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TOD’s, Urbanism and a New New Urbanism

January 18, 2012

The other day I sat down with CCT Girl and a college student to discuss his thesis topic of Transit Oriented Development.  We were discussing the good and the bad examples of TOD’s and New Urbanism.  I didn’t want to dash the student’s enthusiasm by exclaiming how nearly all TOD and New Urbanism work was garbage, so I bit my tongue and mustered up a few examples that were at least decent, and one or two that were exceptional.  All the while, in the back of my head, and occasionally verbally, I could only think and speak of how terribly off track these types of projects have gone.  In the spirit of someone I met a few months back during a tour of proposed transit projects for TSPLOST, (edited for profanity and paraphrased): “we have become completely comfortable with accepting a cup of urine to drink, simply because it is not a bowl of feces to eat.”  I think that can safely apply to nearly all examples of TOD and New Urbanism.  Sorry Andres Duany, but your brainchild was neither original nor safe from developer molestation.  The ideas existed long before and were executed much more successfully when they were not treated as compartmentalized profit machines for developers.

Sure the spirit of these projects is great with good intentions, attempting to reduce dependency on automobiles, live more compactly, and to integrate uses and incomes with ease.  But that hasn’t happened, except in very few exceptions.  Instead these projects have served to act as nothing more than open air shopping malls or variations of the suburbs.  The approach is heavy handed and formulaic, and usually clone stamped from one location to another with the only differences being styles of crappy architecture and a Macy’s instead of a Belk’s.  Locally, Atlantic Station is symbolic of the developer approach, with complete disregard to the urban fabric of the city.  Regionally and nationally projects in Charlotte, Wilmington, Raleigh, Orlando, Nashville, and most of Texas miss the mark on what New Urbanism and Transit Oriented Development are suppose to be.  In these attempts, the single goal is to recreate a false urban feeling while not solving any of the true urban issues that plague cities and current development. 

So how do they fail?

Reducing dependency on the automobile:  In nearly all TOD’s and New Urbanism projects, this attempt is failed miserably.  This is mainly due to the fact that it is so much easier to drive than to take any form of public transportation or even walking.  And if one lives in any of the developments, one of their daily needs is missing, be it affordable housing, daily services (groceries, dry cleaner, civic functions), or feasible employment not centered on retail.  Lindbergh Station alone offers several parking decks, as does Atlantic Station.  In order to encourage the true intention of walking and transit accessibility, driving must be made more difficult, by removing free parking and  the glut of parking decks that occupy so much land.  You can’t call yourself a TOD or anything with the word Urbanism in it if the largest percentage of your development is parking decks, roads, and lots.  Until then, patrons will continue to drive to these developments, as it is easier and usually more accommodating. 

Living more compactly:  In almost all cases of TOD and New Urbanism the housing is more compact, which is great.  Townhouses, apartments, condos, live-work units, homes on smaller lots and closer to the street make for a much improved density and quality of life then the suburban alternative.  But the amount of parking that goes into these projects reduces the overall number of residents that could be living in the development, often to the detriment of the businesses that choose to occupy it.  Lindbergh Center Station and Atlantic Station are examples of that.  This is why we consistently see businesses closing and high turnover.  The developments are not dependent on those that live or even work there because there are not enough of them.  Instead they become dependent on destination visitors.  And anyone who is familiar with the economics of a shopping mall can tell you that that is only sustainable for a short period of time.   Something new and flashy always opens up in another part of town, and those drivers are willing to traverse a city to go to something new. 

