Thursday, September 22, 2011

Form-Based Codes and the Dentistry of Urbanism

Get the drill back out. It's time to go to work:

Today is the CNU-NTX event today on Form-Based and Smart-Codes. Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend because of last minute deadlines and what not that fell upon me like an acme piano falls on wil e. coyote.

Earlier today, via email list-serv, Andres Duany posed the question as to what is the reason for these codes and what is the potential argument against them. While I agree in principal with the need for such codes, they are not enough. I respond:

I believe you're correct in that the counter-issue is and will continue to be an economic one, which, if we are to play "urban dentistry" should point us toward the root of the cavity. The "too expensive" line is but the immediate pain of a toothache. In the short-term, too expensive is relative. It isn't too expensive if the returns will be greater. Then it is just right. In many of our cities, particularly the Sun Belt, the land nor the building is too expensive, but rather the demand is too low in infill locations. Sure, many have been highly successful, but they've all relied on significant public participation that has either dried up or must become increasingly creative, which turns both lenders and developers off.

While I believe in form-based and smart codes, without demand they are merely an empty glass. The demand is the liquid that fills the cup.

I believe this comes from transportation. To (perhaps over-)simplify, downtowns have/had the highest density, which is a direct response to desirability, accessibility. The introduction of highways into and through downtowns ripped up the highly interconnected fabric, made them less interconnected, less accessible (except from far away -- for example, it is easier to get to Plano from downtown Dallas than anywhere within 3 miles of it), and overall less desirable because of negative effects on quality and character of spaces near freeways, safety, air quality etc. And by improving accessibility to far flung places, each intracity freeway makes land further out at the edge viable while reducing demand/desirability in town, or other clusters lower on the nodal hierarchy.

And from a longer-term perspective it is "too expensive" because they want to build cheaply. They want to build cheaply because they want their returns within 7-years. But nothing is more expensive (over the long-term) than cheap. The effect of form-based and smart-codes will be dramatically reduced unless there is significant progress in the design and spending for transportation infrastructure as well as the financial industry and their standard practices and expectations on the short-term (at the expense of long-term value).

I should add as a local example that both Park Lane Place and Victory Park were built with some form-based guide, if not an actual form-based code. But at the end of the day, they're really all the same. Build to this line, get up close to the street, stack your uses, etc. But both have failed. If any of you have numbers available about how much they were built for and then sold for, I'd love to see them. (I don't for a second ever buy the leasing numbers provided by companies with a stake in the deal. Ever notice everything is 85% and going fast!?)

The reason both have failed (in the short-term) is because of transportation networks. The design, integration, and overlay of the various networks of movement and interconnection as well as the siting and location of the developments.

This is why projects/developments like these I call "cargo cult urbanism." As Tyler Durden said, "sticking feathers up your butt does not make you a chicken." Neither did putting coconuts to their ears and playing air traffic controller bring cargo planes and supplies to the Pacific Islands after WW2. These developments only get the superficial elements right: build to the street, mixed-use, etc. Those things are outgrowths of something deeper.

Buildings built to the street because they wanted to be as close as possible to the pedestrian movement along it. People wanted to live above the shop because they wanted to be close to the amenities below. Density = desirability. And proximity must equal desirability and the desirable must be proximate. It is a more efficient way to build, it is less costly way to move around, and creates more value long-term.

But we can't get there until we overhaul the transportation and finance industries.