Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The future of mixed use development/urbanization: Part 2, Incremental intensification and planned densification

As mentioned, the first session on Saturday at the Makeover Montgomery conference was about financing mixed use development. All three presentations were quite good.

This blog entry will be much shorter than the previous one, even though the concepts in Daniel Slone's presentation on "Planned Densification: Issues of Planning, Building and Harvesting Value of Anticipated Densities" were, while not necessarily "pathbreaking," because they are based on historical development practices, are definitely worth deeper and repeated consideration.

His argument is that:

1. Places became more intensely developed over time. Small properties got added on to, houses had rooms converted for commercial use, etc., over time.

In DC, if you look closely, we have plenty examples of what he is talking about, mostly in how many traditional commercial districts are converted rowhouses, such as on H Street NE.
H Street Corridor 9
Flickr photo of the north side of the 900 block of H Street NE by Tedeytan.

But also in how residential properties add additions to accommodate commercial activity.
Building extension, Georgia Avenue
If you look closely at the left (building 2) and right (building 6) in this photo taken on Georgia Avenue, you can see the second floor of rowhouses still visible from the front of the street, whereas on the other lots, the buildings have been extended out to the lot line for both the first and second floors.

2. We need to build that capability into new developments, suburban communities, sprawl repair, etc., because what people want in the end in terms of commercial districts is very difficult to achieve at the outset because (a.) the market isn't there to support this type of development in terms of desired retail activity; and (b.) it's almost impossible to finance. (This is another issue that needs to be addressed, but isn't the subject of this post.)

He and others term "asynchrony," the disconnect between what people want, what people want right now, and what the market will support and finance now.

Mark Rodman Smith had an article about this in Urban Land Magazine in 2009, Planning Densification from the Start," we should all read it.

One of the things Dan talked about, and again, this is more about new communities, is starting simple, with vendor booths, temporary buildings, trailers, etc. Moving buildings, reusing them, as you generate the market activity to support the creation of more permanent, and bigger structures, etc.

3. This can be relevant to center city districts as well, in terms of the ability of maintaining access for small businesses, new concepts, and new entrepreneurs in otherwise expensive locations. He mentioned how the City of Melbourne in Australia is harvesting laneways (alleys), not unlike how arcades have functioned in cities historically, as a way to provide these kinds of opportunities. (Food trucks too and markets. Both of which are opposed by many commercial district organizations in DC.)

Melbourne laneway. Photo source unknown.

The Planned Densification website has more information on the topic. The presentation will be posted soon, although it will also be available on the Makeover Montgomery website by Tuesday.

The issue of asynchrony between what people want and what the market can support isn't unique to the suburbs. It's very much an urban issue in terms of the quality and type of retail that neighborhoods can support versus what they demand.

There is another kind of asynchrony present in terms of a disconnect between the utilization and revitalization of extant buildings vs. building more new buildings for new retail.

The latter practice adds more space, thereby furthering decline of the extant space. This doesn't have to be the case, if you put strategies and programs into place to assist in the rehabilitation of the properties and in the strengthening of current businesses, in the development of new retail concepts and entrepreneurs, and in programs for recruiting people and businesses willing to locate in such spaces.

This is about strategies for absorbing and utilizing available and underutilized spaces in a manner that isn't marginal (e.g. store front churches in what was once commercial space). Among other initiatives, that's what "temporary urbanism" programs are about.

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