Homeowners in one of the most contemporary utopias have little to celebrate these days. Although the Walt Disney Company hired a cadre of leading architects to design Celebration, Florida, the shoddy construction of homes in the theme town is driving residents to grief and financial trouble. The pastoral New Urbanist settlement populated with buildings by Michael Graves, Robert A.M. Stern, Charles Moore, Robert Venturi, and Denise Scott Brown opened in 1996, but Disney sold the town to New York–based private equity firm Lexin Capital 12 years ago. The 10,000-person town that was supposed to be a halcyon replica of Main Street, U.S.A. now looks like a shantytown, some residents say. Some roofs of Celebration's 105 condos and 4,000 single-family homes are shrouded in tarps to forestall leaks, while balconies, separated from buildings and supported by temporary beams, are completely unusable. Mold creeps up the insides of nylon-lined walls, a disastrous, moisture-trapping material choice for the Florida climate. Conditions are so bad that the condo owners' association filed a civil suit this spring against the property owners that asks for $15 to $20 million in repairs. Residents say that despite the allure of Celebration's compact layout and the imprimatur of famous architects, the buildings' lack of structural integrity makes it difficult to sell homes. “The town does have wear and tear. I’m not going to dispute that,” Metin Negrin, president of Lexin Capital, said to the Wall Street Journal. “If you think I’m enjoying this you’re wrong.” He says that the owners' association failed to pay its dues to finance maintenance and that the group expects his company to pay for the repairs instead. “They’re harassing my team every day. They’re cursing them,” he said. “It’s easy to ask for everything new when you’re not paying for it.” Negrin estimates that repairs could cost close to $5 million, a figure that includes $1 million already spent on repairs. Although Disney no longer maintains the town, the company still exercises control over the styles of architectural elements and facade treatments, and residents are calling for the company to intervene.
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In most cases, a century provides a round, nostalgic number. It is an arbitrary marker, offering a chance for living generations to contemplate a past beyond their firsthand comprehension. A century is not just a convenient marker for remembering Jane Jacobs. It is a crucial interval for appreciating the world she grew up in, the urban devastation she witnessed, the forces she fought against, and the future she hoped for. Even as the planning profession has roundly embraced Jacobs’s ideas, the resurrection of the American city remains a work in progress. This is not your grandmother’s city. But it may yet be. Though Jacobs passed away 10 years ago and published her masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, urbanists do not celebrate her for some distant, reverenced work. Contemporary movements such as smart growth, pedestrianism, public transit, New Urbanism, tactical urbanism, and the Millennial sunburst of enthusiasm for urban living all hearken back to Jacobs. Even so, the historical moment that gave rise to Jacobs is still happening, with the momentum of a nuclear meltdown still spitting out radiation, half-life after half-life. "Orthodox modernist city planning...refuses to die,” said Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture. "She did a very good job of trying to kill it, by turning attention back to city streets and the people who inhabit them." When suburbs were swelling and freeways were tearing through cities in the mid-20th century, few planners or architects recognized, or cared, that cities were dying. Planners followed the European model of Le Corbusier and the International Congress of Modern Architecture (CIAM), which advocated the demolition of neighborhoods and the erection of sterile towers and pointless open spaces. In the United States, this program evolved into highways, tract housing, and “urban renewal.” Jacobs celebrated life, not objects. She was eloquent, rebellious, endearing, and superficially unassuming—in part because she was a woman in a field that was, and remains, dominated by men. A tenacious activist, Jacobs not only lived her ideals but actually prevailed, staring down New York City’s infrastructure czar Robert Moses and saving Greenwich Village from the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. Jacobs arrived at her radicalism by looking backwards—and looking around. She uncovered the great things about cities that had been known, if not fully articulated, for millennia. She contended that “scientific” modernist planning and design was little more than a rationalization to justify the enshrinement of (white, male) egotism in the landscape. Jacobs was the real scientist, using powers of observation and deduction to describe what she saw as the natural environment in which urban humans thrived. “Her only qualifications were her eyes and her social conscience, and she started telling people there is a horrendous gap between your forms and your social ideals,” said architect Stefanos Polyzoides, a co-founder of the Congress for the New Urbanism. “The architectural profession was dominated by this idea that modern is good and everything else is rotten." (Jacobs had at least one major like-minded contemporary in sociologist William H. Whyte. Otherwise, Jacobs dominates planning like few have dominated any field. In 2009 the urban planning website Planetizen.com conducted an unscientific poll of history's 100 "greatest urban thinkers.” Out of 14,000 votes, Jacobs took the top spot with five times as many votes as the runner-up, New Urbanist Andrés Duany.) It’s almost impossible to point to specific examples of Jacobs’s influence. If anything, Jacobs signifies negation: the absence of a superblock, the highway that was never built. Or she embodies the ephemeral: the evening stroll, the chance encounter, the purchase of a bagel and coffee. “She was really about ways to experience a