Wednesday, September 12, 2018

CityBuilding Express - A Whirlwind Tour From Memphis to Savannah

A few months ago I had the opportunity to attend the City Building Express Tour, organized by Nathan Norris and others as part of the City Building Exchange, a precursor to the Congress of New Urbanism CNU 26 conference that was held in Savannah, Georgia. I had anticipated writing this far sooner than I did, but I'd rather get my thoughts into a post than leave them on a pad of paper. Approximately 55 city planners, architects, urban strategists, developers and city-loving folks made our way from Memphis, Tennessee to Savannah, Georgia over a four-day period.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the trip. I was able to learn a great deal that I hope can help influence decisions made in my career and benefit communities where I work. The exposure to different ideas and approaches is a tremendous help in being able to communicate the benefit of particular types of neighborhood design and offers some perspective to be able to say, "See, this is how it was done here, and it is working out great!" On the flip side, I may be able to say "This is how they did this here, and it didn't really work well."

While not a exclusive focus of the trip, a number of stops along the way included traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs), which are neighborhoods inspired by the pattern of urban development that largely occurred prior to World War II, and were answers to the conventional suburban sprawl that has been the predominant development pattern in the United States for the past number of decades.

We started in Memphis and weaved our way though parts of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. There wasn't much of a wasted moment on the trip, which made for long days. If we weren't walking and touring a development or neighborhood, we were riding on the bus, having a group conversation about what we had seen, what lessons were learned, and how things might have been done differently. Some of the designers and architects of the places we visited were on our trip, providing an experience for candid reflection. The trip is tiring (if you have any serious medical conditions, be sure you're physically able to walk for miles, withstand the summer heat, and spend prolonged days on your feet!), but at the same time refreshing and encouraging to be able to learn from champions of cities that provide examples for us public servants, planners, architects, designers, builders, developers or city-lovers who are striving to create quality places. I hope that some of these anecdotes are helpful, and might even convince you to take a tour in the future. Next year, the tour is tentatively scheduled to weave through the southern plains and midwest just in time to reach Louisville, Kentucky for CNU27.

A constant theme that was presented by tour leader Nathan Norris was the notion that all developments are autobiographical. Each development, whether suburban or urban, well-done or an abject failure, tells the story of its developer or group of developers in some form of fashion. That was the lens for which we attempted to view each place we visited.

Day One - Saturday, May 12, 2018


Harbor Town (Map)
The first leg of the City Building Express took us through Memphis. We started our time in Memphis at Harbor Town, an early traditional neighborhood development on the banks of the Mississippi River. Tommy Pacello of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative and Frank Ricks of LRK served as our tour guides. Frank Ricks commented that "None of this was legal when we proposed it." This will be a familiar trend in many TNDs, as municipalities have largely adopted suburban-style development regulations, not allowing the skinnier streets, smaller setbacks and overall development pattern seen in TNDs. Also noted was the challenge that developers posed to the fire department when the width of streets and turning radius of streets was questioned with regard to fire truck access. Harbor Town developers modeled the street pattern with cones, and challenged the fire department to maneuver their trucks through the simulated streets. It must have been a success, as streets in Harbor Town are certainly smaller than others in Memphis.

Harbor Town's development came with some challenges, including on the architectural and design side, where town planners developed easy to read pattern books for builders, simplifying desired designs with green "Yes" and red "No" notations. Developers also grappled with site design as the town was built, and chose to add houses where there were previously parking spaces, at he far eastern edge of the development, adjacent to the harbor. Now, a series of townhouses lines the edge of the harbor, providing excellent views of Downtown Memphis.

One last note about Harbor Town in relation to the market, Miss Cordelia's, that is within the town: Normally, locating a grocer, especially on a smaller scale, is a difficult sell in a new development. Harbor Town developer Henry Turley took matters into his own hands, financing the store himself, naming it after his mother. From the Miss Cordelia's website: "Harbor Town’s founder wanted a grocery that would be a short walk away, a place where neighbors could gather, a place that could be be the center of town without distracting from the town itself." Turley also took to stocking items at the request of residents, galvanizing the local feel.

We then made our way through Uptown, viewing one of the larger scattered site affordable housing developments in the country, coordinated by Uptown Memphis and the Memphis Housing Authority.

Crosstown Concourse (Map)

We explored the 1.3 million square foot Crosstown Concourse redevelopment, where a former Sears distribution center has been redeveloped into a vertical urban village, opening in 2015. The redevelopment of the site was initiated by current University of Memphis professor of European Renaissance Art, Dr. Todd Richardson. The building, which opened in 1927, ceased operations in 1993, and stayed vacant until 2010, when Richardson and others began to activate the building using tactical urbanism and other temporary installations and events. The financing of the redevelopment came down to the last possible day of negotiations, when finally over 30 sources came together to finalize a deal. Decisions about the building and its redevelopment were made through consensus, which led to long meetings and a thorough process. Honestly, this might have been one of the underlying reasons of its success, as nothing was rushed, and details were thoroughly considered.

This was a most impressive building transformation that includes eight restaurants, a farm-to-table grocery, 40 medical, office and retail tenants, a performing arts center, artist space, a YMCA, healthcare services, a 400-student charter high school and 265 apartments. This development got the Crosstown area back on people's mental map in Memphis, and new development in the surround neighborhood is following right behind.

The physical transformation of the former Sears building is nothing short of amazing. What's more amazing is that it was done all at once, not in phases. The videos of the site work and construction are phenomenal. Manipulating a 1.5 million square foot building to allow natural light to spread throughout it proved to be a daunting task. Developers cut large holes in each of the floors to allow light to enter the center of the building, giving the Crosstown Concourse its distinctive atrium, as well as natural light wells for its Parcels apartments.

