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Thread: Good design only if there's good demographics: right or wrong?

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    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Good design only if there's good demographics: right or wrong?

    I'm starting to run into resistance from a couple of developers and the local home builders association for architecture, landscaping, site planning and general design requirements in the development code I'm writing. Among the other reasons why they might object (cost, mainly), I've also heard "Well, you're just [name of community], and it's hard for us to justify higher end design, architectural detailing, more landscaping and so on there." I interpret it as "the residents doesn't deserve or care about good design, because they're not wealthy or even upper-middle class."

    When I worked in Northeast Ohio, I was asked to look at the site plan for a strip plaza for an exurban community that didn't have design regulations. The plan was atrocious; a basic cinder block and precast concrete building with the back unfinished end turned towards the street, exposed rooftop mechanical equipment, no utility screening, flexispace with no wall or facade articulaton or changes in the roofline, and so on. The developer defended the design by saying "We have four grades of finish for the projects we build, from A to D. The D grade is what we build for the most affluent towns. The demographic studies we've done show that here, we can't justify more than an A grade project, and the expense of four-sided design, landscaping, brick or decorative CMU, or any other enhancements." The town planning commission actually agreed with the developer!

    This is really more of a discussion thread than anything else, since I have a good response for the argument "you don't deserve good design because you're not wealthy." Have you ever encountered this from a developer in your community? What was the response?
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  2. #2
    Cyburbian beach_bum's avatar
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    Good design tends to hold its value longer than bad design. Why is it that traditional neighborhoods, with grid style streets are still highly desirable, while cul-de-sac neighborhoods have lost their value so quickly with the foreclosure crisis? Good design is more desirable as a location for a home or business. I've never known anyone that wants to live in an ugly house or put their business in poorly designed shopping center unless it saves them alot of money. The city is stuck with what ever is developed long after the developer has made his or her money off the deal and leaves town, so the fact that they planted something that won't grow to be adequate screening or their exposed HVAC units are rusty doesn't concern them! If they want to be there, they will build to your standards. If they don't, you didn't want their crappy stuff anyways. Lots of communities have strict design standards, it is not a new tool and in my opinion it raises property values.
    "Never invest in any idea you can't illustrate with a crayon." ~Peter Lynch

  3. #3
    Cyburbian cellophane's avatar
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    my general experience is that developers are scumbags who's only interest is the bottom line. they are all business majors (gross generalization) and much like the historic overlay committees wouldn't know good design if it slapped them in the face. the architects are complicit in this in that they don't try and get the developers to realize better material choices or better design. i say this as an (intern) architect who up until a few months ago did A LOT of crappy developer projects. they would come in, say i want a building that looks like this (retail box design #3) and my boss would bend over backwards to give it to them, perpetuating the cycle.

    part of their cost analysis is what type of tenant will move into a space and how much they can get for that space. in a depressed or lower class area the tenants wont pay as much rent as they will in a neighborhood where the average income is over 6 figures. since the goal of most of these projects is just to flip the building they need costs to be low.

    we recently put a proposal together for what the developer termed "worker housing" (or something similar) and he was adamant about not having much in the way of architectural details or decent materials and when he did he acted like it was a blessing from god that he would grant the 'workers' the benefit of architectural details on their apartment.

    i have read some studies that have shown that good design and buildings in lower income / crime laden areas actually has a positive effect on the neighborhoods because people become invested in their block and take pride in it.

  4. #4
    Dan Staley's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    I'm starting to run into resistance from a couple of developers and the local home builders association for architecture, landscaping, site planning and general design requirements in the development code I'm writing. Among the other reasons why they might object (cost, mainly), I've also heard "Well, you're just [name of community], and it's hard for us to justify higher end design, architectural detailing, more landscaping and so on there." I interpret it as "the residents doesn't deserve or care about good design, because they're not wealthy or even upper-middle class."
    I interpret it as they are unable to compete in a market that delivers quality product.

    IOW: of course you are getting resistance. Too bad. Get some new developers in there that can compete in such an environment and you'll be a hero. Well, not really, but you get my drift.

  5. #5
    In a previous job, I worded with public housing tenants on the redevelopment of their development. The residents were quite able to articulate aesthetics and an appreciation for good quality designs. The problem is not the market, but developers.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian
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    Dan:

    We live this on a daily basis here in central South Carolina. "That won't work here." is a classic developer retort. My sense is that typically the push to do little as possible comes from the local builder/developer. And in a place that is not growing very fast, there is little outside developer interest or influence. When dealing with out of town guys, we find it much easier to encourage and achieve better design.

    We are not an affluent community.

    We are in the middle of a new comp plan process. The citizen survey revealed an astonishing fact--the citizens here think the quality of development is terrible and that we are frankly an ugly looking community. That should help us move towards rasing expectations.

    We will see if the policies we are recommending see the light of day. I will certainly make sure there is a public discourse about design.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian mike gurnee's avatar
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    Bingo gkmo! Such situations will not change without citizen support, voiced to the planning commission and governing body. The place to start is through comprehensive planning. Planners can foster change, but only with support.

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    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    I used to get this all.the.damn.time. It's frustrating. Central Texas gets a lot of this... "it'll work in Lakeway/Georgetown/Bee Caves/Round Rock (to a lesser extent), but your demographics aren't as good". For your city, I would strongly advise referencing some of the stuff that has appeared recently in San Marcos as well as Buda (one of the better looking Walmarts I've seen). I believe those demographics will be lesser than yours.

    You've got an uphill battle though. What you need, more than anything, is for your Council to deny some projects on the basis of bad design. Once developers know they can't get away with it, they'll stop trying.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  9. #9
    Dan Staley's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by gkmo62u View post
    The citizen survey revealed an astonishing fact--the citizens here think the quality of development is terrible and that we are frankly an ugly looking community. That should help us move towards rasing expectations.

