Sunday, June 04, 2006

WSJ on New Urbanism

The Wall Street Journal recently had a front page story on New Urbanist downtowns, with a focus on Plano's Legacy Town Center. The bad news is that it's a subscription-only site, but the good news is that it's been reprinted in the Kansas City Star, and you can read it there. The Star version cuts off some of the last paragraphs, but I've included most of them in the excerpts below.

The article is a little cynical in tone, as you can probably tell from the title. It does reflect that New Urbanism has morphed from "a retro-revolution in urban form" to more of an upscale outdoor mall with some trendy lifestyle apartments and condos on top, placed at the center of large tracts of suburbia. Tightly-controlled novelty is winning out over messy authenticity. The article also recognizes the threat New Urbanism poses to the revival of "real" downtowns. Houston seems to be lucky in that regard: downtown is on a good trajectory and successfully co-existing with upscale New Urbanism in both The Woodlands and Sugar Land.

City Lite
Fake Towns Rise,
Offering Urban Life
Without the Grit

Mix of Office, Home and Play
Threatens the Real Thing;
But Where's the Grocery?
Mr. Pettit Dodges 'Riffraff'

Legacy Town Center is one of dozens of faux downtowns popping up across the country, from Kansas City to Washington, D.C., spurred by a demand for urban living scrubbed of the reality of city life. A careful mix of retail, residential and office space built with traditional materials such as stone and brick, Legacy looks like a city but has neither panhandlers nor potholes. Many residents rarely venture even to downtown Dallas, which has been trying to turn itself into place to live for almost a decade.

"There's too much riffraff down there," says Ron Pettit, a 36-year-old contractor, as he snacks on brie and grapes at a table outside Bishop Road's Main Street Bakery and Bistro.

Even though these faux downtowns contain tinges of suburbia, they're taking advantage of a growing backlash against the sprawl that rings Dallas and other U.S. cities. The reaction began in the 1980s with the rise of New Urbanism, a movement of architects and planners calling for a return to traditional towns where people work, shop, live and play.

Among the most prominent of those theorists was Andrés Duany, a leading figure behind Seaside, a planned pedestrian community on the Florida Panhandle that was the setting for the 1998 movie, "The Truman Show." Suburban growth, Mr. Duany argued, was unsustainable because it consumes land at a high rate while creating horrendous traffic.

In the 1990s, Americans started venturing back into cities that had emptied out in prior decades. Basking in the glow of falling crime rates and glamorized by television shows such as "Seinfeld" and "Friends," cities themselves began to woo residential and retail development.

For a developer, however, it's much easier to make a fake city than it is to work on real downtowns with their patchwork landholdings and planning restrictions. The developers of Legacy were able to carve up the land pretty much as they pleased. The result: more than 1,500 apartments and town houses, some 80 shops and restaurants, two mid-rise office towers and a Marriott Hotel.

The concept also attracted developers looking for alternatives to malls, a concept rapidly losing favor among shoppers. Only one mall has opened in 2006, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, a New York City-based trade group. By contrast, more than 60 so-called lifestyle centers -- outdoor shopping areas with plazas, fountains and pedestrian streets -- are planned to open this year and next.

Houston has poured some $4 billion into downtown stadiums, roads and light rail in the past decade. But 27 miles to the north, the Woodlands Town Center has sold out of newly constructed lofts and replica brownstones in the midst of an affluent planned community.

"The question is whether this demand for urban-style living -- density, transportation alternatives, proximity to work -- is broad enough to accommodate the resurgence of traditional downtowns," says Bruce Katz, founder and director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C., think tank.

For many, Legacy provides a sense of community that is lacking at typical suburban apartment complexes. The development is built around a three-acre park, complete with a man-made lake, a destination for runners and dog walkers. In the evening residents gather along Bishop Road, where jazz is piped through speakers beneath mature live oaks. Some live in town homes that sell for more than $400,000. Others are renting studio apartments for about $600 a month.

"It's perfect for someone who doesn't want to come home from work, sit on the couch and watch TV," said Mr. Pettit, the contractor.

On the recent Friday night, couples waited two deep to order Cabernet Sauvignon at $18 a glass at a wine bar called Crú. Up the street, the five-screen Angelika Film Center was showing John Malkovich in "Art School Confidential."

But the most striking thing about Legacy Town Center is what it doesn't have. Like a modern suburb, it has no nearby hardware store. It has no churches or libraries. Nor is Legacy home to many children. The closest public elementary school is three miles away.

Legacy has no public transportation, so almost everyone has a car. Residents who work at corporate headquarters less than a mile away often drive to work because outside of Legacy there are no sidewalks. Residents jump in their cars to run errands at Plano malls and shopping centers as if they lived in a local subdivision.

Jon Stewart, 43, who moved here from suburban Maryland two years ago, says he's happy with the amenities, with one exception: "The only thing lacking is a grocery store."


At 7:27 PM, June 05, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...


From article

"real downtowns with their patchwork landholdings and planning restrictions."

Are we, "The city without zoning", in a better place to not lose out to much to the fake cities in the burbs.

On a similar note, I have a theory that in twenty to thirty years our rail line will be doing much better than in most other places. People will be able to build what they want around the stations(I hope), not what the planners think they should want.

And I think the only valid argument I have ever heard for the rail line is what might happen in twenty to thirty years.

At 9:57 PM, June 05, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think we are in a bit of a better place, although there's still a patchwork of landowners that has to be negotiated by any developer. No matter what, it's always a lot harder than buying 75 acres in the 'burbs and doing a master plan.

Our rail line is already doing better than most places, because it connects so many important destinations in such a short distance. But I agree that it could be amazing in 20-30 years.

At 12:23 AM, June 06, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

unfortunately what might happen in 20 - 30 years is still a gamble


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