New England urbanists look for the silver lining in the ‘New Austerity’

Two and a half years after the worst national economic crisis since the Great Depression, many of New England’s architects, builders, and developers are just scraping by. Real estate projects are far from plentiful. Nonetheless, the mood was upbeat at the March 17-18 annual conference of the Congress for New Urbanism’s New England Chapter.

Some of the 125 participants who gathered in downtown New Haven seemed almost to welcome what they described as “the New Austerity.”

With jobs scarce, young people “are much more open to going to many other places than Boston, San Francisco,” and other stars of the urban firmament, said David Dixon, head of urban planning for the Boston design firm Goody, Clancy & Associates. That’s welcome news for smaller urban areas, he suggested. Energetic young adults may settle in some of those smaller cities and start enterprises there.

“People are not going to want to work at business parks at the edge of town,” observed Rod Stevens, an economic development consultant from Bainbridge Island, Washington. “They want access to transit and coffee” — his shorthand for urban amenities.

Many New England communities have old factory complexes that can be reused and refashioned to serve contemporary residents and businesses, Stevens pointed out. In locales where mill buildings of historic character are absent, there are always places — even if they’re scruffy or nondescript — where people can start, he said.

Clay Rockefeller, an artist, developer, and community activist, recounted his experience helping to develop the Steel Yard — a complex for art and craft production in the former Providence Steel & Iron complex in the Valley district west of downtown Providence, Rhode Island.

Rockefeller (great-great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller) and his partner, Nick Bauta, organized a private foundation that has dealt with lead contamination on the three-acre site and has filled the complex with a foundry, artist studio spaces, office space for nonprofits, incubator space, and a ceramic, welding, and blacksmithing studio.

“I thought my project was going to take three years; it took ten,” the T-shirt-clad Rockefeller, who studied sculpture at Brown University, told the CNU group during a session at Yale. Today, in places like Providence, a willingness to engage in “patient development” is necessary, he suggested.

“A no-growth economy — is it really that bad?” he asked. At times the obstacles can weigh down a person’s spirit, Rockefeller admitted. Routine property management tasks, some of them verging on janitorial, are “not so sexy, not so much fun,” he acknowledged. Nonetheless, he assured the audience, a slower pace helps ensure that “the next move is the right thing.”

One initiative at the Steel Yard is the Public Projects program, which is generating jobs and income for individuals who possess an artistic eye and manual skills. “Every city has the capacity to make their own stuff,” Rockefeller noted. Why not use local people to design and fabricate things that a municipality needs, such as trash receptacles?

The Public Projects program has won 90 contracts to make street furniture. “We have a lock on urban furniture for the City of Providence,” Rockefeller said, adding, “They’re basically sculptures. This has increased the opportunities for people to build their own city.”

Bungalow courts and community gardens

Douglas Kallfelz, a partner in Donald Powers Architects in Providence, told about his firm’s success in designing clusters of modest houses, such as Riverwalk in West Concord, Massachusetts, and Greene Street Cottages in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. The East Greenwich project positioned 15 units on just under an acre while creating an appealing communal environment for the residents, he said. The development in West Concord organized 13 units into a “pocket neighborhood” on 3.7 acres

At Sandywoods Farm in Tiverton, Rhode Island, 50 affordable rental one-and two-family cottage units for artists are arranged around a farm. The project also includes 22 market-rate for-sale houses and two perpetually affordable for-sale houses plus a café, gallery spaces, artist studios, and a farmers’ market.

A 275-kilowatt wind mill is expected to produce 80 percent of the electricity the residents need. Community agriculture is a key component of the project, Kallfelz said, noting that the artist have already prepared their own community gardens, and a resident farmer is slated to tend the larger farm. “The artists have already started building their chicken coops,” he said. “The interest in community agriculture among the artist group has grown beyond our expectations.”

A series of speakers assembled by New Haven architect Robert Orr described the potential for community gardens and other small-scale forms of food production, which can fit into a neighborhood or an underused section of a city. “I discovered there were all sorts of initiatives under way in New Haven,” Orr said.

New Urbanism and urban agriculture fit together well, contends New Haven architect Ben Northrup.

“Both movements have an underlying humanism” and “a human scale,” he said. Both, he said, “are critical of patterns since World War II,” such as economic consolidation and monocultures — whether the monoculture consists of single-product farms or single-use subdivisions.  Tools relied upon by new urbanists, such as charrettes, “could be useful to agriculturalists,” Northrup said.

“Acceptance of limits” is common to both New Urbanism and urban agriculture, Northrup said. “Some of the new austerity we’re experiencing could be good for us in many ways.”

Katherine Brown of the Southside Community Land Trust in Providence argued for the importance of “achieving community food security at the neighborhood level,” and said edible landscaping, such as fruit trees and blueberry bushes, can serve as alternatives to fences. Benjamin Gardner, who is working at making locally grown food more widely available in New Haven, said that having many food-producing operations in a city helps to make them more successful. “Density makes it more efficient to manage them,” he reported.

Stevens emphasized the side-benefits that come from nurturing local efforts and local talent. “The community will get pride out of it,” he said. “You’ll start to build community.”

Old expectations are obsolete

Brian O’Looney of Torti Gallas and Partners, an architecture and planning firm in Silver Spring, Maryland, presented the Southlake Town Center in Texas — a large, mixed-use suburban project that has won praise in new urbanist circles. “These are going to be harder to do going forward,” O’Looney said of Southlake and other built-from-scratch town centers.

Developers have less access to capital than they did in the past, he pointed out. In addition, federal and state funds are shrinking, he said. If these large projects are to be carried out, “you’ll have to find other ways of getting these deals done,” he advised.

If there is less money available today, there is also less tolerance of waste, a number of conference participants emphasized. Norman Garrick, a transportation specialist at the University of Connecticut, reminded people of the wastefulness that Le Corbusier, the leading proponent of modern, had propagated with his advocacy of expressways and an auto-oriented way of living in the 1920s and 1930s.

“I shall live 30 miles from my office in one direction, under a pine tree; my secretary will live 30 miles away from it too, in the other direction, under another pine tree,” Le Corbusier proclaimed in 1935.” In Le Corbusier’s view, a dispersed pattern of residence and commuting represented progress: “We shall use up tires, wear out road surfaces and gears, consume oil and gasoline.”

Has Corb’s view been abandoned? Not entirely, but it is certainly under intellectual attack, and at a mass level there seems to be a growing retreat from it. In the US, “traffic has not been increasing for the last six or seven years,” Garrick pointed out. “It began slowing before the recession.” Lucy Gibson of Smart Mobility consultants in Norwich, Vermont, noted that young people are doing less driving these days and are resisting buying cars. “The five-year forecast is negative for traffic in the US,” she said. (Transportation departments are reluctant to accept and act on a negative forecast, however.)

The changing attitude toward transportation is one of the factors that make many new urbanists believe that overall trends are moving in the right direction. “I’ve never been more of an optimist than at this very moment,” said George Proakis, planning director for Somerville, Massachusetts, a dense, older community scheduled to get six new transit stations by 2015.

“We have this unbelievable ability to overcome these challenges,” Proakis said. “We’re moving away from [sprawl] in many different ways.”

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