Integrated incomes and usages:  This is never achieved.  Never.  Real estate prices and speculation force out middle-income buyers while rentals are priced too far above anyone below middle to upper middle class.  This always results in the same homogenous group of people living in the same homogenous development, living in the same homogenous buildings in nearly every development across the country.  I am not advocating TOD’s or New Urbanism to service the slums, but one can look at the beginnings of the new Cabrini Green in Chicago and show that mixed incomes, even as broad of a spectrum as Cabrini Green, can be successful when given appropriate design, established rules, incorporated into city public housing works, and executed less heavy handedly.  Cabrini Green’s building and development has taken place in phases.  Rather than one giant land clearance there has been a  slow integration of mixed incomes, ethnicities, and cultures, wielding what has become a successful project despite the fact that 50% of its residents are on some form of discounted or subsidized living.  The remaining residential and retail spaces go for a premium and those in affordable housing are given an opportunity to reside outside the squalor they are used to and reside in areas that provide hope and opportunity for upward mobility.   We are a product of our environment.

Urban Connection:  The lack of connection to the urban fabric can be the main attributing factor to nearly all of the deficiencies found in TOD’s and New Urbanism.   Much like a shopping mall most of these projects are islands.  Atlantic Station is disconnected from Midtown and Downtown.  I applaud the effort to redevelop a brownfield site, but when most of your patrons drive, it isn’t much of an environmental improvement.  Sure it is only .7 miles from the nearest train station, and there is a free shuttle but most aren’t willing to walk it.  I know I am, but the walk is still not enjoyable, with a large portion (almost all of it) not pedestrian friendly.  It is a walk along an exposed bridge over an interstate, or alongside a busy 4-5 lane street.  Put Atlantic Station in Midtown, Downtown, or closer to a rail station and watch how important and busy of a well-connected place AND node it becomes.  Lindbergh Station is fortunate enough to have a transit stop.  But its internal development focus, turns its back on the surrounding community.  Prime parcels to connect the streetscape and neighborhood were given to two chain restaurants found at any other suburban shopping complex.  The development is bordered by an unfriendly pedestrian street where one can’t even get to the center of the street before the walk signal starts flashing for you to hurry up.  Many of Lindbergh’s problems arise from its lack of surrounding support, but there were design solutions that could have been executed to help mitigate that.  Branch out from Atlanta and it’s even worse.  Highly touted and celebrated Birkdale Village in Charlotte  is located off of an interstate exit, miles from an actual city center, detracting from the entire point of this type of development.  It is an attempt to recreate an urban place, while attempting to avoid solving real urban problems such as density, crime, poverty, and income disparity.  But just like a shopping mall, eventual deterioration sets in.  Unwanted patrons take control.  The development itself is chopped up and sold to third parties who have little care in the quality or appearance.  Urban dilemmas cannot be avoided or ignored.  They have to be solved, and how we design and plan our cities and transportation is essential to the solutions.

I know, I know.  That seems like a lot of whining and doom and gloom regarding the current state of TOD and New Urbanism.  But alas! There is hope.  And hope does not have to come in the form of replicated 1960’s urban renewal that focuses on large-scale heavy-handed demolition and development.  It can come in small-scale investment.  Projects that would need little tax money contribution (Tea Partiers should love that) and offer an opportunity to create unique environments that are not filled with the same generic chain retail that we have come to expect.  Downtown Decatur may not have been established as a TOD, but it has grown up into one and it didn’t require the obliteration of the existing site.  It offers a unique environment, rife with local retailers and shops, while still being friendly enough to let Starbucks have a seat at the table and diverse enough that it isn’t Phipps.  It doesn’t require generic apartments, and while some condos can be expensive in the area, there is still room for affordability.  It did not require massive land clearance, as buildings were rehabbed and reused, and it even incorporates civic and daily need functions like churches, banks, and government buildings.  It is well-integrated to the surrounding neighborhoods, and isn’t an island along an interstate.  Downtown Decatur is representative of some of the light rail suburbs of Boston, rather than Seaside, Florida.  When the streetcar project is complete, there is a good chance that the type of change Downtown Decatur experienced, will happen along the streetcar and surrounding neighborhoods.  Auburn may once again thrive.  Poplar Street, one of Atlanta’s most beautiful and underrated streets may be revived into a bustling area. These areas have character and unique elements that will not have to require massive land clearance or a colorful site plan to compensate for what looked great in Excel but fails in the true experience.

