Monday, May 24, 2010

Planners as Developers

"The great achievement of the New Urbanists was not the projects they built during the final orgasm of the cheap energy orgy. It was the knowledge they retrieved from the dumpster of history. We really do know where to go from here. Whether the people of the USA have the will to take themselves there now is another issue." - James Howard Kunstler
Image from CoolTown Studios

I guess it isn't entirely coincidental that I came across this quote the same morning I was outlining a post with a similar thesis in my head. The Congress of New Urbanism was just wrapping up this weekend and saying goodnight to the very same housing bubble that fueled its business much like it lit ablaze to what the New Urbanists were offering the antidote.

The reason Kunstler's quote is relevant is that even the best of "New Urbanist" projects have a variety of flaws. Most egregiously, those that finished construction recently as anybody and everybody wanted in on the development game. Their lack of experience, understanding, or sense of craft showed as it became more about delivering product than actual placemaking or any real understanding of urbanism. In fact, in many cases the effort for as much leasable space as possible, the thinking that pure density or FAR was all it took for something to be "urban" undermined urbanity and accidentally limited the worth of the overall development.

Which is why moving forward, developers and financiers will need smart urbanists working for them once the market fully turns and builds a head of steam towards a more sustainable future. The savviest developers should already be thinking this way to be out ahead of the pack in directing areas of interest for future investment where the potential value greatly exceeds the current value and in identifying the barriers to be overcome in achieving that potential. Often those barriers are controlled by the City and it will take urbanists as the liaison between developer and City.

In a City with such anti-urban transportation in place, working with the City in order to bend the fabric to your site is fundamental to good urbanism and achieving highest and lasting value. By working with the City to shape the contextual urban fabric you improve the connective urbanity of both the adjacent neighborhoods and maximize the value of your own development. Even if some of the improvements are too costly to undertake in a phase 1 or 2 of a plan, the seed must be planted and it takes a true urbanist to know what those are. All good urban developments whether 1 lot, 1 block, or 100 acres large must be thinking about how it fits within its context.

While this may be translatable on a national or international scale, it is especially important here in Dallas, a City that lacks a true proactive planning department, like many cities on the coasts. I'm not editorializing whether that is a bad thing or a good thing, because it could be either. What is important is that planners are at the proactive leading edge. In a City like Dallas where private enterprise is the dominant proactive element shaping the city's form requires planners working with developers rather than at architecture firms stuck at the bottom rung of the decision-making process.

When done right, development is about win-win-win solutions, which high value urbanists specialize in identifying. The developer makes profit, the City gets a contributing, sustainable tax base, and the community gets a great place and an improved City. Once upon a time before the rise of NIMBYism, developers were once exalted as grand city builders, the creators of great places, as cities strived to be the best, the most desirable amongst their competitive peer cities.

Unfortunately that changed in the 20th century as their response to anti-urban policy was logically anti-urban development spawning a group known as nimby's or Not In My BackYard. In suburbs, everyone moved for their own unspoiled patch of land until everyone else joined in and spoiled the fun. In cities, we've built vertical cul-de-sacs - density without urbanity and promoted the view... which eventually gets spoiled by other vertical sprawl development so we oppose it. Not in my backyard.

In real urbanism, the amenity is the place. It is the proximity. It is the connection to the livelihood and the exchange that occurs on the street. When those streets are hideous, unsafe, and inhumane, people flee (either upwards vertical sprawl or outwards horizontal sprawl) outlining the effect of the public sector on urban form. In many cases, the failed attempts or missteps toward urbanism were outside the boundaries or control of a particular development.

Which is why we examine all assets from a broader contextual perspective looking beyond the boundaries to understand the influencing factors and dynamics of a place. Looking at any particular property in a vacuum will doom a project. This is another reason why developers require the merged thinking of their keen financial sense with an urbanist's trained eye.

As everyone knows, transportation also matters. But, we have to get smarter and more adapt with how development relates with transportation. No longer is it enough to simply be near a DART station. Now you have to think about detail: the quality, character, and simplicity of the pedestrian connection to alternative transportation.

We are leaving the trial and error period of the last two decades, the experiment in rediscovering the value of urbanism. Fortunately, we have enough good, successful examples that when squinting or framing the view adeptly, we can illustrate the advantages and demonstrate the value of high quality urban development.

However, times are-a changin'. The rules of the game are different. No longer is cheap edge development subsidized by rampant, mindless infrastructural spending (or at least less so) now as cities and the federal government are keen to help fill the gap to make high quality urban infill work as HUD recently announced $3 billion for location-efficient housing developments (following LEED-ND).

There is no longer a bubble that allows us to narrow-mindedly cram leasable square footage onto a site. Real urbanism matters. That is how value is created and sustained for long term profits. Even if your expectation is to flip the site, buyers/property managers/investors will be smarter and will start examining the urban quality and characteristics of the site to ensure long-term value and protect their investment.

Many of the best developers I have come across largely act on intuition to overcome a background in something other than a life spent studying and analyzing cities. They often use simple phrases as guiding principles, which are quite astute and effective as it informs all later, more detailed decision making. In the city building industry we call these patterns. It works because urban morphology is a very natural process.

Many developers want to do the right thing, but the perception remains that they are still the bad guys. It is time to stop being vilified. Developers are the city builders. They toil on the playing field of city building within the rules created by the public policy around them. There very job is to uplift a piece of dirt to its highest potential. But, most of them aren't trained in urban morphology so who are the smart urbanists to guide them now that everybody advertises themselves as an "urban designer?" Well, that's the new place to apply their intuition.

Now is the time to get it right or be left behind.

As a developer and as a city.