Neighborhood Transformation

Neighborhood Transformation
CitiStates Report:
New Urbanists' Prophecies Coming True

By NEAL PEIRCE
Web-posted: 3:33 p.m. Dec. 2, 2000


They were like prophets without honor in their own house.

A group of South Florida architects and town planners, they gained respect across America for setting the pace in designing more attractive, humane, sustainable American communities in the 21st century.

But they had little success in South Florida -- until now.

In a time of sprawling sterility, they said let's get back to building the kind of Main Street towns and welcoming neighborhoods Americans recall the most fondly. These would favor people over cars -- tucking garages in the rear, for example, and often restoring the front porch to the American home. The designs had orderly block layouts, innovative livability features and a balanced combination of residential, civic and commercial uses.

This so-called New Urbanist movement was pioneered by architects such as Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Victor Dover -- all of Miami, all with a history of association with the University of Miami and its School of Architecture.

At the same time, a parallel group of planners emerged touting a second message: Get the citizenry involved in these new community designs. Don't accede to developers coming up with their one-size-fits-all tract developments, they said. Instead, bring people back into the planning of their communities. Democratize development.

These pioneers comefrom the northern part of the region, most particularly Dan Cary and then Michael Busha, successive heads of the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.

In espousing public participation, the two men turned the council into virtually the only public agency in America ready to contract its service to any and all communities interested in a citizen-based planning process.

South Florida's most progressive county land use plan now is doubtless the "Managed Growth Tier System" written by Palm Beach County Planning Director Frank Duke and his colleagues during months of consultation with a panel of 50 citizens. With the county divided into various tiers -- urban/suburban along the coast to rural, conservation, agricultural reserve and a special category for the 'Glades -- there's apparently real seriousness about helter-skelter land consumption.

Just as critical are the values Palm Beach has officially endorsed, starting with "the creation, enhancement and maintenance of livable communities."

The elements specifically listed include central neighborhood or community focal points, a compact, diverse mix of housing, higher density residential near commercial centers and transit stops, an assurance of neighborhood/community parks, safe and appealing sidewalks or pathways, bike paths, equestrian paths, and easily available public transit in cities and suburbs.

The task of "selling" New Urbanist approaches to the public wasn't automatic however. A 1998 Mellman Group survey of 600 South Floridians (200 from each major county), asked them what community qualities they found most important. The three top picks were quality schools, neighborhoods with a sense of community, and parks and open spaces. "Living near your office or job" and access to public transit were ranked low.

The apparent conclusion: South Floridians were willing to trade off commuting for quality schools and communities. But there was a time lag -- the people polled clearly weren't yet focused on the looming regional highway gridlock.

It's about livability

The new century message about livability had one of its earliest voices in the historic preservationists of the late 1980s who were determined to save South Miami Beach's immense, human-scaled and quite irreplaceable collection of art deco buildings. A close ally in the struggle was the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation, which was fighting to preserve storefronts, restore parks, and widen sidewalks to accommodate cafes.

It turned out that South Miami Beach neighborhoods could actually be marketed to private investors -- not just as art deco but also part of an urban, tropical, offbeat environment. Hundreds of buildings -- most, in fact, two- and three-story apartment buildings -- were rehabbed. And then commercial development clicked in.

For a year 2000 update, check the crowds surging through the Lincoln Road shops and restaurants, seven days a week and close to 24 hours a day. Neisen Kasdin, who had been the early leader of the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation, is now mayor of Miami Beach. The majority on the commission now favors preservation efforts, too.

We heard from some readers complaining of overdevelopment in South Beach. Crowding, traffic nightmares, expensive parking is "asphyxiating our quality of life," one wrote. Others complained of displacement of lower-income people.

From Miami Beach redevelopment advocates, there's a clear reply: Revival does complicate, does carry some downsides. It's necessary to work on housing for displaced families. But who would want to go back to yesteryear's urban devastation?

Community input

Moving onto the South Florida scene in the '90s, the New Urbanists aimed to take the spunky community-based spirit of Miami Beach and translate it into a new, democratic planning approach that has now been tried in hundreds of communities, in South Florida and nationwide. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.

The most prominent of their tools is called a charrette -- a week of intense discussions on how a particular town or neighborhood ought to be developed.

By "incorporating the will of the citizenry," Dover explains, charrettes provide a unique way to build momentum and enthusiasm for rebuilding communities -- reversing disappointing 20th century urban forms a lot more quickly.

