The Other Kind of New Urbanism

14 thoughts on “The Other Kind of New Urbanism”

  1. This very near home, I am here almost daily. Gold Rush Cafe in the middle of it. They should remove a row of parking in front and replace with patios. Only 3-4 non-food/drink businesses in the whole strip.

  2. This post could have been about Austin. When I moved here a little over a year ago, I thought “this place has the most chic suburbia I’ve ever seen”–and very little that isn’t suburban (at least in terms of urban form). In many parts of Austin (at least the cool-kid areas) you see the exact same kind of businesses that you would see in Brooklyn or San Francisco or Chicago, but placed in single-story strip malls rather than in the ground-floor storefronts of mixed-use buildings lining neighborhood main streets.

    What do you think, fellow commenters–is this a Texas thing? Southwestern thing? Or is it pretty much all over the country at this point?

    1. American suburbs are the first iteration of a much longer process of urbanism. Remember, most suburbs are only as old as a retirement age human. Tract homes and strip malls are the log cabins and sod huts that come first. Over many more generations the successful places will flesh out incrementally and become more productive and intense. The unsuccessful suburbs will devolve to a simpler form – perhaps a return to agriculture in fertile places or abandonment in places with no natural or economic reason to exist.

    2. I think it’s a Southern thing, for sure — I can think of similar areas in Raleigh, Atlanta, and even Orlando. Like Johnny says, it’s not as likely to happen in places that already have more extensive walkable urban areas to revive (i.e., postindustrial Rust Belt cities). But yeah, Austin is the best at this kind of thing, of anyplace I’ve visited.

    3. I don’t know about the rest of the country, but it’s definitely a Tucson thing. When I first moved here from Brooklyn I thought the strip mall- independent business combo was really strange but I’ve grown to love finding wonderful gems mixed in with everything else.

    4. Yes I was just thinking the same thing! As much as I hate Austin’s auto dependency, there is unique and surprisingly beautiful about our repurposed mid-century strip malls, where cyclists, pedestrians, and cars interact in this chaotic ballet. My favorite examples are Guadalupe north of campus and of course North Loop. I think in Austin this is a result of our huge creative population and Austin’s complete lack of a truly urban built stock (and of course our land use code, which makes building more urban forms very difficult.) I have noticed that most of the strip malls that get repurposed by young creative entrepreneurs tend to be in areas that at least have a decently connected street grid, along roads that are somewhat narrow and not completely off-putting to the pedestrian. Also, the strip malls that get repurposed tend to be behind a row or two of parking (not a sea of parking) so they at least maintain some relationship to the street. Also, I think you see this happening frequently in Austin because the new mixed-use buildings tend to be unaffordable for independently owned businesses just getting off the ground. Older building stock is necessary to support businesses which are long on ideas but short on capital, and unfortunately for Austin, most of the aged building stock comes in the form of strip malls. To answer your question, I have seen this trend play out in Nashville (12 South in particular) and Denton, TX (“The next Austin”). As I mentioned earlier, my observation has been that the strip malls which get repurposed tend to be more human scale and are more likely to have been built in the 50s or 60s than the 80s or 90s.

      Here’s a scene from 12 South:
      https://www.google.com/maps/@36.1212896,-86.7904138,3a,75y,117.38h,91.98t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1swDQd_Vmx7caY4HQ0ZZfgfQ!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!6m1!1e1

      Here’s a hip music venue in Denton:
      https://www.google.com/maps/@33.21421,-97.1302403,3a,75y,117.13h,92.63t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sOmhT7TfQMMF-hcBDuDba7w!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

      1. Great examples in both Nashville and Denton. The thing all these places have in common (as you point out) is a finer grained street network and smaller older more affordable building stock. These are the neighborhoods embedded in the larger metroplex that have the most chance of being reinvented and repopulated as walkable mixed use town centers in the future. Incremental urbanism is key, as is a willingness of regulators to get out of the way. The new infill buildings I see in both locations are great, as are the repurposed older ones. These neighborhoods have the perfect combination of modest detached homes with gardens for families near funky shops and “third places”. If the local schools are respectable they’re golden. If not, they can still become havens for people without children. If enough of these nodes are connected to tolerably efficient non-car transit of some kind (BRT Uber/Lyft, bike lanes…) the package is complete. I tend to caution agains “Economic Big Game Hunting” where a town puts out an RFP for mega projects that transform a place all at once with the “Texas Doughnut” apartment complexes with 4,700 structured parking spaces and blank concrete walls on the street. A little of that is tolerable, but if that’s all there is, you might as well not bother.

        1. Yeah, unfortunately we’re getting a lot of massive Texas Doughnuts in Austin. I live in a double doughnut that is wrapped around two parking garages and is easily a tenth of a mile long Texas Doughnuts w/ground floor retail seem to be the easiest way to do mixed use in Austin while meeting parking minimums and maxing out entitlements. We have been seeing modified Texas Doughnuts with much more interesting architecture and configurations, with a greater emphasis on the retail section. It’s still not great (I would prefer to see something more human scale but equally as dense), but it’s a big improvement over the standard Doughnut. Here is an example, the Lamar Union project: https://www.google.com/maps/@30.2552595,-97.7619598,3a,75y,333.67h,90.46t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1s9Pjs4UBGRFBrUGWx6z65Ug!2e0!7i13312!8i6656

  3. I find this the most interesting type of urbanism that’s going on out there because it has the most potential to transform the bleak landscape we inherited. In the best case scenario, the end result can be very pleasant. For example, I was down in the Sawtelle Japantown in L.A. recently and the way it’s filled in, bit by bit , gives it a very organic and urbane feel. Of course, few places have the price pressure of coastal California but it shows what’s possible to achieve, in an incremental way without much “input” from City Hall.

    http://www.yelp.com/biz/sawtelle-japantown-los-angeles

  4. I agree that this is likely to be the primary way for new urbanism/traditional town development to proceed. But there will have to be a zoning reckoning at some point. And while this may work with inner-ring suburbs, there are many places that are completely inaccessible without driving.

    1. I agree. But the mechanisms for change won’t necessarily be the ones we expect. Radically reorganizing zoning and building codes on a large scale is politically challenging. Offering a zoning variance here and there for this or that small project over twenty years is relatively easier.

      The “best” car dependent places will likely continue as they are for a long time – probably because they are invisibly subsidized by far more productive forms of nearby development within the same municipality. The “worst” car dependent places will simply fail and devolve into the new slums with bankrupt local governments. I already see this unfolding in many suburbs. Once that overall economic dynamic is clear to the bean counters at City Hall we’re likely to see more accommodating zoning. Or a whole lot more failure and decline if they don’t cotton on.

      1. The Euclid style use restrictions are the biggest problem here. Organically, the trend is “one house converts to a shop here… one shop converts to a house here”. One single-family house converts to a multi-family co-op. Whatever. But the Euclid style use restrictions strangle attempts to do this and make it very very difficult.

        The built environment is often more flexible than it appears. Here in Ithaca, NY we have had extremely restrictive historic-building rules since the 1960s, with the result of a building stock practically frozen in amber. But half the offices in downtown are in “houses” now, and I can think of some “commercial strip” buildings outside town which are now residences….

        Ithaca NY is very lucky in that we’ve had very sensible and generous councils and zoning boards over the decades. People just violated the use restrictions, and then asked (after the fact) to have their use legalized, and on the whole it was.

        But there are other cities where the government goes all central-planning fanatic about use restrictions and deploys police with guns and dogs to prevent this sort of organic use change. And those places really really will fail. Hard.

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