Beyond Neo-Victorianism

 Broader Options Needed for the Next Growth Cycle

Investment in commercial development may be in long hibernation, but eventually the pause will create a pent-up demand.  When investment returns, intelligent growth must be informed by practical, organic, time-tested models that work. Here’s one candidate for examination proposed as an alternative to the current model being toyed with by planners and developers nationwide.

Cities, in the first decade of this millennium, seem to be infected with a sort of self-hatred over their city form, looking backward to an imagined “golden era”. The most common notion is to recapture some of the glory of the last great consumerist period, the Victorians.  During this time, from the 1870s to the early 1900s, many American towns and cities were formed around the horse-drawn wagon and the pedestrian. This created cities with enclaves of single-family homes and suburbs that seem quaint and tiny in retrospect to today’s mega-scale subdivisions and eight-lane commercial strips. 

One bible for the neo-Victorians was “Suburban Nation,” a 2000 publication seething with loathing and anger over urban ugliness.  In a noble and earnest effort to repair some of the aesthetic damage, the writers proposed a grand solution. Their goal was essentially to swing the development model back to the era of the streetcar and the alleyway, the era when cars were not dominant form-givers and families lived in higher density and closer proximity.

In the last decade, this movement gained traction with hapless city officials often tired of hearing  nothing from their citizens but complaints over  traffic and congestion.  They embraced the New Urbanist movement which promised to turn the clock back to an era of walkable live-work-play environment of mixed neighborhoods. In the new model, the car would at last be tamed.  

Yet, looking at most of these communities, the past has not created a better future. More often they have created something more like the simulated towns lampooned by “The Truman Show”. These neo-Victorian communities ended up with some of the form of that era, but devoid of employment and sacred space. They also created social schisms of low-wage, in-town employers and high-salary, bedroom community lifestyles marking not the dawn of a new era but the twilight of late capitalism as the service workers commute into New Urbanist villages while the residents commute out.

Meanwhile, planners who believe that practical design solutions and the vast quantity of remnants from the tailfin era are “almost all right” have remained quietly on the sidelines.  This silent retreat, a natural reaction, now puts many good places in jeopardy as the activist planners try to “fix” neighborhoods and districts that were not broken to begin with.  We risk losing some of the important postwar building form that well serves the needs of its users  and, rather than being blacklisted, should be held up as a valid, comparative model for use by developers seeking to build good city form when the pent-up development demand returns.

It is time to hit back.  While Midcentury modern – the era from about 1945 to 1955 – has become a darling style of the interior design world, it has yet to be recognized as a valid model for urban development. For too long, neighborhoods built in this era have been treated poorly by the planning community. Yet this period created a critical transition between the archaic beloved streetcar suburbs and the 1980s commercial car-must-win planning. They provide a valuable, forgotten lesson when the middle class’s newfound prosperity was expressed by low-density, car-oriented mixed-use districts that were still walkable and expressed through their form a certain heroic optimism about the future. 

With building fronts set back just enough for parking, yet still close together to give a pleasant pedestrian scale, these little districts remain abundant in the landscape of our towns and cities – nearly forgotten in the fight over form, perhaps because they are doing just fine.  They were built when everyone was encouraged to get a car, but before the car became a caveman club pounding our suburban form into big box “power centers” and endless, eight-lane superhighways of ever-receding building facades.  These districts were developed before the local hardware store was replaced by Home Depot and many remain intact, thriving, and chock-full of independent business owners.  Many of these are true mixed-use districts – with light industrial, second floor apartments, retail and other uses peacefully coexisting.

In small commercial districts developed in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a balance was struck between the traditional town form and the car, a balance that has been forgotten in the planning war being waged today. This era produced many neighborhoods and districts that are “almost all right”, in the words of noted Philadelphia architect and thinker Robert Venturi, when defending Las Vegas to the prissy academic community.

To go right to a case study, take the Audubon Park Garden District in Orlando, Florida.  Adjacent to Baldwin Park, a Pritzker-funded New-Urbanist darling of 2002, this district is a vintage collection of mixed-use commercial, residential, and industrial buildings constructed in the 1950s.  Set back from the curb approximately 42 feet, the mostly one-story storefronts allow parking in front yet are visible and accessible to pedestrians.  The car is accommodated in the front of the store, making access easy and convenient, yet the pedestrian can walk also from place to place without long, hot trudges.  Drivers see the storefronts.  Scale is preserved.

The architecture, instead of recalling nostalgic, Victorian styles, is influenced by the art deco and populuxe styles of the Truman era, when America was united, self confident, and victorious.  And the businesses reflect an organic mix serving neighborhood needs, their storefronts and facades created by themselves, not by some Master Planner, theming consultant, or fussy formgiving designer.  Here, one finds customers in dialogue with shopkeepers, blue collar and creative class mixed together, a few apartments over their stores, and a localism that has endured for fifty-odd years, largely forgotten because it works.

