Making places better takes a lot more than great architecture and urban design. Our work over the last decade has expanded beyond award-winning architectural design to include research and advocacy of topics like housing choice, incremental development, and zoning. In 2020, as nationally recognized thought leaders on those subjects, we have re-branded to highlight our expanded focus and suite of services. We have been working in areas considered outside the traditional role of the architect for a long time; this evolution is a recognition of that fact. Kronberg Wall Architects is now Kronberg Urbanists + Architects.
We started out as architects focused on designing great buildings. To us, a successful project was distinctive, functional, and delivered on time and on budget. We became experts in adaptive reuse, breathing new life into structures that many had consigned to the wrecking ball. At the same time, we were becoming aware of the challenges facing our neighborhoods, towns, and cities: the walkability we admire in the world’s most loved cities was impossible in ours because of the dominance of the automobile – a dominance bolstered by suburban parking requirements. Outdated zoning codes were limiting the levels of residential density once found in Atlanta’s intown streetcar suburbs – the kind of density that supports the iconic stores and restaurants that define the character of our neighborhoods. Rising rent rates resulting from the absence of affordable housing options near transit and amenities was driving the homogenization of once-unique neighborhoods. We wanted to contribute to solving these challenges.
We began to define “successful” differently. A project’s success was measured by its overall contribution to the community in addition to the critical metric of financial sustainability for our clients. We sought to make places more vibrant, lasting, and inclusive. In a word: better. That’s what we are doing today.
Our recent work in the Summerhill neighborhood of Atlanta is a prime example. We led the effort to revitalize three blocks of underutilized buildings – a task that required all our expertise in adaptive reuse, urban design, and savvy navigation of Atlanta’s zoning code. Car space was swapped for people space: surface parking lots became outdoor patios. Larger buildings were split into small tenant spaces, which our client Carter filled with a diverse group of creative local businesses. A dormant, dusty strip in the shadow of Turner Field was reawakened with the sights, sounds, and smells of urban life. The connection to the neighborhood’s history is still visible in the buildings that were saved. The surrounding neighborhood has changed, and will continue to do so, but it will have the priceless and unique sense of place that can be elevated through thoughtful redevelopment.
At the same time, we are critical of our successes. Our current system makes development prohibitively expensive through regulation, resulting in rent rates so lofty that only the highest paying tenants can afford space. Those high rent rates trickle down to consumers. In Summerhill, this has resulted in a dynamic neighborhood node with great restaurants, a craft brewery, gourmet ice cream, and pastries – wonderful amenities for people with a certain amount of disposable income. Around the walkable core on Georgia Avenue, the surrounding neighborhood is becoming populated by those in this income bracket, eager to benefit from the new amenities. In Summerhill and many other places in Atlanta and nationwide, a scarcity of housing options in proximity to amenity is resulting in rapid escalation of housing prices at the expense of inclusivity. We know from excellent research like this that long before the interstate, Fulton County Stadium, and the 1996 Olympics, Summerhill was once the heart of a thriving community whose residents represented a mix of ethnicities and economic stations. Residents were able to live, work, and recreate within the confines of their neighborhood. The challenge of supporting that kind of inclusivity within new development is one that we engage every day.
We have studied the nature of successful places. We have investigated the challenges and unintended consequences that come with the regulation of our built environment. We have dug deep into the data of housing needs for Atlanta and cities and towns across our state and country. All while we have designed and built projects informed by what we’ve learned. We are proud to be one of few practitioners working on policy improvements that are informed by their own, on-the-ground design and development experiences.
In addition to our “comfort zone” of design, redevelopment, and policy design, there are also areas where we strive to improve and grow. Primary among them is the communication of what we learn with colleagues, civic leaders, and fellow citizens. Discussions surrounding these topics touch deep emotions and elicit passionate reactions. City governments struggle to craft policies to support lofty goals like increased affordability, improved mobility, and inclusive growth. Civic leaders struggle to articulate challenges and solutions in a way that is meaningful for constituents. Citizen advocates work tirelessly to promote single issues, generating great progress by one measure, but often at the expense of another.
We continue to develop content to better facilitate connections between these siloed stakeholders, approaching the challenges from above and below. We are in the trenches, working with clients and neighborhoods to realize projects that challenge the status quo. We provide educational resources to elected officials, giving them the tools to talk about the nature of the problems and the benefits of solutions. And we are behind the scenes, working with city officials to craft policies that can have a meaningful impact. Sometimes that means a simple word change in an ordinance; other times it is helping an entire department change how an existing policy is interpreted. In these efforts especially we lean on the expertise of the network of partners we have developed during our time working on these issues. They provide the critical knowledge, data, and connections needed to make meaningful progress.
These are the challenges we tackle every day. While still architects, we are urbanists first – deeply committed to the daily practice of making places better. As Kronberg Urbanists + Architects, we will continue to concisely communicate our skills, focus, and efforts in areas outside the traditional realm of the architect. I encourage you to explore our new and improved website, redesigned to highlight our Thought work via the Blog and Presentations pages. Much of the thinking that informs our projects can be found there. More partners and advocates are needed to create the change our cities and towns desperately need. Please join us on this challenging and critical journey to make places better.