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Thread: The WOW factor in our communities.

  1. #1
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    The WOW factor in our communities.

    Have you ever noticed that there are particular elements of a building or place that actually make you thing WOW (or some other similar adjective)? These elements might include well lit and open lobbies, pristinely maintained streetscapes, or even the little ornamental details in a massive cathedral. What ever these elements are, they invoke a very positive response. In a book written by George Ross, the attorney for Donald Trump, he refers to it as the “Trump Touch”.

    He says that put your money in things that people can see. Examples that were included ranged from chairs in the lobby, to the size of the trees in the landscape, to a massive pink granite fountain in the lobby of the Trump Building.

    What can be done with our cities to have the same wow factor? Cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, NYC and many others already have a size WOW factor, and other cities like Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, and a few others have the WOW factor related to new and exciting development... but what about the average town in America?

    Partly it is a marketing thing, partly a code enforcement thing, but mostly a development thing. Every neighborhood, every part of downtown, every street within a city has the potential for the wow factor based on elements that we find pleasing.

    What positive WOW factor elements can be including in our communities. What aspects of our regulations need to be included to require future development to include the WOW factors?

    Can this be cost effective? Will it impact the property values and the perception all that much?

    *photos of WOW factor elements would be greatly appreciated.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

  2. #2
    Cyburbian
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    Cheap abundant land was the driving force in developing America's hamlets, villages, and towns throughout the 19th century. Surveyors divided the land into one massive grid that was bought by individuals. Planners and zoning were not born yet, and the land development "organically" at its own pace without the interference of professionals or appointed plan commissions. I think this absence (not lack of) bulk requirements and design guidelines led to a healthy mixture of building setbacks, building heights, architectural styles, and additional secondary structures.

    I stress the word mixture because it is the end result of developing multiple parcels within a neighborhood. All too often planners and designers are concerned about the relationship of one building to its immediate neighbors, and are less concerned about the relationship of the site to the rest of the neighborhood. We are too aftaid that one style may clash with another. This leads to monotony in our neighborhoods (a development of georgian revivals in Wisconsin or a development of Spanish revivals in Tempe). We also forget that simple parkway tree landscaping, which plays such a vital role in softening the architectural features of the buildings, does not happen overnight. It takes several decades for Maples, Elms, and Oaks to create the lush green vaults over our streets. Residential developments created within the 1970's and 80's have mature trees and the architectural features are softened.

    In terms of WOW examples, I can think of the following:

    1. Landscaped entrance medians to developments.
    2. Giant monument signage in brick or stone that is heavily landscaped and lit.
    3. Stormwater basins with gazebos.
    4. Veterans memorials which dominate the site.
    5. Banners on every light pole.
    6. ≥100' bufferyards with ≥10' tall berms that are heavily landscaped.

    Personally, I don't see the point of forcing a WOW factor within a community. I have seen visual preference surveys for design guidelines in communities that focus on WOW factors but place a higher emphasis on architectural styles, older building materials (frame, masonry), and older buildings. I think WOW factors lead to a disproporationate raise in property values, increased traffic (residents, workers, and visitors/tourists) which lead to faster wear/tear of roads.

    So what do we need to do?

    1. Design according to scale. . Too many examples are too large, too bright, too glossy...too over the top.
    2. Design according to context.. A 100 foot monument with a flagpole is going to look ridiculous in a neighborhood of split level ranches. SimCity 3000 allows you to plop famous buildings from around the world into your backyard. A street may include the Taj Mahal, The Syndey Opera House, and Versailles. This is okay for Vegas and Dubai, but looks ridiculous anywhere else.
    3. Do not be afraid to mix an match styles. I think design guidelines are too conservative in how they define major and minor variations in architectural requirements.
    4. ***Less oversight is more. This could also mean the demise of most practicing planners and developers.

    Hope this helps.
    Last edited by nrschmid; 10 Jul 2007 at 11:40 AM.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    The WOW factor is something that I've thought about many times before. I think that for different cities it can be entirely different things.

    Sometimes, just a landmark, piece of public art, or monument can do it. I'll never forget the first time that I saw the arch in St. Louis or La Segrada Familia in Barcelona or the Hollywood sign. I don't think we, in the US, do enough of these big, crazy things anymore. Not sure what can be done about that from a planning point of view (aside from trying to set aside land for such a thing), but it still makes me think - I remember a plan years ago in Los Angeles to build a 1000' tall angel (or some insane height like that) - that would have been SWEET. (tacky, perhaps, but still SWEET)

    What I notice most (especially where I live) is that the geography of the land can play a huge role in the WOW factor. The wow in San Francisco is certainly the hills. There are other cool things as well, but the hills are what everyone notices immediately. But...the reason that people notice the hills is because the city grid completely ignores the hills. From directly above, the city can appear to be flat. I love helping to create things that further accentuate the hills - for example, making sure that allowable building heights are highest at the peaks, to prevent a "leveling out" that might occur. I would imagine that others in other places do similar things to accentuate the WOW of their cities.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian boilerplater's avatar
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    Sorry Dude, the Donald Trump projects I've seen don't give me that "Wow" reaction. Its more along the lines of "Oh dear Lord" or "Ugh" or "That is disgustingly wasteful and pretentious" But I have a design education, so of course my values are twisted. It hits you like a really tarted up chick with fake boobs, perfect makeup and hair and loads of pricey jewelry. She makes you notice her, but you know that there isn't much of lasting value inside and that ultimately she'll leave you with an empty feeling.

