neighborhood

The image below shows a potential pedestrian-oriented site plan at 31st and Ingersoll that accommodates a building the size of a typical "The Fresh Market" (Fresh Market website) (21,000 square feet, indicated as a hatched square). Upon first glance at the zoning code, in the NPC, a building this size and use requires about 65 parking spaces and two off-street loading docks. Additional parking would be required if there is a second floor with office or residential.

I've subdivided the site into approximate zones that make sense from a pedestrian-oriented redevelopment strategy.

  1. Primary street-facing facades along Ingersoll along the sidewalk
  2. Parking in the rear, accessed from 31st
  3. Loading accessed from 31st
  4. Secondary vehicle access from Ingersoll
  5. Residential redevelopment at location of demolished houses
  6. Buffer between denser development/parking and adjacent residential on the north and west

"Charette" Sketch of Pedestrian-Oriented Development: This sketch is a 4-minute "charette" showing one way of laying out the new development at 31st and Ingersoll in a pedestrian-oriented manner.  It is not based on any actual discussion with the developer, nor a thorough review of the applicable zoning and building codes.  However, it can give a general sense of priorities as we seek to enhance the established Neighborhood Pedestrian Commercial district."Charette" Sketch of Pedestrian-Oriented Development: This sketch is a 4-minute "charette" showing one way of laying out the new development at 31st and Ingersoll in a pedestrian-oriented manner. It is not based on any actual discussion with the developer, nor a thorough review of the applicable zoning and building codes. However, it can give a general sense of priorities as we seek to enhance the established Neighborhood Pedestrian Commercial district.

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Green Light for a Green Sixth Avenue

My friends in River Bend have been working diligently for several years on revitalization of the Sixth Avenue Corridor - their hard work is finally coming to fruition! The process started with organizing property owners along Sixth Avenue from the Mercy to the river to work together (no small task in and of itself). Designation as an "Main Street Urban Neighborhood District" by the Department of Economic Development qualified the organization for technical assistance and economic incentives for redevelopment.

Then came the hard work of figuring out what to do and how to pay for it.

We see the fruits of this labor in the streetscape plan (read it here: LARGE file) just approved by the City Council. The phased costs will be shared by stakeholders that include the City and the 6th Avenue Corridor organization, along with various grants.

The goal is to use streetscape improvements as a tool for revitalizing the businesses and buildings that form the backbone of the surrounding neighborhood. In addition, the EPA will provide design assistance to help the incorporate "green" strategies into the proposed streetscape plan. Early next year, a team of designers and landscape architects is scheduled to participate in a three-day design workshop.

Sixth Avenue Corridor RenderingSixth Avenue Corridor Rendering

Above is a rendering from the plan showing more pedestrian-friendly intersection at 6th and University... what you see is wider sidewalks, an expanded bus stop, street plantings, public art, and better lighting. What you don't see is a fundamental remaking of the critical node into a place that people want to be rather than want to pass through.

In their defense, they are working with established businesses at this intersection and a set of parameters that limit this particular exploration to "streetscape" improvements. On the other hand, the Grand Vision will never come about if it isn't visioned. As built, the McDonald's and Quik Trip are, at their cores, anti-pedestrian. If the desire is to bring about a neighborhood-oriented, pedestrian friendly mixed-use district with residential, retail, and office uses that will serve the surrounding area as well as draw people from a wider radius, this intersection deserves to be planned as such.

A fast-food use is not incompatible with this vision, but should be designed in such a way as to enhance the pedestrian experience rather than separate from it. A gas station use at this intersection is probably not compatible with the underlying 6th Avenue Corridor vision. Particularly if the intention is to build a better connection through to the hospital on the south side of University.

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Cleveland Rocks

13 Oct 2010

The Reclaiming Vacant Properties conference runs today through Friday in Cleveland, Ohio. As part of my scholarship responsibilities, I will be blogging about the conference - I hope to come away with some practical ideas for neighborhood revitalization in Des Moines.

My sessions don't start until this afternoon, so I am taking the morning to accomplish a little bit of work.

Pedestrian-Friendly Street in Cleveland HeightsPedestrian-Friendly Street in Cleveland HeightsI'm staying with some friends in the suburb of Cleveland Heights, adjacent to Case Western Reserve University. In some ways, this area is very much like my own Drake neighborhood in Des Moines. At the end of the street is a small commercial district with a variety of shops (including the Starbucks in which I sit).

Note the simple yet thoughtful pedestrian-friendly elements in this photo:

  • Street parking separates the sidewalk from the relatively busy street.
  • A regular row of trees helps define the dedicated pedestrian area.
  • Brick pavers create an area between the cars and the walking path for amenities like newspaper vending and business signage.
  • Buildings are built right up to the sidewalk creating a defined edge.
  • Each retail space has a large storefront window.

These are all simple and relatively inexpensive things to do - they don't require major infrastructure improvement, and relatively minimal ongoing maintenance.

And they work. Most of the people in the coffee shop right now appear to have walked here from the surrounding neighborhood. If we create nice places to be, close to the places we live, and comfortable paths to get there, people take advantage of the opportunity.

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Shell Sweet Shell

23 Aug 2010

Historic Ruan House in River BendHistoric Ruan House in River BendI stirred up a little discussion a couple days ago when I posted the following on the reNew Design Studio Facebook page about a historic tax credit project I am working on:

Historic Ruan House historic tax credit application draft is complete. Trying to get the River Bend neighborhood some money back for their FABULOUS renovation of a burned-out shell!

