NU Council VII pg. 2

In October 2011, the city of Montgomery, Alabama played host to CNU's New Urban Council VIII. A contingent of over 50 dedicated New Urbanists convened to examine the state and shape of New Urbanism to come. The successes and failures of past projects - and the potential of future initiatives to improve the quality of the built environment - were explored through lectures and in a give-and-take format. Through project critiques (such as Victor Dover on DKP's Downtown Montgomery Plan and Nathan Norris on The Waters), an assessment on Sprawl Retrofit from Ellen-Dunham Jones, a discussion led by Todd Zimmerman on the emerging demographic collision between the baby boomers’ and millennials' demand for urban environments, and a presentation on harnessing form-based coding as an economic development tool by Scott Polikov, the council provided a forum for dissecting CNU's progress.

The setting of Montgomery allowed participants to experience some of the positive developments currently happening in the historic city, including a tour of the DPZ-designed community Hampstead, a riverboat cruise, and a special farm-to-table dinner at the Hampstead Institute Downtown Farm.

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Ellen Dunham-Jones on Sprawl Retrofit

Ellen Dunham-Jones addressed the problem of sprawl by suggesting suburbs be turned into models of sustainability through individual incremental projects. Most sprawl retrofit projects make suburbia more resilient, but Dunham-Jones asks if this is enough. Small increments work great when walkable infrastructure is already in place, but the biggest challenge is to get the street network into place around existing development. There is a rapidly increasing number of large-scale corridor retrofits underway, but it is still difficult to assess their scalability. The first generation of retrofits looks like an urban/suburban hybrid. Now the problem becomes an incremental increase of infrastructure to achieve an economy of scale.

Dunham-Jones suggests three strategies for retrofit: re-inhabitation by creating inexpensive space for community-based uses; re-greening by salvaging ecosystems, sequestering carbon, and finding more local sources of food and energy; and redevelopment by urbanizing and placemaking in context. If there is a market in which no development is on the horizon, there should still be a framework for implementing the strategies that allow for building out when the market recovers.

The one way to understand urban morphologies is to look at the "tissues of a place" by developing a “Retrofittability Index.” By creating manuals and websites outlining how to retrofit, the new urbanist ideals become more accessible to communities-at-large.

Challenges to these initiatives include improving the architectural quality and design of “instant urbanism,” enlivening public spaces by means other than retail, and dealing with zombie subdivisions and PVC farms. These obstacles are surmountable with the right tools. More research on financial performance, health, and environmental impacts, coupled with community outreach and policy change, can make incremental redevelopment increasingly widespread.

NU Council Discussion: Connect. Engage. Vitalize.

In the conversation after the presentation, connectivity was brought up as the main issue. Introducing urbanity into a suburban location is a good idea, but there is serious kickback when parking is threatened. It is possible to bring the ambiance of urbanity to new locations for the millennials who want it, but it is difficult to predict how these changes will affect property values. In addition, the U.S. is already over-retailed. There must be other ways to engage public spaces where retail is not the main social connector. Tactical Urbanism 1.0 needs to be a modular and evolving work.

CNU may own retrofitting suburbia, but the models need to focus on more than 60-year-old mistakes. People in urban places want urbanism; that fight has been won. Now is the time to take the momentum behind cities' growth and make urbanism attractive to people from suburbs.

Another area of focus should be directed towards old, small towns. There are thousands of them with no jobs and no industry, struggling to survive. It is possible to get professionals like CPAs, seamstresses, anyone that can work from home, to form a network of cottage industries. These are strategies that can be very feasible in the current economy if zoning structures are rethought. But first, there must be an established and proven framework for progress.

CNU CEO & President John Norquist refocused the debate: "Let's be careful where we are going to concentrate our efforts; urbanism means different things to different people. We're not going to write off Evansville – about ½ of America is suburbia. Here’s a chance for people to think about urbanism. Sprawl Retrofit is a portal to enter and learn more about urbanism."

Andres Duany on Hampstead

Andres Duany focused on the function of retail in the Hampstead, a community his firm designed on a greenfield site in East Montgomery. Retail as a social condenser is a stated belief; Duany asks what else can play that role. Developers in Hampstead focused on creating a place in which they would want to live. Dwellings there are radically different - space and waste are compacted. In Montgomery, there is a stigma associated with the “small-ening” of the house. A developer must address these preconceptions. Furthermore, bigger and still inexpensive lots are being sold around Hampstead. The recession has left, "the large units so cheap that it is irrational to buy the well-designed stuff." In Hampstead, CNU is working to turn this perception around.

Duany stressed that the most permanent thing planners draw is the street network, not the home. One must design and build the street network intact to allow for NU principles.

A Case Study: The Conversion the A&P Lofts

The A&P Lofts built in the Old Cloverdale section of Montgomery were built in 2005-2006, and accommodated people trying to get away from downtown and shipping areas. The original structure was developed in the late 1800s and became the A&P market, which finally closed in the 1980s. The one-story development transformed the market alongside a neighborhood of art galleries, a gas station, and a restaurant – all in a tiny one-block-area Main Street community.

The transition has been tricky, with market forces colliding on the CNU Charter Award-winning project. Adjacent to mixed-use area of the A&P lofts is a development of detached single-family units. A few of the houses were sold, but when the demand for rental became apparent, the project shifted into leasing. In full, the commercial units maintain a 95% occupancy rate, but the residential side of both the lofts and the detached housing has been struggling with purchase prices still dropping.

A&P Lofts, Old Cloverdale, Montgomery, AL

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