Places like this three-block district, and others like it, need to be championed.  Decoding just what works here, and how it elegantly accommodates the car and the pedestrian, is critical to counterbalance the coercive impact of the New Urbanist movement and present a working model to future developers. 

When New Urbanism was a fledgling movement, it represented an alternative to car-dominated planning principles, and offered a choice where there previously was none.  Today, the rhetoric of this movement has sadly forced out all other choices and emphasized one form – that of the streetcar era – over all other forms.  The divisiveness of this movement shuts out all other choices today, and now threatens places like Audubon Park with its myopic, authoritarian vision by sending in planners to “workshop” an ideal, Victorian makeover.  Such actions, if implemented, will destroy the healthy, functioning connective tissue that makes up vast portions of our urban environment for the sake of a romantic notion of form over substance.

Instead of enforced, and often overpriced, nostalgia, we would do better to seek out districts planned after the car and have worked through time, and hold them up as valid choices to implement when planners are considering a development.  These districts, whether a single building, a collection, or a whole community, will become important models as the pendulum swings back from the extremes that it reached by 2007 and 2008. 

For too long, planners and developers have chosen to be silent in the face of the often strident rhetoric espoused by “smart growth” and New Urbanist ideologues. Meanwhile, a tough analysis of New Urbanism’s successes has yet to be seriously undertaken, nor has an alternative model been presented.  Cities across the nation are considering a move to form-based codes which would lock out districts like Audubon Park and doom existing ones to Victorian makeovers. Useful, diverse and workable places will be destroyed to fit a “one size fits all” ideology.

So before midcentury modern becomes just another furniture style, a window of opportunity exists to fight back.  These kind of districts dot the cities and towns of America and deserve to be held up as alternative models for new development.  Instead of a dogmatic slavishness to nostalgia, planners and developers need to stand up to the preachers of preapproved form, and look for multiple solutions for future urban form. Smart growth should not supersede the arrival of a more flexible, diverse approach of intelligent growth.

 This article originally appeared in The New Geography on January 11, 2010.

Florida’s Jobs Summit

Florida’s  era of hard times continues. In January, we held a    “Jobs Summit ”  here in Orlando but heard little but self-congratulation by politicians like Governor Charlie Crist.  He praised the Legislature’s budget cuts but had little to claim when it came to reviving the economy.

The basic reality is this: Florida is not only troubled, but in danger of falling further behind. For example, Suntech China, a solar cell manufacturer, recently worked with the State of Florida to build a solar cell manufacturing plant – in Arizona.  Thanks to Florida’s unconvincing efforts, this employer decided to call Arizona its new home.

The television and movie industry is rapidly expanding out of California into states like New York, Louisiana and New Mexico, thanks to incentives by these states to attract film and TV producers.  Florida, with MGM, Universal Studios, Full Sail, and other venues, remains stagnant in this industry.

While Central Florida is one of the country’s top ten “super regions” of population clusters, it consistently fails to get on the national stage regarding transportation, employment, and return on its federal tax money.  For every dollar of income tax sent by Central Florida citizens each year, far less than a dollar comes back in terms of federal spending.  Other states, like New Mexico and Alaska, receive our portion of that dollar.

Publicly funded capital improvement projects, such as Nemours Hospital, continue to be awarded to out-of-state companies, leaving companies here in Florida, already reeling from the collapse of the real estate bubble, in even worse shape.

Florida, which has little onshore energy resources such as oil or gas, has offshore energy resources that could pump billions of dollars into its coffers.  Instead the riches of the Gulf are being exploited by Texas, Louisana, and Alabama.

Florida, the “Sunshine State,” with vast solar and agricultural potential, has no renewable energy policy.  Instead, biofuel and solar research leadership seems headed to Michigan, California and other states.

Florida has yet to create a policy of sustainability at a statewide level.  Instead, the state relies on growth, tourism, and agriculture for employment, hardly a sustainable policy given the catastrophe of 2009.

While statewide unemployment is over 11%, labeled “Great Recession” by the press, those in the design and construction industry face unemployment estimates between 25% and 33%, levels matching that of the Great Depression.

Nor are politics in our favor, even though Florida, reversing its generally conservative past, cast its lot with Obama in 2008. But now the promises of  Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in return for the State’s  funding of commuter rail seem to be largely forsaken.   During the Jobs summit, Obama’s railroad czar Joseph Szabo assured Florida that its priority would be yielded to Illinois.  High-speed rail in Florida is unlikely in our lifetime.  Chicago is simply more important than Orlando in today’s politics.

So here’ another  confirmation of Florida’s status as a contender – left at the altar yet again.

Clearly Florida is not yet a basket case.   With the right help from Tallahassee, Florida can reinvent itself and take advantage of the following natural assets:

Sunshine still can bring talent and jobs.  Sure, we are behind right now, but sunshine brought jobs before WW2 when Florida was ahead in aviation training.  The mild climate is far more forgiving on student pilots than places where harsh winters ground light aircraft.

