Page E2.2 . 08 April 2009                     
ArchitectureWeek - Environment Department
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Real Life Regreening


The Philadelphia Horticultural Society's "Philadelphia Green" program has redeveloped hundreds of vacant lots as pocket parks and community gardens, increasing sales prices of homes near the lots by as much as 30 percent in the process.

Several cities and counties have land-banking programs that either renovate or demolish abandoned buildings. Genesee County in Michigan (which includes the city of Flint, whose downward economy was made famous in the documentary Roger and Me) has one of the most comprehensive in the country.

Working primarily with lots of one acre (0.4 hectares) or less, in the past five years it has helped demolish over 500 homes, renovated 25 to 50 per year, and handed approximately 500 lots over to neighboring residents through its Adopt-A-Lot, Clean and Green, and Side Lot Transfer programs.

It has also established demonstration model vegetable and rain gardens and, in conjunction with other city, county, and state agencies, hopes to connect its growing inventory of over 3,000 vacant lots into low-maintenance "green infrastructure" systems: open space, trails, community gardens, tree nurseries for neighborhood use, urban agriculture, phytoremediation soil improvement, flood control, and parks.

The Case of Phalen Village

Regreening has also been successful on grayfield sites. When faced with a failed strip center dating from 1959 on 20 acres (eight hectares) in Phalen, a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, the City of St. Paul bought the property, restored the wetlands and lake that had previously occupied the site, and turned it into a public park.

The plan for the project was developed in 1994 by the University of Minnesota College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, working with the City of St. Paul and Phalen residents. Called the Phalen Village Plan, it looked at revitalization strategies for the larger neighborhood, with the park playing several key roles: restoring a system of lakes and migratory bird habitat; filtering and retaining stormwater; and fostering affordable transit-oriented development, as well as serving as a catalyst in economic development.

In this case, the retrofit was spurred not by rising property values in the area, but by their decline. Bordered by several older public housing projects to the east and declining apartment complexes to the north, market-rate densification on the site was not feasible. Rather, the innovative idea was to increase investment in the area by converting much of it to lakefront property and what the designers called "an ecological neighborhood" centered on the Phalen Wetland Park.

By 2005 Ames Lake had been reconstructed in the middle of the block formerly occupied by the parking for the strip center, and included a public, educational boardwalk over the reed beds. The reconstructed wetlands, although not as extensive as in the 1994 plan, had demonstrably increased local biodiversity. The adjacent public housing had been renovated, but without the new street grid called for in the plan.

New Habitat for Humanity homes, new senior housing, and several commercial parcels north of the lake were in place along the new Phalen Boulevard. And while the proposed transit center was not built, the project had stimulated the construction of new market-rate houses bordering the lake. A 2007 report estimated the market value of the project area had increased over $26 million since 2000.

Phalen's Mixed Results

In many respects, the project has been a great success. Lee Sobel's 2002 book for the Congress for the New Urbanism, Greyfields into Goldfields, concluded that "Through the oversight of the city of St. Paul, Phalen Village Center's ongoing revitalization is leading the revival of an old community with a new identity." Chuck Repke, head of the local planning council, said the project reminded him of a Joni Mitchell song. "She sang, 'They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,'" Repke says. "We did the reverse."

However, not only is the size of the park substantially diminished, its borders have been encroached upon by private development. A market-rate development called Phalen Crossing has been allowed to arrange semirandom bars of suburban front-loaded townhouses, condos, and cottages in four clusters around the lake.

The fact that this public amenity has been allowed to be privatized is a tragedy. The fact that the designers of the new housing did not even attempt to spatially frame the lake or orient the housing toward it is an insult. Instead of being treated as a public park, a "third place" for the neighborhood, the lake seems destined to be treated as a suburban retention pond.

This may be a cautionary tale for the designers of retrofits. Perhaps you can take the shopping center out of the suburb, but not the suburban mindset and building typologies out of the developers and city officials.

Were the designers' ecologically and urban-oriented visions out of sync with the actual needs and desires of the community? In the later version of the Small Area Plan published in Greyfields into Goldfields in 2002, the park is much reduced from the 1994 version, but still larger than it stands in 2007. Was it asking too much to give more than two-thirds of a 20-acre parcel to a public park in an area prioritizing economic investment?

Are publicly driven projects inherently more prone to compromise? What can urban designers do to see that beautiful plans are not degraded by poorly laid out, poorly designed "instant architecture"?

It is certainly a reminder that substantial change, such as retrofitting the public realm, requires not only great plans, but also great implementation.

Discuss this article in the Architecture Forum...

Ellen Dunham-Jones, AIA, is associate professor and director of the architecture program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. An award-winning architect, she has published extensively on urban design and criticism. She has taught at University of Virginia, MIT, and Lund University in Sweden, and has been honored by DesignIntelligence, ACSA, and AIA for bridging theory and practice. She serves on several boards including the board of directors of the Congress for the New Urbanism and the editorial board of the journal Places.

June Williamson, RA, LEED AP, is associate professor of architecture at The City College of New York/ CUNY. An urban designer and registered architect, she has authored design guidelines and consulted on numerous urban planning projects throughout the United States. She has been a visiting professor at Columbia University, Georgia Institute of Technology, University of Utah, and Boston Architectural College. An accomplished researcher and author, she has written articles for the journal Places and other publications.

This article is excerpted from Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.



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Wetland restoration, including the reconstruction of Ames Lake, was a central element of the Phalen Village Plan.
Photo: Ellen Dunham-Jones/ June Williamson Extra Large Image

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Cottonwood Mall in Holladay, Utah, prior to its conversion.
Image: Courtesy Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) Extra Large Image

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Aerial rendering of the planned Cottonwood Mall conversion to a mixed-use neighborhood with about twice the density.
Image: David Carrico/ Courtesy DPZ Extra Large Image

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Establishing desirable view corridors is a key objective for the Cottonwood redevelopment.
Image: David Carrico/ Courtesy DPZ Extra Large Image

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Before (left) and after (right) site plans illustrate the transformation of the Phalen Village site.
Image: Ellen Dunham-Jones/ June Williamson Extra Large Image

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Cottonwood site plan drawing showing the existing context.
Image: Courtesy DPZ Extra Large Image

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In the 2008 City of the Future competition, a team from Georgia Tech proposed to reverse sprawl in Atlanta by increasing density at the city core, while greening both suburbs and infrastructure.
Photo: Janae Futrell/ Courtesy Georgia Institute of Technology Extra Large Image

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Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.
Image: John Wiley & Sons Extra Large Image


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