Durable Growth

Promoting fine-grained urbanism

080919003 Harvard BuildingA few years back, I became acquainted with a Sacramento architect who was working as a project manager for a land development company.  Over lunch one day, he told me about selecting architects for conceptual designs on an adjoining pair of sites owned by his company.

The development company focused on less prosperous neighborhoods, trying to spur economic rebirth through well-conceived infill projects and then prospering from the revitalization.

The two parcels were in a neighborhood that had once been prosperous, but had fallen on hard times.   He and his firm were hopeful that the two building projects, which would be on lots for which the previous structures had long been demolished, would help spur better times.

When the project manager and I had lunch, his two architects were just beginning work.  But my lunch companion had made an unusual decision.  He had refused to advise either architect of the other’s identity, so neither knew who was working next door.

The two consulting architects were discomfited by his decision, and perplexed.  They were continuing to argue that the two concepts needed to be prepared in tandem, so the two buildings could work together in harmony.  But the project manager held firm.  He had specified broad parameters for the two buildings, including the height and massing consistent with the zoning code and the developer’s market perceptions, the use of brick for the exterior surface, and the floor elevations for the upper stories.  But he wanted two independent designs, so wouldn’t introduce the two architects.

There was a valid reason for his surprising decision.  His goal was a fine-grained, organic urbanism that would benefit the neighborhood over the long-term.

He perceived a future, perhaps fifty years hence, when one of the buildings might feel dated and worn, while its next-door neighbor, because of a different architectural approach, still retained vitality.  The owner of the less successful building, emboldened by the continued success of his neighbor, would be motivated to invest in a remodel, allowing the neighborhood to bootstrap its way into the future.

The project manager was willing to sacrifice a bit of coherency between the buildings on the day they opened for the long-term economic health of the neighborhood.

This concept of developing in the smallest possible chunks has long been identified as a desirable approach for community economic health.  Jane Jacobs’ described it as “fine-grained” in her masterwork “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.  More recently, and with far fewer credentials, I described it as “organic” in my thoughts on the redevelopment of the former Candlestick Park.

But regardless of the name applied or the credibility of the writer, it’s the right concept for cities.

Unfortunately, cities too often implicitly encourage the reverse.  Infrastructure requirements of the 21st century, which are often transferred from cities to developers in the absence of alternative funding possibilities, force developers to build larger developments to recoup their costs.

To save on architectural fees and to reduce construction costs because it’s cheaper to build the same building twice than to build two different buildings, larger developments tend toward more uniformity.

Permitting processes such as CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) don’t necessarily scale with the project size, but are often less expensive per acre, or per residential unit, for larger projects.

Because the public salivates over the number of construction jobs that could be temporarily created, projects of 20 acres often get public support while the half-acre projects that are likely more important to the long-term health of the community are ignored.

Having a developer intentionally reduce the scale of his projects, making them more fine-grained, was unusual, remarkable, and laudable.

Unfortunately, soon after the project manager and I had lunch, the economy downshifted another gear, the projects were terminated, and the adjoining lots remained vacant, one more gap in a neighborhood that already had too many.

But the idea remained sound.  Whether one calls it fine-grained or organic, small infill projects are the best way for a community to grow.

Next time, I’ll describe the most recent meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat about the possible reuse of the Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds.

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.

Comments are closed.