    We will see if the policies we are recommending see the light of day. I will certainly make sure there is a public discourse about design.
    The same thing has happened to me in every city where I practiced: people, given a choice, prefer nice design, and they know what nice design is and what it is not. It is not McSuburb cookie-cutter snout house, I guarantee it. Make these developers offer a good product. Period. And you can make this happen in your comp plan.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Joe Iliff's avatar
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    I think I've seen something related to this. At a previous community, many residents moved into town from one particular community down the road. Movers used to tell me they moved one family from that town into our town everyday. So, our design criteria was "better than that town". Developers seemed to have no problem with that. They seemed to figure if you could afford to make the move, you were worth the extra design required.
    JOE ILIFF
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    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    I experience this when i work from town to town in the Central Valley. Most of the time i work with these towns that say "we want to look like that community" to which i respond, they have crafted design guidelines and have implemented them forcing the developers hand." When we move forward crafting design guidelines and solicited comments from developers and key stakeholders that come and say "we can't implement this design here, it is too expensive and this town has been developed this way for the last 20 years, and why change a thing?" Usually it is the bottom line for the developers. Less design articulation, less put into the design phase, puts more $$ in their pocket.

    Yes it takes citizens to stand up and get their decision makers behind better design, but it also take staff planners, directors, and decision makers go grow a spine and implement those design guidelines (not to harp on those fellow cyburbians who are in the trenches and advocate good design, but get trumped by the powers that be, i always applaud you folks for standing up).
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  12. #12
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Good design does not need to cost more than some of the awful buildings/sites that get developed. It just takes more thought. These people don't like to think. Just do what they have always doen the way they always do it.
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    Cyburbian
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    Quote Originally posted by Suburb Repairman View post
    I used to get this all.the.damn.time. It's frustrating. Central Texas gets a lot of this... "it'll work in Lakeway/Georgetown/Bee Caves/Round Rock (to a lesser extent), but your demographics aren't as good". For your city, I would strongly advise referencing some of the stuff that has appeared recently in San Marcos as well as Buda (one of the better looking Walmarts I've seen). I believe those demographics will be lesser than yours.

    You've got an uphill battle though. What you need, more than anything, is for your Council to deny some projects on the basis of bad design. Once developers know they can't get away with it, they'll stop trying.
    I'm in Central Texas too. White collar people who work here and have more money to spend on a house just choose to live in surrounding cities (one in particular) with better design standards and public amenities rather than put up with the ticky tack here.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    Devil's Advocate

    Dan, firstly i'm curious. What is your response to the developer who says that a a particular community or neighborhood doesn't deserve good design? I'm facing a similar case where a developer is balking at the idea of updating a generic design for a store because he feels the neighborhood doesn't deserve it.

    Secondly, I want to play Devil's advocate. Why should the developer be responsible for good design in a rundown area? If the buildings in the vicinity are poorly maintained, the crime rate is a factor, the project cannot be classified as "high end" (e.g. a dollar store, low income housing), why should the developer be made to change designs? It would be akin to overinvesting when others in the neighborhood aren't being held to the same standard.

    I'd like to hear your responses to both scenarios.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Seabishop's avatar
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    You also encounter the phenomenon within the same municipality. The rich neighborhood gets the attractive shopping center, the poor neighborhood gets the cinderblock building. This is even less defensible since both projects should be playing by the same rules.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian wahday's avatar
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    Well, I think most people have hit on the salient points. I would only add/echo the following sentiments:

    1. Developers are in the business of maximizing profit while minimizing cost. If building in a poorer community, the sentiment is often that they (the residents) will be happy to have anything (a grocery store, for example) and so are not in a position to quibble about aesthetics.

    2. Poorer communities are often seen as transient in many ways. Not only might the residents be largely renters, but businesses are expected to come and go at a faster rate than other places. Why spend a lot on a building that will be razed in 10 years? (the developer's rationale, not mine)

    3. Wealthier communities are often expected to have a more pro-active neighborhood association and individual residents who may raise a stink if issues of aesthetics, environmental impact, traffic, fit with existing fabric, etc. are not adequately addressed. Unfortunately, my experience here has been that at City Council or County Commission meetings, more educated people's complaint ARE often taken more seriously than those of less educated folks or, G_d forbid, immigrants... Its amazing what a difference saying you are a doctor or lawyer makes.

    I actually work in a lower income community that is VERY active in their dealings with developers and have been very successful in pushing for better design and more social responsibility on the part of the City and developers. This has mainly hinged on a few people's tireless efforts and those people are going of the board soon, so the future is somewhat uncertain.
    ________________________________________________________________
    In Albuquerque, we have a great example of good and bad design as it relates to income. On the west side of the City is a large roadway called Coors Blvd. On the east side is a comparable road called Tramway Blvd. Now, both were originally designed to eventually connect and form a loop around the city, so, essentially, they are part of the same road. BUT....

    The west side is decidedly lower income (especially along Coors) and much of Coors Blvd. has no sidewalks, no designated crossings, no landscaping, little enforcement of design standards for businesses, bad storm water management and so on.

    Tramway, by contrast, is beautifully landscaped in a high desert xeriscape style, has overhead pedestrian crossing bridges every quarter mile, public art, a multi-use trail, low-sound paving, and well designed storm runoff management. Its also adjacent to High Desert, a high end housing development (check out their website and this slide show for a feel of how shmancy this place is: http://www.high-desert.com/gallery/gal_jpg01.htm).

    These decisions were made by the City and County and not a private developer, so in this case, its the municipality that seems to value higher income residents over lower income.
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