New Urbanism Faces Many Hurdles, But Huge Demand Encourages Developers Worthy Challenge

By Maria Siakavellas for Multi-Housing News

NOVEMBER 10, 2003 — From Florida to Virginia to Oregon to California, communities flying the flag of New Urbanism are gradually replacing formulaic multi-housing projects built merely for density’s sake.

But as popular as this design philosophy is becoming with architects and developers, and as much as it is being enthusiastically received by residents and civic officials alike, projects adhering to the principles of New Urbanism are still somewhat rare, for a whole host of reasons.

According to Art Lomenick, managing director of Trammell Crow Co.(TCC), the emerging New Urbanism trend is such an enormous shift in how communities are built and designed that it will take a significant amount of time before it truly establishes itself as the dominant development pattern.

“[The former development methods] are so hardwired into our economy and systems that it is like turning a big oil tanker–it takes a long time,” Lomenick said.

Elizabeth Moule, principal of Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists, and CEO of Meridian Properties, a development company dedicated to New Urbanist infill development, listed a number of factors that are proving prohibitive to private developers interested in developing urbanist communities.

“There are still issues about financing these mixed-use projects because so much of the lending world is oriented around loans for single use,” she said. Moule added that in many areas, local zoning prohibits New Urbanist development: Many post-War zoning codes dictate single-use zones and FAR-generated (floor-area-ratio) density formulas that do not sufficiently allow buildings to positively shape the public realm.

And for some private developers, the time and effort that must be invested in working with municipalities to create well-linked, interconnected and sustainable communities is exhausting. “A few high-profile companies have said they will not be as involved [in New Urbanist communities] because they’ve realized, as a lot of developers have, that a big, master-planned project has got to have municipal leadership to work,” said Lomenick. “It has to be at the city level. It is a very time consuming process, albeit a good one, but it really needs municipalities’ taking the lead, not private developers.”

A number of private developers have attempted to function as master developer. But assuming the broad-based responsibilities that come with managing a large, mixed-use project can be very difficult, especially for development companies used to specializing in one type of project–whether apartment, office or retail.

The task, however, is hardly impossible, and the potential payoffs are enormous for those that succeed. Indeed, TCC is allocating significant manpower and capital to act as master developer on a number of master planned communities that blend office, retail, housing, civic venues and public spaces. In addition, the company has introduced a wholly owned subsidiary, High Street Residential, to orchestrate all residential developments within these New Urbanism communities.

As a result, TCC, in conjunction with High Street Residential, can work with those struggling to juggle all the htmects of a New Urbanist project by operating as a master developer and partner; or a co-developer; or a consultant. “Trammell Crow has definitely taken a big stand on being a supporter and champion of this development pattern,” Lomenick said.

State legislatures, too, are looking for ways to help foster New Urbanism. Some states, such as Florida, have even initiated smart-growth ordinances to influence decisions made by individual municipalities. “The states are telling municipalities: ‘If you want any help from the state, we want New Urbanism,'” Lomenick said.

He added that Austin, Texas has enforced a Smart Growth/New Urbanist zoning overlay throughout the city. The city policy allows for true mixed uses of land on one parcel, while eliminating or discouraging certain non-desirable uses (encouraged uses include retail, office and residential). Developers who take advantage of the overlay can benefit from a streamlined permitting process and reduced permit and developer fees.

Booming Demand

While the process involved in creating New Urbanist communities is laden with obstacles, the huge demand for this style of living all but guarantees that more and more developers will undertake these projects, whatever the challenges.

For example, 73 million Echo Boomers–individuals now between the ages of six and 23–are just beginning their en masse entry into the multi-housing marketplace (and will continue to flood it with tenants for the next 30 years), according to Lend Lease Real Estate Investments’ America’s Real Estate Megatrends for the Decade. And this gigantic demographic group brings a whole new set of expectations and a desire for an urban lifestyle.

“The Echo Boomers are starting to come into focus as a big market force with developers,” said Thomas C. Brink, vice president and senior designer with RTKL Associates Inc., an architecture firm with a New Urbanism focus. “And they seem to have more environmental awareness, and the whole concept of green architecture and green development seems to be a trend that fits into the concept of New Urbanism, which is more finely grained in denser communities so that residents can walk somewhere.”

Today, many urbanist communities are most attractive to singles and childless couples. In many municipalities, the New Urbanist communities lack adequate school systems and so families tend to stay away. “Right now, many urbanist communities don’t have schools to support [families], they don’t have municipal venues, and the overall support system is not there yet,” Lomenick explained.

But when the infrastructure is put in place, as it almost assuredly will be, then families, too, will represent another large pool of New Urbanist renters. For instance, in established urban centers, such as the north side of Chicago, numerous families live in walkable, dense communities because there are parks, retail establishments, schools and churches. “All of the support systems are already in place [in Chicago]. In the newer, younger American cities, such as Dallas or Atlanta, the support system is not yet there, otherwise families would be there in a heartbeat,” Lomenick stated.

