Durable Growth, Government

Organic urbanism is better for you

Business street in the Paris fashion district

Those not familiar with the nature of successful urbanism might think that the project recently announced for the former site of San Francisco’s Candlestick Park  is good news.   The development is a 500,000-square-foot “urban outlet” shopping center that will serve as the retail anchor for the development of 6,000 homes described as “pedestrian friendly”.

It’s true that the news could be worse.  A vast swath of single-family homes at four per acre would be too hideous for words.   But mass-developed urbanism also fails to meet the mark for what our cities need.  “McNormal”, writing in the comments to the article, nails the shortfall: “Sad how these developers have been able to completely misappropriate the word ‘urban’.  Signing off the whole district to a single company is the antithesis of urban.”

Yup, McNormal has it correct.  Urbanism produced on a large scale under a single development team is mock urbanism and fails to satisfy the soul of urbanism.

I’ll point to two problems with mock urbanism.  First, having all the buildings constructed at the same time, using similar construction techniques and following a similar architectural zeitgeist, will result in a development in which all the elements age along the same glide path.  The constant regeneration that is essential to urbanism, the rehabilitation of individual structures to take advantage of neighborhood-wide vitality, is stunted because individual owners will hesitate to make upgrades in a neighborhood that’s in uniform decline.

This isn’t a theoretical objection.  As we look around our communities, we see many examples of shopping districts, office parks, and residential neighborhoods that were built by a single developer in the years after the World War II and are now in uniform disrepair.  Indeed, what to do with these aging sites and neighborhoods is a challenge for many city governments.  It’s hard to conceive why we would wish to impose the same hardship on coming generations, but we continue to do so.

But even more importantly, good urbanism is about experimentation and adjustment.  Small projects can test ideas in the marketplace.  If they find enthusiasm, and if there is a deeper pool of demand, other projects can continue along the same path.  If they fail, the next developer can try a different approach.

And when the needs of the marketplace change, similar experimentation can occur as existing buildings are modified to meet new needs.

It’s an elegant, organic process that works well.  But building 6,000 homes and 500,000 square feet of retail under a single vision precludes the process, shortchanging our communities.

Astute readers might point out that Paris was urbanism conceived on a vast scale which has been successful.  It’s a good point.  However, I’ll note that Baron Von Haussmann, in his grand plan, was working from a theoretical vision, not a plan to turn short-term profits.  I don’t always trust theoretical visions, with suburbia being a particularly notable example, but I trust them more than I trust a vision driven by short-term profits.

Also, Paris was constructed with materials and structural systems guaranteed to provide a long life, long enough for Parisians to find a way to modify their city to help it meet their needs.  (The photo above is a modern retrofit to a building that may date back to Von Haussmann.)

None of this post is intended to point a finger at the residential developer, the Lennar Corp., or retail developer, Macerich.  Both have done exactly what they should have, finding a way to make money for their stockholders and to provide salaries for their employees within the land-use rules we’ve put in place.  Their role isn’t to fix the deficiencies in our vision or our implementation, but to represent their owners and employees under the rules that we’ve written.

Instead, the problem is us.  We’ve failed to elucidate and to implement an adequate urbanist vision.  Instead of the newly announced plan, the City should have acted as the master developer, creating an overarching land plan for the site, constructing some of the initial infrastructure, and then selling chunks of land to individual developers, recouping the planning and infrastructure costs.  But that plan would have required costs, risk, and effort, commodities which we’re too infrequently willing to commit.

It was yet another missed opportunity.

Next time, I’ll follow up on senior living and urbanism with several interesting links that recently crossed my desk.

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.

1 comment to Organic urbanism is better for you

  • Jon Schwark

    I agree it isn’t ideal. Development like what is happening in Transbay and Mid-market is inherently more satisfying. But in a situation like this where a large tract becomes available, and it has very little fabric connection to the city, what would you suggest to do differently to combat the issue of having all the buildings built at the same time? You can chop it up and hand it off to different developers but that doesn’t really solve the issue of not having plots to use for reactions and new needs.