Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Today's reads: Urban housing, post-crisis Charlotte, and a pox on high-rises

 Steve Mouzon of Original Green fires back at what he calls Skyscraper Fetish: the idea that to increase density in cities generally considered an environmentally desirable goal requires high-rise residential towers (examples of some in uptown Charlotte in photo, above).

In "Uninhabitable high-rises,"  he points out some of the problems: wind speeds grow with height, making cross-ventilation difficult. Glass curtain walls either cause immense glare, or must be so strongly sun-screened that it's tough for light to penetrate far inside. Operable windows are problematic in tall buildings. And this:"Elevator motors consume more energy than any other single piece of equipment in a high-rise building." 

Subdivisions go urban as housing market changes. USA Today's Haya El Nasser asks: "Why are the giants of the building industry, the creators for decades of massive communities of cookie-cutter homes, cul-de-sacs and McMansions in far-flung suburbs, doing an about-face? Why are they suddenly building smaller neighborhoods in and close to cities on land more likely to be near a train station than a pig farm?"

Her answer: The U.S. housing industry is rethinking what type of housing to build and where to build it.
I've wondered whether some of the news about this trend might be wishful thinking, but El Nasser has facts to buttress her point:

"Latest Census data show that population growth in fringe counties nearly stopped in the 12 months that ended July 1, 2011, and urban counties at the center of metro areas grew faster than the nation as a whole, a USA TODAY analysis found.
"Central metro counties accounted for 94% of U.S. growth, compared with 85% just before the recession and housing bust.
"A recent Case Western Reserve University study found that Cleveland's inner city is growing faster than its suburbs for the first time."

Fortune magazine takes a look at Charlotte after the banking crisis: "Charlotte after the bank crisis: 'Just fine, and you?' " Contains this great line: "And there you have the essence of Charlotte. It is a city that knows how to move on." 

And for long-time Charlotteans or newer residents who are history buffs, here's a video of driving through Charlotte streets in 1986. There's footage from Indy Boulevard but, alas, no Thompson's Bootery and Bloomery. I lived here then, and I had a hard time identifying a lot of the scenes. There were a lot of highways and convenience stores. The car radio music is fun, too.

Meanwhile, back in the OQC (Other Queen City, aka Cincinnati): "Getting it right in the Queen City."

Photo credit: Claire Apaliski of UNC Charlotte's Urban Institute.


Anonymous said...

Have you noticed all the negative reactions recently to infill residential announcements?

How is Charlotte supposed to grow inward instead of outward, if the in-town neighborhoods are just as bad of NIMBY's as the outlying areas?

Jumper said...

Nice post. I always assumed the designers of the high-rises must at least be trying to do it right. Now I'm afraid that, no, experts are not in charge.

I wonder if the irony of being in a strong wind environment and yet lacking for energy has penetrated anyone else's thoughts than mine.

Also there are light tubes.
and smart glass
(for which I once designed an automated control system which I'm proud of, and which impressed a architecture professor)

karinlukas said...

In 2008 it seemed burbs were going to die around Charlotte. In 2012 just drive out and you will see they are alive and kicking. they have a clientele (people from the NE don't move here to live in a condo - the come here for a piece of land). like globalization (urban) sprawl and growth are here to stay. so we have to live with it and do it smartly along with making town centers more appealing and smart to live (and not just work) in. expand and renovate smartly. one movement does not exclude the others. i think it has a term already: low impact growth. how about smartburbs? then there are all the inbetween places (South Bvd for example) - what is that? People live there too - there is an economy with pedestrian traffic even - although it is not attractive at all. Are those the sandwich burbs? Again things are not mutually exclusive. Rather have this problem than Detroit's problem of having literally dead areas. It is an open book for us!

Eric Orozco said...

If demand for urban living grows, as Haya El Nasser describes, then we are going to have to answer the challenge somehow, and, frankly, I'm skeptical of attempts to put a wholesale straight-jacket condemnation on high-rise development for places as diverse and contextually variegated as cities. High-rises do have a place in the urban residential market. Why limit the variety of options?

If not high rise, is mid-rise the only valid alternative? Well, mid-rise too will generate pushback. Demand for mid-rise in Toronto ( is very high, and even despite the fact that developers there have even overcome the significant economic hurdles of developing 6-8 story structures, "the nattering nabobs of NIMBYism" have been all too quick to prevent mid-rise projects from encroaching on their attractive low-rise enclaves.

My question is, when does all this intolerance for higher density alternatives stop? Can we make low-rise options sustainably affordable? Somehow, I think the challenges are great enough that urbanists should strive to enrich options rather than eliminate them. I would call a predilection for limiting options a "fetish".

Mary Newsom said...

Eric is right about the pressure for urban living space, but seems to me that, just as we shouldn't put a wholesale straight-jacket condemnation on high-rise development, neither should we automatically allow them wherever, whenever. Some cities have extreme demand in their core and little ability to spread new density into other areas. Most U.S. cities are in no way like that, and what concerns me is this discussion going on in urban design/planning circles that seems to assume all U.S. cities are like New York, SF and a very few others. In a situation such as Charlotte, or Raleigh, or many (most?) U.S. cities, It's not a good idea to encourage sksyscraper development with no concern for sunlight, wind or other factors, when it would be surrounded by surface parking lots, vacant lots or extremely low-density (3 houses per acre, no multifamily) neighborhoods.

Charleston, SC, Mayor Joe Riley used to say (and probably still does) that he'd rather get six five-story buildings than one 30-story building, the idea being that it allows more underused land to become productive again.

Anonymous said...

I recently visited Richmond's Cary Street neighborhood, beside the "Fan" district. These are early 20th C. examples of very high-density low-rise neighborhoods. They accomplish it by using very closely-packed rowhouses and by not restricting the homes to single-family. Some are apartments, some condos, some single-family, and some are commercial. It's an effective mix. There were no height limits in 1900, so they are tall--and the fire separations are very small. The architecture is eclectic, but the massing, setbacks, and floor heights are pretty uniform. They have gardens, trees, and parks, too. It's a nice effect, and a lively neighborhood.

This kind of development has been illegal for years. It would be nice to bring it back--or introduce it here for the first time.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't it just a few years ago that David Walters of UNCC was gleefully predicting the demise of suburban living, saying that far out neighborhoods would become the new slums as families deserted them. Yet here we are in 2012 with well built suburbs continuing to thrive and high rises uptown going begging. Karinlucas is absolutely right--most people, besides twenty to early thirty somethings--are not moving here to live in an uptown condo or a high density neighborhood. I do think many areas are building smarter, with town centers of sorts near clusters of neighborhoods. Too bad those centers have to be "faux centers" but I guess that's the best we can do with the way Charlotte developed.

I hope local urban commentators have learned not to be quite so judgmental and self righteous about others' housing choices.

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