Thursday, July 24, 2008

Any hope for '60s suburbia?

Excellent question at the end of the previous comment string, from "Tom" from Nashville.

"Suggestion for your next blog topic: Is it possible to "retrofit" a suburb, particularly the middle-ring suburbs that are struggling, to be more connected and urban? Can a '60s-style neighborhood be made to behave like a '30s-style neighborhood?"

You won't be surprised to hear I have thoughts. But this afternoon I have other tasks. So I'll toss out the question and let others take it on. Maybe Dan Burden of Walkable Communities Inc., can weigh in, or someone from the Congress for the New Urbanism, or some developer/designer who's done a retrofit project and can talk about how it went.

See you later.


Anonymous said...

For my middle ring neighborhood, the Little Sugar Creek Greenway will really help provide meaningful access via foot to commercial areas close to my home as the crow flys but a bit far to walk via the street grid.

I'm interested to hear what the experts think.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if suddenly one day CSX will add passenger cars to their trains, and compete with AMTRAK. I'm no economist, nor lawyer, but my gut tells me there's suddenly a market for nonstop well-appointed interstate trainrides.

Eric said...

I like the idea of the greenways providing access. I think they should be expanded. A story on NPR Wednesday night talked about Portland, OR and their liberal use of bike-only lanes that parallel roads. That appears do-able in Charlotte: I live near the Park Rd Shopping Center (Park and Woodlawn). What was considered the 'burbs in 1958 is really only five miles from city center - if I had safe access to a bike lane (there are a few for me now, but they're disconnected today) PLUS improved bike parking Uptown, I'd bike to work at least three days a week (provided the weather is decent).

Anonymous said...

We need more sidewalks and bike lanes that CONNECT. That is a start.

Jay said...

Of course it’s possible to retrofit Charlotte’s 1960’s style middle-ring neighborhoods to make them behave like 1930’s style ‘hoods.

All developers have to do is buy out the entire ‘hood or at least most of it. Then they can level those big lots and small houses – leaving as many trees as possible, please – and put up urban, mixed-used high-rise, high-density developments, which nowadays come with sidewalks. The residents usually get more for their house than they would by selling individually. The developer makes a mint and is financially encouraged to continue that trend.

Charlotte wins because we’d be making better use of scarce resources and could better accommodate the influx of new businesses, workers and residents, who otherwise might head for Union, Gaston , Cabarrus or Iredell counties and eat up the green space out there.

I think this was tried in the past year or so in south Charlotte, although the intent was to just replace old houses with larger upscale ones. I live in a similar hood a few miles away, and a well-known developer approached our HOA with a similar proposal last year. His intent was a visionary multi-use urbanized development. His offer, however, wasn’t enticing enough at that time. I hope he comes back.

Conversely, if this isn’t done, we’ll continue to sprawl. Most folks in my ‘hood cannot envision a walkable, shopable urban neighborhood, although our single-family homes are within two blocks of many shops and restaurants. They hop in a car to drive the two blocks to get groceries, then complain about the traffic to which they’ve just contributed. Any proposed new building over three stories in height is automatically suspect as a developer’s plot to ruin residents’ lives. They don’t understand that what really drives up property values is being able to accommodate new businesses, with the holders of those new jobs seeking housing nearby, especially given the gas crisis.

Chris said...

Dayum Uptown LIB'RULS an' yer fraction of a cent taxes are runnin' me dry! I ain't gon' use no dadburned light rail or SIIIDEwalks or nothin, I like drivin' an hour to go get groceries on account o' I hate people. All y'all fancypants Amurika haters need to move to NOOyork an' stop tryin' ta improve yer community!

(I live practically across the street from several places to eat, a video store, and a grocery store and I have to drive to them because that street is W.T. Harris Blvd. Barf. Will someone explain how this was allowed to happen?)

Anonymous said...

I had hoped that the potential development of the Sherbrooke Road neighborhood (the street that went completely up for sale a few years ago)would have included mixed use space so there would be something walkable in the midst of all these midcentury neighborhoods in south park. Of course my neighbors would have pitched a fit, since retail brings crime, noise, and all that trouble...

Anonymous said...

I'm a Charlotte native. In my youth Dilworth, Myers Park, Eastover, Elizabeth, Chantilly, Midwood were all varying degrees of forgotten neighborhoods. I grew up in Kilborne Acres in a house my parents payed $12,000 for, then a working-class, WASP neighborhhod typical of the late 60's and early 70's. Chantilly and Midwood were much the same. People were moving out to Beverly Woods in favor of Myers Park, believe it or not. I can remember when Dilworth was not a very safe or desireable place to be.

