NU Council VIII

In October 2011, the city of Montgomery, Alabama played host to CNU's New Urban Council VIII. A contingent of over 50 dedicated New Urbanists convened to examine the state and shape of New Urbanism to come. The successes and failures of past projects - and the potential of future initiatives to improve the quality of the built environment - were explored through lectures and in a give-and-take format. Through project critiques (such as Victor Dover on DKP's Downtown Montgomery Plan and Nathan Norris on The Waters), an assessment on Sprawl Retrofit from Ellen-Dunham Jones, a discussion led by Todd Zimmerman on the emerging demographic collision between the baby boomers’ and millennials' demand for urban environments, and a presentation on harnessing form-based coding as an economic development tool by Scott Polikov, the council provided a forum for dissecting CNU's progress.

The setting of Montgomery allowed participants to experience some of the positive developments currently happening in the historic city, including a tour of the DPZ-designed community Hampstead, a riverboat cruise, and a special farm-to-table dinner at the Hampstead Institute Downtown Farm.

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Day One

Victor Dover- Downtown Montgomery Plan

Victor Dover put the setting of this year’s council in context by discussing the creation of DKP's Downtown Montgomery Plan. Following a design charrette DKP held in Montgomery, fundamental ideals were prescribed to bring the downtown area back to people-oriented urbanism:

  • Preserve, Restore, Reuse
  • Unleash Private Investment
  • Make it Green
  • Mix uses, housing, and building types
  • Insist upon Balance

Practical implementation of these broader themes involved use of the Montgomery Smart Code, reduction in the amenity and civic space requirement, reduction in land for Traditional Neighborhood Developments, allowance of additional uses downtown, use of a transect map for infill development, climate succession, incorporation of additional road types, use of a synoptic survey for local calibration, and conservation of historic structures.

Dan Camp's Response to Downtown Montgomery Master Plan: Incremental is Everything

In the Cotton District of Starkville, Mississippi, Dan Camp undertook a redevelopment project starting with eight units close to the Mississippi State University campus. As the development thrived, he bought more small increments of space for infills. “Incremental development gave my work and me the ability to be financially independent,” Camp stated.

By doing everything in-house and in small steps, Camp never lost control of his development to government programs or other firms. Camp designed small retail space (16 x 24 ft.) with living spaces above. The commercial spaces could be rented for small amounts which helped to outlay initial extreme costs and to provide an income stream to help with the rest of the eventual development.

Drawing from his experience in Mississippi, Camp believes the central question for Montgomery’s development plan to be: “Where are all the people?”

The incremental development strategy could be successful in Montgomery if the demand is there, he said. Though development codes are strict, the city council is not an insurmountable obstacle in designing new neighborhoods if developers stick to their plans. Other problems in Montgomery include wide streets, low city funds, and excessive parking. Despite its early streetcar adoption (and subsequent decline), Montgomery grew up prioritizing personal transport. However, investors are catching on to the need for an incremental, dense, downtown approach to the city. It is most important to get local officials to start thinking about what adds value to city streets. There is often a fundamental disconnect between city officials and state or federal officials. The state and national governments see the street as a means for longer-distance transport. To the city, however, the market and social aspects of the street mean much more. It’s essential for the public works departments to be more city-oriented.

Here, the question of financing becomes entwined with that of theoretical demand. Public works still has more money than planning departments, but as municipalities see themselves less as federal agencies and allow private capital improvements to take on more city developments, everything is slowly moving in the right direction.

Todd Zimmerman: The Next Great Market after the Great Discontent

Former CNU Board member Todd Zimmerman commented on the breadth of generalizations being made when talking about new development. Calling America the “land of self-invention,” Zimmerman sees the future of housing options reflecting the diversity of the population. Realtors will see that we are in the midst of a Great Convergence (2004-2024), a demographically-defined era during which the baby boomers, who are more likely to own than rent, meet the millennials, who are more likely to rent than own, in the housing market. Both groups are trending towards mixed-use, walkable housing at all scales. Immigrants, who once settled in gateway cities, are now filling the gaps at the urban fringes and represent a significant percentage of buyers of suburban tract housing.

In this environment, how can you define and recognize New Urbanism? CNU needs to work on authenticity of place, said Zimmerman. Urbanity was emblazoned as decay in the American psyche after the riots of the 60s; now, the suburbs have a similar stigma.

The basic components of housing value are size, quality, and location. You can slice lots in numerous ways to respond to market demand. Housing preference is harder to identify than neighborhood preference so a necessary question becomes: “How do we help the buyer identify what they want?” Asking when and where the millennials will start buying homes amplifies the question.

Rent is getting expensive, but millennials as a generation tend to prefer the maintenance-light option of renting. When this younger generation starts having children of its own, it is important for the urban centers to adapt to attract and retain the young families. At present, education is the issue that drives millennials with children out of cities; if education is improved, people will stay in the city.

Millennials are uniquely suited to conceive and address urban problems. CNU needs to create an agenda to retain millennials throughout all life stages. By focusing on downtown plans for the next 10-15 years, the city is poised to retain its current residents and entice new ones. Urbanists should mount a two-pronged program to: 1) kill the subdivision; and 2) renew focus on city-centers. Access to transit, schools, and amenities must be prioritized. The city has to be reinvented because it is now, more than ever, a place for innovation and vibrancy. People who are moving in are changing the city for the better, but they are moving into ill-suited buildings.

NU Council Discussion: CNU, City-Builder or Sprawl Retrofit? CNU has always focused on the City, but suburban repair is now where the help is really needed. Sprawl retrofit is an important undertaking. CNU has some distance to travel to look towards the younger family. In terms of the work CNU can do, retrofitting a suburban community is work CNU is actively engaged in, introducing urbanity into the suburban framework.

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