city rather than what a city was supposed to look like,” said Richard Sennett, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, who knew Jacobs in her heyday. Today, it is the rare urban designer who gets to develop a city, or even a neighborhood, from scratch. In mature cities, change happens over the course of decades. By working at the level of the discrete parcel or building—for better or worse—and on projects that typically take mere years architects, rather than planners, face more ample and direct opportunities to realize Jacobs’s lessons. Fifty-five years later, architects are still debating what those lessons are. Short of Lou Reed, perhaps no one is more closely associated with Greenwich Village than Jacobs is. She is often assumed to be both a preservationist and a historicist, forever promoting bricks and brownstones—likely an unexciting prospect for contemporary designers in pursuit of the new. "Because she defended the Village…by extension she defended the historicity of the city,” said Polyzoides. Jacobs did not, however, explicitly promote a certain architectural style. By embracing diversity, she avoided the fate of her modernist nemeses. "She’s against singularity and for diversity, diversity of all kinds: economic, social, physical,” said Polyzoides. "In that sense she might be very pleased with a modern or contemporary building in a traditional street." While Jacobs may have been agnostic about how a building looks, she was anything but when it came to how it relates to its surroundings. Jacobs makes architects think about all the elements of cities that aren’t buildings. Lorcan O’Herlihy, founding principal of Los Angeles-based Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects, said that this perspective compels architects to pay attention to how buildings relate to street life and with surrounding buildings. His design process includes literal interaction: extensive community dialog through which he tries to understand a project’s role in the human environment. While non-residents may never enter a building, its influence still extends, for better or worse, beyond the property line. "It’s not only about buildings, but it’s also about engaging edges,” said O’Herlihy. "That is something that is missing in an urban context when you turn your back to the sidewalk and street." That approach calls for a level of creativity that is often considered lacking in American modern design, which Stern calls "a corporate version of the International Style." Jacobs offers an alternative. She gives architects the opportunity—perhaps even the obligation—to perceive and respond to neighborhoods as they are and not to impose placeless design theories on them. "Jacobs revered the city as the preeminent site of choice and possibility and she saw architecture’s duty as enabling, not domineering,” said Michael Sorkin, principal of New York-based Michael Sorkin Studio and author of Twenty Minutes in Manhattan. "Her gift to designers was the rejection of fixed formulas in favor of an ever-unfolding dialectic of form and life." Just as Jacobs celebrated city life, so might Jacobs-inspired designs be capable of living many lives. "The best way to honor her would actually be…systems of building that are accretive rather than rupturing,” said Richard Sennett, author and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at Cambridge University' sociology department. Sennett cited Chilean architect Alejandro Aravena, who designs buildings with the intention that they will be altered and added to in time. For all of Jacobs’s focus on the “human scale” of 20th century cities, 21st century cities may be developing at a scale that makes Jacobs seem, if not precious, then at least inadequate. Jacobs has often drawn criticism for not directly addressing social issues such as segregation and poverty, instead referring to them under the broad mantle of diversity. But contemporary mega-cities in the developing world are growing at unprecedented rates. Lagos, Mumbai, Jakarta, and the like, make New York City look like a sleepy hamlet. In these cities, swelling with urban poor, the “sidewalk ballet” isn’t the most pressing issue. “Of course they’re relevant today, but they’re not the macro problems,” said Thom Mayne, principal of Morphosis. Jacobs’s attention to the street and the neighborhood “doesn’t have anything to do with the 50 percent of the world that ends up in these urban configurations." Then again, Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University, suggests that debates over city form and urban details obscure Jacobs’s broader contributions about urban economics. Jacobs’s 1969 Economy of Cities contends that macro-scale productivity, and indeed the capitalist ideal itself, depends on the aggregate of activities that take place on blocks and in neighborhoods. "Jacobs shows the city as an economic machine, a machine that can process all kinds of elements that are often coming from non-urban settings,” said Sassen. “[In] a suburb or a private, gated corporate office park, you have density, but you don’t have a city." Debating Jacobs’s relevance presents a thorny challenge. In many circles, she has gained as much influence, intellectually at least, as her Modernist counterparts ever did. Nonetheless, the environments that they built still endure. Appealing as they are, Jacobs’s theories remain largely untested even as, 55 years later, no one has arisen to substantially oppose or eclipse her. “The longevity of her influence is attributable to the fact she spoke all the truth in a straightforward way,” said Stern. "The profession of planning and architecture has not yet caught up with her wisdom because it is still object-fixated and open-space fixated.” If any century promises to be the Jane Jacobs Century, then, it may not be the past one: in which she spent 84 of her 90 years, wrote seminal texts, and took a wrecking ball to modernism. That may have been prelude. Rather, the Jane Jacobs Century promises to be the current one: in which the urban world from which she departed may—slowly—become more like the one into which she was born.