As we know, those close-in neighborhoods on the SE side are now very desireable places to live. Even in a housing recession, folks there are doing quite well in terms of property value. And the neighborhoods are changing as money continues to pour into them. One third, or more, of the houses in Chantilly and Midwood have been either expanded or torn down and replaced. The same can be said of others.

My point is that the kind of change you are speaking of happens very slowly and usually by a large number of individual investors with varying interests, here in Charlotte. So unless the the government steps in and backs a very large project, like buying out a whole neighborhood and redeveloping, the change you are speaking of will continue to be driven by the market of individual investors and residents. And will probably continue in a patchy fashion much like the original developments did. And will probably stay on the SE side.

Although I think it's in the community's interests to do such large-scale revitalization projects, it does not appear to be politically feasible in Charlotte. And if it were, the folks that would get most of the benefit are the developers.

Cato said...

Is it possible to "retrofit" a suburb, particularly the middle-ring suburbs that are struggling, to be more connected and urban? Can a '60s-style neighborhood be made to behave like a '30s-style neighborhood?

The extent to which a neighborhood is "struggling" or not probably has more to do with the people living in it than with its design.

In short, if the people who tend to be steadily employed, not commit crime, manage debt well, and raise their children to do the same come to desire Brady-bunch style houses, then those suburbs will be fine - walkability, mixed uses, bike lanes or not. However, if those neighborhoods become the repository of the underclass, then no amount of design changes will matter.

Jane Jacobs famously wrote that cities don't attract the middle class, they create it. The best case in point was Manhattan's lower east side, which took in wave after wave of immigrants between the Civil War and the 1920's, and saw each generation move on to skilled trades, small-scale ownership and then educated professions and big business.

But does anyone seriously have the same optimism regarding cities today? "Economic development" today has more to do with attracting established professionals (or recent college grads) than with seeing that anyone moves up the economic ladder. If you read it closely, this is even a premise of Richard Florida's creative class thesis. Are the people moving to Portland generally poor and hoping to get ahead, or are they affluent and hoping to enjoy a particular lifestyle with their peers?

The hard fact is that for the past 60 years or so, the U.S. economy has gone through a period of rough meritocracy. Despite its imperfections, this has resulted in a sorting out of people in the economy by marketable skills and habits, and, yes, abilities. A further consequence is that there's less social and economic mobility than there used to be.

Anonymous said...

Is there any hope for today's suburbia?

Kelly said...

Drive out to Vermillion in Huntersville (exit 23) It is happening there and with the train and DPK! museum going up just 400 yards from my house I will be reaping the benefits of new urbanism even in the northern burbs of Mecklenburg.

Anonymous said...

I'm unclear about the meaning of 'retrofit' and 'behavior' in this context. Mid-tier suburbs should not 'look like' 1930's development. The addition of sidewalks would help but that's all of the retrofitting we need. There is an intrinsic value physically. It is a good snapshot of architectural and social trends in our society and it should retain that form. Conversely, the poorly conceived and designed residential developments constructed today will be considered waste, not to be remembered.

Anonymous said...

As the public transportation system matures and becomes efficient the 'waste' areas could redevelop into walkable neighborhoods with mixed uses nearby. Perhaps this is where the 1930's style retrofit should occur.

Larry Bumgarner said...

Solid homes mostly brick and craftmanship like hard wood floors.

Now why would anyone not want to live in them?

Oh that is right the crime the observer has ignored for the last few decades.

We have finally been served what we asked for by letting the poor neighborhoods get taken over and picked clean by gangs.

They are not seeking more hunting ground and guess what, the nice areas of town are just ripe!

I have been begging for help for those inner-city neighborhoods for years as our city got all these fancy toys for downtown. And lets not forget how we all let kids just drop out of our failing schools with out trying to fix or even get more charter schools in North Carolina. Did we think they were going to work?

The Observer forgot these challenged neighborhoods a long time ago and to come out looking like you care now is just sad.

Anonymous said...

I think people are forgetting the single biggest thing holding back 60s and 70s suburbia: the street grid, or lack thereof. The way that New Urbanism works is by having a simple street grid where all streets connect, thus making it easy to walk from residential to commercial and such. Almost all of mid century suburbs are a tangled mess of cul de sacs, road humps, no sidewalks, and non-connecting streets.

