The joint spread of McMansions and apartments in Charlotte

Rarely are the evils of McMansions and apartment complexes joined together but one observer in Charlotte suggests this is exactly the case:

As a 20-year resident of Charlotte, I’ve long observed that shoehorning apartment complexes and oversized homes in and around uptown does not prevent sprawl. Apartment complexes and McMansions are popping up like mushrooms in our historic uptown neighborhoods, yet sprawl has accelerated.

I strongly suspect we’re being sold a bill of goods by elected officials who are firmly under the thumbs of developers. Developers need us to believe they’re doing something for the greater good so we’ll allow them to destroy the character and design of our historic neighborhoods.

At first glance, these are two very different kinds of development. Apartments bring density and certain kinds of residents (whether lower-status residents in the eyes of neighbors or wealthy renters who are gentrifying places). They may include tall buildings or a lot of buildings. In contrast, McMansions are large ostentatious homes that may be teardowns (replacing smaller, older homes). They may not loom over surrounding area like apartments and generally McMansion residents are well off but the change in housing unit may be just as stark.

What appears to be the common thread of concern from this one resident is that both kinds of development are different than what is currently there. If I had to guess, these “historic uptown neighborhoods” are filled with well-kept, single-family homes with decent sized lots built decades ago. Both the McMansions and apartments, in their own ways, present very different kinds of structures. The same concerns might be leveled against an ultra-modernist home or a block of row houses: they are not like what is already in the neighborhood.

Often, McMansions or apartments are restricted to areas of similar structures. This is typically the purpose of zoning: keeping single-family homes away from land uses that residents fear might disturb the neighborhood’s character, and, ultimately, their property values. When developers or local officials start mixing uses, particularly in established areas, this may not go well at the beginning.

What it costs to maintain dozens of pieces of public art in Naperville

Naperville’s Riverwalk and downtown features dozens of works of art. However, it takes resources to keep that art nice and to keep adding new pieces:

In 2016, the city started to set aside about $50,000 a year for maintenance of public art from its food and beverage tax revenue, which is pooled into a fund named for the activities it supports — Special Events and Cultural Amenities.

Since its founding in 1996, Century Walk has installed works at 48 locations, some of which involve several pieces by large numbers of artists, and others that involve intricate or large-scale works by individual talents…

Others on the council agree, but some say there should be a stronger focus on planning for the future of Naperville’s outdoor art, setting aside money for maintenance or requiring future projects to come with some sort of endowment for their long-term care. Century Walk Chairman Brand Bobosky, for his part, wants the city’s maintenance fund increased and coupled with money for new art creation, to the tune of $200,000 a year…

In the past three years, Mondero has repaired the broken tiles on the bench damaged by skateboards, rebuilt a wall called “Man’s Search for Knowledge Through the Ages” that was damaged by a vehicle, repainted two murals, bolted the arm of a sculpted man to hold it in place and cleaned several plaques.

Not all suburbs would be willing to (1) initiate public art in the first place and then (2) invest city resources into it. Yet, Naperville clearly sees it as part of the package it offers to residents and visitors: come to the Riverwalk, enjoy the vibrant suburban downtown, and take in the public art that often commemorates the suburb’s past. The art is not exactly edgy; Naperville is not going after street art or modern art (see the example of the Bart Simpson image that popped up a few years ago). The art that Naperville does have is intended to help tell the community’s story and present interesting visual displays for visitors.

Whether the public art can come first and help create a vibrant suburban area is debatable. Plenty of suburban communities want mixed-use areas that bring in visitors and generate revenue and art is often viewed as part of that package. But, it is unlikely that public art alone could create such a setting. The suburb would already need a confluence of enough residents, resources to apply to such an area, and a good plan for development or redevelopment.

McMansion owners as against preserving green space

A letter to the editor connects Mcmansion owners with an unwillingness to look toward the public good:

It seems that more often than not folks who live in huge McMansions on private estates, drawing big government pensions and other income streams, are the ones making the biggest noise about keeping things the same in the county (Letter to the Editor, “Snapshot of Rappahannock’s Future,” Demaris Miller, July 19).

Of course they would! They don’t need to worry about finding decent paying jobs or affordable housing without having to move out of the county as so many people here do. They’ve got plenty of fine space to take walks and entertain their grandkids.

The county has many choices for where to go — we could allow factories and warehouses, or suburban sprawl, or tourism with a NASCAR track, an amusement park, skate boarding and all. Or we could stick to a plan for growth that preserves our scenic rural character while encouraging people to visit and share that beauty and spend a little money here. A safe bike and walking path with gorgeous views of the Blue Ridge certainly fits in that category.

