Revitalizing Urban Projects Win Rudy Bruner Awards

Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Courtesy of Billy Michels via Metropolis
Miller’s Court in Baltimore, Maryland / Billy Michels via Metropolis

From a pool of applicants from 40 communities in 26 states, Miller’s Court in Baltimore was awarded the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence (RBA) gold medal and a $50,000 prize. Four other projects were awarded silver medals and $10,000 each.

Since 1987, the biennial award has recognized “urban places distinguished by quality design and contributions to the social, economic, and communal vitality of our nation’s cities.” The 2013 gold medal was awarded to Inspiration Kitchens in Garfield Park, Chicago.

This year’s winning project, Miller’s Court, is a “renovation of a vacant historic tin can manufacturing building, into an affordable and supportive living and working environment for school teachers and education-focused non-profits.” Located in an economically and culturally diverse neighborhood near Johns Hopkins University’s Homewood campus, the project, which was conceived and developed by Seawall Development Company with Mark, Thomas Architects, was completed in 2009.

The LEED Gold-certified complex includes “40 rental apartments and 30,000 square feet of office space and shared meeting rooms with contemporary, loft-like interiors.” Other features include a teacher resource center and a cooperatively owned independent café, which has become a popular meeting place for teachers, tenants and even President Obama, who visited in January.

miller's court
Miller’s Court / Seawall Development Corporation

One of the project’s crowning achievements is generating additional investment in the surrounding community. At the urging of several building residents, Seawall purchased and renovated 30 vacant neighboring houses to create Miller’s Square. Baltimore public school teachers and police officers are eligible for $25,000 grants toward homes there. Read more about the project in Metropolis.

Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square / Courtesy of the Bruner Foundation
Renovated row houses at Miller’s Square /
Bruner Foundation

Four other projects were recognized with silver medals and $10,000 each:

Located in the center of downtown Greenville, South Carolina, Falls Park on the Reedy is an urban oasis thanks to the transformation of a forgotten 40-foot tall waterfall and overgrown river valley into a 26-acre park. Development of the park, which opened in 2006, included replacing a four-lane vehicular bridge built directly over the falls with a pedestrian suspension bridge designed by Rosales+Partners. The bridge appears to float above the river, offering a dramatic overlook of the falls. Learn more about this project at Metropolis.

IMAGE 1 Falls Park Signature Image
Falls Park on the Reedy in Greenville, South Carolina / Rosales+Partners via Metropolis

Grand Rapids Downtown Market is a new public space in one of West Michigan’s most challenged neighborhoods. The market “promotes local food producers, entrepreneurship, and education about nutrition and healthy lifestyles” by linking urban communities with the 13,000 farms in 11 surrounding counties and attracting a diversity of customers to the southern edge of downtown Grand Rapids. The state-of-the-art facility, designed by Hugh A. Boyd Architects, is the first LEED Gold–certified public market in the country. Learn more about the market at Metropolis.

Grand Rapids Downtown Market / Grand Rapids Downtown Market

Quixote Village, in Olympia, Washington, is a two-acre community of tiny houses that provides “permanent, supportive housing for homeless adults, including people suffering from mental illness and physical disabilities and recovering from addiction.” Since its completion in December 2013, Quixote Village has attracted the attention of many interested in tiny houses including nonprofits and private developers, as well as The New York Times. Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

nytimes quixote village
Tiny house in Quixote Village / Courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann for The New York Times

Located three miles south of downtown Cleveland, Uptown District is the “redevelopment of a corridor that links surrounding neighborhoods with art, educational, and healthcare institutions, producing outdoor gathering spaces, retail shops and restaurants, student and market-rate housing, and public transit connections in the process.” The development has transformed two previously underused city blocks between two of the city’s most iconic cultural institutions into a “community gateway.” Learn more about the project at Metropolis.

Uptown District in Cleveland, OH / Stanley Saitowitz, Natoma Architects Inc. via Metropolis

The 2015 RBA selection committee included: Mayor Mark Stodola, Little Rock, Arkansas; Rebecca L. Flora, Sustainable Practices Leader, Ecology & Environment, Inc.; Larry Kearns, Principal, Wheeler Kearns Architects; India Pierce Lee, Program Director, Cleveland Foundation; Mia Lehrer, FASLA, President, Mia Lehrer + Associates; James Stockard, Lecturer in Housing, Harvard Graduate School of Design.

Learn more: A blog series on Metropolis’ web site is chronicling the 2015 RBA process and case studies of the winning projects.

The Case for Place-Making, Without the Sprawl

What does it take to not only slow the spread of sprawl but also fundamentally change how we design and build communities? And how do we “unsprawl” communities that have already been built? A new book from our friends at Planetizen, Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces and Places, by Simmons Buntin, editor of and Ken Pirie, who works for Walker Macy Landscape Architects, proves that there are better ways to build communities. But this isn’t a book about sprawl: It’s a book about built places, “real, human scale communities by people and for people, not cars.”

In the introduction, Galina Tachieva states, “sprawl as a built habitat has been failing for decades.” With the recent economic downturn, the fundamental inadequacies of sprawl have become apparent. The new push to “unsprawl” is a movement towards an urbanism we can all afford — one in which amenities are located centrally and walkable, where the built is balanced with the natural.

While there are clear reasons why we need to unsprawl, this is a focused how-to book. Exploring all aspects of a project from concept to design and through to its execution, there are lots of details about how projects were financed and built. We also learn about the successes and failures along the path to that “particular moment when a project becomes a true place.”

Each case study covered in the book has an accompanying question and answer section with someone who is intimately involved in the design and development of the community. Case studies of various scales are organized into four sections: new communities; in-fill and grayfield development; the redevelopment of downtowns; and examples of “green” development.

The new communities section shows that good urban design is doable in both rural and suburban communities, places that have been historically car-focused. The authors believe we can build “new and distinct places that respect the economy and heritage” of that place. One new community, Prospect New Town, located south of Longmont, Colorado, was built with a mixed-use, eclectic design aesthetic and was voted “America’s Coolest Neighborhood” by Dwell magazine.

In the in-fill and greyfield section, the authors ask: what we do when the existing form and function of our communities cease to serve us? Do we rebuild from scratch or find “innovative ways to adapt to changing social, environmental and economic circumstances?” Built on the site of Rockville, Maryland’s vacant mall, a new town square “created a daytime, evening, and weekend activity center that is easily identifiable, pedestrian-oriented and incorporates a mix of uses and activities.”


Buntin and Pirie acknowledge that wonderful things have been torn down in and around American cities, ranging from “native ecosystems to historic neighborhoods” but believe that replacing what doesn’t work with “dedicated planning, good urban design, and hard work” can turn redeveloped areas into “intentional and integral parts of their respective downtowns.”

For example, RiverPlace in Portland, Oregon, the initial development of which was possible through the city council’s 1976 decision to remove the six-lane freeway that separated the city from the Wilmette River, showcases an “early and ongoing example” of these principles in action.