Starmount off South Blvd is a perfect example. There must be thousands of homes back there... but there's only one way in and out. That makes New Urbanism not possible for that neighborhood... you'd literally have to bulldoze the entire thing and start from scratch. Our housing situation in Charlotte just doesn't support that kind of project yet. There are plenty of open/abandoned lots within a few miles of downtown, and there is no shortage of buildings which aren't the 'highest and best use' of the land they sit on. These will be redeveloped far sooner than mid century suburbia.

Lewis said...

Hope? Of course there is hope. There is good life there but, as Larry B. pointed out, the avoidance of basic government services does not help any neighborhood.

As also pointed out previously, single use zoning is very detrimental to any neighborhood. But zoning is reflective of what some neighborhoods want. Zoning is not so different than the rules neigbhorhood associations put out.

Dilworth shows well how mixed use can work. Businesses of varied types are on East Blvd etc, while housing is just behind. People can walk if they wish. There is not reason other neighborhoods can't be similar, if government would get out of the way.

Anonymous said...

I think people are forgetting the single biggest thing holding back 60s and 70s suburbia: the street grid, or lack thereof.

True in many cases, but there are actually quite a few middle-ring suburbs that do exist on a grid pattern. Pretty much anywhere on the east side is on a grid system, the Shamrock area being a good example. Of course the grid doesn't work all that well, due to the lack of anything else resembling an urban infrastructure.

At least in theory these neighborhoods are ripe for retrofit. Build some sidewalks, rezone to allow a few small businesses into the neighborhood (bonus if it's something funky like a gallery or coffee shop), add transit stops on the inner streets, maybe allow some slightly higher density. The folks being displaced from NoDa and Plaza-Midwood would come in droves.

But as Lewis points out above, the process starts with this city's residents. As long as we have a large and vocal minority who oppose any government intervention into our ghettoes, and as long as that minority is backed by significant corruption in the chambers of City Hall, we will not see this sort of thing happen for a very long time... perhaps too late to save our city from ghettoization.

Anonymous said...

Good point was made by Anonymous at 7:30 a.m.

I’m amazed by how far one must travel along a major Charlotte street before one finds a way to head “perpendicular”. Two examples that immediately come to mind are Fairview between Colony and Providence, and Park between Archdale and Sharon Road West. And where there is connectivity, such as Seneca between Park and South Boulevard, the city has gone out of its way to build speed humps.

(By the way, these don’t seem to impact the average speeder, just emergency vehicles and low-slung handicapped adapted vans.)

If developers ever do acquire massive blocks of our mid-rung ‘hoods, maybe they’ll finally correct the connectivity problem. Then again, I suspect walkability is just a pipe dream, whether we’re talking about urbanization along the light-rail line or urbanization further “inland”.

Let’s face it, most white folks don’t ride buses, much as less walk, regardless of the price of gasoline. How do you motivate them to do so? That’s the key.

Matt C said...

Anon 7:30am - In terms of Starmount (where I live) there is exceptional connectivity. I can get from my home in Starmount (off Archdale) to Uptown Charlotte purely by use of backroads - the only time I touch the major roads (Tyvola, Woodlawn, etc) is to cross over them. That is the definition of connectivity. And there are literally dozens of ways in and out of Starmount.

The issue with the walkability of these "middle-ring" neighborhoods (Starmount, Montclaire, etc) is, in my opinion, the housing on the major roads - Woodlawn, Tyvola, etc. The houses built on those roads are from the 50's and 60's when those arteries were sleepy roads. Now, they are major roads with increased traffic and single family homes on them are out of place.

The best way to improve walkability of all the middle-ring neighborhoods is to rezone along the major arteries from single-use homes to mixed use development.

Imagine the houses being removed from the sides of Woodlawn, Tyvola, Archdale, etc., and being replaced with stores, restaurants, shops, etc. This would provide all the neighborhoods in the area with a vast amount of places to walk to...

Anonymous said...

About 10 years ago or so the concept of "high density" and "mixed use" became all the rage with urban observers. Developers jumped right on the bandwagon and began to build their versions of urban living all over Mecklenburg County--thus we began to see developments with small lots (with trees leveled) and cookie cutter houses plopped down everywhere. Yes, these developments often include shopping, offices, and apartment complexes, but are any of them very distinguishable from each other? And did anyone pay attention to infrastructure as they developments were approved--like connectivity between these developments? I think not (although as one poster noted Vermillion is a wonderful example of a development that actually feels like a community and fits the locale). Unfortunately it seems that if a developer describes his project as "new urbanism" and throws in the words mixed use and high density it is immediately touted as the wave of the future.

I think what we are missing in Charlotte, outside of a few close inner ring areas, are real (not the faux town centers of today's developments), individual communities, with their own distinct housing styles and shopping and services areas. If these communities were individual towns, villages, or even townships citizens could make many of their own decisions about development and thus retain their communities' unique styles. Many older cities have such communities, one right after another.

