Friday, August 6, 2010

Part 2 - Is the Master Planned Community Dead?

A Bit of History

Over the next few weeks I will try to put some context into the question: Are master planned residential communities dead and never to rise again? As I noted last week, there is some sympathy for this belief. Land, costs, energy, local and federal approval policies, and long term financial backing and guarantees for large new town communities all pose very difficult and expensive components. Each will derail a project.

What size? What sets a master planned community apart from the usual “big” subdivision? I will go out on a short, yet strong, limb here and give you my opinion – but like all opinions they are just that. A master planned community should be under one management group or owner, be at least 620 acres (one square mile), have a range of residential densities (the market will choose the regional need and mix), have defined entries and boundaries, offer a complex package of recreational facilities, include a center for service retail for the resident’s needs, include other possible land uses such as office and commercial space, and feature a central land use that may define the project; these amenities could be golf courses, lakes (man-made or natural), natural features, extensive interconnecting parks and trails, or other unifying theme. There; now argue.

We are all familiar with small master planned communities of a few hundred to a few thousands of acres – remember that places like Reston, Virginia was built around a small village and distillery is over 17 square miles and has over 55,000 residents, Columbia, Maryland is over 14,000 acres and has over 90,000 residents, and others such as Stapleton, Co., Summerlin, Nv., and the grandest Irvine, Ca. have all set very high and expensive benchmarks (and for most: successive owners, each trying to make them work).

As I noted in my new book America’s Original GI Town, Park Forest, Illinois (3,000 ac. and 24,000 people - today) the history of planned American communities goes back to the mid-nineteenth century:

The new community that Klutznick (developer) described for Sweet and Manilow (partners) was a manifestation of planning concepts and designs for communities aggressively designed and built between 1900 and 1939-communities that shared many of the same planners, visionaries, and theorists. Even more revealing is that many of these new communities could trace their lineage back to the Chicago area of 1869. Five great planners would be the grandfathers for Park Forest-whose careers extended over almost one hundred years of planning for human settlements. They were Frederick Law Olmsted, Ebenezer Howard, Henry Wright, Clarence B. Stein, and Elbert Peets. All five, through their visions for new towns, would build on one another’s work in an effort to create better and more successful places for people to live.

In 1868 Emery E. Childs, a Chicago developer, asked the noted American landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted and his firm, Olmsted, Vaux and Company, to design a “suburban village” on his sixteen hundred-acre property twelve miles west of Chicago. The plan for Riverside was revolutionary in its concept and breadth and unlike anything else in country. Olmsted and Vaux created a residential community along the banks of the Des Plains River, with a hierarchical plan of lot sizes, separated by generous open spaces and parks. Not designed to the current trend of the time, the grid pattern of streets in mid-American cities, Riverside’s residential roads curve in generous sweeps and meet with soft tangents at well-landscaped intersections. The only portions of the village that which did not curve were the business streets that paralleled the Burlington Railroad. “In the highways,” said Olmsted, “celerity will be of less importance than the comfort and convenience of movement . . . we should recommend the general adoption, in the design of your roads, of gracefully-curved lines, generous spaces, and the absence of sharp corners, the idea being to suggest and imply leisure, contemplativeness and happy tranquility.”

Although its early days were financially troubled, the village’s overall design is a testament to the genius of the concept and the thoroughness of the execution. The automobile, thirty years in the future when the plan was completed, has not destroyed the village. Garages are placed in the rear of the lot, driveways are narrow and the streets not overly wide. The design is still an example of melding the plan to the topography of the land. Riverside changed one of the fundamental concepts of town design more than any other American community: the integration into the standard grid pattern of streets curving streets with deep residential setbacks. Olmsted wrote that a well-designed suburb is “the most attractive, the most refined and the most soundly wholesome form of domestic life, and the best application of the arts of civilization to which mankind has yet attained.”
The completeness of Riverside can not be overlooked. It has stood unchanged in both plan and substance while, during the last hundred years, the area around it has grown, suffered, and deteriorated. The village’s strongest defenders are the current residents.

From this one community, developed after the Civil War, American community planning has evolved, changed, died, been reborn, and without a doubt, has never had universal professional agreement as to what it is, what it should be, and where it is going.

From Olmsted’s Riverside, to the Van Sweringen’s Shaker Heights east of Cleveland, to Stein and Wright’s Radburn, New Jersey, to the Country Club District of Kansas City, to the Greenbelt fiascos of the Roosevelt administration and the post war market driven communities of William Levitt; they all laid the groundwork for the Watercolors, Summerlins, Ladera Ranches, Rancho Santa Magaritas, and Celebrations of today.

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