Sunday, April 22, 2007

New Urbanism Gets a Toehold

Chris Churchill has a nice piece in Sunday's Albany Times Union on the concept of new urbanism. It covers many of the main concepts of new urbanism and describes a few projects underway in New York's capitol region.

After World War II, zoning laws were revised across the country into what is more or less the present-day state: separated uses (residential, commercial, industrial) linked together by an automobile-centered highway infrastructure. The revisions resulted in mass-produced housing and made real estate development a rather profitable venture.

With 60 or so years of this kind of development under our belt, however, we can see the deleterious effect its had on our human experience. Churchill quotes Anthony Fazzone, a lawyer investing in a new urbanism project in Latham, New York:

"That's what's been lost in the urban sprawl," Fazzone said. "When you put homes on one or two acres, you push people apart and you create more traffic. And you lose a sense of community."

Advocates for new urbanism blame standard development patterns for a host of societal ills: People are overweight because they don't walk anymore, and alienated because they don't know their neighbors. And don't get them started on what sprawl does to the environment.
New urbanism is intended to address these shortfalls:

The principles of new urbanist design are simple: walkable neighborhoods, density, community before efficiency, shops and offices near homes, apartments and single-family homes in the same neighborhood.

Visit any older town and you can pretty much get the drift.
The downside to new urbanism, condensed:

First, it's hard to find a suitable site. . . .
And when developers find a good spot, they often face zoning hurdles, stone-faced local officials and reluctant residents . . .
Then there is the staggering cost of such developments. . . .
Moreover, most developers and construction companies aren't used to thinking in mixed-use terms. . . .
In other words, new urbanism is difficult for developers because you can't just thoughtlessly plunk down 300 identical homes and walk away with half a billion dollars.

Still, there's something disquieting about how this trend is being approached. Churchill describes a few projects underway near here:

In Guilderland, Platform Realty Group wants to build Glass Works Village, 377 condos and town houses and 14 commercial buildings, at a site off Western Avenue.

In Averill Park, on corn and alfalfa fields near Route 43, developer Edward Patanian is developing a hamlet he calls Bon Acre. It would have 100 homes, town homes and condos, and a town center's worth of stores.

And in Latham, lawyer Anthony Fazzone and other investors are planning a campus of town homes and shops along Route 9, on the Hoffman's Playland site. Fazzone envisions 100 town homes built around a park, 85,000 square feet of retail and the same amount of office space.
In and of itself, a new urban community is superior to a suburban community. But, plunking down a new urban community in the middle of a corn and alfalfa field is kind of antithetical to the concept of new urbanism. It creates the danger of an isolated pod that requires - - yep, a car - - to get to or from it.

Contrast this with the Guilderland proposal:

O'Brien points out his site in Guilderland is adjacent to an elementary school and library and within walking distance of a grocery store -- meaning Platform can create a true town center, complete with parkland and boulevards.
The same thoughtfulness that goes into a new urban community really needs to be translated into a regional plannning authority. Before plopping down a yuppie-community-in-a-box in the middle of a cornfield, a regional authority should look to see what effect such a development would have on cross-community issues such as commuter traffic, light pollution, water use. Maybe a community should first be developed in an area that would facilitate commuter train use instead.

Another disquieting factor: that the concept of new urbanism is appealing to land developers, who traditionally make money by replicating the same model with exacting efficiency, calls to mind a vision of cookie-cutter new urban communities. The article hints at exactly that:

At Platform, the confidence is so great that the company is exploring building four variants of what it has proposed in Guilderland, in communities such as Saratoga Springs, Bethlehem and East Greenbush.
This, also, is antithetical to the concept of new urbanism.

Finally, isolated new urban communities present a danger of becoming elitist neighborhoods. The community planned in Averill Park smacks of that just by its name: "Bon Acre." It says "snotty" to me.

One moment of comic relief:

"Don't believe for a second this baloney about people not wanting single-family homes," said Wendell Cox of Demographia, an Illinois research firm. "If people didn't want single-family homes, the market wouldn't deliver them."
Um, that's like saying people shop at Wal-Mart because they really want to. I own a suburban house on a cul-de-sac because there are only two alternatives: inner city, and farm. The former presents safety issues, the latter doesn't support the types of opportunities for cultural enrichment that I'd like to have for my kids. So, I am stuck here until an alternative comes along. But Mr. Cox should take note: I'd leave this place in a heartbeat if I could.

In the debate over the appeal of new urbanism, this captures the common-sense of it:
"What do we do when we have somebody visiting from out of town?" Fazzone asked. "We take them to Saratoga. It's embarrassing that we don't have another place like that."
I agree completely and its something I've long said myself. Saratoga Springs is a quaint community who revived its downtown by embracing principles inherent in new urbanism. Above all, they did it by taking a thoughtful approach to individual sites along the main street but with a cohesive overall purpose in mind. The same thing needs to happen at the regional level. The overall picture of the region will not change if developers focus only on individual sites without a cohesive overall purpose in mind.

Labels: , , ,

0 Comments:

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home