As for the rather self righteous postings that imply that current residents of middle ring suburbs who are opposed to the more urban retro-fitting of their communities are short-sighted bumpkins, I suspect that your attitude forstalls any constructive conversation with your neighbors.

Anonymous said...

I like the idea of removing residential from the corridors around Montclaire, Starmount, Madison Park, etc. I can walk easily to a Food Lion at the edge of my neighborhood on South Boulevard, and often walk there in the evenings to pick up items for supper. It would be great if there were more options as well (cleaners, resturants, etc)

Anonymous said...

^ Amen, amen, amen on the point of the phrase "mixed use" being little more than a buzzword.

A truly mixed-use neighborhood, the kind that is stable and healthy and fits the definition of what we all seem to be looking for, is yet to be built in Charlotte in the past 60 years. Simply putting a strip-mall next to a neighborhood does not make it "mixed use".

For whatever reason, our culture seems to have an irrational resistance to the notion of putting a buisiness inside a neighborhood. Even in the highly-touted "new urbanist" communities it's rare to see businesses actually integrated with residences -- usually they are clustered around some faux "town center" where they behave exactly like shopping malls.

Part of the reason that our central neighborhoods have been so successful in revitalizing is that they are truly mixed-use in the original sense of the term. In Dilworth, NoDa, Plaza-Midwood, and 4th Ward, businesses are located directly on residential streets and play a daily role in the lives of residents -- even on non-shopping days.

Of course this doesn't mean that every single street needs to host businesses -- but there needs to be a pretty significant level of integration before a neighborhood can truly be called "traditional".

Cheers to the Naked City community for having this discussion -- true progress begins in a public forum like this.

Anonymous said...

I have spent some idle hours redrawing maps of my parents' neighborhood in East Charlotte, connecting roads and filling in a grid. I think the expansive parking lots of so many commercial developments in Charlotte hold a lot of potential. Divide the parking lots into blocks and fil them in with buildings. Connect those blocks as best as possible to the neighborhoods they serve, and you will, in time, get a neighborhood center.

I would like to respond to the comment by Anonymous at 9:41 about how white people don't ride the bus. I assume, for one, that you mean middle class white people. I know that public transit in the US has long been seen simply as a way to get poor people, often black, around town, especially in the south (remember what some folks say MARTA stands for?) but the fact is that middle class white people will ride the bus -- if it goes where it needs to go, and on time. I have not ridden a bus in Charlotte, having not lived there in 7 years, but I have read and heard plenty about white folks, among others, crowding the buses there lately due to gas prices.

And in Chicago, where I live now, people of all colors and classes ride the buses and trains to get around, even people who have cars -- like us. Although I prefer trains for a lot of reasons (more efficient, no traffic, better for environment, etc.) buses should not be seen as the redheaded stepchildren of transit systems. I would love to see Charlotte crisscrossed with light-rail, commuter rail and streetcars in every direction, but clean buses run on a fast, efficient schedule will attract any riders who want a better way to get around, regardless of their race or income.

Anonymous said...

The problem with these new mixed-use centers is that they are isolated from everything around it. They need to connect to their surroundings. Sidewalks and bike lanes should be encouraged. We need to connect our streets - we need to reduce the amount of cul-de-sacs. Neighborhoods built now need to connect to neighborhoods built in the future.

Anonymous said...

^^Bingo, hence my hatred for the fake society of Birkdale Village where they try to sell people on the benefits of living in a developer creates, for-profit shopping mall under the illusion (delusion?) of it being a little mini-society.

Anonymous said...

As a City Planner, I am far more concerned about how difficult it will be/is to rejuvenate the relatively new starter home foreclosure neighborhoods versus the 60's middle ring ranches. The middle ring ranches have relatively "good bones" to work with while the new starter home shoe box neighborhoods have little that will be worth rejuvenating. The future of many of those neighborhoods is grim at best.

Anonymous said...

The walkable neighborhoods this city once had were anchored by major employers (i.e. mills), which attracted enough population density to merit plenty of reasonable housing and to encourage smaller commercial businesses to build along the main streets.

In fact, the key ingredients that separates faux multi-use centers from the real McCoys seem to be “EMPLOYER”and “EGALITARIANISM”.

