NU Council VIII pg. 3

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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Nathan Norris on The Waters

Nathan Norris presented on the Waters Development located in the sprawling outskirts of Montgomery. The development process saw many challenges and ultimately led to many failures in implementing new urbanist ideals. From the outset, owners and developers of the project lived far outside of the city and could not understand why other people may not want to live as far out. The owners actually had no basis for the location of the development and developers did not understand the mixed-use dynamic. The 200-acre lake “would’ve been built for cows in all that you needed to do was put in a berm.” The failures in execution abounded: there were no front entrances for residences, two-story residential suites were maintained instead of the more appropriate single-story units, there was no dignified entrance, the price point was wrong, there was never agreement on what the landscape should look like, the hydrology was incorrectly predicted, planting strips were too narrow, and the lots were too shallow. The result? Good intentions, but loan defaults and a whole lot of mud.

Scott Polikov on Harnessing Form-Based Codes as Development and Investment Tool

Texas planner Scott Polikov presented an aggressive big picture proposition: leverage a form-based code as the equivalent of a master developer and guarantor of long-term predictability in an otherwise unpredictable economic environment. Presenting an example of a project in Roanoke, Texas, Polikov demonstrated the potential for long-term returns on mixed-use development guided by FBCs. By promoting small-scale, incremental development, a community can take advantage of existing successes adjacent to new development. The risk of investment is lower because it is spread over many uses; the FBC provides predictability and market analytics. This is a return to the traditional model of investing in infrastructure based on the performance of the surrounding real estate. Rail systems can also be used as an excuse to reinvent urbanism throughout the entire transect. Rail will not drive all development, but it will spark talk about development in neighborhood-level increments.

Form-based code can act as land bank mechanism when feedback is received on a block-by-block basis. Polikov stresses, “You have to be talking about the numbers at the onset, not the design. Politicians don't care to see [the project] through, as they will be gone by time development comes through. They want numbers.”

Banks care about FBCs too, due to better returns and predictability. Development agreement and fiscal arrangement are essential to keeping check on city council changes. Polikov suggests a checklist for underwriters and cities for FBC application.

John Norquist Keynote Address on Live/Work/Walk: Removing Obstacles to Investment

The American dream of owning a home, whether rich or not, was created when FDR signed the bill creating the Federal Housing Administration. From the outset, the bill made the banking industry nervous. Sen. Walter George, Chairman of Banking Committee, insisted the FHA have a number of restrictions to prevent the federal government from taking over the banking industry. Restrictions included the allotment of money to residential developments, which eventually evolved into a percentage cap on commercial uses.

The first ten years of the FHA allowed for continued mixed-use, which found financing because there was so much inertia behind the previous policy. Banks looked at the mixing of uses as a way to mitigate risk. Since then, single-use one-story building has predominated.

The only way to deal with this problem within the current framework is an "exceptions process," but there are a lot of developers who want to operate in the marketplace without having to contend with additional layers of bureaucracy to build and deliver mixed-use product. After 78 years of the financing regulations in place, private banks now treat mixed-use as an automatic risk. Norquist noted that of the government hadn't influenced thinking to a point where mixed-use was marginalized, the effect of sprawl would be minimized. Now, even if restrictions were to be lifted, banks need to re-learn mixed-use lending.

CNU is now pushing the Department of Housing and Urban Development and Government-Sponsored Enterprises to raise mixed-use limits to 45%. It would still be tough for developers to build, but it's a step in the right direction. CNU needs to be working in tandem with the agencies, not just attacking Fannie, Freddie and other federal agencies. CNU has a record of inserting itself into the system to get things accomplished though. By getting rid of the functional classification system and using ITE, CNU inserts itself into the world of DoTs. Now is the time to do the same for financing so the market can deliver good affordable housing and the access to urbanism that people increasingly demand.

NU Council Discussion: Eliza Harris on NextGen

Eliza Harris kicked off this discussion regarding the role of NextGen within CNU. Harris said that most members of NextGen eagerly support CNU, but some feel that the organization has stalled. There is balance to be had between youth culture and authority and, right now, it seems the organization seems to be focusing too much on what NextGen may do next.

To some extent, things have gotten more complicated, because there is no single direction in which CNU should go; the organization needs to move in a multiple directions on multiple levels. More focus should be put upon critiquing and fleshing out “incremental urbanism.” Within Tactical Urbanism, there is a dichotomy between tactics and strategy. Strategy entails getting people excited about urbanism.

NextGen thinks of the next increment; whereas the older people are thinking of the next lot or block. Action vs. product. CNU should seize the opportunity to redefine the underlying structure and then create consistency in projects based on that underlying structure. There ought to be tension between NextGen and the broader CNU to push urbanism forward. New generations cannot be allowed to ossify. The tension is needed in order to win social justice, social economy, and environmental harmony.

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