What's Old is New New Urbanism Turns Clock Back to Old-Style Neighborhoods

Condominium managers, boards and residents have long known the benefits of clustered housing. They know first-hand what it is like to live in a community with others. They've been able to enjoy the smaller ecological footprint of higher density living. And where amenities like parks, grocery stores, and post offices are nearby, condominium residents have embraced being able to walk much of the time.

Unknowingly, many condominiums have exhibited some of the principles of closely-related design movements called “New Urbanism,” and “Smart Growth.” Both of these movements began in the 1980s and stress a return to pre-World War II neighborhoods, where neighbors knew each other and walked to local businesses instead of driving cars to far-flung malls amidst suburban sprawl.

Where Smart Growth defines the intelligent design of entire communities based on guiding ideas about how communities thrive, New Urbanism applies those same ideas in the “adaptive reuse of pre-existing structures.”

So, where Smart Growth ideas can help define a newly-built community like The Pinehills in Plymouth, Massa-chusetts, those same ideas can used to revitalize a downtown neighborhood in Hartford, Connecticut, or a strip mall in Southern New Hampshire.

Core Principles

Based on the marriage of how urban spaces work with the new realities of our times, New Urbanist principles, as stated on the New Urbanism website (see resources sidebar on page 18), both take from the past and look towards the future: walkability, connectivity, mixed-use and diversity, mixed housing, quality architecture and urban design, traditional neighborhood structure, increaseddensity, green transportation, sustainability, and quality of life.

While many of these core principles are interrelated, walkability is clearly an important place to start. If the community provides basic goods and services (think stores, banks, and restaurants) within a five-minute walk, then residents are less likely to get in their cars.

The sidewalks can be wide, the streets narrow, and cars relegated to alleys andhidden garages. Mass transit lines can connect both within the community and to the outside world, again minimizing the need for residents to use their cars. This pedestrian-friendly approach is more than just a green wish (although that is an important part of the equation); it gets people out into the streets, where they can interact with each other and frequent stores, services and restaurants.

Integral to that sense of a vibrant community is a mix of housing options that promote and welcome the racial and economic diversity necessary for a successful community. Neighborhoods can include one-bedroom apartments as well as million-dollar homes. Apart-ments can be built over commercial spaces and garages, and large single-family houses can share streets with duplexes and townhouses. A key feature of these housing options are the porches close to the street, shared walks and driveways, and nearby green spaces that promote interaction betweenhuman beings. “People want to be around people; people want access to stuff,” says Ken Olson, president and CEO of the Port Chester, New York-based POKO Partners.

These core principles lead to sustainable development, ideally making use of sustainable building practices and design, connected by low-impact methods of transportation. The developersprofit because of the higher density mixed-use projects bring in. Higher density, of course, means more return on dollars per square foot of land.

Local businesses thrive as more and more people are out on the streets walking around, and residents get the convenience of being able to do more things without their car. Municipalities benefit from an increasing and stable tax base, less traffic and congestion, lower crime rates, and more civic pride.

Adaptive Reuse

New England, with its a large supply of industrial spaces waiting to be transformed into mixed-use spaces, is particularly suited to the specific type of New Urbanism that stresses adaptive reuse. From Maine to Connecticut, there are former mills and factories that have been converted to condominiums, townhouses, and apartments. The best of these utilize New Urbanism ideas, mixing commercial and a range of residential options withnearby amenities and mass transit opportunities.

One such example is the Eastworks Building in Easthampton, Massa-chusetts. An old household products factory (think mops and cleaning supplies), Eastworks now houses forty-seven live/work apartments for artists (each is about 600 square feet) and over 500,000 square feet of retail shops, offices, and a hip restaurant called the Apollo Grill.

In addition to industrial building retrofits, there are other exciting placesto look. One such place was the parking lot of an old mall in the center of the Cape Cod town of Mashpee. Begun in 1986, Mashpee Commons (www.mashpeecommons.com) has completely transformed the former mall into a vibrant and working mixed-use center laid out in a design created by urban planners Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company.

The “downtown” (they constructed buildings along one side of a created street facing the mall) features forty one-bedroom and studio apartments in three mixed-use buildings. The apartments range from 600 to 1,400 square feet and start at $725 per month (excluding utilities).

There is also 365,000 square feet of commercial space with both locally-owned and chain shops, restaurants, a movie theater, a library, post office, and a boys and girls club. Plans and permits have been filed to develop the surrounding area with up to 400 single-family homes, townhouses, and condominiumsalong the New Urbanist principles. In addition, there are adjoining neighborhoods to be developed with a balance of commercial and residential offerings.

In Natick, Massachusetts. Nouvelle at the Natick Collection is a high-end, high-rise condominium built adjacent to a large mall, The Natick Collection.

The Nouvelle has received a great deal of press about the downtown lifestyle and convenience of the 215 new luxury condominiums alongside the mall. The condos start at $369,000 for a one bedroom, 800-square-foot unit and go up from there. Among its most unusual amenities is the ability to exit a unit, and take a short indoor walk to shopping at the mall’s hundredplus upscale stores.

