Durable Growth, Government

Towns can overbuild more than infrastructure

Kannapolis City Hall

Kannapolis City Hall

In writing about the best moments from CNU 24, the annual gathering of urbanists held in Detroit earlier this year, I quoted Andres Duany on the role of public buildings, “Urbanist codes should cover residential, commercial, and office buildings, but not public buildings.  It’s in public buildings where architects should be free to depict the grandeur of civilization and civic life.”

It’s a lesson that Kannapolis, North Carolina seems to have taken to heart, perhaps too much so and definitively contrary to the urban planning approach espoused by Duany.

Petaluma City Hall

Petaluma City Hall

I’ll start with the backstory.  In the past few days, I’ve returned from an annual vacation I take with two old friends.  Every year, we pick a different region of the country to visit and then lay out a schedule of minor league ballgames to anchor our itinerary.  This year, our destination of choice was Appalachia, with ballgames in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

But evening ballgames aren’t enough to fill our days, so we’ve evolved into a daily routine of country breakfasts, brewpubs, and local sights.

We’re tolerant of each other’s personal interests, so the choice of local sights is usually driven by individual areas of fascination.  This year alone, we toured a pair of Revolutionary War battlegrounds, engaged in an extended conversation with a park ranger on the nuances of firing older artillery, peered through fences at the moldering remains of one of the largest textile mills in the country, and wandered through the Bristol Motor Speedway.

Because of my interests, we take regular tours of downtown cores and nearby environs, looking for evidence of walkability and sidewalk vitality, often in vain.

Thus, we found ourselves about a week ago driving through downtown Kannapolis, North Carolina, 30 miles northeast of Charlotte.  We were in town for an evening ballgame between the Charlestown RiverDogs and the Kannapolis Intimidators.  (If you need to look up the origin of the latter team nickname, you’re not a NASCAR fan.  Heck, I’m not a NASCAR fan and I knew it.)

There were a few Kannapolis few blocks that I liked, with shoulder-to-shoulder buildings tight to the back of sidewalk, but otherwise the development pattern was sparse with the result that even that walkable portion of downtown was devoid of activity.  (The high heat and humidity of a summer afternoon in North Carolina could have also played a role.)

Having seen what we could of walkable urbanism in Kannapolis, we were about to turn around when we came across the first of four incongruously large Greek Revival buildings, seemingly plopped down at random on open land a few blocks beyond downtown.  The first three were research buildings for the University of North Carolina.  The fourth was the Kannapolis City Hall.

Later research found that all four had been based to some extent of the largesse of an heir to the Fieldcrest Cannon (think towels) fortune.  The buildings occupied the site of the former Fieldcrest Cannon textile mill.

As we stopped and considered the four massive and seemingly out-of-place buildings, my feelings were mixed.

To begin, considering solely the buildings, I liked the architecture.  It was solid and predictable, lacking whimsy, but felt comfortable in a paternal, steadfast way.

But I strongly questioned the siting of the buildings, particularly for a city hall.  UNC might have good reasons for large buildings remote from the already thin urban fabric.  But I didn’t think it was how city halls should be sited.  To go back to Duany’s words, if a city hall is to “depict the grandeur of civilization and civic life”, it must be located where people come across it on a daily basis, not on the straggling outskirts of town.

But even more than the siting, I questioned the size of the city hall.  I don’t claim to know the architectural programming for the building, but I know that it serves a town with a population of 44,000.  Compare it to the city hall that serves my town with a population of 59,000.  (Both are pictured above.)

Admittedly, I don’t find much merit in the architecture of my town’s city hall, which always struck me as the result of a city council giving a charity commission to a down-on-his-luck elementary school architect.  Also, there are several administrative functions, including water department, transit, advance planning, economic development, and police, that my town spins off to other locations, but may be housed within the Kannapolis structure.

But even if all those functions were moved downtown and attached to the current city hall in my town, it still wouldn’t come close to the Kannapolis City Hall in size.  And that’s before considering that my town has 15,000 more residents than Kannapolis.

Overall, the feeling was that Kannapolis, using the largesse of the Fieldcrest Cannon heir as a springboard, had built more structure than they truly needed and perhaps more that they could afford to maintain.  StrongTowns often writes about communities that are seduced by capital infusions from higher levels of government or developers to build or to accept ownership of more infrastructure than they can afford to maintain.  It would seem that the same phenomenon could be true for municipal buildings, with the Kannapolis city hall as an example.

And then there’s the $30 million cost of the structure, or almost $700 per resident in a town where I’d guess $700 per person is considered real money, as it is in most places.  Perhaps Kannapolis was in dire needs of new facilities and some expenditure was essential, but $30 million seems excessive in a time when many cities, overburdened by infrastructure, are struggling to remain financially afloat, a fate that may soon come calling on Kannapolis

Also, the city hall siting undermines a goal being pursued by the city, the laudable goal of revitalizing downtown.  The city is acquiring downtown properties with the goal of repositioning them to create a more active urban core, a path that I wish more cities could find a way to follow.  Putting the city hall in that urban core should have been an element of that plan, but somehow wasn’t.

In our short visit, there was no opportunity to chat with municipal officials or local citizens, but I can’t imagine any explanation that would make the siting or size of the new city hall rational.  I departed disheartened.

160725001 Clown found by Curt AldenBefore closing, I’ll give a further flavor of our baseball travels relative to the Kannapolis experience.  One member of the traveling party admitted to being spooked by the new buildings.  If felt to him as the buildings had been dropped haphazardly by aliens, aliens who might still be hanging out nearby.  He was eager to move on.

Another traveler had long acknowledged a fear of clowns, especially ones that appear unexpectedly.

Thus, I could joke for the remainder of the trip about clowns popping out from behind the columns on outsized porticos and be assured of having both of my traveling companions shudder.  It made the last few days of travel quite enjoyable.

When I next write, my subject will be the critical mass for walkable urbanism.  Two articles have recently crossed my desk that touch upon the struggles of isolated projects that are otherwise touted as walkably urban.  To me, the role of critical mass should be obvious to the informed observer, but many seem to miss the point.

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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