During the renovation of the building crews recycled over 54 million pounds of concrete, 10 million pounds of steel, and reused a number of mechanical elements and machinery from the Sears processing facility. The large sorting machines can be seen in the building's atrium, rolling conveyors serve as counter tops in the atrium restaurants, original flatbed carts serve as carts for the Parcels apartment residents, and sorting bins serve as planter boxes throughout the building. The material reuse of the site was thoughtful and connective to the building's former life. Residents and visitors are continually reminded of how radical of a transformation occurred.

As impressive as the physical transformation of the building was, the lasting legacy, I hope, will be the detail with which the services and tenants of Crosstown Concourse serve the surrounding neighborhoods. There was an awareness of the services needed, especially healthcare, and those became the focal point of the building. If the developers had to do it over again, they noted a desire to have been able to purchase a greater number of surrounding parcels in order to help soften and control the level of change adjacent to Crosstown Concourse.

Memphis Medical District (Map)
We finished our time in Memphis in the Medical District, where Tommy Pacello presented the work of the Memphis Medical District Collaborative, their goals and mission for the coming years, and the methods, like tactical urbanism and incremental development, that have helped to begin the rebuilding of the area. At he time of our visit Memphis was gearing up for the launch of the Explore Bike Share, in what is likely a welcomed added mobility component for a city that has a modest transit system. The street car system in Memphis is beginning to roll back online, but currently, the Main Street line is the only one of three lines in operation. (Memphis is the largest transit agency in the country without a dedicated funding source, which makes it all even more impressive.) Memphis is also taking a more proactive approach to disruptive transportation, as evidenced by their recent action to allow Bird scooters. In many ways, Memphis is ahead of the curve when compared to other cities, Nashville included.

This discussion of mobility in Memphis is important, especially in the Memphis Medical District, where 97% of employees drive to work alone. This is where the district is helping encourage bicycle and transit usage. And as medical groups improve and expand their campuses, the district is providing alternative perspectives for development, encouraging the addition of housing and public spaces, and helping to apply design principles that reverse the insulating nature of the current buildings.

Memphis was in many ways the highlight of the trip. It felt as if the city was the most relateable of any we visited, perhaps due to my Midwestern upbringing. Memphis in many ways felt like more of a Midwestern city, a city that somehow personified the American experience. The sites we saw in Memphis were also the most relateable due to their demographic variety. While most of the other developments on the tour were exceptional in their design, the philanthropic mission of Crosstown Concourse and the work within the Memphis Medical District seemed to have the most direct positive impact on the surrounding neighborhoods.

There still is a lot of work to do, including better connecting Downtown Memphis to the Memphis Medical District and other neighborhoods. The construction of highways around the core of Memphis certainly has inhibited those connections.

Downtown Huntsville, Alabama (Map)
We made our way to Huntsville, Alabama, sharing our observations about the morning and afternoon on the bus. Arriving in Huntsville, Chad Emerson of Downtown Huntsville led us on a walking tour of Downtown Huntsville. Huntsville is a city that has undergone a tremendous amount of investment in the past decade, with much more planned. It started off as a sleepy town, but grew when NASA brought their US Space and Rocket Center to town. It boasts one of the highest counts of PhDs per capita, meaning that much of life is measured by efficiency and engineered thought, not by beauty, which can sometimes hamper city building. It can also hamper a city's ability to attract talent that is considering coastal cities like Boston, New York, Chicago or California's Bay Area.

Huntsville, and namely its employers, have been attempting to compete with coastal cities for young, academic talent. Huntsville is not the picturesque city that some other cities might be, but that's what I actually enjoyed about it. It was the least polished place we visited on the entire trip, aside from parts of Atlanta. I was pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness of the downtown, and the mix of people enjoying it. Chad organized a band to be playing while we visited and walked the streets, perhaps unfairly heightening our image of Huntsville. Well, it worked Chad.

Our first stop in Huntsville was the Downtown Huntsville offices, then through Washington Park, an alley that leads out to Clinton Avenue, across from the Central City Parking Garage. With the help of Downtown Huntsville, the Central City Parking Garage only lost 18 parking spaces and added five commercial spaces, including a boutique, a men's clothing store, and a Frio's. Huntsville displayed a great example of incremental development, with Downtown Huntsville leading the charge of transforming both the Central City Parking Garage and an adjacent storage facility's ground floors into more productive retail, enlivening the city's streetscape, as well as adding additional businesses onto the city's tax rolls.

We walked on toward the Big Spring International Park, a terrific park that seems to play the main gathering point in Huntsville. It felt like an outdoor room given its change of elevation from other parts of downtown. The range of ages, ethnicities and walks of life was evident in the park, a measure of its success. Kids (and kids at heart) stopped to feed ducks, and couples sat on benches chatting. We then walked a block down Church Street, and saw the electrical outlets that had been installed by the city to accommodate mobile food vendors, who regularly line the street during special events.

As continued evidence of Huntsville's semi-laissez-faire / incremental approach to strengthening its downtown area, the city allows patrons to purchase purple plastic cups at participating establishments, which can be taken anywhere within the boundary of the Huntsville Arts and Entertainment District. We were there on a Saturday evening and saw a few cups in the hands of visitors.

Our final stretch through Downtown Huntsville was along the Spragins Street cycletrack, a recently completed cycletrack that is a part of a larger effort to connect Huntsville's parks and public spaces. Alta Planning has some great coverage of the opening of the cycletrack, which is Alabama's first protected bike lane. It had already been a long day (leaving Franklin, Tennessee for Memphis at 5:00 AM), so I left it to others to explore Campus 805 to conclude our first day. Campus 805 is a former middle school that has been redeveloped into multiple breweries, restaurants and entertainment venues.