Principals’ Principles

The basic tenets of New Urbanism have been extensively publicized, and the essence of the concept is known to many. “New Urbanism is pretty much mainstream knowledge now. You can go from Grand Rapids, Mich. to Los Angeles, and people are going to know the terms associated with New Urbanism,” Lomenick added.

But just because most developers and architects are familiar with the basics, it doesn’t mean they have all the knowledge necessary to execute a successful project. First and foremost, according to some of the most active and expert New Urbanism players, there must be an understanding that the housing component is the ultimate key.

“Whether there is an attachment to retail or an office core, housing is the fabric that serves to stitch these uses together,” said Paris M. Rutherford IV, vice president of RTKL Associates.

For Maurice Walters, principal of Torti Gallas and Partners, an architecture firm known for its New Urbanism expertise, integrating the multi-housing component of an urbanist community is critical to its success. “We’ve done a few [projects] within larger traditional neighborhood developments and to weave them into that neighborhood is important–to continue street grids and make it feel like [the project] fits right into the larger neighborhood so the community becomes the amenity,” Walters said.

And while housing is essential, so is the art and science involved in attaining the right mix of uses. According to Lomenick, the most successful communities, the ones that are truly sustainable, maintain a balance of residential, retail and office, where no one of these uses dominates. “Those are the communities that are sustainable, authentic and will stand the test of time,” he said, adding that a critical mass of residential use is key. “There is a general rule of thumb that you probably want at least 5,000 residents within a walkable range. That is what I would say constitutes a successful project.”

Neighborhoods should also be designed to elicit a sense of diversity. Torti Gallas, for example, creates a variety of building types at different price points and styles to accommodate different lifestyles and enhance a sense of community.

In addition, the firm focuses significant attention on allowing residents to participate in the street experience as opposed to isolating them within corridors and behind gates. “We try to give everyone a sense of individual participation in the street as much as possible. We give them doors that open onto the street, porches that face the street–so they have an address and a sense of living within a community,” Walters said.

Studies in Success

Torti Gallas has worked on a number of urbanist projects as of late; the firm recently designed three such communities on behalf of Pritzker Realty Group. In the Centergate at King Farm, a 578-unit transit-oriented development, Torti Gallas combined a mix of high- and low-density apartment units in a traditional neighborhood design. Buildings there front the streets as townhouses and Charleston Houses (triplex, three-story units), Manor Houses (three-story, nine-unit corner structures) and garden apartments.

The neighborhood is part of the larger, master-planned community of King Farm in Rockville, Md., for which Torti Gallas acted as town planner. The 440-acre community houses a total of 3,200 residential units, 3.17 million square feet of office space and 125,000 square feet of retail space. King Farm was designed to encourage street activity, use of multiple forms of transportation (pedestrian, bicycle, automobiles, buses, light rail), reduced dependency on the automobile, coherent streetscapes and emphasis on open space.

The Centergate at Celebration in Orlando, Fla., part of Disney’s master-planned town, incorporates a variety of building types on a 50-acre site. “We created a neighborhood there with a network of streets and six different building types for different lifestyles and price points,” Walters said. “Overlaid on that were four architectural styles to give the community diversity.”

Most recently, Torti Gallas designed the Baldwin Park Town Center on the site of the former Orlando Naval Training Center. The project consists of two components: A 55-acre site comprised of 1,200 housing units; and the Town Center containing 300,000 square feet of retail and another 1,200 units, including for-sale, loft, rental, townhouse and manor house units.

“Baldwin Park was quite innovative and it did break down the barriers: There are single-family for-sale homes and apartments side by side,” Walters said. “Within other projects, you’d have to cross a street and enter either a rental or for-sale community. [Here], for-sale and rental are integrated on the same block.”

For RTKL, one of the most significant urbanist projects has been Addison Circle in Addison, Texas. The 120-acre district was once little more than a cotton field. But in the early 1990s, with plenty of tax revenue at hand, the Addison community envisioned the idea of a neighborhood core and a venue to host various special events.

“Out of that was born the idea of a town center, which was primarily multifamily, because the community had a secondary goal of building their nighttime population, since there were nearby day workers but not a lot of residents,” said Rutherford. “It was about bringing smart density to one of the last remaining large parcels of undeveloped land in north Texas.”

RTKL designed a high-density, mixed-use urban residential district to support 3,500 residential units and up to four million square feet of office, hotel and retail space. The 4.3-mile Addison Circle now boasts approximately 1,350 residential units, over a dozen hotels, nearly 150 restaurants and various entertainment options.

And the town is still growing. “Having this 120-acre master plan has been a great roadmap for the town. Just two weeks ago they inaugurated a $7 million park that will be the third public park the city has paid for and which is surrounded by multifamily units,” said Brink. “Now we are onto planning the fourth phase, which includes a small 1.4-acre park where the city and the developer are working hand-in-hand designing the multifamily component and the park.”

Story reproduced here courtesy of Multi-Housing News