Sunday, June 30, 2013

Nudging the ‘urbs in the right direction.

When negotiating the introduction of typically suburban corporate chains in an otherwise urban neighborhood, it typically takes an inordinate amount of fancy footwork.  Most American cities have a “Midtown”—either explicitly or implicitly named—that suffered colossal disinvestment from the 1950s onward, or perhaps even as early as the Depression.  Now, thanks to their proximity to revitalizing downtowns, these Midtowns are lurching back toward relevance, but they come wearing the battle scars of urban renewal.  The pockmarks of parking lots still vaguely remind the older generations of the long-gone architectural marvels that previous civic leaders presumed were obsolete.  Several months ago I explored the Midtown of Birmingham, Alabama, better known as Five Points South, an economically healthy old neighborhood which amidst the handsome century-old buildings, claims its fair share of space devoted to off-street parking.  In recent years, in recognition of the growing attractiveness of the area, newer development has arisen, such as a Chick-fil-A restaurant, taking advantage of the pedestrian traffic by with a structure thrust to the lot lines at one of the most prominent corners.  The parking for this otherwise archetypically suburban restaurant change is tucked on the interior portion of the lot, making it much less conspicuous to general public view.

In more recent month, I learned that my home city of Indianapolis had contended with its own developmental maneuverings a few years ago, when another national brand wanted to build a new structure in its Midtown.  The CVS at 16th and Meridian Streets didn’t get a lot of coverage when the City approved the design and construction began.  My friends at Urban Indy decided not to cover it.  Recently, before I left town for an extended amount of time, I decided to give it another look.
From this angle, it seems like a solid piece of urban infill: massing is in keeping with what one might expect for a commercial building only 1.5 miles from the absolute center of the city.  The edges of the building are more or less flush with the lot lines.  The signage and awnings are nowhere near as ostentatious as one might expect if the majority of passers by were zooming along at over 40 mph in their vehicles.  For the most part, the lettering and iconography generally seem to cater to pedestrians.

But notice all those qualifying adverbs and phrases: “more or less”, “for the most part”, “generally”.  The entire process is riddled with compromises, as manifested by a view of the building from just about any other angle.
At this point, I’m standing along the west edge of the building, looking northward down Meridian Street.  From this vantage point, it still looks like a busy urban street with an entrance to the CVS right next to the bus stop.  But I’ve contrived the perspective to shroud or omit any of the compromises.  Here’s one of them:
The reflection makes it difficult to discern, but this door fronting the east side of the building is false.  In a truly pedestrian-scaled urban environment, this door should serve as the primary entrance, since it faces the sidewalk along a busy street.  But instead, customers to the CVS have to enter on the south side.
Directly abutting a big parking lot.  Fundamentally, this drug store caters first and foremost to the automobile.  It has no real entrances at the corner of Meridian and 16th, visible in that first photo.  In fact, it offers a drive through pharmacy on the east side, just as one would expect in the suburbs.
In short, the CVS achieves just what it needs to assume a basic veneer of urbanity.  And apparently it took a bit of arm-twisting to get there.  A person with detailed knowledge of the development helped shed some light on the process.  The most influential agencies in shaping the design were the City of Indianapolis Department of Metropolitan Development, the Near North Development Corporation, and the CVS developer.  None of them wanted a conventional suburban design.  To their luck, the Walgreens across the street (at the southwest corner of this intersection) exemplified what not to do.
One of the most prominent intersections in Indy’s Midtown loses any sense of urbanism with a building dwarfed by its own parking lot.  If it weren’t for the some of the surrounding context, it would be hard to tell that this Walgreens was even in a city setting.

At the very least, all parties agreed that the new CVS should hug the parcel boundaries at the intersection, like the Chick-fil-A in Birmingham.  Ahead of the first design proposal, the NNDC rep suggested that the developers choose materials and design the structure in keeping with some of the historic apartments in the area; among the most prominent is to the right of the Walgreens in the photo above, just a stone’s throw from this CVS site.  The developer ultimately deployed the CVS “Main Street” standard design, typically used as infill for historic towns in the northeast.