Downtown Huntsville was a great example of an incremental approach to development and revitalization, especially evidenced by the transition of storage units into commercial and retail spaces. By starting with those small changes, leaders were able to step into recommending the development of retail spaces in the city's parking garage. Huntsville used "singles and doubles" to run up the score of their downtown spaces, resulting in a win for the district. Downtown Huntsville is the Houston Astros of downtown redevelopment.

Day Two - Sunday, May 13, 2018

The Village of Providence, Huntsville, Alabama (Map)
We started the day in Huntsville, Alabama, touring the Village of Providence, a commercial town center west of Downtown Huntsville. Our group stayed at the hotels within the town center, and were able to get a feel of the weekend nightlife of the space the night before. Patios were filled with patrons, families were walking around, and music from patio entertainers brought more life to the space.

 For as much as the district functions on its own, there was little connection to the rest of Huntsville. The district has a number of services, however, lacks a grocery/drug store, so I made a quick hike to CVS, about a quarter mile down the road. Thankfully, the road was equipped with a sidewalk, but no lighting. I had contemplated staying at Campus 805 to have a drink, but without any sort of transportation between the two points (aside from Uber and Lyft, which are both present), I opted to head to Providence.

To begin our second day, developer of the Village at Providence, Todd Slyman, led us on a walking tour. He explained the vision of the village, beginning with a 2002 charrette, which was held in Downtown Huntsville. He noted the involvement of Duany Plater-Zybek in the design of the village, and gave an account of the increased coordination of all involved, on account of the location of utilities. The village, when completed, will have about 1500 residences over 306 acres. The village actually sees more visitors during the week due to business travel, likely a product of having newer hotels and a variety of accessible dining.

What was unique about the village was the fact that its development occurred on both sides of a public thoroughfare. As far as further design was concerned, developers recruited as many “everyday services” as possible. It’s evident in the variety of retailers. The building heights vary, but are on average with those of Downtown Huntsville. At the time of the development, Slyman noted that nothing had met local codes. I can assume he meant the plethora of rules that cities continued to introduce that formed suburban style development, and generally prohibited the further development of traditionally-designed cities.

The housing within the Village at Providence varied in size and style, and were built at different times. Slyman noted that they were trying to include a greater number of smaller homes, and that those had become more popular than the larger homes originally planned in the development. Some homes included Charleston side yard porches.

When asked what developers would change if they had the chance to do things over again, Slyman noted the inclusion of more live-work units. The timing of the development was also not the best, and developers noted that it would still be a home run today, though perhaps they were a bit ahead of the curve in terms of the popularity of traditional neighborhood developments, at least in Alabama. There were also some design elements that were out of proportion, including the leaked space of the village’s central green. It felt a bit large for the setting and had too small of sidewalks around its perimeter. Some infrastructure placement throughout the rest of the village, like utility boxes along sidewalks and gas meters in alleys, was also questionable. Some members of our group questioned the depth and height of porches (is 6' or 8' the best for depth?), and others debated the role that a greenway, stream and park played in the village, and whether those spaces should have been kept unimproved.

But, for as questionable as those details were, there was a lot that Providence did well, especially the inclusion of live-work units, which were popular with small business owners, especially insurance agents. There was a variety of housing, and the outdoor dining areas were well-utilized. Another nice touch were the personalized manhole covers and sewer grates. Finally, the wreath game was incredibly strong. (Insert: flexing arm emoji.) If you find yourself in Huntsville for any reason, stop through.

Gorham's Bluff, Alabama (Map)
After our walking tour we departed for Gorham's Bluff, a fairly secluded village on the top of Sand Mountain, Alabama, offering stunning views of the Tennessee River Valley. Gorham's Bluff followed the New Urbanism popularity of the 1980s and early 1990s, and its visionaries loved Seaside. The problem was, they didn't necessarily like what it took to build Seaside. This led to a mixed history of the village. The developers knew the cost of traditional neighborhood development, but not the value of it done well. Skimping on details and being a bit too ambitious to start, contributed to the development's lack of success. I won't say Gorham's Bluff was a failure, but it was not met with the success it was intended. Only a fraction (37) of the hundreds of homes (600?) once planned have been built. A second round of planning happened in the early 2000s, but not much has happened since.

The centerpiece of Gorham's Bluff is the six-bedroom lodge that overlooks the Tennessee River. The original lodge-keeper of the property quit soon after opening, leaving the lodge-keeping and overall development of the property to be the responsibility of the developer's daughter. While homes were slow to be built, the Gorham's Bluff Institute continued to promote the artistry of northeast Alabama, and offered a setting for arts festivals, meetings, and performances. The biggest partner for Gorham's Bluff to date is the Alabama Ballet, which hosts a week-long summer dance residency at the property.

Gorham's Bluff sought to incorporate educational opportunities into the village, evidenced by the neo-classical structure that sits on the far eastern side of the development. The building was once a high school that was located in Pisgah. The Jackson County Board of Education asked the town founders whether they wanted to reuse any of the materials from the school, but in realizing the condition of the building, they agreed to take the entire thing. With a new roof and brick exterior, the building now sits awaiting a time to be more utilized within Gorham's Bluff.

