Get your multifamily into a walkable town center
One obvious yet undervalued ingredient of an effective mixed-use town center is the residential component. To emphasize its importance, I would go as far as to say that it is actually the substrate on which a healthy mixed-use environment is based. In a healthy, balanced region, with the exception of noxious uses, no land uses are set aside as a single use and all are integrated into a walkable neighborhood.
Whether your focus is a regional shopping destination or an employment center, the residential component is what makes it truly mixed-use, walkable and regionally responsive. And just like hotels and shops, the market for multi-family is limited so it is important to direct them to the place that best supports your municipality’s vision. Even at the most basic level, a pod of multifamily units placed outside the proximity of walkable employment and shopping is a wasteful missed opportunity for everyone involved. Consider a few of the key advantages for locating residential in your walkable Town Center:
• Walkable choice: Even if your residential is not vertically mixed, having the choice of shopping and employment in walkable proximity adds tremendous value for residents and is essential for the young, old, and others who are unable to drive.
• Trip reduction: It is estimated that every home generates 7-10+ vehicle trips per day in conventional automobile-focused suburbia. When you concentrate these homes into pods, you exacerbate the problem. Worse, many of the local car trips will probably require the use of a regional arterial or state highway, needlessly adding local traffic to regional commutes. Proximity to the needs of daily life within the context of walkable, mixed-use urbanism means not only that residents have the choice to walk, but also means that when there is a car trip it can be made by a direct internal route to the destination.
• A 24-hour population: Now a cliche, having “eyes on the street” is an obvious boon for including residences in your mixed-use center. It also generates street life when your commercial uses wind down for the day.
• A built-In market: Retailers often value locations on major intersections based on the amount of drive-by traffic. Integrating residential adds to valuable “foot traffic” and creates a built-in, persistent market for retail and commercial uses.
• True transit support: You know the pathetic shuttle-bus station next to the apartment complex that comes every 1/2 hour or hour? By concentrating a variety of uses within a walkable town center, you give reason for more transit routes, more frequently, and with better facilities. Add fixed rail and you are the envy of those commuters stuck in traffic just to pay for the joy of parking downtown, or the poor sods whose pub shed requires them to find a designated driver every time they want to get a couple of pints.
Last week, Howard made some important distinctions on how mixed-use is defined. There are many ways to integrate residences into a walkable town center and, as Howard points out, we too often focus on vertical mixed use (flats over shops) at the marginalization of horizontal integration. As it relates to walkable town centers, I’ll discuss two important distinctions: vertical versus horizontal mixed use. And, the incremental, fine-grained town center versus the large-scale mixed-use project.
Horizontal vs. vertical mixed-use: Like many people, I love California. As a western-based urbanist, I often point to California for a number of great precedents. One of my favorites is the proliferation of great, walkable one-story main streets (such as Solano Avenue in Berkeley, Fern Street in San Diego, or La Jolla Boulevard in Bird Rock) that are backed by high density residential neighborhoods just around the corner. The point is that you don’t have to have your residences above your shops to have a vital town center. My recommendation is not to force the hand of the market, but rather entitle your town center for vertical mixed-use — allowing one story commercial, and ensuring you have entitled a base-line of multifamily residential in near proximity along a walkable network of streets.
Fine grained town center versus the large-scale mixed-use project: Now, this isn’t meant to promote one over the other, or even as a critical comparison. Rather, it is to recognize that these two models function very similarly in all the virtues I have described above, but are two very different beasts. As we emerge into increasingly austere times and a very different marketplace from the last several decades, it is important to understand the nature of each.
The first is the “fine-grained town center.” Best associated with traditional downtowns and historic main streets, these are places of intense variety often made possible from a variety of lot sizes and a range of tenants, builders, and property owners. Property lines are frequent and lots are relatively small. While characteristic of traditional main streets, they are also representative of those new urbanist projects that have been lovingly designed and painstakingly implemented by dedicated, idealistic property owners. In most cases, the idea of a walkable town center started with the property owner who then had to wrestle the local municipality and its outdated development standards. While Seaside sits prominently on this list, there are dozens that fit the bill. Residential uses in these environments are often custom building types on small lots with a high degree of architectural attention and craftsmanship.
