Two miles or one exit up the Interstate from Vermillion is another Huntersville (NC) foray into New Urbanism.
This one seems a bigger success, because it’s more urban. Folks cruise in to hang out.
Birkdale Village is bustling instead of somnolent.
With a much higher FAR it achieves the appearance of a smallish city.
It comes complete with a cryptic obelisk as centerpiece. No inscription on the obelisk: should it perhaps say ‘homage to Leon Krier’?
Here you will find a fairly high residential density by Sunbelt standards.
And a relationship between dwelling and street that most people in this part of the world must find novel:
Commercial life is healthy, with the usual assortment of upscale chain stores:
The main street sports a central landscaped mall and leads to the movies.
This keeps it bustling till late evening.
When is a parking lot not a parking lot? When it’s disguised as angle parking on a Main Street.
Cruising is done at 6 mph.
As in all urban places, a parking space is not easy to find—at least on the main drag.
Yuppies congregate un-diversely in the landscaped mall.
White people are so boring! (There, I said it; now you don’t have to.)
Teens look bewildered wherever you find them.
Soccer-mom drives a paramilitary vehicle.
She is a rugged individualist and wears combat boots. She is ready to kick some ass.
Café society with kids; the nuclear family dominates as social unit. It is still hard to strike up a conversation with a stranger. This is, after all, the suburbs:
Hard, but not impossible. It helps if you own a dog. The upper middle class version of sunbelt street life looks like this:
Do people come here to walk their dogs, or are these Birkdale residents?
* * *
The principal architects of Birkdale Village, Charlotte’s Dalton, Moran, Robinson, will tell you on their website, http://www.dmra.biz/desc_birkdale.html, that they wanted this place to look like Nantucket. Here it actually does, a little:
The plan of downtown Birkdale Village:
The four principal blocks that surround the main intersection seem hollow. In fact they are chock full of structure parking, but for residents only.
You can catch glimpses of the parking decks through occasional gaps in the street wall.
Some have upper level bridges for the residents.
Suburbia at walking distance: the single-family detached subdivisions begin just beyond the parking decks.
I actually observed one couple walking into town from there (better than none). The architects of Birkdale’s master plan attached some importance to this kind of connectivity (notice the arrows):
Good for them!
The architects made few mistakes. A minor error is grass in an obvious circulation route.
Grass generally doesn’t belong in urban places, except collected into parks. Here is a man demonstrating why:
Here is the upshot:
Brick would have been nice, or Belgian block.
A much graver mistake is this seriously misguided building, probably by another architect, and a throwback to old-think, use-based zoning:
The footprint here is wa-a-ay too big; throwing the building grossly out of scale; too large a piece of land has been developed here as a single building. This is what planners attempt to prevent with height limits, but height has nothing to do with it; this building is no taller than its neighbors. It’s the footprint that throws it out of scale; that’s what the zoning should prevent.
The large footprint also encourages bureaucratic repetition: too many windows, like a mill building, and too much concentrated blankness. Popping out the center section doesn’t help, and neither does the (slighty absurd) balustrade; all that does is provide yet another opportunity for surplus repetition.
Believing that height is the principal component of scale is the most common mistake of nimbys, and explains why they never get the satisfaction they crave. Heck, a single-story building with this footprint would be out of scale here (imagine a standard supermarket). A good alternative would be to replace this building attractively and profitably with three buildings, one of which could be a miniature skyscraper, befitting its role.
Here’s an example from Turin, providing welcome contrapuntal relief for a square that is a tad too regular and symmetrical. It functions compositionally like the Campanile in the Piazza San Marco:
Thanks to MSPtoMKE of SSP for the photo.
The other two could be revenue generators, and also taller.
Two miniature skyscrapers from the Boston area:
Beacon Hill, 11 stories, left; Quincy, 10 stories, right.
And an example from a Birkdale Village of a bygone era, Forest Hills, Queens, NY, dating from last century’s ‘teens:
You can tell people hereabouts don’t have much experience with parallel parking:
Because they are right in the middle of things, curbside spaces are the preferred parking, though hard to come by; you have to circle the block a few times, adding to the bustle at 6 mph. If you strike out, there are plenty of peripheral lots, heavily landscaped. These will make excellent building sites in the future, when Birkdale Village expands.
The Leasing Center is styled to look like a three-decker…
…and the inside, like the lobby of a boutique hotel:
You can stop in and play a little chess among the boxes.
“Birkdale Village is complete,” intoned the realtor-lady inside, when I inquired about expansion plans. Nonsense. No real urban place is ever complete, even if that is the line put out by the marketing men at the Crosland Company.
As the bucks roll in and the greed factor kicks in, some sharp marketeer will spy his chance to multiply profits by building more of a good thing—regardless of what the market surveys say. The truth is a place like this creates its own market. There are fewer people at the big mall this Sunday because of Birkdale Village.
And when the time comes, there are all those outlying parking lots, each one just begging for nice four-story residential or office buildings with ground floor retail and mid-block structure parking—only this time with more levels and open to the public as well as residents.
Outside the Leasing Center, the ecologically-sound novelty vehicle waits to whisk you to your intended leasehold. The Leasing Center is cagily located right at the edge of Birkdale’s suburbs, where the uninitiated will feel at home before they venture into the urban wilds. A background parking lot provides familiar comfort, and you can relax because there's no sidewalk on the suburban side of the intersection beyond:
Just outside and to the right, the suburbs start. Here the Walgreen’s has shot itself in the foot. Inaccessible from downtown Birkdale Village, this positions its entrance towards the state highway beyond, with its own dedicated parking lot on reassuring display.
No one from Birkdale Village shops at this Walgreen’s except after getting in a car, because a block is too far to walk in the suburbs, with only grass and bushes to keep you company.
Nothing will convince Walgreen’s that they could have made more money as an integral part of Birkdale Village; their marketing theory tells them otherwise. Theories are much too durable to discard. When my camera’s batteries gave out, I replaced them at a premium price in-town at the camera store.
Most people are here to shop; this is after all -–among other things--a substitute for a mall.
Waiting for the graffiti. Just kidding, there’s no graffiti in Charlotte.
A stretch of street waiting for them to allow curbside parking.
A Charlotte Area Transit System bus with actual passengers (on a Sunday!!).
On the state highway to the Interstate:
The usual suburban crap:
And an abandoned farm. Waiting for…what?
Birkdale Village: better at making money than Vermillion. Less orthodox and dogmatic.
Therefore better than Vermillion, in spite of the world-famous architect’s absence. Or maybe because of it.
* * *
The bottom line: Birkdale Village does some good by concentrating a few residents and by getting people to like the experience of quasi-urban shopping.
Like Vermillion and dozens of other New Urbanist fragments, it is ultimately almost ineffectual in solving our environmental dilemma.Until all these disconnected New Urbanist fragments get linked up by continuous urban fabric, no city will come into being. The fragments are miles and miles apart; it will take centuries for them to congeal into a whole.
I am really impressed by California’s overall land use. The most populous state preserves huge swaths of incredible scenery in a natural state in perpetuity by virtue of public ownership. Development is concentrated in certain areas, some of which are quite urban. When you cross the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, you immediately encounter publicly-owned undeveloped land which rapidly becomes quasi-wilderness.
If the government were to stop spending its gazillions on pointless wars and start buying land to conserve, the time would come when development could be concentrated in smaller and more urbanized areas. Then New Urbanism would start to make more of a difference.