Durable Growth

CNU 22: Bay Area takes top awards

140620001 Station Center CNU AwardMy last few posts have been about CNU 22, the 22nd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, which was held earlier this month.  Today, I’ll turn to the Charter Awards, the recognition that CNU gives to the best urbanist efforts of the year.

Among the strengths of CNU are the freedom to be flexible and the willingness of its members to take advantage of that flexibility.  Those strengths are appropriate to an organization leading the way in re-imagining a form of land use that was neglected for too long.

The annual CNU Charter Awards are a fine example of the flexibility and self-initiative.  Each year, a Jury Chair is selected from among the more eminent members.  The Jury Chair is then given full discretion to pick the other members of his jury and even to realign the award categories if he wishes.

For the 2014 awards, the Jury Chair was Jeff Speck who wrote “Walkable City”, one of the most influential urbanist books of 2013.  For the 2014 awards, Speck took advantage of the CNU freedoms, appointing a distinguished panel, including Brent Toderian and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, both of whom have been mentioned often in this blog, and also redesignating many of the award categories to conform to his perspective on urbanism.

The San Francisco Bay Area thrived under the revised categories.  Faced with two strong projects between which they couldn’t decide, the jury awarded dual Grand Prizes.  Both winners had strong ties to the Bay Area.

The first project was Center Station, a newly-opened 157-unit affordable housing transit-oriented development (TOD) adjoining the Union City BART station.  In announcing the award, Speck noted that the project had everything, “TOD, affordability, great public spaces indoors and out, LEED Platinum, hidden parking, community gardens, social services, recreation, and public art, all wrapped up in a lively, contemporary package.”  Center Station was designed by David Baker Architects of San Francisco.

(I’ll be scheduling a BART trip to Union City to look at Center Station.  If anyone wishes to join me, let me know.  We can make it a field trip.)

The other Grand Prize winner was the newly adopted form-based code for Cincinnati, Ohio.  (For newer readers, a form-based code focuses on building shapes along a “transect” from rural settings to urban cores.  It’s an alternative to use-based codes which propagated after World War II and helped facilitate sprawl.)

In the aftermath of the post World War II suburban exodus, Cincinnati was left with a wealth of interesting but under-used buildings.  A zoning code was needed that would allow the city to re-establish itself effectively and efficiently as the demographic tides began moving back toward cities.  A form-based code met that need.

The planning firm that worked with Cincinnati was Opticos Design of Berkeley, considered among the leaders in form-based codes.  It was a return to the award platform for Opticos, who received a Charter Award in 2013 for their work on a Richmond planning project.

Opticos is also known in the North Bay, having been the consultant on the Station Area Master Plan that was adopted a year ago by the City of Petaluma.  (The writer served on the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for that planning effort, so had the opportunity to work with the outstanding Opticos staff.)

But the most interesting decision of the 2014 Charter Awards may have for Best Regional Plan.  The jury choose not to give an award this year, finding that the submitted entries were all either too idealistic to be implemented or too weak to have a meaningful impact.  Speck suggested that politics were to blame of the lack of meaningful regional plans, an observation that I suspect has much validity.

Not selecting an award winner was a bold decision to make.  If a CNU member submits a non-winning project in a category in which an award is made, he can reasonably convince himself that his project was fine, but had the ill fortune to bump into a better project.

But if the non-winning project is in a category for which the jury decides that none of the projects were worthy of an award, there is no rationalization.  The applicant is confronted with the reality that a jury of his fellow members judged that his project failed to meet the minimum standard for an award-worthy project.

I don’t know of any backlash against Speck or the jury for their decision.  But I respect the integrity that lay behind it.

Before Speck left the stage, he announced that Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk would be the Jury Chair for next year.  He expressed the hope that some of his innovations would remain in place, but with the acknowledgment that CNU tradition of flexibility would allow Plater-Zyberk to take the awards in any direction she wishes.  It was a sign of a progressive organization and mindset.

My next post will stay with CNU 22 one more time, examining some of the insights that were offered about the state of the planning profession.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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