As soon as you pull into Gorham's Bluff, it's evident there are a number of things that were not done well, or with an attention to detail. There are limited, disconnected sidewalks (which, you could argue you don't need because of the planned character of the village), roadways that have been partially completed, and a bunch of open space that was intended to be developed with homes that lies fallow. The bluff also posed a bit of a challenge for children (or, really the parents of children) who might get too close or be a bit too curious. I ventured to the edge, and it was a loooooong way down. No one is making it back up if they fall down the bluff. But, for as much as its unreached potential is evident, there are a few things Gorham's Bluff has done. It's been a laboratory for what not to do, in how to have restraint, patience and more refined execution of a development. It also has facilitated serendipitous conversations that have guided the development of other TNDs. The informal meetings of planners in the lodge library have surely played a role in the successes of other developments across the country. So, for that, there's some success.

One final thought to consider that was brought up on our trip related to Gorham's Bluff was this: when is it time to walk away from your vision, and let it be someone else's vision? The original vision is clearly not happening, so when do you walk away from what you've had as a goal or vision? It's a difficult consideration, as it's something a developer has crafted and is attached to, especially when it includes multiple family members. In the case of Gorham's Bluff, there might not be a ton to bring the vision to reality anytime soon. That was a great question, and something that's not considered much in urban development. Often times, whether with plans, ordinances or visions, we're too stubborn to let go and give someone else an opportunity.

If you get a chance to visit Gorham's Bluff or stay at the lodge, do it. The fried chicken and banana pudding, not to mention the view, are probably worth the price of your stay.

Chattanooga, Tennessee (Map)
From Gorham's Bluff, we made our way to Chattanooga. Unfortunately, there was a traffic jam on I-59 and we resorted to taking the scenic route past the accident, cutting into our time to explore the Scenic City. We planned to visit both the north and south sides of the waterfront, but were left to visit only the south side near the city's aquarium and Riverfront Park. (We were teased by pulling into Coolidge Park on the north side of the Tennessee River, only to find out we probably didn't have enough time to get out, walk across the river, and still visit the city's Southside neighborhood.) We were joined by Eric Meyers, Executive Director of the Chattanooga Design Studio, a group dedicated to enhancing the built environment in Chattanooga. He addressed the history of the city, how it's grown in past decades, and the role that private-public partnerships have played in enhancing the city's public realm.

Chattanooga had a bit of an Austin vibe, located on a river, with a bunch of outdoor opportunities. People were on their stand up paddle boards, and cyclists were on the streets. One area that was a challenge is the Riverfront Parkway, a state route that is located between downtown and the riverfront. It's wide, and is a bit of a barrier for the cohesion of the Innovation District (downtown) with the riverfront. An open lot sits unused between the river and downtown, while other surface parking lots dot downtown. There's still quite a bit of capacity to build in Chattanooga.

The majority of our time was spent in the city's Southside neighborhood, around East 17th Street and Market Street. We were joined by Bob McNutt, a planner and real estate developer in Chattanooga, who leads the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, an organization specializing in providing financial loans, counseling, building homes and revitalizing neighborhoods in historically under served parts of the city.

The group focused their efforts in the Southside neighborhood, building missing middle type housing on vacant lots, and using infill, incremental development in other locations. The neighborhood was a pleasant mix of housing types and styles. They all blended together just fine, in part due to the attention to detail of the streetscape. Streets were lined with trees, helping to break up any objection to the potpourri of building styles. It reminded me a bit of Houston, with townhouses, single family residences, apartments and lofts converted from former industrial buildings, all within the same area. It worked well and was an area I hope to go back and explore a bit more.

McNutt commented on his experience in the neighborhood, noting that they had to "bend the rules to get what we wanted." The result spoke for itself. He also made note of the fact that this was a neighborhood that allowed people to express themselves, and that with too many rules, it stifled creativity. Now, this variety of building styles is not for everyone, but it was incredibly mitigated through street trees and the public realm.

We were set to take off to Atlanta to eat dinner upon arrival, but our hotel location would have provided limited dining options, so the group elected to spend another few hours in Chattanooga, with the chance to walk to a variety of dining along Market Street, and East and West Main Street. The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel was a focal point of the neighborhood, lodged in the former Terminal Station. (All the NUMTOTs out there can take a trip to Chattanooga and sleep in an outfitted Pullman train car.) Market Street, adjacent to the station, functions as a bit of a shared space / woonerf, lined with restaurants and bars.

I chose to walk down East Main Street, and landed at Slick's Burgers for a burger and a cider. The highlight of my walk was seeing Play. Wash. Pint., a private dog park slash dog daycare slash beer garden that allows dog owners to let their dogs play while sipping on some local beer. This idea has legs, and honestly, I'm surprised these aren't more common. Chattanooga is a city I'd like to learn more about, and reminds me most of Houston thus far, at least in its variety of building styles and land uses, something that provides for a great urban experience. I'm hoping to get into some of their neighborhoods at some point, and gain a better understanding of the city.

One thing to watch for in the coming months / years is the possible relocation of AT&T Field, home of the Chattanooga Lookouts, the AA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins. Reports earlier this summer discussed the potential of a new stadium to be built south of downtown on a former foundry site. This would certainly give downtown and the River City Company added options in redeveloping a few sites between downtown and the Tennessee River. But, removing the stadium also removes the 70 or so games that bring fans into your district each summer. A new stadium can also put added pressure on the development of adjacent communities, like Southside, and something city leaders will undoubtedly be watchful of.

I'm also fascinated with Chattanooga because of their embracing of technology and other quirky things, like form based code and the fact that the city has its own font; Chatype.

Day Three - Monday, May 14, 2018

Serenbe - Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia (Map)
For our third day, we set off early to Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, the location of Serenbe. Chattahoochee Hills is a young city in terms of existence, having formed in 2007 as Chattahoochee Hill Country, incorporating itself from Fulton County.