Starting From Scratch

Although New England is already heavily developed, there are tracts of land left that lend themselves to the type of Smart Growth design that starts from the ground up.

Tony Green, managing partner of The Pinehills in Plymouth, Massa-chusetts, is clear about what they’ve managed to accomplish there. Using ten different builders and 3,200 acres of previously-untouched land (two-thirds of which is still open land and highly regarded golf courses), they’ve built over a thousand homes, with nearly 2,000 lots left. Home choices range from one-of-a-kind custom homes to single-family homes to townhomes, to condominiums, to two55-plus neighborhoods to apartments for rent, nearly all with wooded or golf course views.

The Pinehills also boasts 150,000 square feet of commercial space with everything from a U.S. Post Office to grocery store and dry cleaners. To get to these amenities, residents have ten miles of walking trails and paths.

But chief among the things Green speaks of with pride is the careful and meticulous planning to preserve as much of the original landscape as possible, what he describes as “using theland to its best advantage rather than changing the land for convenience.”

This meant walking the land over and over again before creating plans, placing the houses first and then the roads connecting them second. Although this does not conform to New Urbanism’s call for grid networks, the winding and twisting slows cars down, while providing a more natural experience for the walker and biker.

Zoning Laws, SmartCode, and the Transect

In “Smart Growth Advances Nationally,” a special report on the New Urbanism website, author Jessica Tirado notes that “in most cases it is easier and cheaper to build on virgin land than to reuse urban areas.” (See resource sidebar.)

In fact, across New England it can actually be against zoning regulations to incorporate the type of mixed-use residential and commercial buildings called for by Smart Growth in many downtown districts. Instead, the traditional government approach is to subsidize road and sewer lines out to suburbs so far removed that transportationby car is the only viable option.

This leads to a situation where the majority of the spending, on both the macro and micro levels, is on building roads and very little is left to spend on mass transit systems like state-of-the-arttrain lines. Therefore, developers lean towards open tracts of land, creating suburban sprawl, and away from revitalizing already built urban centers.

One way for communities to rethink their local zoning regulations is something called SmartCode. According to the SmartCode website (www.smartcodecentral.com), “the SmartCode is an integrated land development ordinance. It folds zoning, subdivision regulations, urban design, public works standards, and basic architectural controls into one compact document.”

Available in PDF form, SmartCode is an open-source document – meaning you can use it without charges or licensing fees. Planners and developerscan use this code to map out the ways zoning regulations should be written.

The SmartCode is also “transect-based.” The transect is a planning tool which maps out seven different zones ranging from natural zone through the urban core zone and the special district. According to the SmartCode website, it “allows the integration of the design protocols of traffic engineering, public works, town planning, architecture, landscape architecture, and ecology.” In other words, it provides a macro-level scheme for regional planners to weave a number of smaller communities together in an intelligentand thoughtful way.

Recipes for Disaster

Of course, it’s not always this easy or straight-forward. After all, the suburban sprawl that New Urbanism fights againstwas the post-war dream of the 1950s. Those hulking malls that now dot the landscape were once prize gems in their communities. Who knows what new realities and challenges society will face in the coming years?

New Urbanism planners stress the need for economic and racial diversity as indispensable to the life of a community, citing the Disney-sponsored development in Florida called "Celebration” as an example where monoculture has run wild.

Many planners note an additional pitfall that happens when developers don’t include social services (such as job training, education, and health services) among the amenities when designing new communities. The people who traditionally use these services then do not move in, and the community loses its diversity.

An additional risk to diversity comes from the very success of the projects themselves. In some cases, as urban neighborhoods are revitalized or attractive Smart Growth developmentsbuilt, people decide that living in a walkable, vibrant community where there is plenty of interaction and activity is very attractive.

The more people decide to come, the more local housing prices rise and soon a one-bedroom studio apartment may be priced out of range for many. Unlesslocal governments are subsidizing the housing, the local population can quickly lose its diversity and become homogenized.

Blueprints for the Future

However, these pitfalls can be avoided either through subsidized housing or careful planning, and the potential upsides of this approach are significant. Already-completed projects cite rising home values, increased civic pride, and better quality of life. As increased independence from cars merges with better and greener building practices (see “Greenest of the Green,” New England Condominium, September, 2008), the options for those seeking a greener, more satisfying experience away from single-family housing will find more and more options with more and more amenitiesnearby, from retrofitted factories to greenfield developments.

That’s why New Urbanist firms like Duany Plater-Zyberk are extraordinarily busy with projects across the world, and developments like The Pinehills are experiencing increasing attention as people look for a simpler, greener, less auto-dependent lifestyles. Now, what condo residents have knownall along may become apparent to a wider audience—that old-style communities can be a template for the future.

Robert Todd Felton is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to New England Condominium magazine.

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