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Amenable Developments

Three New Approaches To Making Urban Spaces More Accommodating

March 5, 2006

If some modern-day Rip Van Winkle were to awaken this morning from a 20-year sleep, he'd notice that Americans are not building cities and suburbs quite the way we used to. The goals and character of development are changing substantially - in the most progressive communities, if not everywhere.

Three examples illustrate what's going on. First is the rapid spread of the "live-work" unit. Throughout the United States, adept developers have begun to abandon the idea that workplaces and living quarters must be two distant realms. In Connecticut, the trend toward bringing work and home close together can be seen in two of the state's most ambitious real estate developments: the town center planned in Storrs and the transformation of the former Gilbert & Bennett wire mill complex in the Georgetown section of Redding.

The $300 million Georgetown project, which gets under way this spring, will convert a 55-acre factory site into a collection of housing, stores, offices, recreational and cultural attractions, and space for "functional artisans" (such as woodworkers). Most of the 416 housing units are envisioned as potential live-work units.

They will come in two principal forms: townhouses whose ground floors can be used for business purposes, and "lofts" where residents can combine living and working. In Storrs, the town center planned by the Mansfield Downtown Partnership and developer Leyland Alliance is expected eventually to have townhouses where residents can operate offices or shops on the ground floor and have living quarters above.

Why not? From 1990 to 2000, the number of Americans who work at home full-time grew 23 percent, to more than 4 million. The number working at home part time has risen to 20 million. Combine the effects of corporate outsourcing, changing career paths and the yearning of many people to be their own boss, add in a growing desire for nearby amenities such as restaurants, cafes and health clubs, and the result is a growing market for mixed-use development.

Living above the workplace had been common in the United States up to the 1940s, but in the postwar decades it became a rarity. As automobiles proliferated and Americans became wealthier, they saw less reason to live above a shop.

Many municipal zoning codes prohibited the mixing of residential and business activities. But today the possibility of being able to go between home and work without spending time on the road is regaining its appeal. In Redding, says Georgetown developer Steve Soler, 25 percent of the town is self-employed, and some of those people are looking for a place where they can both live and work - and walk to coffee shops, restaurants and other conveniences. The secluded, single-purpose subdivision is looking less appealing.

A second example of how development is changing is the emergence of the "liner building." This is a building designed to make parking garages practically disappear. Almost every dense town center or downtown needs parking garages. The problem is, they're usually big and dull. Inserting shops into part of the ground level makes them less dull, but still, the upper floors remain uninteresting, and sometimes the shops shoehorned into the ground floor don't prosper.

Consequently, architects have come up with the idea of placing fairly shallow buildings - usually 30 to 40 feet deep - along the perimeter of the garage. These liner buildings sometimes have stores or restaurants at ground level. Apartments or offices fill the upper floors.

In Hartford, a recent example is Trumbull Centre, across from Bushnell Park. Architects Herbert S. Newman & Partners of New Haven designed Trumbull Centre as an L-shaped building containing retail and restaurant spaces at street level and seven to eight stories of apartments above - an attractive brick structure that effectively hides two sides of a seven-story, 600-car garage.

In the past five years, liner buildings have gone from almost unheard of to almost commonplace in new town centers and downtown projects. For the Storrs center, the Newman firm is looking at designs of townhouses or other units that would wrap parking garages. The liner building, Herbert Newman says, is a sign of the growing demand for urbanity and pedestrian-oriented places.

The third example of how communities are evolving is the "form-based code." This may seem a difficult term at first, but the idea is fairly simple. Let me explain it this way: The vast majority of municipalities have zoning codes, which typically stipulate that residential uses will be in certain parts of town, office uses will be in other parts, manufacturing uses will be in still others, and so on. For decades the assumption has been that if a municipality rigorously separates the various uses, conflicts over noise, smells, traffic and other annoyances would be reduced.

Despite the codes, or perhaps because of them, communities ended up with ugly roadside retail strips and soul-deadening office parks- single-purpose places with little human interest. After half a century of these disappointments, it became obvious that a different kind of code was needed, one that would organize buildings into engaging groupings - more like Main Street and less like the strip.

Miami architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk responded by devising a form-based code - a code that emphasizes the forms, shapes and placement of buildings. Their SmartCode - one of a number of form-based codes being enacted around the nation - often requires buildings in dense settings such as town centers to come close to the sidewalks and to rise high enough to give people the feeling that the street is like an "outdoor room," with the walls of the buildings acting as the room's walls.

These codes often require buildings in a town center or downtown to have windows, awnings or other features that add comfort and interest for pedestrians on the sidewalks. The SmartCode and other form-based codes shape the denser parts of communities to accommodate and encourage public life.

In the past three years, these codes have been adopted by municipalities in New York, California and Florida, and even in Alabama and Mississippi. Closer to home, a form-based code is under discussion in Simsbury. Sooner or later the new codes will arrive in Connecticut, just as live-work units and liner buildings are arriving. Town and city life is about to get a boost.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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