In the green development section, the authors feature a few projects with especially strong sustainable credentials. The authors state: “successful, sustainable communities are not a goal to be achieved, but a process to be followed and revised: an essential pursuit if we hope to build places that will last on landscapes that will last even longer.” One such example of a green development is Prairie Crossing, in Grayslake, Illinois, north of Chicago. Prairie Crossing is transit-based, energy efficient, and community focused. The project “began as a commitment from conservation-minded investors who sought to preserve and restore native prairie and farmland being lost to suburbanization.”

The case studies provide us with an “optimistic, diverse, and common-sense direction for the future,” one in which people, and their walkable communities, live in harmony with the natural world.

Read the book.

This guest post is by Heidi Petersen, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and ASLA 2013 summer intern.

Image credits: (1) Unsprawl / Planetizen, (2) Live/work streetscape, Prospect, Colorado / Simmons Buntin, (3) Rockville Town Square / Simmons Buntin, (4) RiverPlace’s South Water Front Park / Walker Macy, (5) Prairie Crossing / Prairie Holdings Corporation

With the Beltline, Atlanta Wants to Become a New City

A bit more than 10 years ago, Ryan Gravel, a Georgia Tech architecture and urban planning master’s student, delivered a whopper of a thesis. His vision was to transform the mostly abandoned railroad lines that circle Atlanta into a new network of transit, parks, and pedestrian and bike trails. While that vision would have died in other cities, it actually took root in Atlanta and is now becoming a reality. Seven years into the wildly ambitious Atlanta Beltline, a 25-year, $3 billion project, more than 640 acres of land have been acquired and tens of millions raised. By the end of the project, more than 22 miles of modern streetcars, 1,300 acres of new parkland, and 33 miles of bike and pedestrian trails will make Atlanta a far more sustainable, livable, and inclusive place. That streetcar will connect some pretty down-on-their-heels neighborhoods to wealthy ones, creating access to new opportunities for poorer Atlantans. The new infrastructure, parks, and trails will hopefully be the tipping point that will get Atlantans out of all those cars. To make this transformation happen, some $1.8 billion will be spent on the transit, $500 million on parks, and $250 million on trails.

In a bus tour of the Beltline as part of the E.P.A.’s Brownfield conference, Heather Hussey-Coker and Lee Harrop explained how the unique industrial history of Atlanta laid the foundation for the Beltline and how a wide-ranging coalition of organizations, government agencies, and private sector firms have made the project happen.

After he completed his thesis, Gravel formed the Friends of the Beltline and started shopping the idea around Atlanta. Many presentations later, support started to build. The Trust for Public Land came in and did a research study that showed how the Beltline could become Atlanta’s Emerald Necklace. Soon thereafter, then Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin commissioned a study to determine whether the Beltline could be financed with a tax allocation district (TAD). The city found that it would raise more than 60 percent of the total cost so decided to move forward with that approach.

A TAD is basically “tax increment financing.” As Kevin Burke, ASLA, senior landscape architect for the Beltline, explained, imagine the tax value of a property goes up with rising property values. That incremental tax revenue is set aside for specific projects like the Beltline. The problem that came later was that the real estate market in Atlanta crashed, “skewing market projections of how much money the TAD would provide the Beltline.” Burke said this is the main reason “we have only delivered 60 acres” of parkland out of the planned 1,300-acre system of greenways and parks.

On top of that, the use of a TAD for the Beltline was delayed because a local resident sued, arguing that the public school portion of local taxes couldn’t be used to finance the Beltline. The case went all the way to the state supreme court, which just recently sided with the Beltline. Then, in a state-wide referendum, the voters of Georgia decided that school districts could opt in to TADs.

The Beltline is back on track though, largely because of an “aggressive fundraising campaign,” said Burke, which has brought in more than $40 million. Now in year six of the TAD, that measure will deliver money to the Beltline over the next 19 years. In reality, Burke said this will mean about “53-55 acres of parkland should be built each year.”

Hussey-Coker said the original railroad tracks that the Beltline follows were used to circulate industrial goods from manufacturing facilities on the outskirts of Atlanta to the city’s downtown, where they were then moved to other parts of the country. Residential areas then grew up around those industrial centers. “Beltlines were created to avoid the industrial downtown,” which was viewed as not a great place to live. The circular Beltline around the city served to “pause development for a long time.” Within its boundaries, “trolley suburbs” were created.

The parkland that has been added already is pretty spectacular. As the bus drove past, everyone oohed and aahed over the new historic 4th ward park, a Sustainable Sites Initiative™ (SITES®) pilot project that has spurred $400 million in development around it. In a clever landscape architecture design, the Beltline team created a new basin that doubles as a park. An example of smart multi-use infrastructure, the new park, which cost $50 million, is designed to flood in severe storm events. When not flooding, there are ledges for exercise, with a theatre in the center. “We built a 17 acre park and a new piece of infrastructure for $50 million.”

The park also leaps and bounds through the neighborhood, with additional smaller pieces dotted through the community. The nearby skatepark, which legendary skater Tony Hawk helped finance to the tune of $25,000, looked like a skater’s paradise. Burke said a new space for beginning skaters will be added soon, given what’s there now is for pretty advanced stuff.

Design work has already begun on a number of other parks. James Corner Field Operations, designers of the High Line, and Perkins + Will, originally created the “25 percent-level designs,” said Harrop, creating the basic language of the greenways, parks, and trails. While Perkins + Will is doing more design work, Field Operations is no longer involved. Request for qualifications are going out for each individual park. While Burke said some $75 million has been spent so far – on parks and trails, there’s a long ways to go over the next 10-15 years. He said he’s already working 10-12 hours days getting new parks online.

One exciting park will be appearing soon at the Bellwood Quarry, an old quarry that the city bought in 2006. There will rise a new reservoir, the focal point of the new Westside Reservoir Park. In a unique partnership with the city’s department of watershed management and parks department, the Beltline will develop the park around the reservoir while the city will ensure the security and safety of the water supply. Harrop also told us that a herd of American bison, which are actually native to the area, may be imported and be used to organically amend the soils. The Beltline crew likes to set herbivores on their plant problems: goats were recently let loose on kudzu in some spots and sheep on poison ivy in others.

Still other areas near the Beltline targeted to become parks are currently brownfields. Just west of University Avenue, in the southwest segment of the Beltline, a property next to the former State Farmer’s Market, which is now a wreck, will rise like a phoenix from the ashes and become a new 5-6-acre urban farm. To make way for this transformation, several layers of asphalt were removed, along with old gas tanks, axles, and transmission tanks. Harrop said the area will be restored from an abandoned industrial site to its original use as an agricultural resource for the neighborhood. He remarked on the “poetry” of that transformation.

The transit corridor itself will rise and fall through the city. Burke said it will look much like the St. Charles street car line in New Orleans. There will be grass below and on the sides of the tracks. Like in New Orleans, Atlantans will be able to walk or jog near the tracks. “It will be a porous transit line.” The big challenge, though, is that much of the Beltline isn’t at grade; much of the network will be above or below street level. Every street that crosses the line will offer an access point. The transit line itself will stop every half to quarter mile. While there are 10 at-grade access points, there will be lots of walking up and down stairs and ramps to get to the line. Burke said “it’s an extreme challenge to design access so that people don’t feel like they a deserve a piece of cheese when they reach the end of the ramp.”