One of my favorite precedents is Habersham in South Carolina by DPZ & Co. and the Habersham Land Company (shown above). Located in the middle of nowhere, in a modest economy, and in a location with predominantly low-cost single family homes, Habersham has quietly grown out of the low country swamp to become a fantastic mixed-use, walkable village. The block shown above has it all: Vertically mixed-use live/works with residences over commercial, a variety of row houses, and small apartment houses lining the regional roadway. An example of fine-grained incremental urbanism, Habersham is an important model for the future where large development loans are becoming scarce as the market continues to shift toward walkable mixed-use environments. Some important lessons demonstrated here are:
• Subdivide your town center into small increments to allow for a variety of building types, sizes, and ownership structures. Large lots with limited zoning are market sensitive and can sterilize your town center as they wait to be constructed.
• Block structure is important: It is block structure that creates an environment that allows multiple incomes, land uses, and building sizes to coexist and build value for your town center.
• Flexible Zoning: Adopt flexible, form-based regulations that are market-responsive while ensuring clear block structure and street orientation for walkability.
The second category is the ”large-scale mixed-use project,” usually characterized by large land holdings where a master developer hires a large, capable architectural firm to build major pieces of a town center as part of a large development investment. While sometimes it is the wish of the master developer to make such a centre, it is more commonly a municipal vision seeking to rearrange its dysfunctional, disconnected land uses into a walkable place. This is particularly true of apartment developers who are just fine with the simplicity of a 7-acre pod to do their thing. The differences are not just the players, but are really a question of scale. Where Habersham subdivided 20′ lots for individuals to invest in small scale vertically mixed live/work units, the large scale project might build a 200′ wide building with national stores on the bottom and condominiums above. Where Habersham builds two modest apartment houses that are completely unique to the market, the large scale project modernizes the garden apartment complex into a series of standard, street-oriented building footprints arranged on a coherent block structure within walkable proximity of the mixed-use main street. The clubhouse may serve as a “civic building” terminating an important street into the apartments.
One of my favourite precedents of a large-scale mixed-use project is Belmar in Colorado. Belmar marks the transformation of the dead, outdated Villa Italia mall into a dynamic mixed-use town center. There are single-story commercial buildings, large-format stores and theaters, parking garages, vertically mixed use buildings, all within walkable proximity of a range of multifamily buildings. The mixed-use buildings are fairly large with national tenants on the first story that you may otherwise find in a mall, with 2-3 stories of residential condos above. The nearby multifamily ranges from mid-rise apartments on a square to multi-family apartment complexes arranged on walkable streets. In this regard I have also included another Colorado neighborhood located in Westminster called Bradburn, that demonstrates a competent apartment complex sorted into a network of walkable streets and the clubhouse serving as a “civic building” at the terminus of an avenue. Some important lessons here include:
• Even though you’re doing big stuff, subdivide small to allow for incremental redevelopment, and for market flexibility should you choose to develop more incrementally or allow smaller builders into the mix.
• A few competently designed mixed-use buildings at 150′ and more width are okay, but can sterilize and overwhelm the character of your town center. Allow a few of these, but also require buildings to divide facades into distinct, vertically proportioned increments to add texture and interest. The same goes for height.
• Find out what your apartment developers need, and then show them how it can be achieved in an urban format. Reconceptualize the parking lanes that ring typical apartment complexes into real streets that are “addresses” for their enfronting buildings. Consider having visitor and extra parking “on-street” with dedicated, assigned parking or tuck-under parking within the block. To make the numbers work, you may have to take the streets into account, where they would otherwise be building parking lanes.
• Through in some row-houses/live-work parcels to create interest and test multiple markets. This also builds-in authentic variety.
While walkable mixed use town centers may not be the *easy* choice for the asphalt guy, the engineer, or even the developer who has to attract tenants to an environment they may not be as used to… they are certainly becoming best practices for sustainable community development. More importantly, they are quickly becoming a market favorite and a valuable amenity to their adjacent (and integrated) residential neighborhoods. Too often, however, municipalities and developers choose only to commit to this model halfway, viewing it as a niche market with limited potential where quaint mom and pops struggle away (you know, that one-off new urbanist development at the edge of town), while the “real stuff” happens in large conventional single-use centers down the street.
This lack of commitment allows many of the essential ingredients of a successful walkable town center to get sucked into car-focused single-use centers (the easy place to put them) so that everyone can make excuses as to why the poor mixed use village struggles and we still have to do the conventional stuff until oil hits $10 a gallon.
In this series, I make the case for getting those ingredients out of single-use districts and into walkable, mixed-use town centers. While this may challenge some who think they’ve done their green duty with their one-off TND development down the street, my hope is that it will help make the more important case for focusing our limited economic energies onto places of enduring value, rather than continuing on the big race-to-the-bottom that is the big-box shopping center.
Geoff Dyer is a principal and urban designer with Placemakers, a planning, coding, marketing, and implementation firm. This article was also published on PlaceShakers and NewsMakers.
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