The impact of impact fees

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Impact fees, designed to mitigate the adverse impacts of growth and development, are stirring controversy in communities where developers aren’t used to exactions. The issue is causing consternation across the board, as evidenced by Oklahoma City walking back its proposed impact fee schedule amid lawsuit threats, but it is also an important hurdle to cross if cities are at all interested in smart growth.

What is “Smart Growth?” For that, we have Smart Growth USA.

Smart growth is a better way to build and maintain our towns and cities. Smart growth means building urban, suburban and rural communities with housing and transportation choices near jobs, shops and schools. This approach supports local economies and protects the environment.

At the heart of the American dream is the simple hope that each of us can choose to live in a neighborhood that is beautiful, safe, affordable and easy to get around. Smart growth does just that. Smart growth creates healthy communities with strong local businesses. Smart growth creates neighborhoods with schools and shops nearby and low-cost ways to get around for all our citizens. Smart growth creates jobs that pay well and reinforces the foundations of our economy. Americans want to make their neighborhoods great, and smart growth strategies help make that dream a reality.

How could anyone be against that? Make America’s neighborhoods great again, I say.

How do impact fees encourage smart growth?

The smart growth tool kit includes many tools that fall roughly into the categories of carrots or sticks. Among the carrots, or incentives for smart growth, are programs of reducing fees (building permits, utility connection fees, impact fees, etc) in the urban core, offering financial assistance for urban developments, various forms of tax abatement, and so on. These things are expensive and it stands to reason you can’t give someone a break on a fee that doesn’t exist in the first place. Then, among the sticks, or penalties for other-than-smart growth, are heightened fees, growth boundaries, environmental protection areas, building moratoriums, and so on.

In the case of Oklahoma City, which just wrapped up the Plan OKC process in which it produced a new comprehensive plan that seeks to curb the negative impacts of sprawl, a balanced approach toward smart growth promises to “not rock the boat.” Toward this goal, the city will implement a balanced slate of minimal incentives and minimal penalties to shape development. Despite not rocking the boat, this has elicited the typical responses from developers, including these reactions in today’s Oklahoman linked above:

  • Oklahoma City’s proposed increases outpace those of surrounding communities
  • Commercial developers threatening to take their developments to surrounding communities
  • Impact fees won’t be spent in a way that benefits the developer
  • Proposed impact fee benefits include things the city should already be doing (widening streets, resurfacing roads, maintaining parks, etc)

These responses suggest a callous disregard for the residents that will occupy the communities built by these developers. Toward that point, it is also difficult to convince some developers (that don’t normally offer resident amenities) of the value of public amenities. Furthermore, you’ll also notice that not all developers are the same, and that the plan to enact impact fees was actually shaped by the local developers who do believe in the value of public amenities.

While I can’t predict what some developers will do – and taking their low-budget strip mall plans to another community may not be the worst outcome – it’s also a fascinating claim that these impact fee benefits include things the city should already be doing. Indeed, it is true that it includes things that the city already does, however, it’s questionable if the city should be forcing residents in the entire city to pay for new roads and new parks on the fringes of the city. If the low-budget builders traversed the city streets on their way to argue at City Hall, surely they noticed the condition of city streets closer into the city. Oklahoma City is the poster child for spending all of its resources, levied against the entire city, on new roads on the fringes, and putting very little into long-term strategic maintenance of inner city infrastructure. The inner south side of OKC, where my family lives, is a mess and always has been.

There will always be this rift, in any industry, between those who strive toward quality and those who strive toward value. We are seeing the cheap developers and the quality developers duke it out over these impact fees.

So how big a deal are these fees really?

