Napoleon Complex

Well friends, I’ve been a bad, bad blogger and let another week pass. You find me this week at Seagrove Beach on a much-needed vacation. It is a great joy to bring my family back to the place I vacationed when I was but a young C.Rush. Although it is great fun for me, I suspect that the boys are tired of hearing me describe the battlefield of the Great Bottle Rocket Battle of 19 and '82, and are weary of listening to the story of the time I busted ass on the diving board, knocked myself out and my dad had to save me from drowning (which, I suppose, is to his credit).

Long-time readers of the blog will recognize this as the time of year that I typically get off on a Seaside/New Urbanist tangent.  Well, here we go again. The last few months I've been having an internal debate about ideal ways of creating density. Of course, there is no right or wrong answer to the question and the answer ultimately depends on context, but it's been fun to think about. 

Underlying the question is the fundamental recognition of the importance of density. I write often about the fact that density is part of the DNA of downtown and a fundamental condition for the functioning of a healthy city core. Accommodating more people and activity on any given square foot of land downtown means that land elsewhere can be given over to farmland, recreation or conservation. People and activity in close proximity also make pedestrianism a viable option. Walking, of course being the most preferable means of human transportation- it requires no machine storage (parking lots, bike racks, etc), no fossil fuel consumption, and minimal land for circulation (no roads, airports, train stations, etc). Walking, of course, has its limitations, but the denser a place is with essential activities of life, the more sense it makes.

The question concerns the best way to establish density- on one end of the spectrum is the modernist notion of the tower in a park, on the other end is a district of multiple structures of (more or less) uniform height.

The tower is an obvious way to establish density from a dwelling unit per acre standpoint- a small footprint is established, then units are stacked atop one another until the laws of physics or finance intervene. I’ve been enamored with this concept from the first time I saw Mies’ and Corbu’s drawings in architecture school- beautiful, simple, awe-inspiring buildings where people could live, work and be entertained. The footprint of the towers was small (in Corbu’s case miniscule due to his use of pilotis), which meant that the natural landscape around the tower could remain virtually untouched. This was a profound and beautiful response to the often-appalling conditions of the inner city after the industrial revolution.

Another attempt at making a city more sanitary and liveable was undertaken in Paris. The Second Empire reforms of Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann were aimed at modernizing what was still, in essence, a medieval city. Among the myriad initiatives were improvements in infrastructure and public space and implementation of the straight, wide(r), streets that city is known for, and a building height limit of about 60 feet. There are a thousand different aspects of that work that could be analyzed, but for the purposes of this post, let’s leave it at building height restriction. I find it quite remarkable that a city of millions can be built with a 60’ height limit- and that the same is on the short list of the greatest cities in human history.

So, you might ask, what the hell has this to do with Seaside? Let me go mix another tequila and I’ll make the connection after the jump...


Not a tower.

From where I sit, I can look off to the east and see several towers- primarily residential, but with some mixed-use components. Off to the west I can discern the silhouettes of the Seaside pavilions. Both of these places are dense, however, they achieve this density in markedly different ways. The towers...are towers, while Seaside is a clustered village of similarly-scaled buildings of 2-4 stories. Having driven past the towers in the past, they look like nice and well-maintained, but do not look a likely candidate for shopping, dining, or people-watching. Seaside, on the other hand, is well known for its exuberant street-life. Perhaps this is not a fair comparison, since I’ve cherry-picked the examples from my beach chair. The example does, however, underscore a point that Ricard Florida toyed with a couple of weeks ago (on Christian-mas, no less). That point is that density can be a dual edged sword. Density, if properly executed, will result in rich and rewarding built environments that contribute mightily to quality of life and economic development. Density, if not properly executed, results in vapid, monotonous developments whose only benefit over the sub-urb is that it uses less land.

In my estimation, the ideal height for development in our downtown is about four stories.  This uniform, moderate height would provide a more fertile ground for social interaction,  increase opportunity for broad economic development, increase land value and result in more efficient buildings. If I were to advocate for design guidelines (which I do not), I would set a height limit at five stories. Less than five stories is too onerous and more than five negates the advantages outlined above. I think the next step for downtown is to generate the type of across the board density that would make more retail development feasible (I'm not talking boutique shoe stores for the tourists, I'm talking convenience store, theater, grocery store, laundry, bodega, restaurant, bar- all of the little things that make it possible to live, work and play in the city). The towers we have are fine, they serve a purpose for our city and I hope they do well. The city has other needs, however, that can be met in other ways. I'm not sure that I'm any closer to figuring our which of the philosophical alternatives I prefer for increasing density, but in our current situation, it seems that the city would benefit from a general and uniform densification.

Sincerest apologies for the ramble, but the Florida sun has addled my meager brain, and as you know I’m a bit out of practice. I’m back in the saddle now and with any luck the weekly routine is hereby reestablished.

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