In 2016, Jersey City’s population is set to exceed Newark’s. With an influx of newcomers, city officials have pioneered a tax incentive plan that encourages new development while actively combating segregation by income. While these goals usually conflict, officials are confident that the program, Payment In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT), will meet the needs of all stakeholders. Introduced in 2013 by newly elected Mayor Steven M. Fulop, the plan spreads affordable and market rate housing evenly throughout the city by tying development incentives to the relative desirability of given neighborhoods. Though there's been no development under PILOT yet, as of now, new developments can qualify for the program. New Jersey property taxes are one of the nation's highest. Like most tax abatements, the objective of PILOT is to encourage economic activity by easing the developer's tax burden to incentivize denser development. The city partnered with researchers at New York University and Columbia to study the city's housing market intensively at the neighborhood level. According to Ryan Jacobs, Jersey City's Director of Communications, Jersey City operates under the philosophy that "any improvement to [the] land is a good idea." Jacobs critiqued the "tale of two cities" dichotomy that prevails in many discussions around balancing affordability and development. In Jersey City, he states that "that choice is a false choice, it's more communal than that. It's not healthy to have one part of the city that is growing and one part that isn't." PILOT divides the city into four tiers, each with a different tax incentive. Tiers 1 and 2, highly developed areas, receive property tax abatements for a shorter amount of time. Tier 1, for example, has a 10 year property tax abatement, and a mandate that 10 percent of newly constructed units be affordable housing. Tier 4, by contrast, has a 15 percent affordable housing mandate and a 30 year property tax abatement. The city wants to attract concentrated investment in Tiers 3 and 4. Consequently, these zones have longer tax abatements. Regardless of their designation, there is a mandate in each tier to build affordable housing. Jersey City adopted HUD's standards of affordable housing to encompass individuals making 80 percent of the Area Median Income (AMI) and below. Tax abatements are tailored to individual neighborhoods. A special target is the revitalization of Journal Square, once the commercial heart of the city, and now a neighborhood in need of reinvestment. Currently, downtown and waterfront districts, like the 1980s New Urbanist Port Liberté, attract new residents who can afford median monthly rents greater than $2,000, while inland neighborhoods garner comparatively less investment. According to the 2010 Census, approximately 19,000 Jersey City units (29 percent) rent for greater than $1,500 per month. Port Liberté, with its canal, bike paths, and dense residential clusters, has a median household income of $100,000, compared to the citywide median of $46,813. The city intends to make the affordable housing application process as transparent as possible. Per state law, developers of market rate housing that receive tax abatements must contribute $1,500 per residential unit to the city's affordable housing fund. The fund has received $15 million dollars since 2003. These proposed developments pictured here serve as examples of projects that could be executed under PILOT. The two images at top are of a waterfront development that received an abatement (though not through PILOT). The complex is 80 percent market rate and 20 percent affordable, and the first mixed income development in that district in 30 years. On Montgomery Street, 116 new affordable units are planned (an additional 10 units will be market rate). The complex is designed by Wallace Roberts and Todd (WRT).