Once people find their way to the streetcar corridor, they will find a 14-foot concrete bike and pedestrian trail, said Hussey-Coker. The walking trail will run alongside the streetcar. In most places, there will be enough room between the two networks so that no physical divider between them will be needed. In the case where they are just 7-feet apart, the design team plans to add in low shrubs or fences.

In some parts, interestingly, the trail actually diverges from the streetcar line. “The trail will be nearby but it’s not always side by side.” The trails are in fact designed to meander a bit to “connect isolated green spaces” near the light rail line. To ensure bicyclists can also easily access the trail, entrepreneurs in the city are looking at opening bicycle rental shops at key points. There is a feasibility study underway for a bike share program as well. “Before we can build the bicycle infrastructure, we need to build a bicycle culture,” said Hussey-Coker.

A lighting scheme is being designed to enable access at night and enhance security. The team decided against security call boxes along the trail, but they will be in the transit stations. Harrop said the cost of adding security call boxes along the entire 22-mile line would have been prohibitive, plus “everyone has cell phones these days.” The Atlanta Police department is already putting together the Path Force, a team dedicated to patrolling the parks, trails, and nearby neighborhoods. In the beginning of the planning process, there were some fears that the Beltline could be used as a “criminal corridor, used for bad stuff.” But the market is saying something different. Harrop noted a marked improvement in the housing market in Beltline neighborhoods and said bidding wars for residences right off the line are becoming more frequent. In fact, speculators are buying up vacant properties along the Beltline in some areas, seeing opportunities to make lots of money.

The landscape design itself, which was informed by the work of Perkins + Will and James Corner Field Operations, will be built out in parts by Trees Atlanta, a local tree-planting organization. Some sections will be like an arboretum, while others will be a more straight-forward greenway. In many areas, the landscape itself needs to be cleaned up, with invasive plants removed and basic environmental remediation. Groups in the 45 neighborhoods the line transects are able to Adopt the Beltline and organize clean-up crews. The Beltline seems to have done an excellent job at involving the many diverse local communities in both planning and upkeep. “There have been no protests about the Beltline.”

But the big question may be: Can this new streetcar and set of trails really get Atlantans to move around the city in ways the existing infrastructure has not? The Beltline team is serious about providing other forms of mobility, but will they succeed in uprooting the car culture? Can they get Atlantans to think it’s cool to bike to work, walk trails every day, or take the streetcar to connect to a subway or bus?

The relatively new MARTA subway system (at least in comparison with NYC and Chicago) seemed barely used when this blogger rode it about 10 times, with stations and trains largely empty. Local riders looked like they were among those unlucky enough to not own a car. There were some tourists and business travelers coming to and from the airport. The reality is that the 10-county Atlanta region has some 4.2 million people, yet just 200,000 use the MARTA subway each day, despite the billions that have been spent on the project. Another 200,000 use the bus system, which this carless blogger waited almost an hour for one day. When I went into a store and asked one shop owner how to get back downtown on the bus, she just laughed, saying that “nobody rides the bus.”

As the new infrastructure comes in, the Beltline team, Atlanta city government, non-profits, and private sector firms, will need to work together to change the culture of the city, so that this beautiful re-envisioning of Atlanta’s historic infrastructure is actually put to good use.

Learn more about the Beltline master plan and next steps and see more photos.

Image credits: (1) Beltline map / Atlanta Beltline, (2) Beltline / A is for Atlanta, (3-4) Historic 4th Ward Park / Steve Carrell, (5) Historic 4th Ward Skatepark / Steve Carrell (6) Bellwood Quarry / Tumblr, State Farmers Market / SwatsMatt blog, (7) Irwin Promenade / Atlanta Beltline, (8) North Highland Overpass / Atlanta Beltline, (9) Gateway to the Eastside Trail at 10 street and Monroe Drive, (10) Adopt the Beltline / Atlanta Beltline

Landscape Architecture vs. Consumerism

The design professions are at a crossroads, struggling to reconcile design’s role as an engine for consumer-driven economic growth with its role in imagining and implementing sustainable lifestyles and businesses. There’s a “meaning” gap between designers’ potential for social good and the ruthless commercialism and consumerism that serves as the context for the professions.

In my new book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism: How design activism confront growth, I explore this gap and present examples of how designers are confronting key problems of consumerism. Here I look at a few examples from landscape architecture.

Consumerism acts as an engine for economic growth. This engine shapes design as market values increasingly outweigh civic or environmental values. One example is private suburban communities. Peter Cannavò reports that the growing trend for making new suburbs private—privatization is a requirement in a number of cities—means that more and more whole neighborhoods are managed as property rather than as communities or civic places. This type of management usually limits the variety of structures and allowable types of landscapes, often aiming for an outdated suburban ideal of big houses, big cars, and resourced-intensive landscapes, all of which drive increased consumption.

New suburbs are privatized, becoming consumption-driven commodities rather than communities. Photo Patrick Huber.

Consumerism also shapes landscape design when market actors control the location of public places. Emily Talen describes how cities such as Phoenix and Chicago implement new parks and other public spaces not according to where they are needed, but rather, according to where developers have paid impact fees. In the case of Phoenix this means that parks are planned for low-density, peripheral locations rather than strategic locations that might synergistically enrich the public landscape. This is similar to other “privately owned public spaces.” Whoever has money to pay impact fees determines location, whether or not the location adds wider value. The locations and contexts then dictate the benefit that any landscape design can bring to the urban fabric as a whole.

How Landscape Architecture is Reshaping Consumption

Despite these problems we’re also seeing cases where landscape design is shaping, or reshaping, consumerism. Here we look at the examples of sharing, appropriation and interactivity. The discussion above suggests that the location of landscape amenities can limit the way they enrich the public realm. Although we think of a landscape as stationary, recent examples of mobile urban farms and floating parks begin to question what it means to share a landscape. Two examples are the Neptune Foundation’s floating swimming pool, essentially a floating park, and “The Farm Proper,” a mobile urban farm.

Set & Drift developed this experimental, mobile urban farm using abandoned shopping carts, among other things.

Landscape architects are also looking at ways to appropriate and reassign existing landscapes that are underperforming socially, often because spaces are shaped by market efficiencies, to the exclusion of social or environmental values. In these cases designers highlight and uncover added value in tactical ways. An example is the Park(ing) Day project by ReBar, where money in the meter converts on-street parking spaces into temporary pocket parks.

Western countries are driven increasingly by “positional” consumption—for status rather than to meet basic needs. But research indicates that providing a better quality commons, including public space, could offer new means for gaining social distinction and weaken the link between status and private consumption. To this end, designers are enriching public spaces in new ways.

Play encouraged by flexible, fiber-optic “stalks” that emit sound and light as people passed near them in “White Noise, White Light” by J. Meejin Yoon. Courtesy of Howler + Yoon Architects.

Examples are experiments in interactive landscapes such as Enteractive (by Electroland Studio) and White Noise White Light. In both cases public spaces were “wired” to react to public and social activity. This interaction introduced play, but also temporarily personalized the place without privatizing it. Interesting developments occur as these interactive components are deployed in urban greenscapes as well as hardscapes.

