An architect-friendly FrontBurnervian enjoyed the WSJ article yesterday about faux urban centers. She also offers the column architect Larry Good wrote for AIA’s Columns back in the March/April issue about our region’s urbanist villages, including Legacy Town Center. Read it if you like; it’s after the jump.
A Primer on Place-Making . . . and How are we Doing?
Larry Good, FAIA
Before we can evaluate and compare Dallas-Fort Worth’s most complete new urbanist villages, it is appropriate to develop an understanding of the attributes that great places posses. I have my opinions that I will share with Columns readers.
The most important attribute is a healthy, balanced mix of land uses. Varied activities enliven streets and plazas at different hours of the day. The places that are most successful will have an adequate residential density (at least 1000 units at 50 acres per acre or so) to provide a level background hum of active to and fro, and provide support for ground floor retail uses. The residents, observing from balconies and windows above, provide security for the district by way of their eyes on the street. And the most successful designs orient parking structures to direct the pedestrians back onto streets and plazas, rather than directly into buildings. If the district also includes a workplace component, hotel or civic functions, in addition to retail and residential, the vibrancy of the place will be further enhanced.
A second measure of successful places is the inclusion of meaningful, programmable public space. Such space should be bounded by component buildings in a manner to create a sense of containment and definition, and may range from intimate to grandly civic in scale, depending on the functions anticipated to occur there. The success of public space often lies in the relationship of the height of buildings to the width of the street or plaza, and on the balance between hard-surfaced paving and soft grassy parks.
Thirdly, the best places will have access to public transportation. Availability of light rail, bus service or a circulator such as the McKinney Avenue Trolley will alleviate traffic congestion and reduce parking requirements.
A fourth criterion for consideration is how well a district achieves a careful balance of occupancy between pedestrian space and vehicular space. I’ll call this “design of streets”. The best mixed-use streets (those lined with ground floor retail, restaurant or entertainment uses) will allow two-way, two lane vehicular traffic and utilize on-street parallel or angled parking to buffer moving cars from pedestrians. Sidewalk widths should be at least 10’0″ clear, with bulb-outs at the intersections accommodating desirable sidewalk dining opportunities. Block lengths and block perimeters should be kept short enough to offer choices in how to circumnavigate a district.
A fifth attribute of great places is the authenticity of the architecture itself. I strongly believe that is not necessary to resort to the nostalgia of imitating another time and place (whether it be turn-of-the-century small town Texas, or a Tuscan hilltown) to create streets with the human scale and spatial character that attracts vibrancy. Use of native materials and design for our climate are of prime importance and are sustainable practices. Creating shade by lining streets with trees, adding trellis or arbor structures for dappled shadows and providing awnings or columned walkways for rain protection are appropriate ways to respond to local impacts. Attention to human scale is accomplished by articulating the rhythm or tempo of structure and facades. The natural rhythm of retail storefront openings and residential unit sizes typically results in a articulation pattern of 25 to 30 feet along a faÃ§ade, without resorting to changing the architecture for each module.
So how would I grade several of this region’s newly design urban villages based on the criteria I described above? I have create a matrix which ranks five of DFW’s most prominent mixed use, “new urbanist” places in each of the several attributes .
In considering the balance of land uses, Legacy Town Center finishes a clear first. Starting with the EDS Headquarters Offices as an anchor, and adding several mid-rise office buildings, the district has the highest daytime workplace population by far. LTC also boasts a large, full-service Marriott hotel, multi-screen Angelika Cinema, over 1000 residential units and a reasonably active retail/restaurant component.
Legacy, Addison Circle and Southlake Town Center each have impressive public spaces, and it is hard to make a clear distinction regarding which is the best. A criticism that I’ve levied against Southlake is that the two civic park blocks are simply too large, and that the bounding buildings are too low in height to create good sense of place. If anything, Addison Circle has too much public space. The Bosque Park, the Sculpture Roundabout and the Great Oval simply spread the population out. There is no single heart to the place. So my vote goes again to Legacy Town Center for its central pond and park.
The measure of access to public transportation is less subjective. Mockingbird Station scores the highest, on the strength of the immediate adjacency to DART’s light rail platform. West Village is within a couple of blocks horizontally (and a long ride vertically) from the Cityplace Station, and has the added benefit of the McKinney Avenue Trolley. Addison Circle may have a rail station whenever DART and the community come to agreement on the use of the Cotton Belt route across North Dallas.
With regard to the design of streets, Mockingbird Station basically has none and Southlake’s allow the automobile to dominate. West Village simply feels too congested to me. Sidewalks are eight feet in width, while the one-way drives are only 12 feet wide between parked cars. I rank Addison Circle ahead of Legacy Town Center because of the beautiful hierarchy of street types. The brick paved residential mews at Addison Circle allow the cars and pedestrians to share space in the manner of medieval European towns. Legacy’s main north-south retail street (Bishop Street) has the best balance of devoting space for pedestrians and vehicles.
I can easily get into the most political trouble with critique of the architecture in these five developments. Southlake Town Square and West Village offer an engaging warmth and variegated building fabric, but rely on cute historicist details to accomplish the end. The architects of Mockingbird Station skillfully renovated non-descript middle-aged buildings and added dynamic new buildings with a hip aesthetic. But in the final analysis the buildings there seem more important than the place-making. For me, Addison Circle and Legacy Town Center rise to the top. The buildings (by multiple architects) are harmonious and complimentary, yet diverse. They are of contemporary design sensibility, responsive to issues of scale and locality.
These five developments have spawned numerous others. Frisco Square and Craig Ranch (McKinney) are works in progress, probably destined to look more like Southlake than Legacy. I don’t believe The Village at Colleyville and Parker Square (in Flower Mound) will achieve enough critical mass. The districts which are evolving naturally, such as Knox-Henderson, Uptown, Bishop Arts and Downtown Plano hold great promise to be “best” places. All of these developments are admirable. Whether we call it “New Urbanism”, “Neo-Traditional Planning” or “Transit-Oriented Development” it is great that Dallas architects and planners (and our clients) are buying into the long-term benefits of higher densities, tighter streets and mixed uses. It think we are doing well, and yet we have a long way to go.