Oh, Build Me a Home

Architects Espouse "Traditional Neighborhood Districts"


illustration by Doug Potter

NOW AVAILABLE: An architecture of community. Be the first on your block to join the crowd at Public Realm Village! Leave your car behind. Share good times with your neighbors on the (mandatory ) front porch. Forget about yard work with your low-maintenance small lot. Affordable living in a traditional atmosphere, complete with (mandatory) gabled roof. Convenient to (mandatory) shopping and public transportation. Walk to work, or work at home, or live upstairs from your office! A new kind of suburban living.

If you build it, will they come? The seductive appeal of all this compact-city, mixed-use, sustainable New Urbanist stuff is that it claims a simple solution to the woes of American city life: We don't need to worry about sprawl if we don't sprawl. If we lived smaller, didn't separate our homes from each other, from our workplaces, from the shops and parks and nightspots, and spent more time walking and less time driving -- the way most towns and cities have been structured, in most of the world, for most of human history -- our lives would work better. We would have more time, our natural resources wouldn't be threatened or depleted, and we'd share more of our lives, and thus our values, with our neighbors and fellow citizens. And we'd be happier because we'd live in places with integrity, rather than anonymous suburbs where nothing to engage the spirit lies beyond the front door.

Or so says the generation of architects, planners, and smart-ass writers who've turned New Urbanism from a radical-chic crusade into the reigning ideology, and in the process restored the simple art of middle-class homebuilding to a place of glamour in the world of architecture, where glamour is an essential attribute for making things happen. And with the City of Austin, long beholden to the real-estate industry who gave us the unsustainable sprawl economy, poised to implement new land-use regulations that allow and promote New Urbanist suburban villages, things are definitely happening.

Unfortunately for the dream of better living through community, the folks who actually build middle-class homes are not architectural theorists, and it's no sure bet that Public Realm Village will soon become a reality near you. Surely, the city's Development Review and Inspection Department (DRI) is a long way from requiring that new projects on the perimeter take the shape of what they're calling "traditional neighborhood districts" or TNDs. "It's definitely going to be optional," says Tracy Watson, DRI's development process manager. "The city would like to see more development like this, to cut down on vehicle trips and maintain a more stable environment, but builders don't have to go to a TND."

The folks at DRI have drafted both a set of design criteria for TNDs and proposed new Land Development Code language that would establish the TND as a separate zoning classification. After circulating throughout the spring for review and comment, the city is now revising these rules and standards for eventual adoption by the City Council. Both borrow heavily from the widely publicized work of the now-very-successful inner circle of New Urbanist architects, especially Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the Florida-based husband-and-wife team who coined the term "traditional neighborhood development" to describe their firm DPZ's nouveau-retro subdivisions, new towns and village plans. (Nothing says "We're progressive!" like a DPZ-planned development in your jurisdiction. By the way, Duany reportedly has designs, so to speak, on the Robert Mueller Airport redevelopment project.)

If you've been following the New Urbanist saga, the language in Austin's TND standards is old hat to you by now. The TND's "design adopts the urban conventions which were the norm in the United States from colonial times until the 1940s." Our local TNDs, according to the plan, will be divided into "town centers" and "mixed residential areas," although within certain guidelines people can, and ideally will, live in townhouses in the otherwise commercial town centers, or do business in the mixed residential areas. (The "mixed" refers to a variety of types of housing, including apartments, condos and duplexes, zero-lot-line townhomes, group homes and boarding houses, as well as single-family homes on lots large and small.) There are also optional "workshop areas" -- for otherwise-disallowed commercial/industrial uses that nonetheless serve the TND's residents -- and "employment center areas," for office buildings and such, as well as ample open space both "formal" and "informal" that is "woven into the pattern of the neighborhood," along with "visual features that act as landmarks, symbols, and focal points for community identity."

Streets -- generally on a grid, without cul-de-sacs -- are understood to be public spaces, separated by "private buildings that form a consistent, distinct edge" that "shall relate to, and be oriented to, the street" and "maintain a human scale" and which are coordinated in appearance and size "to establish a livable, harmonious and diverse environment." This harmony will be ensured by a mandatory property owners' association with an Architectural Control Committee to serve as the style police, though the city's proposed TND design criteria are already fairly prescriptive, requiring such features as front porches and pitched or gabled roofs.

All this will be contained within developments of between 40-250 acres -- that is, small enough to walk through, and equipped with "a hierarchy of appropriately designated facilities for pedestrians, bicycles, public transit and automotive vehicles." These sites don't necessarily have to be "greenfields" -- that is, previously undeveloped land -- but few "brownfield" or infill sites this size exist under a single owner's control. "You could do it in town if you could clear 40 acres, but that's likely going to be too expensive for most builders," Watson says.