There are new projects that offer hope as well.  Rockville, Maryand’s town center comes to mind.  Accessible by Metro with a scale and quality of buildings that doesn’t have a recreated atmosphere of a Las Vegas casino.  While some of the roads are a bit too large, it is still within walking distance to civic functions such as judicial buildings and post offices.  A movie theater doesn’t act as a centerpiece; (though there is an absolutely atrocious one across the street) rather a corner anchor tenant is the local public library.  Much of the parking is below ground.  The retail is made up of a balanced mix of local establishments, as well as chains offering a certain level of familiarity, but still incorporating local charm.  The residential portion could use improvement, but the scale of the development is smaller than most.

This is a call to the Crosland’s, Carter’s, and Jacoby’s of the country to think smarter and smaller.  You can still be profitable by executing smaller scale projects that are responsible, iconic, and beneficial to a region and a city as a whole.  You can still offer places to live, work, play, and shop while creating an environment that is unique to a region, rather than one that was derived from the same project you may have executed in Nashville, Charlotte, Orlando, and Raleigh.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 19, 2012 1:05 am

    I think you are pretty close in your analysis of the issues and specific projects you mention but I’m not sure you are being 100% fair in your analysis of the New Urbanism. It is not solely a collection of projects that are on the ground. Many existing built examples of New Urbanism are flawed (deeply in some cases) but they are the products of a constant give and take between the status quo and the virtuous path. The New Urbanism is more a collection of ideas that define a more complete community. It is ever evolving and incorporates new ideas as they come along. If you have not been to the Congress for the New Urbanism, I would highly recommend it. I would argue that the current examples of the New Urbanism and TOD that we see today are products of compromise with a status quo that is only willing to relinquish so much of its entrenched ideology at a time.

    The great thing about the New Urbanism is that it is an ever evolving movement that strives to incorporate the best of what is known at that time into it’s knowledge base. As the public begins to figure out that walkability, income diversity, ease of mobility, easy access to daily needs and a quality public realm are important things, the more idealistic goals of the New Urbanism and TOD will begin to be realized. It takes time to change minds and often the shift is generational.

    One more thing, the challenge of income homogeneity is a difficult one to tackle. Developers build for a profit and building ‘affordable’ housing alongside market rate housing, no matter how idealistic and egalitarian, usually doesn’t cut it. However, the New Urbanism has been responsible for some of the most successful new public housing developments (redevelopments) in the US in the last 15+ years. The infusion of the key principles of the New Urbanism into the DNA of the HOPE VI project was a major success.

  2. theaccidentalcommuter permalink*
    January 19, 2012 2:38 am

    I respectfully disagree, UrbanCommuter. You see, in Rockville, nobody says hello. They don’t talk to anybody they don’t know. You’ll wind up in some factory that’s full time filth and nowhere left to go. Walk [to civic functions such as judicial buildings and post offices and then] home to an empty house and sit around all by yourself? Nah.

  3. January 19, 2012 4:47 pm

    Great post and I agree with all your points. Every time I pass places like Atlantic Station, Glenwood Park or Inman Park Village I think “these should have been built next to MARTA train stations.” What wasted opportunities, locating them where they are most conveniently approachable by cars. I call it ‘Drive-to New Urbanism’ and it’s a very frustrating trend.

    There’s an argument to be made that these projects (well, at least Glenwood Park and Inman Park Village) at least show Atlanta how attractive livable, walkable, dense, mixed-use developments can be. But in the long run the city suffers by lacking these kinds of neighborhoods in easy proximity to rail transit.

    And I appreciate the shout out to the potential for Poplar Street downtown. That’s my ‘hood and I think there’s a bright future for it if the economic promise of the streetcar comes through.

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