This guest post by author Ann Thorpe is part of a virtual book tour for the book, Architecture & Design versus Consumerism (Earthscan/Routledge 2012). Thorpe currently serves as strategist with a Seattle-based startup, a social enterprise called Luum. She is also author of The Designer’s Atlas of Sustainability.

Wade into Barangaroo’s Central District

In the past few years, the massive, 22-hectare Barangaroo redevelopment project on Sydney’s iconic harbour has been mired in controversy. First, an international competition was announced in 2006, which was won by Hills Thalis Architecture. Then, upon concerns about the transparency of the development process and that the project was out of scale with the surrounding Sydney Harbour, a new competition was launched a few years later, which was then won by starchitect Sir Richard Rogers. In those years, the scope of the project also changed to improve the commercial viability of the A$ 6 billion project. The amount of space dedicated to commercial use was increased by one-third. To accomodate all the expected business influx, Rogers, controversially, proposed a nearly 800-feet-tall hotel among the parks and commercial offices. Rogers defends his approach as appropriate for the massive scale of the development.

The site is divided into three segments: Barangaroo South, Headland Park, and Barangaroo Central. Barangaroo South is home to Rogers’ three skyscrapers, including the 800-feet-tall hotel, while Headland Park, a 6-hectare site, will be designed by Australian architecture firm Johnson Pilton Walker in association with U.S. landscape architecture firm Peter Walker and Partners. The park is expected to include 100 percent native “common” plant species growing on recycled water. Interestingly, prior to the announcement of the final designs, famed urban designer Jan Gehl said, due to the size of parkland, it can’t be anything but “a wasteland” and “fearful at night.” Given the park won’t be completed until 2015 and the other sites won’t come online for a few years after that, it will take some time to see if he’s proved to be correct.

Now, according to the Barangaroo Development Authority, an international competition is underway for Barangaroo’s 5.2-hectare central district. The development authority, which has been the subject of its own controversy — with a few of its members removed by the city for conflicts of interest, will be seeking world-class master planning services from a landscape architecture, urban design, or planning firm.  

On the upside, the project plans to be the first major climate positive development in Australia. However, on the other hand, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, the developers are already talking about creating a huge casino in the new central district, making any plans that don’t include a spot for gambling moot from the get-go.

CEO of the Authority John Tabart said, “On the western edge of Sydney’s CBD, Barangaroo is a 22 hectare former container port, being transformed into a vital new extension of the city, as a new global financial hub and the spectacular Headland Park. Playing a pivotal role between these two icons, is Barangaroo Central, planned to be a stimulating new place with commercial and cultural development, creating spaces for living work and leisure.” 

The successful team will create a conceptual vision while revising the existing concept plan, along with a new master plan, land use framework, and public domain plan. Beginning at the end of August, firms can find the RFP online. Submissions must be in by September 26, 2012. 

Image credit: Barangaroo Development Authority

Interview with Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett on the Power of Downtowns

Mick Cornett
is now serving his third term as mayor of Oklahoma City. Cornett, the national president of the organization representing Republican Mayors and Local Officials (RMLO), was named public official of the year by Governing Magazine in 2010. Cornett was the featured guest of First Lady Michelle Obama at the State of Union in large part because he put Oklahoma City “on a diet” in 2007, challenging citizens to lose a collective one-million pounds. The goal was reached in January 2012. More than 47,000 residents logged their weight loss on the awareness campaign’s website.

In The Huffington Post you wrote that twenty-five years ago few companies wanted to come to Oklahoma City because of the lack of amenities. The quality of life wasn’t viewed as great, so you decided to do something about it. What did you understand to be the absolutely necessary pieces in improving quality of life? What was Oklahoma missing?

We had established low standards for ourselves. We had considered ourselves a good place to live and a nice place to raise a family, but I don’t think any of us would have maintained that it was a great place to visit. It wasn’t the city where you invited your family and friends from other parts of the country to come visit. We didn’t have a city worth showing off.

When we started about 20 years ago on this track to create some amenities we were not only proud of but that we create a city worth showing off, a lot of it was just raising the standards for what was acceptable. That included a lot of big projects like building a new ball park and sports arena and putting money into our performing arts center. But there was also water projects and beautification projects along the way — putting a canal through our entertainment district and building dams to actually put a stable body of water into our river. There were a lot of things people who lived in Oklahoma City had just never really considered. We decided to invest in ourselves. Even if no one moved here and created jobs, we’d at least have a better place for us. That was the thinking initially. It’s evolved quite a bit since then.

Since 1993, to finance your MAPS initiatives, which are viewed as a really innovative model for how cities can change themselves with their own money, you used a limited penny tax passed, which you have used to raise more than a billion for local projects. How did the penny tax come about?

The mayor at the time was named Ron Norick. We had been successful in passing some sales tax increases for economic development projects. Now for the most part those projects never came to fruition so the tax was never collected. Nonetheless, he noted that our citizens were willing to invest in themselves for something better. We were trying to kick start a really gloomy economy. The decade of the 1980s was just a horrible time in the state of Oklahoma and a pretty gloomy time in Oklahoma City.

Norick chose the five-year time frame because it was a timeframe people were comfortable with in their own lives. If you bought a new car, chances are you were going to be paying for it for about five years. It seemed like a good, finite opportunity to put something in front of the voters. It would allow them to consider whether or not they thought this was a good way to fund projects. Also, voters took comfort in the fact that it was going to go away, and secondly, that it paid cash. There was no debt in the way we funded these projects. That was fundamentally new, and it’s still new from the way most cities do it.

The first MAPS project took aim at revitalizing Oklahoma City’s downtown. With some $350 million locally-raised funds, the city built a new canal riverfront development zone, ballpark, music hall, and convention center. A huge new park is coming to complement a revamped botanic garden. Why focus on the downtown first? Why was that the priority?

Fundamentally, most people in your city care about two things: They care about their neighborhood and their downtown. A city gets its identity from its core. One of the reasons Oklahoma City succeeded, now looking back 20 years, is that we convinced people who live in the suburbs that the quality of life downtown is important. We’ve convinced them their quality of life is directly related to the intensity of the core, that you can’t be a suburb of nothing.

In way too many cities across the country, what you see is some flourishing life in the suburbs and a core that has seen its life disappear. In Oklahoma City what we tried to do was put new life into the core of the city. We want to make a city where at five o’clock people still want to stay, whether they want to live or they want to play, or they want to continue to work. We want downtown to be an inviting place. If your downtown is dead, it’s hard to imagine that life in the suburbs is going to be a whole lot better.

A new set of $777 million in investments will create a new downtown park and riverfront recreation opportunities, build out a street car system, expand sidewalks and biking trails, and create new senior wellness centers. Another $180 million was raised just to redesign downtown streets. These projects seemed designed to improve the quality of life for locals as much to draw in further private sector investment. But what do you hope to accomplish with the new projects? How are you defining success?

