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New Urbanist Projects Get Real

Paul Shigley on
Jan 1, 2005

For a variety of reasons, ranging from real estate prices to market demand to planning trends, New Urbanist projects are becoming more common in California. But the execution of these projects - the on-the-ground-reality - is spotty. Translating the New Urbanist planning vision into real developments appears to take an extraordinary attention to detail, and a good measure of faith.

The execution problems may not be inherent in the design principles of New Urbanism. Rather, they may lie with expectations. Many people, whether they consider themselves urbanists or not, often expect more of a New Urbanist project than they do of a run-of-the-mill suburban housing tract or power center. This might explain why committed New Urbanists complain - without naming names publicly - that even some of the most vaunted New Urbanist projects in California are disappointing. Sure, the projects might have houses with front porches, alleyways, central public places and other trademarks of a New Urbanist project. But the projects still feel suburban.

Myriad things can go “wrong.” Many corporate builders and contractors, even good ones, do not understand the intricacies of New Urbanist architecture. Tight budgets can reduce or eliminate crucial components. Zoning codes and public works standards can get in the way. And cities' resolve to encourage New Urbanist projects can crumble under political and market pressures.

And then there is the faux urbanism found in so many “lifestyle centers” and “town centers” (or “towne centres”).

“It's developer schlock,” Daniel Solomon, a San Francisco architect and co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism, said of lifestyle centers. That schlock sets back the movement for real urbanism, he said. “It perpetuates a kind of stigma in the design community when New Urbanism gets associated with kitsch and developer schlock.”

“Unfortunately,” added Sacramento architect and developer David Mogavero, “New Urbanism can be a broad umbrella, depending on who is defining it.”

Yet, there are architects, developers, planners and policy-makers trying to get it right.

“Obsessed With Details”

Chico, in the Central Valley 90 miles north of Sacramento, might seem like an unlikely place for New Urbanist development, given that the city is surrounded by miles of potential greenfield development sites. For decades, development in the city and the surrounding unincorporated area has followed the suburban model. However, the city has a thriving downtown next to the third-oldest campus in the California State University system, and old neighborhoods with their dense tree canopies and stately homes are some of the most popular in town. Chico is also the home of New Urban Builders, which is in the midst of developing the Doe Mill Neighborhood on the city's southeast side.

When complete, Doe Mill will have about 175 units, plus about 75 “carriage units” above garages, on 20 acres. Although Doe Mill is only a residential development thus far, it has a classic appearance and many features valued by New Urbanists: a wide variety of housing types, ranging from apartments to 2,000-square-foot houses with second-story studios; narrow streets lined by fast-growing trees; good street connectivity; alley-loaded garages; unprogrammed and more formal public spaces; and a decided lack of front yards and setbacks.

The first of its kind in Chico, the project and has drawn raves and made New Urban Builders a hot commodity in the region. Doe Mill “works,” in part because New Urban Builders controls every aspect: planning, entitlement, architecture, development and individual unit construction.

“There are not enough builders out there who are building this product type,” said New Urban Builders President Tom DiGiovanni, who conceded he is “obsessed with details.” For example, house windows and porches that are only a few feet from the sidewalk all have vertical separation to provide a measure of privacy and “space.”

“The land planning and development is very tightly woven with the building type. We can, in fact, control it from the plans to the lots to the built fabric,” DiGiovanni said.

New Urban Builders found cooperative city officials. The city processed Doe Mill as a planned development, allowing the city to write project-specific standards for things like street width, setbacks, parking and density, said Senior Planner Tom Hayes. More recently, the city approved a second New Urban Builders project and is talking to the company about a third, much larger mixed-use project next to Doe Mill.

“Clearly, it would be easier if we had a traditional neighborhood ordinance, or a New Urbanist ordinance. But we've had good success with the planned development approach,” Hayes.

Sacramento's Mogavero is another developer who can handle nearly every aspect of a project. “Details mean everything,” he said. High-quality construction of the public realm and buildings is essential, as are the right street standards, he said.

Mogavero pointed to North Natomas, the City of Sacramento's primary growth area. There had been New Urbanist promise in the North Natomas plan, but that has disappeared partly because the public works department has dominated the public realm, Mogavero said. “The pedestrian doesn't have a chance,” he lamented.

Solomon, the San Francisco architect, said a New Urbanist project must start with the right architect. “There are only a handful of talented, well-trained architects who practice New Urbanism,” he said. And they “are used to working with pretty indifferent builders.”

Additionally, Solomon said, cost constraints often require compromises, placing even more pressure on the architect to maintain a project's New Urbanist spirit. One of the reasons the Congress for New Urbanism started handing out awards was to reward the execution of good design and planning, said Solomon.

Redevelopment and New Urbanism

Recent projects in downtown Redwood City have received their share of plaudits. The key to those and future projects' success, said Downtown Development Coordinator Dan Zack, is authenticity. “We want to have a real place,” he said.

The Redwood City Redevelopment Agency is currently working with Blake Hunt Ventures to develop a cinema and retail project. To ensure the project doesn't turn into a lifestyle center or mall, the city insisted that the theater go on the second floor so that blank walls of the theater do sit at street level.

“It doesn't act like a mall. You can't go from the parking structure to the cinema,” said Zack, who emphasized the attention paid to architecture and buildings' relationship to the street. “Because we're a partner on that project, we can go above and beyond what we would do in our regulatory role,” he said.

In fact, Redwood City is currently rewriting its downtown zoning regulations as a precise plan. The final document should have typical zoning regulations that address setbacks, lot coverage and such, as well as detailed design rules.

“We want to strike the balance between having clear, friendly regulations, and getting the good urbanism that we want,” Zack said.

Regulations are important, of course, because the marketplace can turn intentions inside-out. A case-in-point might be the City of Oakland. The city has numerous dilapidated and under-used commercial and industrial areas, often on the edge of town. City planners have identified 13 such neighborhoods that are candidates for proposed “housing and business mix zoning districts.” The zoning could help revitalize the areas and legitimize some uses, such as artists' use of old warehouses. However, some sites are developing anew before planners can fully implement the new zoning, said Margot Lederer Prado, a city planner. An old, large industrial district near Oakland's border with Emeryville and Berkeley, for example, “is just going straight residential. It's not even work-live,” she said.

Indeed, as developers and speculators have “discovered” Oakland, more old business areas are converting solely to residential uses. But, politically, there is little that planners can do. Nevertheless, Lederer Prado is able to point to some attractive, new live-work projects that are not necessarily pushed as New Urbanism, but certainly qualify.

“The whole intent [of the housing and business mix zoning districts] is to get these edge areas to develop in an interesting way,” she said. “It really gives a lot of flexibility to the infill guidelines.”

Thus, true belief on the part of all the players may be one of the most important aspects of successful New Urbanist projects.

“There were a lot of folks,” said New Urban Builders' DiGiovanni, “who though we were crazy for building houses that were going for the mid-$300s up against houses that, back then, were going for the mid-$100s.”

Zack, a Fresno refugee, said Redwood City planners spend a great deal of time visiting New Urbanist and transit-oriented developments elsewhere. “We're believers and we understand it,” he said. “It's our passion. That will make a big difference.”

Contacts:
Tom DiGiovanni, New Urban Builders, (530) 893-8400.
Tom Hayes, City of Chico, (530) 895-4851.
David Mogavero, Mogavero Notestine Associates, (916) 443-1033.
Daniel Solomon, Solomon ETC, (415) 575-4722.
Dan Zack, City of Redwood City, (650) 780-7363.
Margot Lederer Prado, City of Oakland, (510) 238-6766.
Congress for the New Urbanism: www.cnu.org

What is New Urbanism?

Defining New Urbanism is not easy. To determine if a project is truly New Urbanist, the Congress for the New Urbanism offers the following tips:

Rule out any project that is gated, lacks sidewalks, or has a tree-like street system, rather than a grid network. The project as a whole should connect well with surrounding neighborhoods, developments, or towns, while also protecting regional open space.

Rule out single-use projects that are only housing, retail, or office. The various types of buildings - housing, workplaces, stores - should be integrated.

The project should have a neighborhood center within that is an easy and safe walk from all dwellings in the neighborhood. Buildings should be designed to make the street feel safe and inviting, by having front doors, porches, and windows facing the street, rather than having a streetscape of garage doors.

The project, and particularly the neighborhood center, should include formal civic spaces and squares.

Finally, there is the "popsicle test." An eight-year-old in the neighborhood should be able to bike to a store to buy a popsicle without having to battle highway-size streets and freeway-speed traffic.

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