A couple of my friends thought I was being a bit too harsh in describing the pre-renovation building as a "burned-out shell". I admit to descending into a bit of hyperbole, perhaps inspired by my excitement, with this message. Indeed, the words "burned-out shell" may conjure up an image of charred wood studs poking out from beneath a pile of rubble - the pre-renovation Ruan House was not at that level of destruction.

Yet there can be legitimate debate about the terms "burned-out" and "shell". What is the point at which a fire-damaged house becomes burned-out? 25%? 50%? I don't know. My sense is that it relates more to a general feeling about whether or not the interior character of the house remains intact or has been damaged beyond recognition.

I apply the term "shell" to buildings that are substantially intact on the outside, yet can no longer server their intended purpose due to neglect or physical damage on the inside.

When is a Building Too Far Gone

Ruan House (before renovation)Ruan House (before renovation)The pejorative label "burned-out shell" begs the question, is a building ever too far gone to repair?

Prior to its complete rehabilitation by the River Bend Neighborhood Association, there is little doubt that this historic home had serious issues. There had been a fire in the attic. The roof damage and ensuing water infiltration damaged much of the interior plaster. The rear addition was structurally deficient, building systems and fixtures were missing or inoperable, the entry stoops were crumbling or missing.

Clearly this structure was uninhabitable at the time in terms of both local ordinance and basic human decency. Only those with a healthy understanding of and respect for architectural history would have noted any particular redeeming quality in the physical structure, though it was at one time the residence of a prominent local businessman.

In general I have a pretty low threshold for "save-ability" - that is, I know from experience that older buildings (masonry in particular) are relatively resilient when it comes to water infiltration, fire damage, and general neglect. The Ruan house is a prime example of how a building that many people would assume should be demolished can in fact be rehabilitated into a crowning jewel, a prominent entry market into a National Register historic district!

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Drake Neighborhood StreetscapeDrake Neighborhood StreetscapeI will be presenting a talk at the upcoming State of Iowa Historic Preservation Conference in Red Oak. My topic, also the subject of my talk at a Terrace Hill Tea, is "Why Old Buildings Matter".

I am not a strict preservationist. My basic approach to renovation design is to identify those elements I feel are "character defining" about a building and open everything else up to reinterpretation. My personal threshold is somewhat less than the State Historic Preservation Office. Of course, when I am working on a historic tax credit project, I conform to their requirements. The exterior is of particular importance in most historic buildings because the relationship between buildings is often a character defining element of a neighborhood. Consistency of character across a neighborhood or sub-neighborhood enhances the value of all the homes.

So why do old buildings matter? Here's a little preview:

  • Context - The shape and size of homes, and their pattern of arrangement into neighborhoods, both influence and are influenced by broader social, economic, and technical forces.
  • Narrative - To people who know what to look for, old buildings can weave just as complex a narrative as the greatest storyteller. These narratives give us a connection to the past.
  • Craft - Most of the materials and methods we use to construct our buildings today are designed to be replaced rather than repaired when damaged (and they tend to damage more easily).
  • Sustainability - At the individual level, extending the useful life of a structure through renovation allows us to improve energy efficiency while minimizing use of new-source construction materials. On a larger scale, renovation and preservation allow us to better utilize existing infrastructure and provide services more effectively to more people.

Come to Red Oak to see the whole presentation - hope to see you there!

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Urban Elements

02 Aug 2010

[Note: I'm reposting this blog originally written in 2008 because it's one of my favorites and because it is particularly relevant in relation to the recent bike lane and commuting blog posts]

Several factors go in to determining how "urban" a neighborhood is: compactness, connectedness, population diversity, diversity of use, and relationship between the private and public space.

The following graph plots these characteristics for a variety of different neighborhoods. The more area enclosed by the graph, the more "urban" a neighborhood is. Continue below the graph for some examples of how it relates to actual Des Moines neighborhoods.

Urban Elements GraphUrban Elements Graph

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The Des Moines Rehabbers Club seeks nominations from the public to name "Des Moines' Seven Most Endangered Buildings." Neighborhood groups, individuals, and businesses are encouraged to submit nominations for buildings in danger of demolition or neglect. Nomination forms are available for download at http://renovatedsm.com/node/305 and must be received by September 22, 2008.

Eligible buildings must be located within the city of Des Moines, must be threatened with active demolition or severe neglect, and should not be in a condition that is beyond the possibility of rehabilitation. Buildings may be residential or commercial, of any size and being used for any purpose. The list will be announced in mid-October.

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Entry to River Bend

04 Aug 2008

6th Avenue is the spine of the River Bend neighborhood. The intersection of 6th Avenue with University Avenue serves as the primary entrance to the neighborhood for much of the traffic that passes through.

6th Avenue at University: Entry to River Bend6th Avenue at University: Entry to River BendUnfortunately, this intersection is not very welcoming to either vehicles or pedestrians. It is marked by surface parking lots at the southeast and southwest corners, a Quicktrip gas station on the northeast corner, and a McDonald's drivethru (behind a three foot retaining wall) on the northwest.

This intersection actually misleads potential visitors about the neighborhood - though it cuts right through the center, there is very little on 6th Avenue that relates to the residential areas on either side. The sidewalks are pushed up against a highly traveled street (though there are curb cuts at all four corners!). None of the corners are "built" with pedestrian-oriented uses, despite the proximity to Mercy medical center that could provide a flow of pedestrians. Despite its current configuration, 6th Avenue actually has a history of pedestrian use.

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