Beyond that, the developer was unable or unwilling to budge on a lot of the other details.  The planners at DMD and NNDC both tried to push the front door to the structure so that it was facing Meridian, forcing pedestrian ingress directly from the sidewalk.  But the developer insisted that the CVS had rigid internal layout requirements, and inverting the conventional position so that a loading dock would abut the alley (the east side of the building) would preclude a functional drive-through pharmacy.  In addition, placing the entrance along the Meridian Street sidewalk would force a yawning distance between the handicapped parking and the front door.  The DMD encouraged a double entrance, so that pedestrians could still access directly from Meridian Street, but CVS shuns the prospect of controlling two doors; having a second access point also robs the interior of several valuable square feet for retail.  Consequently, the door fronting the sidewalk in the above photo is bogus.  The last major compromise, not surprisingly, dealt with parking: the required minimum was a generous 50 spaces, but CVS insisted that it must have more than 70, in order to compete with Walgreens.

To be frank, it is by and large understandable that the resulting edifice manifests some pretty significant compromises from the urban design ideal.  The developers of the CVS couldn’t alienate their car-dependent base, especially since Meridian Street is one of the main arterials leading to the northern suburbs.  It would have been particularly unwise for the developer to employ massing that obscures the parking; such a move would simply impel all those motorists to opt for the Walgreens across the street, where parking is patently obvious from both Meridian and 16th Streets.  This CVS simply cannot expect to flourish if access is less convenient than its neighbor across the street.

Fortunately, in spite of these concessions, the teams at DMD and NNDC were able to wrestle some other smart features in the design.  These “nibbles” include the following: extra sidewalk connection from 16th and Scioto (the alley on the east side of the property) wrapping around to the front south-facing door; more discreet dumpster enclosure locations; a real tree-lawn next to 16th Street, and a bus shelter near the “door” along Meridian, where one previously had not existed.  And, though it really doesn’t count as a nibble, the “Main Street” CVS design (a standardized template) employs two floors; although the windows on the second floor are fake, the building really does have a mezzanine second story in the section of the building fronting 16th Street.  It’s not just a block of Styrofoam.

Though the number of compromises to this CVS stunted the interest of Indy’s urban blogger community when the building opened a couple years ago, it did attract the attention of prominent St. Louis blog NextSTL, whose Alex Ihnen by and large saw it as a significant improvement to similar proposals in one of St. Louis’ more prominent Midtown neighborhoods.  If his description “doesn’t suck” seems like faint praise, this may be time to invoke a timeworn cliché: never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Obviously every individual will have a different standard for “good”, but in judging this drugstore development, it is prudent to leave a wide berth that encompasses anything between the worst possible outcome and the ideal.  The effort to achieve optimal urban design in Indy’s Midtown warrants a reflection upon this neighborhood’s struggles over the years.  Most locals apparently remember the structure that preceded this CVS: an International House of Pancakes with—as NextSTL recalls—a dodgy reputation.  And immediately to its south: a blighted, defunct old car-dealership.  For the majority of the last 50 years, the only saving grace to Midtown was its proximity to downtown and accessibility due to major arterials like Meridian Street. What had once hosted the mansions of some of Indianapolis’ elite families devolved into low-rise office complexes (many nonprofit or social services), faded apartment buildings, tawdry nightclubs, and—manifested by the intersection with 16th—national chains with drive-thru options to cater to the suburban commuters.  Much of this segment of Meridian still looks this way.  As this essay has already demonstrated, the south sides of the intersection host a moderately urban CVS and a fully car-oriented Walgreens.  What about the other two corners?

The McDonald’s building is scarcely visible behind the trees, but the surrounding parking lot dwarfs it as well.  It’s indistinguishable from the typical McDonald’s in the suburbs.  And the last corner?
Again, the Chase Bank puts its parking front and center.  Thus, despite its drawbacks and compromises, the CVS reigns supreme at this intersection in terms of the urbanity of its design and configuration.  Looking south down Meridian Street towards downtown demonstrates its superiority, particularly when juxtaposed with the neighboring Walgreens.

