Building a Permanent Better Block
One of the major issues we’re faced with across the United States is zoning and ordinance laws that prevent the type of smart, dense development that was once created around the world before the advent of large “master development” centric planning (ie. 1 owner, 1 massive block). So the question is, how do we rapidly create places again, built by communities, for communities, using limited funds? Our early goals with Better Block projects were to retrofit, educate and illustrate examples of great places that were prioritized for people (versus cars) and to show how those blocks create greater economics, vibrancy, improved health, and provide a neighborhood destination. Now that we’ve seen enough examples around the world that prove this works, the next step is to build them from the ground up.
For this example, let’s look at a classic “High Street” in London, which is similar to classic US Main Streets and begin breaking down the form:
That small retail is of a size that is affordable to a local business owner, and since it’s clustered with multiple businesses around it, it creates an economy of scale along with a mix of retail that makes the place desirable for people to shop, linger, and return. The spaces are only 17′ wide and 28′ in depth…small and affordable enough for the local baker or deli to setup (promoting unique local business), and too small for international conglomerate chains to even bother with (which can destroy unique character in a place and make it less desirable in the long run).
Both sides of the street have 20′ sidewalks, with a 20′ street for cars. It’s necessary to keep cars in the mix, but don’t prioritize them…doing so, or attempting to make places that have greater space for cars changes the equation of desirability enough to make these landscapes inhospitable.
Now notice where we’ve created similar forms (buildings, sidewalks, and streets) in Dallas:
The West Village is often highlighted as an exciting and vibrant destination for Dallas, and the parts of the block that work best, have the highest priority for pedestrians over cars. Notice just one block over where the equation is dramatically shifted for cars:
Sterile, cold, and uninviting. You can’t have places that are great for cars and great for people. It doesn’t work. We’ve all learned by now that it’s hard to find parking in the truly great places that we love around the world, and traffic flow for cars is typically horrible. That’s a reality that we need to look at for creating places that have lasting vibrancy, promote local businesses, and allow for greater local ownership.
The above block required one master developer to create. Compare that to the High Street picture at the beginning of the post. Why did we move away from small individual owners clustering buildings, to giant single owner/developer instead? Far fewer people are invited in the mix to create this, in fact, outside-the-region funds must be injected which ultimately is anti-local banks, local business, et cetera. We’re building our infrastructure in such a way that only a handful of players are able to take part, which is why communities are so reliant on big box development over local.
Notice that other places that we love around Dallas, like the Bishop Arts District, have a similar form where cars and people have closer parity. More dramatically, you can see the change on one block of Greenville Avenue. The streetview picture still shows the old form where sidewalks are small, and cars are given much greater priority:
And the re-tooled block with wider sidewalks, pedestrian amenities, and greater parity for cars and people:
One of the key insights from Councilwoman Angela Hunt was to simply focus on fixing one block only. This is exactly what we’ve learned from our work. Master planning large corridors is a great exercise, but far too reliant on massive funds and conglomerations of hundreds of property owners and area stakeholders to become a reality. What we do know is that many of the great places in our city, and even around the world, are often only a block in size (Bishop Arts), but they have a giant ripple effect on economics for an area, perception of safety, health, and other factors.
Now looking at the Camden High Street picture again, notice that these places don’t have to be large. One building is only 17 feet wide, 28 feet deep, and 35 feet tall. And if you could gather 12 separate entities to build one each, you could create a viable place with people living in the area, businesses operating, and a vibrant destination. At 220 feet per block, this is attainable, but we have to find ways to create these places with property owners willing to divide their land in a way that promotes this smart density. Also we need financing mechanisms through local banks that understand and support this type of development. Very few have taken on the challenge, but these developments should not be out of our reach.
Lastly, these small live/work blocks which are similar to the streetcar stops that existed throughout the city years ago and nestled comfortably into single family home neighborhoods, are proven models even to this day. Unfortunately, we now require single owners to do the heavy lifting of gathering capital, massive construction contracts, and more to make the same thing today. Our work now should be focused on breaking down the elements that make this “tiny clustered building” type of development more accessible and viable for communities around the country.