The city's mayor, Tom Reed, joined us for the ride from our hotel into Serenbe, the 1,000-acre development that sits just to the southwest of Atlanta. (Tom Reed is also the founder of DPM Fragrances, now called Curio, which produces the Capri Blue and Aspen Bay Candles, and the popular volcano-scented candles, that you can find at retailers like Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, West Elm, Crate and Barrel.) Reed gave some anecdotes about developing codes and processes for the newly formed city, and brought up the fact they had managed to pass parking maximums for the city, primarily in the hamlet, village and town zoning classifications. Reed asked something refreshing, in that "have you ever been to an interesting place without a bit of a parking problem?" No, and Serenbe is no exception.

He gave us a bit more of a summary about the vision of Serenbe, and led us through three of the development's four hamlets. Steve Nygren, Serenbe's developer, aimed to preserve 70 percent of his land, and dedicate the other 30 percent to the build environment, fairly dense hamlets.

The entrance to Serenbe is pretty unceremonious. They wanted it that way. No tacky "New Homes from the 400s" banners or signs, just a small, understated metal "Serenbe" sign visible from the road. Rolling into the development, there's an easing into each hamlet center. Each has its own small downtown feeling, with service retail and a mix of flats, town houses and single family dwellings.

The variety of architecture and building types is a refreshing change from other developments that boast similar or identical architectural styles. Serenbe chose to focus on scale, massing and quality materials, not necessarily style. They worked with topography and embraced it in some cases. The attention to detail of the sidewalks, crosswalks and paths between hamlets provide for unity among the variety of uses and styles. It all works together quite well. The oxbow street pattern makes driving more difficult than it needs to be, but paths connecting the hamlets make walking easy.

Some odd details about Serenbe included trash receptacles that are located in the front of homes. This allows trash bags to be stored in an underground tube, so that trash cans aren't strewn about the hamlets on collection day. The same went for water or gas connections for homes, which were hidden underground with access through what looked like a storm shelter door. There are also the each-one-is-one-of-a-kind street lamps in the public realm, which solidified Serenbe's approach of artistic infrastructure.

Serenbe is definitely an attractive place. It's well-designed, and there's a terrific attention to detail. The preservation and enhancement of the vegetative environment is to be commended and repeated. My favorite detail was the blueberry bushes that lined the streets. I'm not one to scoff at foraging, and it'd be all too easy in Serenbe. Need some rosemary for those rosemary-garlic mashed potatoes tonight? Grab some from the right of way... So, it is a bit utopic.

Perhaps though, if we built more places like this, or allowed more places like Serenbe to be development, they wouldn't seem so utopic. Mimi Kirk at CityLab wrote a thoughtful piece about her trip to Serenbe earlier this year, so I won't repeat it all here, but some may cast a critical eye on the idea and execution of Serenbe. As Kirk notes, Serenbe is similar to the settlements that were established at the turn of the 20th century, known as garden cities. Serenbe hasn't made affordable housing a component of its development, but it has offered a variety of housing options, something that master planned communities are sometimes hesitant to include. The isolation of the development may also feel as if the developers are just retreating from the Atlanta metro. Which, may be correct in some sense, however, Mayor Tom Reed noted that Chattahoochee Hills has been proactive in dedicating 600' of right of way for transit to connect to the region as the city's villages and towns are built along its corridors. (He was insistent on rail, but BRT seems like a cheaper and better option.) There are many things that Serenbe does well which would serve as great standards to uphold in all developments. Unfortunately, many cities don't find those standards palatable. Remember, all developments are biographical in nature, and Serenbe is no exception. The vision of Steve Nygren is upheld and maintained through the buildout of the development, and probably functions more, as someone on the tour put it, as a preservation tool, as opposed to a development tool.

Glenwood Park, Atlanta, Georgia (Map)
We left Serenbe and headed to Atlanta's Glenwood Park neighborhood. Glenwood Park is located just east of Downtown Atlanta, adjacent to Interstate 20. It is an infill Traditional Neighborhood Development, designed by Dover Kohl and developed by Green Street Properties of Atlanta. (It's interesting that Novare Group was also a partner in developing the mixed use buildings along the thoroughfares of the neighborhood. Novare Group is the company responsible for the development of the Skyhouse brand of apartment towers that are found in many major cities, including Atlanta, Houston, Charlotte, Dallas, here in Nashville, and in a few other cities across the country.)

The 28-acre neighborhood was once an industrial site strewn with tires and a whole bunch of concrete. (And, the real oddity, the site included 40,000 cubic yards of wood chips that had been buried underground and had to be removed, and were used as fuel at a power plant in Alabama.) The vision for the neighborhood began in 2001 with a charrette, while construction began in 2003. Glenwood Park positioned itself to offer a variety of housing types (425 housing units, as a mix of apartments, condos, townhouses and traditional single family homes) in a walkable neighborhood, which walkability was really viewed as an amenity at the time. Developer Charles Brewer wrote the following on the Glenwood Park website to describe the processes that his group went through in order to build the type of place he and others envisioned:
In order to build the neighborhood that we envision, we need to provide streets that will be great places for pedestrians and cyclists – places where cars will move slowly, and where the design will maximize pedestrian safety and comfort. This meant getting permission to build streets with narrower widths and tighter corners than has been the normal recent practice.
This is another reminder, just like Harbor Town in Memphis, or The Village at Providence in Huntsville, cities do not readily allow Traditional Neighborhood Development. But, in this case, it's helpful to know that the process went smoothly, and that all involved saw a benefit to constructing in a more traditional form. I don't know that anyone could argue against the efforts of the developers if you were to visit the neighborhood. It's a great example of infill TND in a large city that connects very well to surrounding neighborhoods and districts. A more detailed summary of Glenwood Park's development can be found here at One challenge planners will be facing (or are already planning, but totally haven't solved) is how the BeltLine will connect through the Glenwood Park neighborhood. The BeltLine exists to the north and to the south, but is cut off by a rail yard and Interstate 20. The BeltLine is connected now by Bill Kennedy Way, a former state maintained street, which was acquired by the City of Atlanta to allow a deviation of design standards, reflective of the slower, context sensitive design (sidewalks, bike lanes, setbacks close to the street) that you would normally find in traditional neighborhood developments. While it allows for connection, it's a deviation from the vision of the BeltLine as a seamless path around and through Atlanta.