To enlist participation, open invitations are sent for all interested citizens; typically 50 to 100 attend at least the opening and closing sessions. Thoroughly briefed by a designer team that has studied the neighborhood in detail, the citizens spend a day in small groups, formulating pictures, ideas, of the community they would like. Then they come together and discuss their plans and ideas. "It's amazing," Busha says: "By the time the sixth or eighth group has reported, even people who don't like each other are coming up with the same ideas."

Then it's back to the designers, working to translate what the citizens have identified as their preferences into real design and master planning documents.

Can't please everyone

The contrast to standard U.S. development practice couldn't be more vivid. Typically, a developer cooks up a plan. There's the obligatory public hearing. If the proposal contains any controversial elements, the NIMBYs -- "Not In My Back Yard" advocates -- roll out at some hearing to trash it. There is no real debate about context, alternatives, or long-term community goals. Oftentimes the ultimate decision hangs on politicos deciding between campaign cash the developer's offering and potential backlash from angry residents.

The charrette avoids that ugly process by inviting thoughtful citizen participation before designs are made, or plans finalized. It assures citizen buy-in. It provides politicos with a solid base of public consent -- even when development forces may try to manipulate a process.

Dover recalls a key incident from the South Miami process, conducted in 1992, shortly after Hurricane Andrew. The 300-plus citizens who turned out for the charrette said they wanted Sunset Drive, the community's main artery, tamed and made more pedestrian-friendly by reduction from five to three lanes. Later the developer and his consultant came back, asserting that traffic concerns required a five-lane roadway. Result? The community stakeholders came out in force, declaring "Hold on! This is our plan!" One citizen-architect stood up and said to the developer: "You think this road is a driveway to your mall. We think it's the community's living room. We want it built the way we envisioned."

But do the plans the designers and citizens conceive make business sense? Even some friends of the process worry there is insufficient financial reality in the products. The current political dogfight over the Kendall charrette-born plan, backed by local citizens and businesses but under attack from the Dadeland Mall, which fears insufficient expansion space, illustrates how hard it may be to please all players.

Another sobering note: Salamanca, the major New Urbanist development proposed for southwestern Miami-Dade County, was opposed by neighbors fearful of added traffic and rejected by the County Commission in 1999.

Mega-charrettes

Charrettes don't need to carry the whole burden for democratized development. There are two techniques, being tried in selected regions across the U.S.A., that South Florida has yet to adopt widely, and could make a real difference.

The first is called visualization.

Imagine a developer wants to remake and enlarge a neighborhood center near you. Or that you and your neighbors want to consider all sorts of alternatives. At a community meeting, with an assist from your local government or university planning department, you'll see a big three-dimensional view of the site. Sitting there and talking, you can order up different streetfront designs, change the location and spaces between the buildings, select different paving materials, experiment with signs, trees, street furniture.

The computer will even let you take a virtual walk or drive through the scene, even a virtual flyover -- as the developer suggests, but as you may prefer, too.

Ten years ago, it would have taken cruise-missile level technology to do this. Today, it's available on a laptop. New software called CommunityViz, developed by Michael Kwartler of New York and being readied for low-cost national distribution by the Orton Foundation, adds in real-time data on costs of roadways, sewers and other changes, constantly recalculating as different scenarios are tried.

New software called PLACES gets to issues of transportation and energy impacts of various design and planning choices. UrbanSim, a program pushed by a top New Urbanist development firm, Fregenose Calthorpe, lets a user calculate the effects of road changes on humans, all the way through to levels of road rage.

The second step for South Florida? Do a series of mega-charrettes, backed up by the new technology with people from Palm Beach, Broward, Miami-Dade mingling. Consider the 1.8-million-by-2020-population projection and debate honestly, openly where the new growth ought to go. Even if a consensus wasn't reached -- and it might not be -- the true, regionwide issues would be a lot clearer.

How can the emerging technologies, starting with neighborhood planning programs, be made available to ordinary citizens, businesses, people interested in new development possibilities and futures? One solution: walk-in urban design centers in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami, designed to marry the worlds of professional design and grassroots activism.

Ideally, architecture or planning departments from local universities would run these centers. Information on the whole gamut of planning challenges -- from single transit stops or suburban neighborhood centers to growth corridors, waterfronts and affordable housing -- would be available.

Such centers are already open and operating in such varied places as Chattanooga, Birmingham, Little Rock and Portland, Ore., with very favorable reports on their performance. For democratized development in South Florida, they might represent a dramatic breakthrough.