If we’re creating a city that our kids and our grandkids are going to want to choose to live. In the 1980s when my contemporaries and I came of age, there weren’t that many good jobs available. Most people who got an advanced degree had to leave Oklahoma City. We lost a generation of leadership. To a certain extent, some of those people are coming back now.

What we want is to create a city where if a kid grows up in Oklahoma City, they want to remain here if they can. What we’re seeing is not only is that becoming true, but a lot of people are moving here from California, the east coast, and especially Texas. Those are communities that had been a drain on our most promising citizens for generations. Now we’re attracting that human capital. That’s going to be the key to economic development because no longer do people follow jobs. Jobs follow people. We’re succeeding now because we’re attracting the top human capital available.

Are you working with landscape architects on these projects? Also, have any designers really influenced your thinking on how to design successful public spaces? What do you hope to accomplish with these new public spaces?

What we’ve learned is that there wasn’t a lack of enlightenment either at City Hall or in the business community. We had just never prioritized the landscape architecture that can really help beautify a project or a city.

The city has now got a set of standards. It’s hard to imagine that you’re going to have businesses with high standards in a city that has low standards. When the city developed higher standards — and those are standards that I continually push, given they need to be ever increasing — what you see is that the businesses in the community want to reflect those standards or maybe even exceed them. So it feeds on itself. When you have a city of low standards you’re going to have businesses that exude that same quality. You’re not going to create a city that’s all that impressive or creates interesting opportunities for pedestrians.

We have a number of landscape architects, architects, and designers here in the city who are very capable of doing great work but they had never necessarily been funded or inspired until recently.

I’ve also worked with Jeff Speck, Hon. ASLA, on a series of projects over the last few years. Jeff has helped me learn about many of the ways you can create a more pedestrian-friendly community. We have a long way to go there. Jeff has been a great sounding board for me from the outside-in on what works in certain cities across the country.

But I will say there are wonderful landscape architects right here in Oklahoma City who are now doing incredible work. I can only assume this type of work has been possible for a long, long time. It just hasn’t been standard. Now, it’s the standard and we’re seeing it.

You say that the MAPS projects have yielded $5 billion in private sector investment, much of that in new real estate. With increased residential investment and improved transit and these nice new sidewalks, are you concerned about affordability downtown? How has the population changed since private sector investment has taken off?

There’s great demand downtown. We’ve had so little downtown housing for years. The affordability is an issue, but that’s based on the idea that it almost has to be new construction. Most of the opportunity to live downtown is brand new construction, which costs more. So we are seeing price ranges that are higher than we would like. I’m somewhat concerned about that but I think over time it will start to take care of itself.

There is quite a bit of high-end housing in downtown Oklahoma City. But housing is very affordable in Oklahoma City in general. When people move to the city, they’re very surprised at how affordable our housing stock is whether they want to live in suburbs or downtown.

I can tell you this: There is great demand for downtown housing. What we have yet to resolve is making the housing as affordable as the demand would indicate. When that tipping point arrives, you’re going to see downtown housing explode. Right now, there’s a nice market for it but it’s going to really take off when the price points get closer to the average price for a house.

What are your views on the federal debate on transportation enhancements, federal financing for bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure? The senators from Oklahoma seem to be very opposed to federal support for these measures. Has Oklahoma City ever benefited from transportation enhancement funding?

Well, sure we have and, you know, I’m all for walkability and a more pedestrian-friendly environment. I am for as many of those decisions that can be made locally as possible.

I do have a slightly different take than my senators on this issue but I think both of our senators will tell national audiences how extremely proud they are that Oklahoma City is a perfect example of a city that took care of its own destiny. The fact that we’ve done so much for ourselves might be reflected in their attitudes. Because they’ve seen what can happen. They’ve seen these types of amenities that can be instituted from the ground-up. They approve of that method.

I just like the idea of anything that improves the quality of life in communities, cities tapping into those resources, but I’m not speaking for the funding like they are.

Lastly, you famously put Oklahoma City “on a diet” and recently that initiative hit a benchmark: 1 million pounds lost. Why do you think the campaign took off like it did? How are you connecting your weight loss campaign now to the new park projects, the walking and biking infrastructure?

The new prioritization on obesity here in Oklahoma City was really just a reflection on the idea that we have higher and higher standards. What I noted when I launched the campaign was we were putting higher standards on seemingly everything — except us. We really needed to put higher standards on our health and our children so the campaign was really just an attempt to get a conversation going.

We needed to talk about obesity and health in general. When I came forward and was willing to discuss my own health issues and at the same time was exposing the fact that our city had a large problem with obesity, it allowed people to be more comfortable talking about it inside their home, business, or church. That conversation has been very helpful in getting people to recognize the dangers of obesity and that we need to do something about it.

That conversation was very instrumental in us plugging in some of these healthier concepts into MAPS 3. After that campaign, we were able to say these senior health and wellness centers are going to be important. These jogging and biking trails are instrumental to creating the city that we want our kids to grow up in. We have now made an incredible amount of infrastructure improvements downtown, improving the walkability of our core city.

We are becoming a city where people want to get out and walk, which is really important. For decades, we created a life where everything revolved around the car. That’s less true today. I hope it’s less true in the coming years.

Interview conducted by Jared Green.

Image credits: (1) Myriad Botanical Gardens and Crystal Bridge Tropical Conservatory (project by Office of James Burnett) / Image credit: McNeese Fitzgerald Associates, (2) Myriad Botanical Gardens (project by Office of James Burnett) / Image credit: Carl Shortt, (3) Bricktown canal revitalization / Image credit: City of Oklahoma, (4) Central Park concept / Image credit: Hargreaves Associates, (5) Sidewalk improvements downtown / Image credit: Office of James Burnett

In D.C., New Eco-District Plans Unveiled

After two years of internal debate among 17 different federal agencies and the D.C. government, the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) released its long-awaited plans for a new Southwest Eco-District designed to undo the worst damage of the massive “urban renewal” projects inflicted on L’Enfant neighborhood over the past decades. Designed to transform the spooky, almost pedestrian-free area just south of the Mall into a highly sustainable, people-friendly cultural and business destination, the Eco-district plan means to take on many challenges at once. As Elizabeth Miller, ASLA, the intrepid landscape architect who is guiding the project, explained, this 110-acre, 15-square block project is meant to showcase “high performance buildings and landscapes” while creating space for 19,000 new federal workers and solving some of the worst pedestrian access problems.

At the beginning of the hearing today, NCPC Chairman L. Preston Bryant, Jr said the project can go a long way to “breathing new life into the city.” While the whole Eco-District may take 20 or 30 years to design and implement, “we have a once in a generation opportunity to make this happen.” He added that NCPC and its many federal partners are eager to move forward because there are some synergies that make the timing right: The Department of Energy (DOE) building is “coming to a lifecycle decision,” meaning that it’s ready to be torn down because it’s now highly inefficient in terms of energy and water use; the Southwest waterfront plans are moving forward, with $2 billion in private sector investment set; and the D.C. government-led Maryland Avenue redevelopment project is on its way.

