Sunday, March 21, 2010

Welcome to the Next American Suburb

A New Model of Suburban Development? This photo demonstrates some smart neighborhood development features of note. Here are just some of the elements: (a) A greenway crossing in the foreground; (b) Bike lanes, but more importantly, roadway and neighborhood conditions that generate frequent bike trips; (c) Children (in the background crossing the street); (d) Townhomes (at right) populated by households that include said children and which suavely wrap around a super market and its parking lot; (e) In the background to the left is UNC Hospital's Wellness Center - basically a Y souped up with clinical services, therapy/rehab services and a rich array of preventative health-care and community supportive programs; (f) In the background, in the distance, is a retirement village center

I have recently come across an interesting community development that I believe is a compelling model for the next stage of "edge city" development. This is Meadowmont in Chapel Hill, N.C. I see in Meadowmont a transformational model that can re-mix and consolidate the separated uses of a typical suburb into a form whose smart-growth strategies effectively liberate Americans from that 7-day-a-week vehicular co-dependency that leads to sedentary lifestyles. This, and doing it in such a way that Meadowmont may actually represent a viable market model that has the thoughtful ingredients for successful replication. If LEED-ND has a version of Levittown (a development model that replicates), this might be it.

Among other things, Meadowmont offers yet another great example of what can be achieved with more tightly coordinated commercial, institutional and residential development - working in tandem with a cohesive, multi-modal neighborhood transportation strategy. As an urbanist, I have to be attuned to what is working in the market, and I think Meadowmont is an implemented precedent that offers great lessons to appreciate and chew on. I share here just a visual survey and some cursory comments. I think we can easily spot in Meadowmont (following in the trope of family-appealing New Urbanist developments such as Denver's Stapleton) some subtle but significant innovations to integrating a richer array of lifestyle services with neighborhood development, and which can create a market draw for them and can potentially entice capital markets to - not just embrace - but promote smart(er) growth. There are enough ideas here to warrant further contemplation, which I hope presage where development in the suburban periphery may be heading soon. (I must say... I would not mind it at all if Beazer, Centex and Pulte began to copy and paste some of the innovations Chapel Hill's signature development affords us.)

1) The interesting heart of the community is the UNC Wellness Center at Meadowmont, an impresive, greenway-hugging, environmentally friendly preventive health care and fitness center facility. If hospitals actually thought their job was to keep their clients healthy (not just treat their illnesses), they would probably create wellness centers right smack in the middle of their clients' communities.

2) Every generation shares a piece of the pie. The elderly are thoughtfully accommodated within closer proximity to the services of the community. The Cedars of Chapel Hill below is a continuing care facility facing a central, generous green and full-service community center. The Cedars are in close proximity from the town center and directly across the street from the Wellness Center above and the grocery store. An apartment complex buffers the retirement village from the busy arterial road.

2) The grocery store
(a Harris Teeter) is located centrally near the arterial and surrounded by townhomes. Where you would typically have a 20-40 foot commercial use setback filled with berms and water-needy plantings, you raise instead townhomes that eventually become populated with loyal customers who arrive and depart by foot and who no doubt visit you more frequently than other customers. Cha-ching.

3) Greenways
and multi-use trails connect all the dots. The central spine trail follows the main valley streams flowing through Meadowmont, the primary conveyances of storm water. This trail connects to crossing trails that offer crossing points across the stream, helping to tie the different parts of the neighborhood and its uses together. They actually offer a completely equivalent transportation facility (see below) which more directly connects uses to one another than the actual winding vehicular streets, meaning, walking and biking become more enticing options. Notice, by the way, that the backyards often open up to the greenway, giving the trail an intimate connection to the community. This means residents, especially children, have great access to the greenway and help keep it secure. (Contrary to logic hinged on parental paranoia, the presence of children is actually the very thing that helps keep an area safe and secure - if children are present, others use and enjoy the facility much better, and fear encounters with strangers less. More people on the trail then help keep the facility safer. It is a mutually reinforcing phenomenon.)

4) The neighborhood elementary school is located unobtrusively in the neighborhood, in a lower plain by the stream, well-below the tree line of the overlooking street. All the classrooms are directly connected to the outdoors via a colonnade which shades the outdoor learning spaces associated with each class room (like the arcade schools of the classical era). The school itself is generously daylit and is smartly comprised of three east-west oriented wings. But the most noteworthy thing about the school is that it can be accessed by the greenway trails connecting to the residential subdivisions surrounding it. I loved the covered bike parking facility (by the way, there is only one bike because I took the photo at 5 pm ...this bike is probably a teacher or staff-person's).

5) Luxurious townhomes ring the hill tops much like fortified Italian hill towns. Unfortunately, we see here some examples realizing current urban design fetish for employing greens-in-the-round, but at least the circular form here is suggested by hilltop topography ...unlike the useless usual. However much I sincerely doubt Jane Jacobs wanted us to invert the Panopticon, for all I know, these residents will want their "eyes on the park" in order to keep a careful watch over things.

6) These soccer moms can punt the minivan. This soccer field, I kid you not, does not have any vehicular access to it! Located across the stream from the elementary school, the only access afforded is via a bike path.

7) A head-turning mixed-use strategy represented by Meadowmont is the attempt to mix residential uses in an office building. Office uses represent a security liability, being depopulated at night, and thus typically require night-time security. The upper level of this office building helps to secure the building by allowing the upper (terraced) level to be used as luxury residential condominiums, granting it 24-hour use. This office building, along with the large detention basin it overlooks, also helps buffer the community from the arterial road. A bike path tunnel, crossing underneath the road, connects it to the office park across the road. I'm not sure how successful this residential-mix strategy is going to play out (the building is not rented out yet), but the sign advertising the potential uses definitely made me do a double-take.

8) But ...Meadowmont's strategic, multi-modal transportation integration is what really gets me excited about the future of suburban expectations in Chapel Hill. I note that planners have been insistent on providing an "equivalent facility" approach to bike-path integration (photo below left). Along the limited access arterials, that's where you put your wide bike thoroughfares on both sides of the road, and you create crossings wherever you can. This is the policy of Hilton Head Island as well. I welcome the raised expectations this will create for future development whole-heartedly. I also am warmed by the fact the office parks along Raleigh Road (the arterial I've been mentioning above) are circulated by compact, express buses at commuting times (photo below right ...taken between 6-7 pm).

...But of all the things I'm warmed the most about future of Meadowmont, and its potential long-lasting success as a model for greenfield development, is the fact that it has a good shot to be serviced directly by the TTA's future LRT, on the link connecting Chapel Hill to Durham. We all need to congratulate Chapel Hill planners for very conscientiously locating this TND, as Jarrett puts it, to be on the way. Between just the handful of smart growth principles mentioned above, think of how many vehicular trips Raleigh Road has been spared in the long-term.


Daniel said...

Very nice. I think there are quite a few similarities between Chapel Hill and Charlottesville. We have some wonderful urban areas in our central city, but there are no places like Meadowmont that are taking these principles you've described to new development. There have been some attempts, but nothing with anywhere near this level of success.

One "towne centre" was supposed to be mixed use, but six years later it's just a nicely landscaped shopping center. The other new urbanist suburb is currently almost all residential and, away from infrastructure and certain not on the way to anywhere else.

Jessica said...

great post. I live in the area and am happy to see that both Southern Village and Meadowmont are vibrant, functional neighborhoods. The prices are very steep, though. I hope that developers in my area take note of that and start to seriously contemplate these functional new urbanist designs in their new developments.