Does Birkdale have a major employer anchoring it? Phillips Place certainly doesn’t, unless one counts Allen Tate Realty, but does have a luxury residential section. Piedmont Town Center near SouthPark has both a major employer and residences, but like some such centers has outpriced the typical office worker who might otherwise live there or reside close by. And some of the single-family neighborhoods in that area cling to deed restrictions that prohibit any commercial usage on the lots fronting major streets, eliminating the opportunity for any “normal” enterprise to be erected within walking distance. (Sure, the city doesn’t recognize such restrictions, but courts still do, and that scares off developers.)

So I’d still consider PTC to be “faux” since the only “essential” shops you can walk to are some of the most expensive restaurants and stores in the city. Where’s the real beef the average Charlottean needs for everyday living?

In the 1970s and 80s, Eastland Mall was the place to go. You could ice skate, shop and see the latest cinema. Then the middle-class neighborhoods surrounding it began to deteriorate as folks moved to south Charlotte or Union County. Now we are approaching the point where that area might be left with a vast, dead mall.

I doubt any private developer wants to step in, because all they seem to want to build are luxury condos and upscale shops. So, if the owner forecloses and the city can get it for a bargain, should we taxpayers be willing to buy it, raze it and offer incentives to private developers to buy it from us put up an eclectic Eastland Village? Better yet, why not first offer incentives for several large employers to relocate there and become the focal point of a liveable, walkable “real” community?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, SouthPark area residents, but eventually – and probably sooner than you think - our young folks will conclude they can buy luxury goods over the Internet for much less and with less effort. Then the raison d’etre for that upscale shopping destination will be invalidated and that area will decline. It may be all about location, location, location. But it should be all about diverse types of employment, employment, employment.

Anonymous said...

One additional thought on making the suburbs into livable, walkable communities: real communities have schools that are an integral part of the neighborhood. I believe that is partially why Charlotte has grown up so piecemeal, with all these unconnected subdivisions. No one was expected to walk to school, and there were no institutions to draw an area together, since kids were attending school all over the place rather than primarily in their own community.

I know that school assignment is very controversial in some circles--Mary has been known to claim that suburbanites are afraid of diversity (although I have to wonder if she's been out in the hinterlands much lately). But I do believe that having schools that "belong" to a neighborhood (in the larger sense of neighborhood, not just one subdivision)and that are easily accesible for community activities greatly increases the sense of place. I've seen this happening throughout Charlotte both in suburban and urban areas as we have developed a stable assignment plan that allows families to attend school close to home. People are beginning to think of their part of town as a community, not as just another series of subdivisions.

Missy A said...

Even though Dilworth and Elizabeth and laid on the grid there are shopping strips like you find in the burbs. New projects like Midtown Target and Metropolitan are not very pedestrian friendly. Which goes to show that developers are still doing car-dependent commercial projects in areas that are so close to the center city.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Lewis said...

The comment about neighborhood schools is one of the more critical observations.

I was raised in a suburban neighborhood. I walked to Tuckaseegee Elem., Wilson Jr. High and West Meck HS. I knew from day one I was an West Meck Indian. We knew our schools, our churches, our scout huts, our swimming pool and thus we knew our neighborhood and our neighbors.

A shopping center does not define a neigbhorhood, the cultural parts do. In drawing school districts where one goes to a school far away from home, CMS does more to undermine our sense of community than will ever be overcome by design.

Anonymous said...

I really like the idea above regarding the commercial centers that tend to front major streets in front of middle-ring neighborhoods. They seem like a potential goldmine of opportunity for redeveloping these areas.

In particular I imagine the strip-mall shopping centers on the east side. 9 times out of 10 they have a grid-based neighborhood only a short distance behind, perhaps separated by a wall or fence.

What if a developer tore out ONLY the parking area, used the "blank" space to create new streets (perhaps even a small park or attraction), connected the new streets to the adjacent neighborhood lanes, and re-fitted the BACK of the shopping center to have attractive entrances? What you'd have would be a traditionally-designed district with a clear commercial center surrounded by well-connected neighborhood streets. The shopping center would be absolutely ideal for small local businesses who thrive in small communities (flower shops, delis, bakeries, etc.) and would no longer feel like a "strip mall" because it would be geared toward pedestrians and bikers.

Just an idea, but I think a feasible one for neighborhoods in that situation. If done properly, the following would be virtually guaranteed:
1) The value of the shopping center would rise dramatically over its current depressed state.
2) The neighborhood would suddenly become attractive to entrepreneurs.
3) Residents would begin to walk or bike to the store instead of drive, reducing congestion and increasing the value of their homes.
4) The neighborhood would eventually become a viable option for middle-class urbanites seeking a safe and attractive neighborhood outside the center city.
5) We would have serious concerns about gentrification and faux-bohemianism.