    The wow factor has to have more substance to it. I'm so sick of stage-set architecture and silly gimmicks. Its easy to attract magpies. If you want to attract a more diverse crowd, you need some depth, some theoretical background.
    Adrift in a sea of beige

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    Cyburbian CJC's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by boilerplater View post
    ...the Donald Trump projects I've seen don't give me that "Wow" reaction.
    Oh, they give me a "Wow" reaction. As in, "Wow, that is hideous!"

  6. #6
    Cyburbian michaelskis's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by boilerplater View post
    Sorry Dude, the Donald Trump projects I've seen don't give me that "Wow" reaction. Its more along the lines of "Oh dear Lord" or "Ugh" or "That is disgustingly wasteful and pretentious" But I have a design education, so of course my values are twisted. It hits you like a really tarted up chick with fake boobs, perfect makeup and hair and loads of pricey jewelry. She makes you notice her, but you know that there isn't much of lasting value inside and that ultimately she'll leave you with an empty feeling.

    The wow factor has to have more substance to it. I'm so sick of stage-set architecture and silly gimmicks. Its easy to attract magpies. If you want to attract a more diverse crowd, you need some depth, some theoretical background.
    The square footage prices he is able to charge (which translates to value... which translates to tax income) makes the WOW factor important to enough people that Trump includes them. I don’t like all of his ideas, but some of them, such as the stepped back levels with large trees 20 – 40 stories into the sky, the landscaped lobby with 30 foot trees inside of the GM building in NYC, and several other projects have proven that the right WOW factor can be a seriously important element.

    His golf course in West Palm Beach has one hole that cost more to build, than all the other holes combined. But it is the signature, photo opportunity, hole that overlooks the club house, community, and beach.

    In Grand Rapids, the new JW Meriott hotel has a center channel glass shaft that overlooks the Grand River. The exterior of the building is a blue tinted glass (other than the center channel which is clear and lights up bright blue at night).

    There are so many little things that can add the wow factor within our communities and if enough of these are concentrated, it can change the perception of a community. In reality, that perception is one of the most important wow factors and economic development tools.
    Not my monkey, not my circus. - Old Polish Proverb

  7. #7
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    My big WOW for GR is Meijer Gardens.

    My favorite WOW is Milwaukee Museum of Art, followed closely by BCE place in Toronto. Calavatra, though formula in some ways, knows how to make a statement.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

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    Cyburbian Plan 9's avatar
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    Personally, I always marvel at the ornamentation that was put on bridges and building faces from the 1930's and before. It generally doesn't add anything structurally (except more weight), but it makes me feel like someone took the time to build something that would be admired in the future. When you have a whole downtown or district with these little extras, then wow!

  9. #9
    Cyburbian boiker's avatar
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    Would the golden gate bridge be as iconic if it were....steel gray? Little things make giganitc differences.

    The main bridge leading across the river in our downtown, a steel truss bridge, was repainted from golden gate orange/red to ...as the engineer's called it, a much more appropriate "warm gray". The bridge instantly lost all character.

    They also removed the few very bright lights which were ornamentation on the bridge and replaced it with three times as many low-wattage, energy efficient bulbs. Unfortunately, the bright glitter is gone and a muted blue/white glow is here. In their opinion, more bulbs= better..right?

    I love the bright and varied colored bridges leading into Pittsburgh.. That's part of the WOW factor for sure.
    Dude, I'm cheesing so hard right now.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Plan 9's avatar
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    hmmm, that reminds of another WOW of mine. An oil refining facility at night when it is all lit up. Pretty ugly (but still amazing from a technological/engineering viewpoint) during the day, but at night they are something else to look at.

    Now I wouldn't recommend putting one in the downtown as a tourist attraction...
    "Future events such as these will affect you in the future."

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Seabishop's avatar
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    This was discussed recently in another thread, but some of the older WOW factor structures that were mentioned would have a slimmer chance of getting built in today's age of democratic participation. If Gaudi held neighborhood meetings about the design of La Segrada Familia and went before a modern land use commission the WOW factor might not be there. I'm not saying public input is a bad thing - it just tends to "smooth out" unique ideas.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Everything needs to be regulated today. First it was regulating natural light into tenaments, then it was separating "incompatible" uses, and now we have design guidelines. We even have to force buildings not be monotonous (however, there are great swaths of larger cities that are blocks and blocks and miles and miles of brownstones, bungalows (this was mentioned earlier)) with little variety. I am sure America cared about their houses, but they have not become obsessed as we have become today with setbacks, heights, building materials, color choices, "major" and "minor" architectural variations, the number of ornamental trees in a foundation landscaping, etc. When you FORCE something to be designed in accordance with your community's character, it only leads to greater monotony and less spontaneity, no matter how your design guidelines or form based codes are written. You can't even build a darn fence without worrying if someone is going to petition you not to.

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