The McMansions cited here must have larger properties where owners can enjoy the outdoors. This would contrast with one possible trait of McMansions where they are the result of teardowns.

On the other hand, McMansions are linked here to sprawl. This is a common argument as McMansions are often part of an expanding suburbia where homes, roads, and development gobbles up open land, green space, and public space. Additionally, these are wealthy sprawling suburbanites who can take care of their own financial interests.

More broadly, this letter gets at broader issues involving McMansions and suburbs: just how much growth is desirable? How does a community weigh the construction of housing versus protecting natural space that residents and visitors can enjoy? Growth is generally good in suburban areas and even if certain spaces are protected, the general tenor of development can overwhelmingly change the character of a place from a more rural or open area to a denser one.

 

From suburban to downtown growth in Aurora, Illinois

The suburb of Aurora grew tremendously in recent decades but now has little new land. Thus, to grow it must build up or become denser:

Today, the city’s once-booming growth has slowed to a crawl, census estimates show. Officials say there is room for growth, but that growth will look different.

There’s little room for more subdivisions to sprout across the community as they did in the 1990s and early 2000s. Instead, the focus will be on downtown and the city’s train line, building up, not out, said Stephane Phifer, a longtime Aurora city planner who now works with the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning…

As growth slows, the city has an opportunity to focus on redevelopment of downtown and working with the city’s neighborhoods, Nelson said. Downtown is the “new frontier” for development, he said.

Interest is building in downtown Aurora, Nelson said. The area is developing its own identity, largely centered around the arts.

Three quick thoughts:

  1. A shift from such explosive growth – the population doubling in two decades – to less growth can be quite drastic. A community gets used to the new subdivisions, the new city employees needed to provide local services, the changes to local school districts, and other social impacts.
  2. The assumption in this article is that growth is good. This is a common sentiment across American communities. What if Aurora stayed at roughly the same population – would it automatically be a failure?
  3. Aurora is not the only Chicago area suburb facing this issue. For example, neighboring Naperville has been considering this shift in growth for at least a few years. Numerous suburbs closer to the city have had this issue for decades. Few Chicago suburbs have the potential to truly become huge suburbs – imagine Aurora at 300,000 residents with a really dense and interesting downtown along the Fox River. But, to do so will mean competing with other suburbs for residents, entertainment options, and amenities.

All together, this could be a significant turning point in the history of Aurora as a community. Will it pursue downtown and denser development in the same way it pursued suburban growth in the last few decades? Will it focus on quality rather than quantity?

Living inside and outside Facebook and Google’s new developments

Online and physical realms will collide even more in new developments Facebook and Google are planning:

Willow Village will be wedged between the Menlo Park neighborhood of Belle Haven and the city of East Palo Alto, both heavily Hispanic communities that are among Silicon Valley’s poorest. Facebook is planning 1,500 apartments, and has agreed with Menlo Park to offer 225 of them at below-market rates. The most likely tenants of the full-price units are Facebook employees, who already receive a five-figure bonus if they live near the office.

The community will have eight acres of parks, plazas and bike-pedestrian paths open to the public. Facebook wants to revitalize the railway running alongside the property and will finish next year a pedestrian bridge over the expressway. The bridge will provide access to the trail that rings San Francisco Bay, a boon for birders and bikers…

Facebook is testing the proposition: Do people love tech companies so much they will live inside of them? When the project was announced last summer, critics dubbed it Facebookville or, in tribute to company co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, Zucktown

Google will build 5,000 homes on its property under an agreement brokered with Mountain View in December. Call it Alphabet City as a nod to Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent. The company said it was still figuring out its future as a landlord, and declined further comment.

Throw Apple in the mix – as this article does – and these tech companies are doing something unique in Silicon Valley: looking to develop campuses that are around-the-clock and provide housing for employees. Few companies would even think of such a plan and I could imagine many workers would have serious reservations regarding living in facilities provided by their company.

But, there is one distinguishing feature of these new developments that complicate this already-unique story: the particular geographic context in which these physical developments are located. This is an area that already has a tremendous level of inequality with limited affordable housing and some of the poorest and richest living near each other. Tech companies like these three have brought tremendous wealth and notoriety to the area and have also exacerbated issues. What responsibility do these large companies have to the local area? The article mentions Steve Jobs’ claim in front of a local government that a good company is only required to pay taxes.

I suspect physical developments from these companies would be treated differently elsewhere, particularly in places that are desperate for jobs or economic energy. The case of a Google development in Toronto will offer an interesting contrast in how local residents and officials respond. Or, we see what cities are willing to offer to Amazon for a large facility.