Miller outlined a vision for an Eco-District that provokes the imagination, at least among sustainable designers. She said the new District will “capture, manage, and reuse water, energy, and waste” and work beyond a single building, leveraging clusters of buildings to create a new system. At the same time, the plan will take aim at the incredible lack of public access — the barriers, the highways, and grade changes — that keep people away, except for the federal workers that have to go there for work.

Diane Sullivan, sustainability planner for NCPC, said a sustainable mixed-use community will arise out of a set of new “guidelines, objectives” that will frame neighborhood development efforts and the creation of new environmental systems.

On developing the neighborhood, Sullivan said that a user survey of D.C. residents found that the lack of amenities was the overwhelming reason why people didn’t want to move down there or even hang out there. So the goal is create a new tree-lined 10th street (or L’Enfant Place) that can connect the Mall to the new Southwest waterfront development while also making that connection itself an exciting cultural destination, lined with 1.2 million square feet in new space for up to 5 new museums, along with farmers’ markets and other draws.

Better pedestrian access is also key to making all this work. In the new plans, Miller said Virginia and Maryland Avenues will re-appear, carving new paths through new buildings as park-like avenues for promenading. Sullivan said the new local street designs cutting up the mega-blocks are still being worked out. She asked, “which streets should be monumental? Which should be local?”

To better get those pedestrians — all those federal workers — to the area, a “better inter-modal system” will be put in place, with a revamped, solar roofed-L’Enfant station, offering both commuter rail and Metro. To ease pressure off Union Station, more commuter rail may be directed there somehow.

The saving grace of the scary L’Enfant Place now is the fountain in Dan Kiley’s Modern-era Benjamin Banneker park, with its dramatic overlook across the Washington Channel. Unfortunately, the rest of Kiley’s park was not well realized. With spaghetti loops of highways cutting through, it’s a matter of taking your life in your own hands to go from the park to the waterfront. In the new plans, Kiley’s park will be completely redone but the area will still serve as a monument to African American surveyor Banneker. The new, more sustainable park will more easily connect to the waterfront while providing a new visual identity for the “eco” part of the district.

Now, on the systems that will make the district more eco: First, many of the old federal buildings will go, getting a revamp so they meet the goals of Obama’s Executive Order 13514, which calls for federal agencies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, water and energy use. The ones that stay, like the famed Brutalist HUD building, will be updated to be more efficient.

Sullivan said the goal is to have “zero-net energy district as measured in carbon.” Pretty near impossible unless fully renewable power is the rule for the new Eco-District. Sullivan said solar PVs and solar thermal systems (for hot water) will be added to the roofs of the new buildings wherever possible, while ground-source heat will also be tapped. A central facility run by GSA, which runs on natural gas, will still be used (but that won’t get them to zero emissions).

Heading down towards the water, the freeway that cuts off the connection between Benjamin Banneker park and the waterfront will be capped with a new layer covered in solar panels.

For water, the goal is to reduce potable water use throughout the Eco-District by 70 percent and manage all stormwater where it falls. All building greywater will be reused while blackwater will go to the new anaerobic plant. Rainwater will be caught by acres of green roofs (including edible ones), green streets, trees, and planters. What isn’t caught will be funneled into cisterns underneath 10th street and used later. Green infrastructure is then clearly a central part of the strategy. Permeable areas overall are to grow to 35 percent, while the tree canopy is to reach 40 percent (a solid target). (Right now, the barren area has just 8 percent tree cover). While we didn’t hear anything substantive about creating a wildlife-friendly landscape designed to attract diverse species, we hope that’s in the works.

There are more ambitious goals for waste reductions: Some 75 percent of construction materials for the new buildings will be reused, and 80 percent of everyday waste will be diverted from the landfill. A composting program will be put in place, too.

So, how will this all actually work? Sullivan sees some government buildings first getting a light rehabilitation and then others will undergo a full rehabilitation. Three federal buildings will be “re-purposed” as major infill development begins. Then, big redevelopment will start over the freeway. At the same time, critical projects like a new Banneker park and a new 10th street landscape will begin next year.

What’s this all going to cost? Miller and Sullivan said an economic feasibility study only provided some high-level numbers, but they did say the federal government would make back its multibillion dollar investment over 20 years through reduced energy, water, and waste fees; increased revenues from private sector developers; and improved local tax gains.

While we hope this project is a sure thing, new governance structures and partnership and financing agreements will need to be worked out among all the partners, including the private sector developers who are key to making this all happen. Let’s hope this is not a protracted process. As the Eco-District gets moving, it can become an innovative showcase for how to revamp government hubs across the U.S.

Learn more about the bold plans. D.C. residents can attend a public hearing on the proposals on July 19. The comment period will be open for three months. Comments will be incorporated into a final plan ready to go by early 2013. By the end of next year, NCPC hopes to have design competitions launched for a new Banneker park and 10th street, its two priority public projects.

Image credit: ZGF Architects, courtesy of NCPC

D.C. Offers a Bold Vision for a More Sustainable Future

At a historic church in the Shaw neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Mayor Vincent Gray said there are either two future directions for the city: “The gaps between us could further divide our city,” or the city could become “greener, more equitable, and more prosperous” for all. Outlining a bold vision for a Sustainable D.C., Gray said he wanted the city to not only be the greenest in the U.S. but among all world cities. D.C. is currently ranked 8th in a recent ranking of North American cities by the Economist Intelligence Unit so the city has quite a ways to go to get to number one in this continent, let alone the world. In the near term, can D.C. beat New York City, Vancouver, or San Francisco? That’s a stretch and only possible with deep collaboration with the non-profit and private sectors.

Gray is giving the city one generation — 20 years — to accomplish his ambitious objectives, which weave in health, economic, employment, and environmental goals. The idea is that D.C. will not only become greenest but healthiest, with the most number of green jobs. On top of this, Gray wants to continue to grow the city’s population in a big way. Gray said “sustainability will need to be a continual process.”

In terms of carbon dioxide, the city wants to cut emissions by 50 percent by 2032. In presenting the goals, Christopher Tuluo, head of D.C.’s Environment Department, said “climate change is happening. If someone says it isn’t, they are flat out wrong.” A key part of achieving this goal will be reaching objectives on energy use and efficiency. The city seeks to cut district-wide energy use by 50 percent while increasing renewable energy use to 50 percent. Given some 75 percent of emissions come from buildings, the District will push for adaptive re-use of old buildings so they can become greener. The idea is to maintain and improve the current building stock and increase the number of LEED buildings (the city is already number one for that metric). Another way to fight the effect of climate change: strengthening D.C.’s already considerable urban forest, which stores much of the city’s carbon, reaching a 40 percent tree canopy by 2032. Here Tuluo added that “trees are important when it’s 100 degrees out because of climate change.”

Investing in more sustainable transportation systems is also key to both reducing transportation-related emissions and adapting to a carbon-constrained world. The district seeks to make 75 percent of all trips walking, biking, or transit in 20 years. Harriet Tregoning, D.C.’s planning director, said “this is a stretch goal but these trips already make up 50 percent of all trips right now.” She discussed how more young people may be moving to D.C. because the city’s transportation system is so affordable. This younger generation is so in debt with college loans they can’t afford cars. In fact, just 60 percent of D.C. residents own cars and that number is falling.