Some of the most striking features of Glenwood Park were the pedestrian pathways that connected the neighborhood. Pathways weaved from street to street behind homes, leading to the large, central park, aptly named Glenwood Park, which doubles as a detention pond during periods of heavy rain.

One of the last interesting notes about Glenwood Park was that the site was financed through a small group of "insiders", which allowed them ultimate flexibility in design, something that traditionally financed projects don't allow.

Krog Street Market (Map) / Atlanta BeltLine / Ponce City Market (Map)
From Glenwood Park our group traveled to Krog Street Market for lunch. The former Atlanta Stove Works building was once home to Tyler Perry's "Tyler Perry Studios", but now serves as one of the country's premier food halls. I had never had a bao before, so I visited Suzy Siu's Baos for pork belly and Korean barbecue baos. (I'd defintiely recommend them.) After eating and regathering, we headed toward Ponce City Market, via the Atlanta BeltLine, the brainchild of planner Ryan Gravels. Gravels thought of the Atlanta BeltLine as a student at Georgia Tech, and you can find a great summary about its development in his book, Where We Want To Livewhich will help give planners, engineers, government leaders and anyone interested in city building, a lesson in how to reclaim our infrastructure for more efficient use.

One of the challenges of the BeltLine was the question of "who is this for?" Many saw the BeltLine as a catalyst to gentrification or displacement. As evidenced by the intense development occurring just along the small section that we walked, developers have undoubtedly realized the benefit of the active transportation corridor, which will also incorporate light rail, to an undetermined extent at this point. The BeltLine featured some fantastic views of Atlanta, and offered a canvas for public art and informal open spaces. It was great to see people outside using the buffering spaces to sit down and eat, sit down and read, play with their dogs, work out, sell some artwork, or even play some catch with water balloons. I appreciated the those chance encounters the most of anything during our walk. The ability to facilitate social interaction, without a ton of programming, is the hallmark of a great public space. We really don't have enough of these types of spaces within our cities. The diversity of users along the BeltLine stood out as well. It was all ages, abilities and colors. People ran, walked, rode bikes, and electric scooters. (And, you know what, it all worked out just fine!) San Diego-based planner Howard Blackson was the first to grab a scooter and make his way down the BeltLine. He's got a great piece on his website about embracing the scooter, urging cities to be more open in considering how they can integrate scooters into the entire transportation network.

It was difficult to know the pattern or timing of the development along the BeltLine, but it was apparent that everyone wanted to be connected to it in some way. Apartment complexes or business complexes all had their own connections or sidewalks, which is evidence of how valued this connection is for transportation and recreation.

Our walk ended at Ponce City Market, the second former Sears distribution center that we saw on our trip. Ponce City Market was a great contrast to what we saw in Memphis in the development of the Crosstown Concourse. Ponce City Market was remarkable, mostly though because of its scale. It is massive, and very good looking. There were some contrasts though. Crosstown Concourse had large open atrium spaces with natural light, spaces dedicated to the public, and a variety of services oriented toward community health and wellness. Ponce City Market was darker, with little natural light, a lot of tucked away spaces, and a lot of national retail.

But, Ponce City Market is essentially just a large mall. Most tenants were national upscale chains. And, that certainly serves a purpose and can create an enjoyable setting and experience. The dynamics of the neighborhood surrounding Crosstown Concourse in Memphis could have been far different from those in Atlanta, but again, it's a reminder of the autobiographical nature of developers, and what their goal is in redeveloping a site.

Something also to consider is the cycle of coolness. There was some discussion on the bus afterward about the pressures that "cool" places face in the height of their "coolness". This was a possible cause of the national chains that were so prevalent within Ponce City Market. Whether it's a redeveloping main street, a shopping center, or a redeveloped factory or warehouse, there is a change that these developments see as they become more popular. Unfortunately, the pioneering people and businesses that put a place on the map so to speak, are often victims of their own success. We engaged in a conversation about how to help stop that from happening.

Greenville, South Carolina (Map)
We then made our way to Greenville, South Carolina. We got stuck in some major traffic outside of Atlanta, delaying our arrival in Greenville and altering our plans. We essentially did a brisk walk through Downtown Greenville, and spared about a half hour at the end to be able to grab something to eat on the bus ride to West Columbia, South Carolina, where our hotel for the night was located.

We began our walk along North Main Street at the entrance of Springwood Cemetery and strolled south toward Falls Park and the Reedy River. There wasn't much that I picked up on from our tour guide, but there were some undeniable great planning practices being employed throughout Downtown Greenville.

In the late 1970s Downtown Greenville undertook a streetscape plan, narrowing Main Street from four to two lanes and adding street trees. Lots of street trees! Sidewalks were widened, angled parking was added, and amenities like benches and tables were added. The City of Greenville has a fantastic timeline of the growth of Downtown Greensville, Downtown Reborn, that gives a more in depth look at the major anchor developments throughout the city, as well as the strategy that officials took in the rebirth of the downtown area.

