Wednesday, January 13, 2016

'Why are all those new buildings so ugly?'

Apartments on South Boulevard greet the sidewalk with two floors of parking.  Photo: Tom Low, Civic by Design
The topic is an eye-catcher and, thank goodness, keeps catching eyes: Why do so many of the new apartment buildings going up in Charlotte's fast-redeveloping neighborhoods all look alike? And look, um, not all that attractive?

The latest chapter in this civic conversation came Tuesday, with a two-part punch. Three local architects were guests on "Charlotte Talks," an interview show on WFAE, Charlotte's local public radio station. Listen to the show here.

Tuesday evening Tom Low, one of the guests, held a public forum, "Bland Charlotte," at his monthly Civic By Design discussion group.

Low and others have written and spoken in recent months about their concern that speedy growth and development, especially in the South End area adjacent to the city's only light rail line, is sub-par in urban design and architecture., the publication I run at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute, has run several  articles on the topic:
Ditto, other local media outlets:
Tuesday night, Low showed a series of depressing photos of apartment complexes, mostly but not exclusively in South
End, with parking dominating the streetscape. What people are upset about, by and large, is not that they are multifamily but that they are clad in obviously cheap materials, they offer monotonous and graceless facades, and most important, instead of contributing to a growing urbanity of street and sidewalk activity, such as shops or restaurants, they offer to the public realm only metal grills, with parking lots behind.

As on the radio show, discussion at the forum touched on whether the problem lies with the architects and designers who should have the courage to say no when developers want those abuses of the public realm, or with developers, or with the finance system. While I think we need more extraordinarily talented and courageous designers, and more extraordinarily thoughtful developers, the essential problem to me seems to lie elsewhere. Because most people are not extraordinary.

As I listened, I was reminded of a phrase I used to hear when, in another life, I attended conferences of a national group, Investigative Reporters and Editors. You'd hear of amazing investigations into malfeasance by public officials, universities, businesses, schools or bureaucrats. Often, after describing abuses by one group or another, the investigative reporter would conclude with this: "Of course, sometimes the biggest crime is what's legal."

Which leads to my point. Those apartment buildings that people are upset about were built in accordance with city ordinances.

The flaw, once again, lies with Charlotte's deeply outdated and flawed zoning ordinance. The city planners say they have finally begun working with consultants to rework the ordinance, but that is expected to take four years.

Meanwhile, too much is being built that is perfectly awful -- and perfectly legal.