attested by their messages quoted above.
|Kid friendly: The Yards Park|
Architects, landscape architects, urban designers and planners should pay attention to what enlightened developers and investors have to say. Their precedents and models can guide us better to good urban plans than many theories written for other times, and what the developers know has been tested and shown to work. Most notably, all the relevant examples presented at the ULI event in DC were based on sound community participation. They were neither academic constructs nor were they simply dropped by powerful players on an unsuspecting population acting as guinea pigs, instead they were the result of expensive and elaborate outreach and involvement. As Jane Jacobs observed a long time ago, one just has to find out what people want and how they use the city to create good design.
Klaus Philipsen, FAIA
edited by Ben Groff