Sustainability means improving D.C.’s waterways, which are amongst the most polluted in the country. Gray wants 100 percent of District waterways to be fishable and swimmable, and 75 percent of D.C.’s green space to be used as green infrastructure that captures and filters rainwater for reuse. Tuluo wants the city to become much “spongier.” He wants the city to become “a much more natural place — not just for the environmental benefits. We want return on investment” in terms of stormwater management benefits.

The process for dealing with waste, which the Economist Intelligence Unit report said was among D.C. weak points, will need to be totally transformed if the city is going to reach zero waste in 20 years. Tuluo asked, “is zero waste a pipe dream?” Perhaps not. Organic waste is already turned into compost as a matter of practice in San Francisco, one of the best cities at dealing with waste. He sees D.C. residents “becoming urban farmers,” using their compost daily, and other waste consumed by digesters that turn other garbage into energy.

The front end of the reuse chain is local food production, which will also need to ramped up if the 75 percent of all food is to be grown within a quarter-mile of the population eating it. Tregoning argued that “it used to be really difficult to find a supermarket in the District.” While that has changed, improving the availability of local produce will be sped along by a network of food-productive roofs. She wants one million square feet of these vegetated roofs in place funneling produce to local shops and co-ops. (According to Gray, the city is already number-one in terms of green roofs so this may be possible). Getting local produce to D.C. residents seems to be a key focus. Health must be at the top of a sustainability agenda in a city where 22 percent of the population is obese. Gray wants to cut that rate in half in 20 years. 

D.C.’s plan won’t work without more equitable economic and employment growth. Right now, the unemployment rates in the city differ dramatically from ward to ward. In Ward 3, it’s as low as 2 percent, while in poorer parts of the city, like Ward 8, it’s 24 percent, among the highest in the country. Gray wants to boost the number of green jobs by five times — providing opportunities at all levels, from the PhDs experimenting with biofuels to the landscape architects designing parks, from the green roof installers to the maintenance crews keeping green infrastructure and waste reuse systems working.

Explore the plan. There are a few short, medium, and long-term actions listed. As Tregoning said, “the vision is a painting of what’s possible in the District.” A design and implementation strategy with hundreds of actions comes next. To see some actions that should be considered, explore ASLA’s 30-page set of recommendations: Becoming Greenest. One big focus of ASLA’s report was the need for a climate adaptation plan. If local species in D.C.’s great urban forest were to die off due to higher temperatures, none of the other goals related to water, air quality, or health will be possible.

Image credit: City Center, Washington, D.C. / SWF Institute

Playa Vista Overcomes Its Obstacles

Once mired in litigation and always fraught with controversy, Playa Vista, a 1,000-plus acre wetland, residential community, and commercial development in western Los Angeles, may now be considered a success story. While parts of the 3-mile-long by 1.5-mile-wide site are still in contention, Playa Vista’s combined parklands, residential community, and commercial district certainly offers an improvement on the usual Los Angeles model: sprawl on steroids. Sure, residents still need to drive to this publicly-accessible yet privately maintained community, but once there, cars are hidden in underground parking lots and residents can walk on nice sidewalks, bike, go to cafes, walk their dog, or chill in one of the many parks. Film and multimedia studio employees in the commercial sector can walk to the site’s central park or even hike a trail along the ridgeline. And at a tour of the site during the conference of the American Planning Association, bicyclists were even seen carrying trays of coffee, making their way to studios.  

Playa Vista’s innovative master plan was created in the 1990s by OLIN, a leading urban and landscape design firm, and other firms. There were a few major segments in the plan: a protected wetland, central park, multiple residential communities, and a commercial area, which houses Howard Hughes’ old aircraft facilities, structures that are mostly protected under California’s historic preservation rules. Then Playa Vista Capital and the Trust for Public Land worked off that plan to create an updated master plan that sets aside some 70 percent of the land as open space. 

Indeed, they may have had to set aside a big chunk as protected nature. A major share of the site is one of the last remaining wetlands in California and lies within the coastal zone. Also, lawsuits in the mid-80s prevented an earlier development team from damaging the Ballona wetlands so Playa Vista Capital decided to hand this piece over to the state. Preserving this area was a great thing though: the wetlands are lush, but could be further improved if the state moves forward with a major restoration project that will take out the narrow concrete lining parts of the river in favor of a meandering natural system. That’s still being debated between a number of local organizations and the state.

There’s some forward-thinking green infrastructure systems here that connects the development to the greater ecological system of the area. A 51-acre riparian corridor and reconstructed marsh (see image above) was designed by Friends of the Ballona Wetland, Psomas & Associates, landscape architecture firm Collaborative West, and Erik Streaker, a water quality expert, to cleanse and manage the development’s stormwater and connect with the wetlands. Already, the new marsh has brought in 100+ plus birds, including an endangered species. A new central park by the Michael Maltzan Architects and the Office of James Burnett is already in place to welcome the second residential segment, the new “Village,” now underway (moving forward only after more lawsuits were finally settled after they went to the State Supreme Court). Maltzan’s park provides a sustainable, multi-functional public space bridging the residential and commercial sides, which is also now under development.

First conceived as a New Urbanist community, given its tight density, multi-family housing complexes, and use of street grids, the first residential community diverges from that rigid model in a few key ways. There’s lots of affordable housing units. Diverse parks and street landscapes play a central role in making the community, a two-square mile development, seem a bit less like the creepy community in the Truman Show. According to Mark Huffman, Playa Vista Capital, the landscape architecture was central to making Playa Vista work so well. There are 17 acres of “active parks” and another 12 acres of “passive recreation” set within distinct park districts, with a “concert” park, “fountain” park, and others.

Streets, which have bicycle lanes, each have their own plant-based identities. “We want people to be able to find their own street,” said Huffman. Some of the buildings do look very similar to each other, even though many architects worked on the different buildings within the complex. Huffman added that 50 percent of all plants are native and drought tolerant, but some “did better than others,” with some trees felled by mites.

An innovative homeowners fee finances the upkeep of the landscapes, green infrastructure, and much of the community work. Given some 3,200 residences have been purchased, meaning some 6,000 people are living in these two square miles, the fees must not be onerous. In fact, one of the selling points of the fees may be that they help ensure the community keeps close watch over the initiatives that make this development more environmentally and socially-sound than others in Los Angeles. While the marsh is self-sustaining, said Huffman, fees are needed to cover all the permits and regulatory reporting and control the cattails in the marsh and corridor. The cattails, which are the heart of the constructed wetland system that remove pollutants from the water, often grow too wild so they have to be pruned back. Fees also help finance programs for the community, including widening the 4-lane street right out front of the development, and new computer labs for nearby schools.

Throughout, there are other sensitive ways of dealing with water. All the parks are watered with recycled water provided by automated systems. A new wetland “discovery” park designed by Levin & Associates still isn’t quite open to the public because the groups involved first need to finalize the details on the non-profit that will run the site, but that also promises to educate the public about the critical importance of water and wetlands.