The other three buildings at 16th and Meridian owe much of their lack of inspiration to the economic conditions of the neighborhood at the time of their conception.  Neighborhoods to the east, such as the Old Northside and Herron-Morton Place, had not yet achieved a mature level of gentrification that would allow them to rally a strong degree of support—or opposition—to design standards at this intersection.  These days, both neighborhoods claim a quorum of committed citizens who moved to the area because of the attractiveness of the pedestrian-scaled architecture.  These newcomers have both the wherewithal and the psychological commitment to push institutions such as NNDC or DMD to raise the bar.  During the design review process for the CVS featured here, the City was also fleshing out its Urban Design standards and guidelines, which would either persuade or overtly enforce a stronger approach to design in Indianapolis’ region center, an area that includes 16th and Meridian.  Though the approval of a CVS at this location preceded the implementation of these Guidelines, it is obvious that the spirit behind them exerted a fair share of influence on the conception of the CVS.  It’s not fantastic.  But it’s better than anything at the other three corners, and it’s also more in keeping with the urban scale of two neighborhoods immediately to the east, visible in the photo below:
16th Street is the dividing line here, with Old Northside to the right and Herron-Morton Place to the left.  While 16th is an important arterial as well, it doesn’t provide the sort of expansive suburban access that would have made it as attractive of a corridor as Meridian Street for commuter-oriented drive-thrus.  Though the century-old apartment buildings that frame this photo suffered serious decline in the second half of the 20th century, more recent gentrification efforts have stimulated a renaissance at both.  This section of Midtown, particularly in the last few years, has emerged as a fashionable enclave for affluent professionals, with a growing array of locally owned retail to serve them.

The urban form remains a palimpsest--just as it always has.  My prediction is that growing interest in the community will push more developers to adopt the CVS approach to urban design—or something better.  I’m not sure the property value in Indy’s Midtown is going to skyrocket enough that we’ll be seeing high-rise apartments replace the McDonald’s or Chase Bank any time soon.  But I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if it happens eventually.  And if—or when—someone eventually does decide to build at this prominent intersection, he or she will inevitably assume a mentality of “highest and best use”, not just because of city design regulations or the neighborhood arm-twisting, but because the lucrative nature of the real estate here would make it ridiculous to do otherwise.  Why build a single story fast food restaurant when you could comfortably fit eight floors of office and apartments above it, and the neighborhood wouldn’t raise a stink?

If we ever get to that point, mark my word the opposition won’t be a big new apartment building—the nabe will fight the Mickey Dees.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Missouri capital redux.

Over the weekend, a blog article of mine prompted an interview from the city's local newspaper.  The original article, published here about a month ago, focused on the obvious revitalization efforts that have taken place in downtown Jefferson City, capital of Missouri.  Although I had never visited there prior to the trip that prompted the article, I was taken by the high level of maintenance of the city streets, the relative absence of demolished old buildings, and the considerable investment in the streetscape.  But most of all, I was taken by a Jimmy John's.
The presence of a national chain, particularly one as aggressively franchised as Jimmy John's subs, demonstrates a greater level of confidence in the viability of this main street as an attractive locus for commerce than all the plantings, park benches, and brick sidewalks in the world.  A predictable chain restaurant may not be what the Jefferson City's downtown boosters were craving, and it hardly indicates that the small city's main street is a major shopping destination, but at least it shows that it's strong enough that a business leader with some capital was willing to give a chance to some real estate as close to the center of it all as you can get.

This blog article recently prompted the Jefferson City News-Tribune to follow up on my article, interviewing me further about my impressions and including more of the history of revitalization than I ever knew coming into it.  I encourage my readers to take a look, and feel free as always to post comments here or wherever you like.  Thanks again.