After a decade as CEO and President of the Congress for the New Urbanism, 64-year-old John Norquist has announced he will retire next spring. In 1993, with 16 years of Milwaukee mayoral reign under his belt, Norquist created CNU as an advocate for mixed-use development in city neighborhoods. Since then, the organization has promoted highway removal, re-design of public housing, and increases in public transportation, building its membership count to over 2,500. In June 2014, after the 22nd Annual Congress in Buffalo, Norquist will leave his position, hoping for “time to write and teach.” (Photo: Courtesy CNU)
New plans for Chicago's Purple Hotel site don't have their predecessor's color, in any sense of the word, but many may view the mixed-use "town center" plaza as the antidote to the site's lurid history. The quirky midcentury hotel in suburban Chicago seemed to escape its fate last year when architect Jackie Koo drew up plans to save the vacant hotel and its divisive color scheme. But demolition on the Purple Hotel in Lincolnwood, IL began late last month. Organizers of the village's end-of-summer festival apparently raised $5,000 for the local library through sales of purple brick. Renderings made public this week show a “new urbanist” plaza from Antunovich Associates that do not include anything purple; instead the 11 acres at 4500 W. Touhy Ave. would be home to an open-air shopping mall, functional green space, 110 apartments, a grocery store and a new 210-room hotel. About one third of the development’s parking spaces will be hidden underground. The design awaits village plan commission hearings.
The economic hangover of suburban sprawl is well-documented in many U.S. metropolitan areas. But the cultural identity of inner-ring suburbs may too be shifting, as towns like those in Minneapolis' suburbs attempt to restore a sense of community. The Star-Tribune reports on two such towns, north suburban Columbia Heights and Brooklyn Park, that are taking a new approach to neighborhood building — call it reaching across the white-picket fence. Columbia Heights is launching a neighborhood association pilot project meant to connect longtime residents with newcomers, who live increasingly in townhouses recently built on former industrial sites in the city. Brooklyn Park, too, hired a neighborhood relations specialist to help “create neighborhoods, working with residents in a grass-roots way,” the city’s community engagement coordinator told the Star-Tribune. They point to nearby St. Louis Park as a prime example of a people-centered suburb. Suburbs across the nation are increasingly diverse and increasingly afflicted by problems thought to be the domain of inner cities, like widespread poverty and crime (note diversity and crime are inversely correlated — as an area’s percentage of foreign born residents rises, its crime tends to fall, according to the Brookings Institution). They’re even, paradoxically, increasingly urban. So it looks like whether or not the actions of Columbia Heights and Brooklyn Park pay off, the Minneapolis suburbs will look very different in 10 years either way.
Prominent planner and architect Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk has stepped down as dean of University of Miami’s (UM) architecture school after an 18-year-long tenure. Plater-Zyberk will continue to teach at UM, whose faculty she joined in 1979. During Plater-Zyberk’s term, UM’s architecture school became closely associated with traditional and Classical design and New Urbanism. The celebrated dean and her husband, planner and architect Andres Duany, are co-founders of Arquitectonica and planners of the pedestrian-friendly Seaside, a Florida panhandle town and setting of the movie Truman Show. Associate Dean Denis Hector will serve as acting dean. Under Plater-Zyberk’s guidance, UM’s fledgling architecture school achieved nationwide recognition as a unique center for classical design and community engagement. The architecture school was just over a decade old when Plater-Zyberk became dean in 1995, and since then she helped the university create “an identity that ran counter to all trends in architectural education at that time,” according to a UM statement. Before becoming dean, she guided UM’s efforts in preparing the 1992 reconstruction of South Miami-Dade County after Hurricane Andrew. She also lead the university in improving Greater Miami through its Center for Urban and Community Design and impressive projects such as a scheme for West Coconut Grove that resulted in the reconstruction of Grand Avenue as a tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly avenue. Plater-Zyberk will continue to leave her mark on the university by focusing her teaching on an up-and-coming aspect of practice: how cities and towns manage the rising seas and further consequences of climate change.
Synthetic Forests. BldgBlog uncovered a series of aerial photos of Dutch tree farms by artist Gerco de Ruijter. Called Baumschule, the pristine man-made geometry overlaid upon nature is really quite stunning. Saving Robin Hood. One of the first brutalist buildings in London by the Smithsons could be saved from demolition and converted into modern family townhomes. BD Online reports that a proposal by Sarah Wigglesworth Architects plans new units on the roof. Completing Indy. A proposed "complete streets" bill for the Indiana Department of Transportation is currently being considered that would require a multimodal approach to transportation design and could be a be a coup for pedestrians and cyclists. Urban Indy has the details, including a potential loophole. Urban Playoffs. There's an ideological battle fermenting between the forces behind New Urbanism and newcomer Landscape Urbanism. The Boston Globe details the differences between the two and the latest on the battle of the urban minds.