While the development isn’t really the “Live, Work, Play” development it’s sold as — given most of its residents still face a long car ride to their workplaces — the commercial district isn’t too far for those lucky ones that live nearby, perhaps a 10-15 bicycle ride. The commercial side, which is run by The Ratvokich Company, offers very nice reuse of historic buildings. The Hercules Campus is named after the Hercules, the wooden plane Howard Hughes created in World War II and was deemed the “Spruce Goose” by the press. Hercules was built in the old hangers now leased out by Ratkovich to movie studios. (We had to sign a non-disclosure agreement so can’t talk about the new Hollywood movie being produced there).

The beautiful, gargantuan hangers from the 1940s are actually made entirely of wood, like large boats turned upside down. There are molded, glued wood beams that tower 72 feet and provide the frame of the structures. New tenants coming in to use other buildings for “production support” include Google, with its new YouTube channel; social media marketing; and multimedia production studios. In Los Angeles, buildings can be zoned for “production support,” which is different from plain-old office space.

Milan Ratvokich, one of the developers, seemed bemused by what “creative professionals” like in these old buildings — the cavernous loft spaces and the old, authentic materials — but clearly “saw a place with a lot of opportunities.” Designed by a sensitive interior designer, the old spaces, one of which includes an old vault Hughes kept his plane designs in, could be amazing new creative spaces for movie and Web workers.

Ratvokich proves that they are at the cutting-edge of development: They are not only looking at bringing in a new hydrogen-powered fuel cell to serve as a generator for a cluster of buildings, but also working to preserve the 100-year old Sycamore trees that line the old 1940’s Hughes offices.

Image credits: (1) Ballona Marsh / Friends of the Ballona Wetlands. Lisa Fimiani (2) Central Park, Michael Maltzan Architects / Iwan Baan copyright, (3-4) Playa Vista Concert Park and Spyglass Park / Playa Vista Capital, (5) Playa Vista streetscape / Debra Berman and Pat Kandel Real Estate, (6) Ballona Wetland Park / Friends of Ballona Wetland, (7) Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” aircraft hangar, Playa Vista / The Wall Street Journal, (8-10) Buildings at Hercules Campus / The Ratvokich Company.

How Does a Community Become a Gay Mecca?

In his now seminal book, The Rise of the Creative Class, Richard Florida used rankings on diversity, bohemia, and openness to gay people to show how creative types — the people who create value out of nothing but their innovative ideas and designs — are attracted to cities that are open-minded, liberal, and gay-friendly. In a session at the American Planning Association conference in Los Angeles, city officials from two communities on the The Advocate magazine’s gayest cities index explained how small, seemingly random communities have become “gayest” and boosted economic development in the process.

Thomas Eddington, with Park City, Utah, which The Advocate said is the gayest city in the U.S., said some 3.8 percent of Americans (or around 9 million) are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, making this group the second smallest minority, right after American Indians. However, he said the data is at best a “guestimate” because the U.S. census doesn’t ask single residents about their sexuality. Now, there are about 650,000 same-sex couples in the U.S., and about 20 percent are raising children.

In the past, gay communities “congregated and created their own place.” A few examples come to mind: Provincetown, Massachusetts; Greenwich Village, New York; The Castro, San Francisco; and West Hollywood, California. However, in their recent list, The Advocate pushes these well-known locales further down in favor of smaller communities many haven’t heard of, largely through of their use of “qualitative factors, not real numbers.” Eddington thought that while The Advocate exercise was far from scientific, it may indicate that “gay is changing.”

Well-known gay neigborhoods all have liberal, tolerant populations that feature “coffeeshops, bars, cafes” in high-density mixed-use areas with lots of housing. They are often near universities. For gays and straights alike, “these are cool areas so economic development has often followed.” However, now, people are looking for “urban sophistication without urban gentrification.” As more of the country becomes tolerant, “gay people in Kansas can just go to Kansas City, they don’t need to go to D.C., New York City, or San Francisco.” 

As GLBT groups go mainstream, they may be diverging from the traditional gay areas, “going to places where people didn’t expect.” GLBT populations may be “assimilating more than we thought.” Still, Eddington thought that wherever these groups go, “community is still important.” And where the gay population lands, more educated, minority, and other creative populations often soon follow, “creating new centers of growth.”

One example is Wilton Manors in Florida. Hedi Shafran, who leads community outreach efforts in that city, said this “all-American small town has become the 2nd gayest city in the U.S,” using The Advocate’s approach. There are about 140 same-sex couples per 1,000, with an overall population of 11,863. She said that makes Wilton Manor very high on the list in terms of per-capita couples, but it’s total gay population is still very small in comparison with Ft. Lauderdale (the gayest mid-sized city), and D.C. (the gayest state).

Wilton Manors didn’t achieve its position through “gay gentrification, but through displacement.” In the 1990s, a number of factors came together to bring in gay populations: a growing affordable housing stock freed up by an aging population; a great location near the beach and Miami; attractive Florida-style homes; and economic opportunity. Shafran said local zoning changes combined with real estate investment basically triggered the gay migration.

In the 1920s, Wilton Manors was billed as a “upscale resort community.” It never really became that. A hurricane came through, the market crashed, and many of the dreams of the town’s founders went down the tubes. The town was almost exclusively white in a sea of Florida’s diverse population. There were even rumours of local KKK groups in action and “charges of homophobia.” Shafran said: “This place didn’t become a gay mecca because it was accepting.”

One community, Victoria Park, had become a “gay ghetto,” but “non-gays moved in because of the concentration of amenities.” The result was very steep rents, so gay people moved down the road into the more affordable Wilton Manors. There, after the community started to take root, the main strip was rezoned as a “arts and entertainment district.” Developers basically told the city council, “we can turn this into a gay mecca.” The city council, said Shafran, gave the thumbs-up as long as there were “no fortune tellers, no nudity, and no porn.” They said “this can’t become a seedy part of town.”

One result was booming commercial rents. In the arts & entertainment district, and the new transit-oriented development (TOD) that recently expanded the area, occupancy rates hit 100 percent and per square footage lease rates went from $8 to $32. The major increases in property values then increased city revenue, which was then funneled back into 10 new parks and other amenities. Shafran said “through gay-straight alliances, an old park was updated with gay money.” There has also been increased diversity. The town is now only 71 percent white, with a large number of Haitian immigrants moving in as well.

She said a really mixed town still has its own challenges though. The population is decreasing, particularly the share of the population under 18. While many of the businesses, which have names like “GaySha Sushi,” are popular among the gay residents, “we’ve heard that when straight people see a rainbow flag, they think it means ‘Don’t come in. You’re not welcome here.'” There are limited cross-cultural or really any cultural activities. Undoing a local zoning ban, a porn shop has opened (and it’s run by straight men). As rents increase in Wilton Manors, there has also been “gay suburban migration.”

So, one message was that while open, tolerant places do attract gay communities, which in turn help to bring in creative professionals, other minorities, and economic development, it’s really smart zoning that helped grow Wilton Manors. Shafran said arts & entertainment districts, business incubators, and film studio zoning all help build the foundation.

Image credit: Wilton Manors / Wilton Manors Real Estate