Saturday, October 26, 2013

Understanding the Quirks of Incremental Urbanism

New York, under construction lot-by-lot.
(Source: New York Historical Society)

For the past 70 years or so, much of what we have built in the US has been of the large,  "master planned" variety of development. Large areas of dozens, sometimes hundreds, of acres are all laid out and designed at once, and built out by a single builder or a handful of builders working off of a coordinated design. Once they are built out, these areas change very little over time. During the era of suburban expansion, residential subdivisions, garden apartments, office parks, and shopping malls all fit into the master planned category of development.

When New Urbanism rose onto the scene, many of its early and iconic projects, such as Seaside and the Kentlands, were also large, master-planned developments. Unlike their sprawl counterparts they were walkable, compact, mixed-use, and awesome... but they were still large and master-planned. 

This feels normal to our generation, but historically this is an anomaly. Prior to World War II, and going back for millennia, most development was not of the large-scale, master-planned variety. Rather, most cities and neighborhoods were built lot-by-lot, by dozens or hundreds of land owners and  developers. Even when the street and lot pattern was laid out all at once by a city (as in New York's grid of 1811) or a railroad company, the lots were auctioned off to individual parties who carry out the task of building on their own, one by one. In such urban settings, the development of the place is never complete, and many lots will be developed and redeveloped over the years to meet the changing needs of their owners and the market as I discussed in a previous post called Small Lots and the Evolution of the City. Some have referred to this kind of development as Incremental Urbanism. I like that term, and will use it on this blog.

Incremental Urbanism shaping a New York block.(Source: Zack von Schouwen)
Each type of development has its advantages, but it is important to understand the difference. After 70 years, we've gotten used to the tidiness of master-planned development.  In comparison, lot-by-lot development can look messy. Sometimes, buildings of dramatically different heights sprout up right next to each other. In addition to disliking the lack of consistency in height, some people dislike the blank firewalls that are visible on the taller building. Other times, materials or styles are very different from building to building, and this doesn't sit well with the aesthetic sensibilities of some people. In some instances, new buildings snake around the buildings of owners who wouldn't sell out, creating strange shaped sites. 

The owner of this charming little building didn't sell out to the developers of Rockefeller Plaza,
which snakes around it. This isn't tidy, but Is it hurting anything?
(Source: Google Earth)

This block in San Francisco features the mixed building heights that sometimes
comes with Incremental Urbanism.
(Source: San Francisco Then and Now)

We need to overcome these hangups, though. To satisfy unmet consumer preferences, improve our economy, reduce housing shortages, and reduce environmental damage we need the majority of our growth to happen in areas with a lot of jobs, services, walkability, and transit. Most of these areas were initially developed long ago, and thus feature a fine-grained pattern of small lots

If we don't learn how to do development on small lots, we're not going to get much built. There are a lot of obstacles to the assembly of large sites within urban areas. Sometimes, the neighbors just won't sell. As you can see in the photo above, the Rockefellers couldn't even get everyone to sell. Furthermore, some people don't have the resources to buy out their neighbors, but they should still have a right to develop their property. Some properties are next to great historic buildings, and folding them into the project isn't possible. Eminent domain? I wouldn't count on using it to assemble a lot of sites. In California, redevelopment agencies are gone, and they took their eminent domain powers for economic development projects with them. In the rest of the country, the post-Kelo backlash has resulted in political reluctance for such undertakings, and some states have expressly prohibited it.

We need to accept, and embrace, the fact that much of our future development within existing cities will happen lot-by-lot, in small pieces. We need to learn to love Incremental Urbanism.

Good and Quirky Incremental Urbanism, or Bad Development?

I recently saw a story in the Washington Post about a small lot redevelopment in Washington DC which illustrated some of the issues that can arise with such projects. It discussed a narrow two-story rowhouse which had recently received a three-story addition, bringing the total height to five stories. The building, which appears to be about 20 feet wide, is located in the middle of a row of two-story houses and thus is quite conspicuous. To top it off, the original home and the addition were re-clad with a modern facade which is in stark contrast with its neighbors.

(Source: The Washington Post)
The article says that the building is known locally as "The Monstrosity." The author concedes that it is ugly, but wondered if this matters, since DC is in dire need of new housing, and this expansion added two units to the block. Apparently, many have wondered how it could possibly be legal. The DCist called it "a big middle finger to taste and scale."

So, what do you think? Is this a good thing, because it brings some new housing to the metropolitan core? Is it bad for altering the character of the street and standing out so much from its neighbors? Or, does it depend?

I rarely like to give wishy-washy answers to these kinds of questions, but in this case it depends. In evaluating whether this project (or similar projects) was an appropriate thing to do, I would use three criteria:
  • Location. Is the site within a comfortable walking distance of transit, employment, and services? Putting our development in the right location is of supreme importance. We need to allow as much growth as possible in our metropolitan cores and other important urban nodes. If it is near an existing or planned downtown or neighborhood center, a good-looking version of this building is good. Away from a downtown or other center, such a disruption doesn't make sense. 
  • Historic Preservation. Is the building to be replaced of low historic value? The need for new housing development near major streets, transit, jobs, and shops is so important that it may be worth the loss of some older buildings, particularly those of low historic value. In locations which are farther from amenities and services, a project like this probably shouldn't be allowed. Sites away from amenities and services are a less efficient place to place people, and aren't worth the loss of historic homes.
  • Aesthetics. Is the architectural design compatible with surrounding structures and community tastes?  When regulating development, it is tempting to avoid architectural style. It is subjective, and architects can be a bit rough on people who question their designs. But beauty matters. "Beauty according to who?" the designer may ask. Frankly, whatever the local people find to be beautiful is valid. If they love brick Colonials, then give it to them. If they love glass and metal Modernism, then give that to them. Neither style is inherently better or more legitimate than the other. The important thing is to do as much as possible to ensure that people already living in the area like the new development (because if they think it is ugly they will work to block future projects), and that potential new residents will like it enough to voluntarily move into dense urbanism.
If the answer to any of these questions is NO, then the project may not be a good idea. If the answer to all three questions is YES, then the project is probably worthy of moving forward.

So yes, Incremental Urbanism can be a bit quirky at times. However, it is a critically important part of addressing our economic and environmental challenges, so we must help it happen in the right places, work diligently to make it excellent, and learn to accept its occasional and inevitable quirky features.


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