In a shrunken economy, small opportunities loom larger

At the beginning of April, I attended a surprisingly cheerful gathering of the underemployed, otherwise known as the 2009 conference of the Congress for New Urbanism’s New England Chapter. One-hundred-thirty new urbanists traveled to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, for talks and touring. They gave the impression of being in an almost universal good mood. Yet it was clear that the grim economy was never far from their minds. When I asked people what they were working on, often they replied that their work had become minimal or nonexistent. I asked an experienced development and planning attorney about his practice; he replied that two days earlier his law firm had laid him off. Then James Howard Kunstler took the floor of a Market Street meeting room. In a characteristically blunt and caustic lecture, the author of The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency asserted that new urbanists will not be returning to the pre-recession practice of designing and building extensive greenfield developments. The era of projects that cover a couple of hundred acres or more — “it’s over,” Kunstler thundered. Kunstler contends that the problem of “peak oil,” which he has been speaking about for the past four years, is compounded and complicated by the financial industry’s collapse. Because of a fearsome combination of limited or high-priced energy, reduced financial capacity, and climate change, the previous scale of development will be out of reach, Kunstler predicts. “The action is going to shift to the smaller cities” and to smaller increments of development. Overlooked infill sites What struck me during the Portsmouth conference was that Kunstler was not the only person forecasting smaller undertakings. Donald Powers, head of the 13-person Donald Powers Architects in Providence, Rhode Island, told the gathering that he’s begun searching for overlooked sites in existing communities, where he can build clusters of new housing or mixed-use development. Powers found his first such site last October in East Greenwich, Rhode Island, just two blocks from his home. He approached a developer about teaming up to create a cottage neighborhood with 14 small new dwellings and one renovated house. The compact mix of single-family houses, duplexes, and one triplex could achieve a density of 16 units an acre on a piece of land measuring about 180 by 200 feet. Powers’s Greene Street cottages promise to be fairly low — no more than two stories — and cozy-looking (see images on page 20). As a result, the neighbors have not objected. They would have resisted a taller, bulkier development. The project is now going through approvals and is expected to break ground in September. “I felt it was important to have it built exactly as I designed it, so I essentially forfeited half our architectural fee to guarantee that I would have a place at the table” as part-owner, Powers told me. Jon Ford at Morris Beacon Design is incorporating rain gardens and other green techniques into the site design. Many more opportunities like this are waiting to be grasped by new urbanists. “There must be two dozen sites from Providence to my town [10 miles to the south], but they fall under the radar,” Powers says. “I think the sophisticated developers just don’t look to something that small.” Powers is not ready to endorse Kunstler’s contention that large greenfield development will be eliminated, but he agrees that difficult financing will make such projects rarer. Small projects such as cottage clusters and pocket neighborhoods are now, Powers says, ‘the only scale at which the potential to privately finance development exists.” He notes their urbanistic advantage: “That’s a better increment for building cities.” “The Eastern seaboard is full of these leftover sites which are seen as too small,” Powers says. “They’re sitting there, waiting to be resurrected.” If they turn out to be an important part of New Urbanism’s future, that will be one benefit of the crisis in which most of us are now caught.
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