Austin has seen some of this before, of course -- the division into functional areas already exists in master-planned communities like Lakeway, Sun City, and Harris Branch, and the mandatory homeowners' association is a staple throughout the MUD Belt. Of course, Harris Branch et al. are quite a bit larger than 250 acres, and the difference in scale between them and a TND is of course critical to the latter's meeting its mission of reducing vehicular traffic and fostering community spirit. Nevertheless, if a builder were so inclined, Watson says, "they could do a TND now as a planned-unit development. But there's so many hoops involved in creating a PUD -- the public hearings, identifying all the different variances from the current code, dealing with several jurisdictions -- that it's extremely daunting to all but the largest developers."

Setting up the TND rules as a separate zoning classification eliminates some of these hoops. There's no need to deal with the multiple zoning categories required by retail, office, industrial and residential development, since all are identified from the outset -- in proportions and locations prescribed by the proposed code language -- in the developer's initial plans. Likewise, drainage facilities, environmental controls, and infrastructure are established from the get-go, and compatibility issues are the province of the property owners' association. All this before-the-fact planning work, within the framework of the TND design criteria, takes care of most of the issues generally addressed in site plans, which the TND dispenses with. "It's a back-end incentive," Watson says, "but it should compensate for the work up front."

Of course, a much bigger incentive to builders would be some assurance that they could make money with a TND, which, considering that they've spent 40 years creating the desire in the marketplace for their current product, is a logical point of concern. Specifically, the TND's requirement of a commercial town center (under the proposed code, the bulk of the district's residential area can't be platted until infrastructure for the town center has been built) gives hives to the garden-variety builder, schooled in the single-use, single-format subdivision we all know. (It's also the part of the TND concept that deviates most strongly from the current Land Development Code, which looks askance on most commerce -- especially the street-level retail shops that line the TND's envisioned Town Square -- within residential neighborhoods.)

Although some mega-builders elsewhere in the Southwest, like Del Webb and Kaufman and Broad, have flirted with TND development, the typical builder in Austin today cannot likely imagine how to get enough homes into 200 acres, after putting in streets and dedicating 20% of the land to open space, to support the commercial uses required by a TND. Some who commented on Austin's draft code "thought the amount of commercial use we'd set up for the town centers [not less than 40% of the town-center land area] were too high for the marketplace," Watson says. "We're re-evaluating that, but we probably won't go down as far as they would like."

The same hesitation, of course, exists among the commercial tenants themselves, for whom a TND -- with its effective limits on the size of homes, and thus the price of homes, and thus the buying power of residents -- may not seem all that desirable compared to the cheap high-traffic strip-mall space with which Central Texas is awash. This is one reason, and a big one, why so much attention is paid to architectural detail in TNDs both real and planned -- the milieu of DPZ projects like Seaside, in the Florida Panhandle, or Kentlands, in the Maryland suburbs, is not just traditional but downright quaint, thus attracting upper-income homebuyers who may not give a rip about the neighborhood's superior structure, but who like its retro style and will pay as much for an artful and well-designed small home as they would for a graceless large one. (Seaside, along with several other DPZ projects in Florida, is basically a resort community for the affluent; Kentlands, along with other famous non-DPZ projects like Laguna West in Sacramento, is part of the local equivalent of Austin's MUD Belt, the socioeconomic equivalent of Davenport Ranch.)

There's ample debate as to what "traditional" really means -- whether it's essential, as DPZ has practiced and the city has proposed, that the architectural styles themselves be traditional. Not every TND, under the city's proposed criteria, has to look like a Cape Cod village or Italian hill town, but on a functional level, such features as front porches, street-level windows and well-defined doorways are important to the concept, and they carry their own design vocabulary with them. Nonetheless, "There have been questions -- even from architects -- as to whether we're being too prescriptive in the design criteria," says Watson. "Some of the details can be more flexible, but many of them will still have to be required."

Luckily, right now the retro style is much in fashion, which might help ease the marketing concerns of local builders. But a quick spin through the Sunday paper's "Homes" section shows that, while the practicalities of the TND concept might not really be that foreign, the symbolism is quite different from what builders think sells now. We see gated communities and "enclaves" where 200 acres are used to build 50 homes where the master bath costs more than the entire exterior, homes where the rooms intended for entertaining visitors are the smallest in the house.

Of course, we also see homes that are getting bigger even though families are getting smaller, in subdivisions that are ever-farther from town, even though traffic is becoming unbearable and the actual countryside is becoming endangered, at prices that continue to rise even though fewer people can afford them. Ultimately, the Bill Milburns and Jim Bob Moffetts of Austin might have to get on the NewUrb bandwagon, since the need, viability, and marketplace for their current product is fast eroding. The city's ultimate goal in creating a TND zoning district is to eliminate the builders' standard excuse for not changing with the times -- that they're hamstrung by onerous regulations. "They can build their conventional developments if they choose to," Watson says. "But if someone wants to get it together and make a bit of money by meeting this lurking demand, there won't be anything standing in their way."

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