Additionally, the idea that corporate campuses or facilities should be open to or available to the public is an interesting one to consider. There are already numerous areas that are actually private spaces that function more like public spaces (think of shopping malls or some of the urban parks that Occupy Wall Street found out were actually private land). But, it is different to ask that an office building or housing for employees also be available to the public. I wonder if there is a company that will lead the way in this and tout the benefits of having employees and the public interact as well as share their corporate benefits with others.

Naperville at buildout to try to avoid complacency

What does a large wealthy suburb do with little available land to expand? The mayor of Naperville put forward some ideas:

As he gave his third State of the City address Monday before a Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce crowd of 580, Chirico talked about the decisions he thinks will create a successful future with balanced finances, a strong economy and a well-run city.

“Great communities just don’t happen by accident,” he said during a lunch at the Embassy Suites hotel. “Careful planning and thoughtful decisions made Naperville the city it is today.”…

Chirico also emphasized the idea of consistent optimization toward goals of providing financial stability, economic development, public safety and a high-performing government.

“We must fight complacency — and the status quo — all day every day,” he said. “Naperville is a leader. We always have been, and we always will be. It’s simply who we are.”

These are not necessarily easy tasks for multiple reasons:

  1. Population growth is often associated with vitality and success. With little open space, population growth will have to come through infill and higher densities. Are these desirable in a sprawling suburb?
  2. Economic activity is necessary. This requires more new businesses and jobs. Properties can be redeveloped – several are highlighted in this article – but is there net economic growth over time? Additionally, Naperville has to compete with new up-and-coming places.
  3. Infrastructure and existing services cost could increase as the community ages.
  4. Having a sense of community can be difficult in any larger community. Are there common events, experiences, and spaces that bring people together and spur acts of civic activity?
  5. Naperville is a leader in the sense that it grew quickly and developed into a wealthy community with a high quality of life. Will it always be a model because of its earlier experiences or can it be a leader as a suburban innovator as many American suburbs encounter new challenges?

I will be interested to see how this all turns out in a few decades.

More details on Google’s urban plans for Toronto development

Google’s plans for a Toronto neighborhood have been in the works for a while and here are more details:

A self-contained thermal grid would recirculate energy from non–fossil-fuel sources to heat and cool buildings, while a food-disposal system would keep food waste out of landfills. For cars and trucks, Quayside would be less hospitable than other areas in the city: Part of the neighborhood would prohibit non-emergency vehicles entirely, while bike-share stations, transit stops, and cycling and walking paths—kept useable through the Canadian winter with sidewalk snow melters and automated awnings—would offer “efficient alternatives to driving, all at lower cost than owning a car.” An autonomous transit shuttle would rove some streets. (Waymo, a leading developer of self-driving-vehicle software, is also an Alphabet subsidiary.)

Buildings would be largely prefabricated using eco-friendly materials, to cut back on waste. With a “strong shell and minimalistic interior,” they could be adapted to multiple uses, morphing from residential to retail to industrial, and back again. To support such a futuristic vision, Quayside would test a novel “outcome-based” zoning code focused on limiting things like pollution and noise rather than specific land uses. If it doesn’t bother the neighbors, one might operate a whiskey distillery in the middle of an apartment complex…

Yet what has drawn the most concern and curiosity with regards to Quayside is a uniquely 21st-century feature: a data-harvesting, wifi-beaming “digital layer” that would underpin each proposed facet of Quayside life. According to Sidewalk Labs, this would provide “a single unified source of information about what is going on” to an astonishing level of detail, as well as a centralized platform for efficiently managing it all…

It’s the kind of all-seeing urban omniscience that would stir the heart of any utopia builder. But to whom, and how, would this data be made available? And what would such an arrangement mean for any Quaysider who doesn’t wish to be monitored? In Toronto and beyond, the depth and details of the data collection have sparked public debate. At the first public forum on the project, and in a list of questions related to the project compiled by the journalist Bianca Wylie at Torontoist, privacy questions and fears have come up again and again.

This is a good mini test case for tech companies entering the urban development realm. The questions raised by residents and local officials should not be surprising: does such a company have the best interests of the community and residents at heart or is this primarily a profit-making enterprise based on intense data collection?It is interesting to consider how this might go in an American city. The proposed project is in Toronto, a prosperous Canadian city that is now larger than Chicago. How would such plans for Google be received in San Francisco or Austin, cities known as tech hubs? Or, in contrast, might there be more open arms in a city that needs development help, such as Cleveland or Detroit? I suspect the move to develop property in Toronto was very intentional yet the outcome could be quite different if positioned in a different North American city.