As we walked, it was easy to see how so many people felt comfortable downtown. It was very clean. The provision of street trees added needed shade and protection, benches and tables allowed people to sit down and linger, wayfinding signage and distance markers kept pedestrians aware of their position downtown, wide sidewalks allowed for outdoor dining at restaurants, and public amenities, like drinking fountains kept people comfortable in the heat of early summer. These provisions make cities more comfortable for all, including loiterers, which, were definitely present in Downtown Greensville, the first place we experienced them on our trip. Now, these folks are harmless and didn't bother anyone, but their mere presence is sometimes too much for some cities to take. In his book, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, William Whyte wrote "The biggest single obstacle to the provision of better public space is the undesirables problem. They are themselves not too much of a problem. It is the actions taken to combat them that is the problem." Reactions to loiterers include removing benches and gathering spaces, leaving districts and streets to feel inhumane and sterile. Thankfully, Greenville hasn't taken that approach.

I was also thankful to see the provision of public restrooms. These were probably the thing that stuck out the most, only because so many cities hesitate to provide them due to their liability of loitering and maintenance. But, again, it's an incredibly humane addition to a district, and likely something that local business owners (especially hotels) are thankful for, in that it reduces the public's need to find restrooms in their properties.

Another streetscape design element that was noticeable was the mid-block crossing. There were street crossings at each of the midpoints of major blocks in Greenville, allowing for easy pedestrian access and connectivity to the opposite side of the street. The Court Square shared street section was a great example of using a change of materials and roadway width to address roadway speed, and to create a more unified public space.

As we walked along Main Street, it was surprising to see the amount of approachable national chain retailers present. It was an example of a street that was terrific in terms of streetscape design, but that hasn't been totally choked out of more approachable retail. All too often, as I mentioned previously with regard to Ponce City Market, when a place becomes popular or includes in-demand urban amenities, retail becomes a bit less approachable. Not the case in Greenville. I'm not certain of the economic dynamics taking place in Greenville to allow this, but it was refreshing to be in a downtown with more approachable retail, and not the same slate of hip retail offerings, although, there's nothing wrong with them. Also, even though many of the buildings within Greenville were not anything architecturally spectacular, their orientation to the street, their facades, and the streetscape itself created an interesting and lively place. Greenville felt as though they weren't caught up in building for Instagram-worthy pictures, but rather designing for the human scale.

The walk into Falls Park and the Reedy River area was impressive. The TD Stage and Peace Center Wyche Pavilion were great public spaces in what felt like an outdoor room. The waterfalls on the Reedy River were not viewed as an amenity in past decades, but the addition of trails, park space and the Liberty Bridge have transformed the river into the main attraction and public space in Greenville.

The public-private partnerships and sponsorship of spaces was very well documented, and something that I'm glad to see Greenville didn't hide or shy away from. The type of transformation that has taken place in the city is not possible through only public entities. It's clear that the private entities in Greenville have understood the benefits of high quality public spaces.

Greenville is a city that is well ahead of many others in making improvements to its downtown. This might pose a problem for some in that there are seemingly few problems to solve. I'd argue against that, but with a place that is so successful and lively, that can certainly seem true. Due to its streetscape improvements, old and new blend well together, and building intensity and height wasn't imposing or damaging to older parts of the downtown. These are particularly good examples and testaments to cities that fear the loss of character due to potential taller buildings. If you get the streetscape done correctly, there's far less to be worried about with regard to building type and variety. So, given that Greenville is a bit ahead of other cities, it's an unfair comparison for other cities, but instead, a peer to admire and seek for future growth, a bit like still being in college and visiting friends that are a few years ahead of you and a bit more grown up.

As we're comparing cities, it's important to remember that we need to have a longer perspective than instant comparison. Cities change far less quickly than we imagine they do, so having a 30 to 40 year perspective is important. These changes take time and persistence. Our quick trip through Greenville was a great experience, and again, is a city I hope I can get back to soon and explore a bit more.

Day Four - Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Nexton, South Carolina (Map)
This might have been the most surprising and refreshing tour stop, especially as someone in local government who regularly reviews new residential subdivisions. Nexton is a development just outside of Summerville, South Carolina that is being built by national home builders like Pulte. This is a destination (sorry, no Google Street View images yet) that can be used by any planner who is faced with a company that says "we can't build that." Chances are, the big national home builders have a copy of a plan that would fit into a TND.

This is an approachable TND, which at times does skimp on some things. Smaller details were sacrificed for affordability. But, by in large, there were many great examples for greenfield TND design and construction.

Nexton did some great things well, such as its utility scaling and "housing for the everyman." In this case, greater design wasn't sacrificed, and many TND principles were maintained. It's an attainable TND partly due to its location (it's not in a thriving area, but a greenfield outside of Charleston, SC), but also the bulk of materials used in the home construction and the functional layout of homes. The home builders, for the most part, made boxy, tract housing much more interesting than decades past.

There were some things that Nexton could have improved. First, the public spaces within the development almost seemed too large. What worked in other TNDs on our tour was the framing of open spaces by residences or other buildings. This wasn't the case at Nexton, which leaked a lot of space around its open spaces. Second, Nexton has a number of homes that aren't in TND style, leading with front facing garages. The focal point of traditional neighborhoods was never the two car garage. So, while efforts were made to add more craftsman design, this renders these homes not much different from suburban tract housing. Adding alleys and allowing garages to take access from the alleys in the rear would have helped other parts of the development.

Nexton also seemed to have been completely clear cut before being built. The developers threw away a ton of value in the mature trees that likely dotted the landscape. Utilizing a more intentional design might have cost more, and therefore, it was easier to simply cut everything and plant new. The only issue here is that the trees planted now will take decades to mature and give as much definition to the neighborhood as it could have had by preserving some specimen trees.

Sidewalks in Nexton were a bit odd too. There were some designs that were built to, I assume, add visual interest, but were a bit overdone. The other striking issue was the street design. This is where Nexton could have added value and intent to its design. Streets were typical suburban sections, with multiple, wide travel lanes. Some differentiation of materials for crosswalks, bumpouts and dedicated parking, and smaller curb radii could have made things feel a bit different. But, each of those could have added cost to the development, and were likely sacrifices that were made by the developer. Also, local codes may not have allowed particular deviations, something that is evidence that some codes and rules detract from the design of cities.

It's a bit unfair to have comparisons to other TNDs, as there's not the patina on Nexton as there is on I'On, the next TND on our tour.

I'On - Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina (Map)
I'On was another fairly quick trip for our group, but we did manage to get a fairly comprehensive tour of the neighborhood. I'On is not a beloved development in Mt. Pleasant, as other residents believe that it is too dense. It's quite beautiful though, and is not as dense as one would think. However, original plans were scaled back, and the development's entitlements were not what was originally envisioned. I'On experienced some difficulty during the economic downtown in 2008, but was able to change its plans up a bit, even if it meant eating into its entitlements for the number of homes it would be allowed. On one lot facing one of the lakes, two homes were built where one was planned. To the untrained eye, it was not even noticeable. (To the trained eye, it wasn't noticeable either.) Perhaps this is continued support for showing that gently increasing density within neighborhoods isn't a bad thing, and can actually work well.

This was probably the most active neighborhood that we saw on our trip, except for the locations of our stops in Atlanta. The "public drama" was well displayed, with people getting their mail, walking their dogs, exercising, and other services, like carpet cleaning or deliveries being made. What made some of this possible is the width of streets and the orientation of buildings to the street. There were some great narrow streets, as well as some fantastic open spaces and pathways. Landscaping was terrific, including my favorite, a palm tree covered in jasmine, as well as many fruit trees. (Shoutout to whoever had the loquat tree. The loquats were delicious.)

One of the issues with narrow streets though is the perceived challenge of emergency vehicles accessing a residence, or mobility in general. Thankfully, the designers were able to move forward with a more narrow street through the use of a rollover curb on some streets. We even witnessed a number of delivery trucks perfectly making their deliveries. Traffic wasn't impeded, aside from some residents needing to slow down and give way from time to time. But, like these TNDs seem to show us, slowing down is good for us.

I'On's defining features were its two large lakes, which were actually used as quarries for building materials, and now are used for storm water management, and a dramatic enhancement to the view of homes from the opposite side. The lakes are joined together by two canals with adjacent footpaths. They're a shortcut if traveling by foot, and provide an opportunity to slow down and view the aquatic life. They're far more decorative than utilitarian, but they're a great feature nonetheless.

Now, it may be a bit unsettling when a group of camera toting, tourist looking planners and architects get off a bus and start snapping pictures of everything in sight, but we're on foot and very friendly. So, it was a bit odd when at I'On we had a sole experience where residents were not comfortable with anyone taking a picture of their home. (I don't want to disappoint them, but wait until they learn about Google Street View. Insert "Ron Swanson Throwing Computer.gif".) This interaction led to a discussion about the evolution of TNDs, or more so, the evolution of residents within TNDs. There is a disconnect between the first buyers and last buyers, those who buy into the vision of a development, and those who buy into the investment of a house within a development. An effort could be made of TNDs to educating home buyers in the spirit and intent of this sort of development, explaining the benefits of TNDs and their design. An educational note or class for a buyer during the closing period or through the home owners association could help to level the expectations of new residents.

After seeing I'On, we took a short ride to downtown Charleston for a quick walk through the city. (If you've ever in Mt. Pleasant and find yourself in I'On, head to the Square Onion for lunch. The Goose sandwich with a Mary Hope side salad was probably the best thing I ate the entire trip.)

Charleston, South Carolina
We took a quick trip through Charleston, South Carolina, mainly just to take in some of the historic neighborhoods. We did not have a formal agenda or discussion planned, but we briskly walked to look at the architecture and enjoy the city.

Habersham, Beaufort, South Carolina (Map)
The place I had the least expectation for, likely because I, like many people, had never heard of it, was Habersham. Just outside of Beaufort, South Carolina, Habersham begins in the middle of what seems like a typical low lying South Carolina field. The contrast between this view of a field, and this view of Habersham's Market Street, is astounding, and a matter of turning your head about 90 degrees. It was a greenfield development, but unlike Nexton which we had visited earlier in the day, developers came up with a town plan that was "intricately laid amidst the delicate natural landscape with particular attention given to the outdoor public realm of parks and greenways for residents to inhabit and enjoy surrounding the homes." It was a stark contrast to Nexton in terms of tree preservation. As evidenced through the construction of some homes and streets, tree preservation was incredibly important, as roofs were built around trees, and streets deviated in course or width here and there.

Due to the low laying land of Habersham, construction was a low impact as possible, beginning with preserving landscape, but also influencing other materials, such as gravel alleys.

There was probably no other place we visited where the term "transect" was use more than in Habersham. The progression of land use intensity and building types graduated as we moved further from Habersham's market area to the banks of the Broad River. It was a terrific example of a greenfield development that worked at adding a variety of housing styles and price points. Initially, like with most TNDs, homes started modest to allow a lower price point. As time has gone on, the popularity of Habersham, and other developments like it, have seen high home values.

In all, this was a fantastic trip. It was intensive and tiring, but it was fun, and we got to see a bunch of examples of city building practices that have worked, and a few that haven't. It was a great time to meet other planners, designers, architects and developers from around the country, and around the world. If you get a chance to head on the tour next year, do it. The tour will likely reach Louisville, Kentucky a day before the beginning of CNU27, so it could provide a great extension and precursor to conversation at the congress.