Suntech should serve as Florida’s Pearl Harbor.  Sure, we lost one solar cell manufacturer, but that technology is barely efficient enough to be viable.  Florida could take advantage of this failure to revamp its poor growth management process, which was the reason for the failure to begin with, and actively seek out the best candidate for research and development of photovoltaic technology that would compete with Suntech and win.

Deregulate Power Generation:  The Sunshine State should be a net energy producer, not consumer.  We could build a conduit to supply energy, through solar fields, up into the Southeast, as well as down into the Caribbean.  There is a rather large island in need of vast amounts of clean power 90 miles away that will need this someday soon.

Agricultural jobs.  The state emergency declared as a result of the freeze should be a wakeup call to assist agriculture with some new ideas.  Rather than sell dead orange groves out to developers, Florida should assist farmers to convert a portion of cropland to power generation, using solar collectors, photovoltaics, and biofuel crops.

Media:  This is a no-brainer for jobs.  The  movie industry grew in California because of the climate but is unionized and regulated to death.  It’s time for Florida to compete.  The next wave of entertainment culture is interactive virtual reality anyway, and the center of this activity has yet to be established.  Florida could become a virtual reality technopole if it attracts the right players and provides the right resources.

Transportation and the National Stage:  For too long, Florida’s congressional delegation seems to have labored in the background, and Florida sends too few effective people to Washington .  As a state made up of people escaping hard reality up north, we seem to have taken our “live and let live” beach culture too far and it has cost us credibility, capital, and clout.  It’s time to reverse this trend and get passionate about our worth as a state and our contribution to America in items that matter.  As a destination, Florida must rank much higher than Illinois for travel, and high speed rail should be awarded based on need rather than political favoritism.

Meanwhile, growth and tourism will come back.  They always do.  And Florida, instead of losing designers to its competition, could find ways to retain them for the next generation of entertainment and leisure destinations.  Housing, presently overbuilt, shouldn’t be ignored, but  Florida has much to fix in terms of the quality of housing.  Public/private partnerships to increase quality of life over quantity are necessary to make housing attractive and affordable and create quality, desireable communities for the 21st century[JK2] .

Florida is truly at a crossroads.  For the last hundred and sixty five years it relied on agriculture, growth, and tourism, but these narrow economic bands perpetuate cyclical booms and busts.  Fundamental change can occur if the state’s leadership declares war on business as usual and hits the reset button.  Aviation, energy policy, the digital revolution and virtual media were points hammered home over and over again by the citizens to the leadership at this Jobs Summit; and for the state’s native jobs in growth and tourism, getting nimbler and more progressive are necessary to stay competitive when the economy does return.  For those who want to stick it out and see Florida through this economic transition, it is imperative that the leadership respond now with action, and not with words, that effectuate true, deep, and meaningful change.

The original article appeared in The New Geography on January 21, 2010.

Knight Residence

Currently under construction.  The Knight residence is a sensitive 1980s interpretation of a classic Florida farmhouse, and the addition respects the original architecture.  The addition comprises a 738 SF suite for parents, and includes recycled materials, highly efficient HVAC system, and foamed insulation products.

       

Energy efficient design features of vernacular Florida architecture include deep overhangs (3’); suspended floor; N-S solar orientation, and a semi-detached kitchen.  The addition respected all these principles and followed LEED best practices.

Washington Shores Redevelopment

Within minutes of Downtown Orlando’s Creative Village, the 1948 Washington Shores Shopping Center will receive a strategic insertion of a 2-story business incubator powered by photovoltaics.  The shopping center’s original canopy was hurricaned, and will be replaced by a green-roof solution that provides much-needed shade and color on this south-facing storefront.

Energy Efficient Remodeling for Homeowners and Builders

The United States Green Building Council (USGBC) Orlando Chapter is presenting Energy Efficient Remodeling for Homeowners and Builders at OUC Plaza Downtown Orlando beginning at 5:30pm Tuesday evening.  Richard Reep will be on the panel of experts to review the latest strategies for energy efficient residential construction.

“The homeowner’s vested interest in energy efficiency is clear, because the same person paying for construction will usually also be paying the power bill,” stated Richard Reep.  “Unlike the commercial market, where ownership, use, and tenancy is fragmented, the homeowner benefits greatly from energy-efficient construction measures.”

Mr. Reep will detail a case study of a recent residential project incorporating design strategies and technology to reduce energy efficiency and increase the long-term environmental value that the home contributes. As President-Elect of the Orlando chapter of the American Institute of Architects, Mr. Reep’s participation in the panel brings the architect’s perspective to the discussion.

For more information on this event, click on http://www.aiaorlando.com/weeklynews/2010/01-29/usgbc-central-florida-chapter-event-020210.shtml.