Planning The New Mixed-Use City
By Tamara Roy
There are many good reasons for developers, cities and advocacy groups to work together to master-plan and build mixed-use developments, yet many project owners resist collaboration. This is due primarily to the fear that involving so many voices in the up-front decision-making will make a project impossible to control. Yet, with projects in New England and around the country, the opposite is true – if you don’t invite city and community members in, they will come later – and they will exert control over your decisions at a less-than-convenient time, with serious consequences to your budget and schedule.
So, the next time you're kicking off a new project and thinking, "How can I shorten (or short-circuit) the community approvals process?," consider the following dos and don’ts for putting your project on a firm – and collaborative – foundation. The benefits can be enormous. You can maximize the value of your site by diversifying the product you are delivering while supporting pre-existing master plans. Your project can avoid pitfalls of community and agency anger and distrust. The mayor of your city can support you vocally and behind the scenes because you've incorporated his/her priorities, such as attracting new jobs, building green or incorporating new open space. And the public can achieve a safer city with a variety of complementary uses that will survive and thrive in your new lively urban place. The situation becomes win-win for everyone involved. Some Dos and Don’ts include:
DO start with a brainy team up front that includes many areas of expertise. A group of respected brokers, technical and legal consultants, and an architect with urban design expertise as well as construction experience of various building types will make the basis of your development strategy more intelligent. Whatever expertise you don’t have in-house, hire it on early in a consultant capacity.
DO involve others. Schedule 'listening' meetings with major stakeholders such as community groups, abutters, permitting agencies and city council members before a single line is drawn. Ferret out neighborhood fears projected on the development and important criteria for success. Schedule follow-up meetings to show how you’ve incorporated their agenda(s) into your design strategy.
DO guide your development with a unique urban design story. Once you’ve heard from the city powerbrokers and your consultants, construct a vision for how and why your project will transform the site for the better. The more provocative and inclusive the concept is, the more it will draw support and great ideas toward itself, improving the project with every stakeholder’s input.
DO think outside the box. Dare to consider program combinations that will give your development a unique character and keep it active 24/7. Be willing to go outside your comfort zone for the right mix – but beware. If your team has residential experience but not retail or office, proportion the uses in your project in balance with your expertise, or as in suggestion number one, hire it on. If you think, "I’ll get to that retail later," you’re in trouble.
DO test various density and use scenarios, and know where your proforma limits are as you engage in dialogue with planning agencies. How can you respond to neighborhood concerns about height? Where can you be flexible? If you change the massing or volume of one use, how do other aspects of the project need to react to have a feasible whole?
DO communicate ideas using all tools available. Constituencies often have different capacities for understanding architectural drawings. New and old presentation tools such as physical models, graphs, computer renderings and hand perspectives should augment plans and elevations to describe density in terms that relate to the priorities of your audience.
DO learn from the physical, economical and historical context of the existing city. Study it, know it. Knitting your mixed-use project seamlessly into the city’s larger movement patterns, scale, form and values will strengthen the city and your development and help build support for your project.
DON'T wait for the total melting of the polar ice cap before you embrace sustainable design. Dense, mixed-use urban developments near public transit are, by definition, smarter than suburban sprawl, but planning for clean energy sources, ground water recharge, bike lanes, Zipcars and green roofs do require coordination up front, and most municipalities require it.
DON'T promise too much too soon. Mixed-use projects have longer permitting and construction life spans that must ride market ups and downs. The right mix of tenants and uses may change from the beginning to the end of the project, so have some flexibility built into your concept.
DON'T use an architect with strength in only one area. Mixing uses requires that each use be viable independently and work together. Waiting to solve conflicts between uses (structural, mechanical, servicing, access and cost) after the visioning process will be problematic. Architects with expertise combining residential, retail, parking and office uses have solved those conflicts before and won’t be surprised.
DON'T ignore site constraints, subsurface utilities, and boundary or legal ownership issues. Having an 'Easements and Site Restrictions' workshop for your first team meeting is a good way to test your civil engineer, architect, code consultant and lawyer, as well as save yourself investment in schemes that have potential flaws. If issues arise that cannot be solved immediately, be conservative and have a backup plan.
DON'T focus solely on the buildings. Landscape and open space design often play a critical role in creating memorable mixed-use developments. They are also what the abutters will experience of your future project. Permitting agencies value the public realm as much, if not more than, the building design, and an artful open space plan that includes sidewalk improvements provides a great amenity for surrounding neighborhoods.
DON'T design everything in the public realm. Some of the most distinctive places are made with the collaboration of artists, sculptors and landscape architects whose inclusion will happen later in the process. Save them space.
DON'T think small. You are making the next generation of city. Dare to dream of the new mixed-use city as a fantastic place where people live, work, shop and play in ways we are only beginning to imagine today.
It is natural to fear the unknown, and embarking on a collaborative design process will, by its very nature, open up a mixed-use development to many ideas and enlarge the pool of options. Yet the best reason for collaboration is exactly that – it opens up a mixed-use development to many ideas and enlarges the pool of options. If we allow projects to evolve in a way that responds flexibly and sensitively to obstacles and opportunities brought to us by the city, neighbors, and advocacy groups, we position ourselves to create projects of great richness and lasting benefit.
TAMARA M. ROY, AIA is an associate principal at ADD Inc.
Source: Banker & Tradesman, Structure, "Planning the New Mixed-Use City", 12 May 2008 by Tamara M. Roy