  • Originally, residential impact fees were 55 cents / sq.ft. in previously undeveloped area, and 40 cents / sq.ft. in urban area.
  • For a typical 1,800 sq.ft. Central Oklahoma home, this would have meant a $990 impact fee on the suburban fringe, and $720 impact fee in the urban core.
  • As of now, they have been reduced to 33 cents / sq.ft. in previously undeveloped area, and 24 cents / sq.ft. in urban area.
  • For the same 1,800 sq.ft. typical home, this means a $594 impact fee on the suburban fringe, and a $432 impact fee in the urban core.
  • For greenfield strip malls, proposed rates were slashed from $4 / sq.ft. to $2.20 / sq.ft.
  • This means proposing a typical 50,000 sq.ft. fake stucco nightmare on NW 176th Street will cost you an impact fee of $110,000.
  • For greenfield office and hotels, proposed rates were slashed from $1.88 / sq.ft. to $1.03 / sq.ft.
  • This means a typical 50,000 sq.ft. greenfield office park will generate an impact fee of $51,500.

On its face, these impact fees are extremely minimal for residential development, and increasingly more substantive for commercial development. The impact fee on office and hotel development is probably not going to be that significant of an impact; however, this proposed fee schedule should properly penalize retail sprawl. Oklahoma City, as a core city of a larger metropolitan region, has every incentive to do everything in its power to stop retail sprawl.

Retail sprawl, more than any other form of sprawl, is incredibly damaging and offers no positive outcomes for Oklahoma City. As retail sprawls further out, it will eventually just leave the city as it largely already has. Furthermore, retail provides stable, low-income accessible jobs – so we also call this “job sprawl,” because the jobs are sprawling out of reach of those that we need to connect to these jobs. Retail centers are almost exclusively built outside of transit accessible areas, and away from affordable apartments. Lastly, as this game plays out – sales tax is the primary collateral damage – and cities in Oklahoma, barred from collecting income or property tax, are almost completely dependent on sales tax.

To solve that issue, the sprawl issue, and many other issues, I am a huge proponent of this smart fee schedule. I liked the initial plan, proposed by the quality developers and approved by council, even better. However, we will take what we can get – this is a good step in the first direction. As it stands, Central Oklahoma budget builders are completely unused to impact fees, exactions, and other forms of real estate finance that you see in most other major metros.

As this game becomes less alien and less scary, there is an opportunity to further enhance these fees, so that the city can reallocate its resources toward fixing inner city infrastructure, and getting back to the business of the entire city at large. I would like to someday see an impact fee system similar to Kansas City, with a completely fare-free zone in the urban core:

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These types of exactions are a real opportunity to create a fair system of encouraging good development, and discouraging bad development. The reality with infrastructure is that somebody has to pay for it at the end of the day, and that new infrastructure is always more fun to pay for than maintaining existing infrastructure. The goal at the end of the day must be to first prioritize the necessary maintenance of existing communities, and then find ways to develop new communities commensurate with the region’s growth. That way we aren’t just building a tremendous excess of expendable housing and especially strip malls.

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Design Ingenuity: Parks for the people

Design Ingenuity is a series highlighting teachable examples of urban design. The first Design Ingenuity post highlighted US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, a transit-oriented stadium project. This is the second post in the series, detailing OKC’s major push to renovate as many inner city parks as possible. The goal of Design Ingenuity is to understand the difference that good design makes in the lives of city residents.

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Tulsa’s $350 million new Gathering Place project is forcing OKC to up its ante with parks

Oklahoma City’s parks are a major opportunity for improvement. I have a tendency to belabor the point in trying to frame matters optimistically, but the reality is that parks are a core area in which OKC falls short. Not only do they not fully meet the needs of human-scale communities, but they also fail to attract residents who often drive to Tulsa or a state park for recreation. Driving over an hour for a park seems odd – but people do legitimately go up to Tulsa for the River Parks, Swan Lake, Woodward Park and the Tulsa Rose Garden, etc. Tulsa will be especially competitive for outdoor recreation enthusiasts once its new $350 million “Gathering Place” park (pictured above) is complete.

People like nice things. Parks and transit, really the two core areas where OKC lags behind, are both two of the most noticeable components of cities. OKC’s parks, besides the incomparable Myriad Gardens, have a ways to go. That said, OKC is aggressively addressing both transit and parks, and in some instances killing two birds with the same stone (trails and bike lanes accomplish both parks and transit).

On parks alone, OKC has 11 distinct initiatives currently underway. These 11 projects will collectively transform OKC’s public realm and get its residents outdoors. