(This post is Part 4 of a series on evaluating catalytic development projects. Click here to read Part 3)
In this series we have covered the importance of setting goals and explored the ins and outs of project costs and subsidies, all the while remembering that goals and costs must be balanced through tradeoffs throughout the process. We’ve saved what might be the most powerful tool for achieving goals and managing projects costs for last: design.
At KUA, we know that even if you get all your financial ducks in a row, if the final product doesn’t offer a high quality of life, then it is really all for naught. What do we mean by a high quality of life? We mean beautiful urban design that offers comfort and accessibility to all users, and that accommodates and enables flexibility, diversity, and adaptability over time. Many large-scale developments take the “mega project” approach, forgetting the importance of incrementalism and the human scale in design. Those projects tend to have very large buildings on very large blocks, offering a top-down, “one size fits all” approach that often erases the existing sense of place and ignores surrounding context. An alternative approach – and the approach that we practice at KUA – is bottom-up, incremental, highly contextual, and designed according to the human scale.
As a community leader or elected official trying to evaluate a proposed development in your community, what design characteristics should you be looking for that will support the community’s goals? Also, what indicators can one look for in a design to assess the financial feasibility of a project? We’ve touched on some of these in the previous posts in the series; in this post, we’ll go a little deeper – and we’ll start with some foundational principles: 10 Lessons for Good Urbanism.
10 Lessons for Good Urbanism
As a firm with a strong GT presence, we like to start our projects, large and small, by reviewing Richard Dagenhart’s 10 Lessons for Good Urbanism. These simple rules are a basic blueprint for approaching the design of a place that will foster long-term sustainability.
0. Begin by understanding where you are
1. Subdivide first; buildings and land uses come later
2. Design streets as if they are the most important public spaces (because they are)
3. Design places knowing that places are made, not designed
4. Make boundaries that join parts of the city together, not buffers that separate them
5. Design in increments, even when building in big chunks
6. Think type, not style, as the basis of urban architecture
7. Pay close attention to fronts and backs
8. Make architecture as landscape; make landscape as architecture
9. Mix uses side-by-side, not just up and down
10. Invent with vigor, after learning lessons 1-9
Think Small to Build Big
While the rules are simple enough to learn, they can take a lifetime of experience to practice effectively, so for now we will start with the rules that tend to be the most critical for large-scale developments: Rules 1 and 5. (If you are interested in learning more about the 10 Rules, check out the Georgia Conservancy’s Good Urbanism 101 program here).
Rules 1 and 5 instruct designers to think both long-term and small-scale – even when approaching large sites that will be owned and operated by one entity. According to Rule #1, the first step should be the creation of a structure of lots, bocks, and streets. How we subdivide land into these elements is the most permanent part of our physical environment; buildings and land uses simply fit within this structure. While buildings and land uses change fairly regularly over time, land subdivision (particularly blocks and streets) change infrequently. This is why starting with a physical framework, rather than with buildings and uses, is critical; lots, blocks and streets should always come first. With a flexible framework in place, Rule #5 becomes possible: the creation of smaller blocks, lots and buildings - allowing developers to build incrementally rather than all at once. But why the preference for small blocks? Small blocks create a preferable human scale, and incremental construction allows for greater financial flexibility and supports physical and economic resilience for communities. As we’ll discuss, that translates to urban design that is better prepared to accommodate the goals of the community and support growth over time.
In our proposal for Murphy Crossing, these principles played out in a number of ways. We started by breaking the site up into small blocks with a robust internal street network, allowing the site to be highly connected to the surrounding streets and Beltline. The small block structure allowed us to supplement the existing adapted structures with new structures across the site, while also providing sites for future new construction development. All of this was done to achieve greater economic flexibility, affordable rent rates, and to encourage job creation.
Small Blocks Are Made for People
Designing for the human scale is a topic that many celebrated urban designers have dedicated their entire careers to, so we prefer to let them do the heavy lifting. Jan Gehl, Andres Duany, Leon Krier, Jane Jacobs, Jeff Speck, and more have written extensively on the topic, and anyone looking to understand the topic of human-centric urban design should read their work. However, a quick explanation could go something like this: think of your favorite neighborhood or city to visit. For Atlantans, Savannah and Charleston are popular regional travel destinations. Part of the charm of those cities is how pleasant and easy it is to walk around from your lodging to shops, restaurants, and entertainment. Those cities – their streets, sidewalks, parks, patios, and buildings – were designed for people; more specifically, they were designed to accommodate people walking between destinations. Today, we design more often for the automobile than the human. While cars are an inevitable part of our world, designing in smaller increments allows you to accommodate both cars and people, fostering walkability, access, and even adaptability for future mobility types. There is also an economic argument for this type of design: research shows that pedestrian-friendly development is much more profitable than drive-and-park development, both in terms of revenue for businesses and tax generation.
Small Blocks Are More Resilient
The late great Doug Allen said that it is the obligation of the urban designer is to ask “how can I subdivide or expand this to accommodate futures that I can’t predict?” You never know what will happen 100 years from now, but you can be pretty sure that there won’t be much adapting happening for a 600’ long building that wraps a parking deck. When designing large sites, you should first establish a flexible framework that can be adapted as needed over time. Smaller lots and blocks allow for adaptability in both the present and the future, reducing both upfront and long-term costs. Short-term adaptability can look like holding onto some pieces (leaving them vacant or providing temporary uses, such as surface parking) until they are needed. Saving sites for future new construction is a way to incrementally improve a place while maintaining affordability. If an economic downtown occurs, a development organized in this fashion is in a much better position than a megastructure whose footprint occupies the whole block: individual parcels can be sold to generate revenue, and the loss of one or two tenants won’t doom the entire development to the same fate. Over time, smaller lots and blocks more easily lend themselves to future uses, providing an extra layer of long-term resiliency for the community.
Small Blocks Are More Affordable
In addition to creating flexibility for future redevelopment, smaller blocks and lots allow for multiple owners or developers to tackle separate pieces of the project. In addition to creating more variety and diversity across the site, this can encourage horizontal mixed-use (see Rule #9), which is often easier to finance, design and execute than vertical mixed-use. All of this simplification results in a more cost effective and executable project – resulting in more affordable rent rates. Additionally, dividing a large tract of land into smaller blocks means more streets, which means more outdoor public space, more frontage for businesses, and therefore more value. But don’t just focus on small lots and blocks; small buildings, and/or buildings that are easily subdivided into small tenant spaces, are also great for affordability. Smaller tenant spaces allow for more affordable rent rates, making them more accessible to local small businesses and start-ups.
Small Blocks Create Jobs
At Murphy Crossing, breaking the project into smaller increments also allowed us to bring in a partner to buy one of the existing buildings as an owner/occupant. The partner business was focused on food production and would provide 150 jobs to the community from day one. Because job creation was a major goal of the RFP, we saved the largest existing building on the property for a flexible commercial space. It would provide a large amount of commercial rental space at varying levels of finish, enabling a variety of price points to attract a range of tenants such as light manufacturing, maker-space, small-scale shared offices, and traditional loft office. The thoughtful execution of right-sizing the build-out would be critical to keeping rents affordable – a core part of the project mission. All of those opportunities were made possible by the decision to keep the existing buildings and build out the property in smaller increments.
Small Blocks Create More Public Space
Let’s not forget Rule #2 and its importance towards accomplishing one of the goals we covered in the first post in this series: providing public space. As we mentioned in that post, we prefer not to limit our conception of public space to parks or greenspace; streets are the most important public spaces that we have. Going back to Rule #1, remember that streets are some of the longest lasting pieces of our physical world. In addition to providing space for movement, streets provide places to gather and rest, as well as provide necessary service and maintenance access. Streets should both help a place function and function as places. Well-designed streetscapes, with generous width, shade trees, seating, and pleasant materials can be every bit as appealing as park space – and research shows that when great sidewalks are paired with a retail storefront, profits skyrocket (along with tax revenue). It’s also important to note that streets can come in a variety of types. We often think of streets as a place for cars, with some sidewalks on the side for pedestrians; this is a modern misconception of streets. Streets can and should be multimodal, slow, safe, comfortable, and accessible. Shared streets, pedestrian streets, alleyways, bikeways – these are all forms of public space, in addition to more “traditional” streets. Even if proposed streets are not to be truly public (owned and maintained by a public entity), they should still be treated as public space.
At Murphy Crossing, we decided that a majority of the Beltline frontage should remain public space, offering a boundary that binds rather than separates the project (Rule #4). A terraced park would provide access to the public programmatic elements of the project: a community event rental space, restaurants, farmers markets, and recreation space. From there, a variety of quality streetscapes connect into the residential and commercial components of the project, and stitch effortlessly back into the surrounding neighborhood. We paid special attention to the existing streetscapes, focusing active uses along all edges (again, creating boundaries that bind).
When evaluating a proposal’s physical design, remember Dagenhart’s 10 Lessons of Good Urbanism, and ask the developer how they plan to subdivide the property into lots, blocks and streets. Ask if the streets and anything called out as “park space” will be publicly or privately owned. Ask if the project will be built out in phases, or all at once; ask what is to be built in Phase One, and what the timeline is for future phases. Ask about the dimensions of buildings and spaces and compare them to places you enjoy visiting (on google earth, or in real life) so that you have a frame of reference for the scale of the project. Ask how the project can evolve and accommodate future uses over time. These are all good ways to tell if a developer has truly thought through the scale and design of the project.
While it’s difficult to come up with a comprehensive and universal list of rules for assessing large scale redevelopment proposals, we hope this post has been helpful in providing insight into what we consider important criteria of goals, costs, and design. In the end, it’s all about balancing each of those considerations through tradeoffs and compromise – but the more informed you are about each, the more prepared you are to negotiate with other stakeholders and advocate for your desired outcomes. We are designers and development partners by trade, but we are also engaged citizens and active community members, so we approach projects from both angles.
As for Murphy Crossing, while we admittedly fell short of the some of the RFP goals (providing structured parking and achieving super high density upfront), we believe that these goals were in direct conflict with the other stated goals of affordability, community focus and deliverability. We evaluated the tradeoffs and made a determination based on the most important goals outlined by both the RFP and the community; given the opportunity, we would choose the same priorities again.
Our greatest advice is to urge caution when you come across proposals that offer it all. Do your homework, ask questions, and be prepared to talk tradeoffs!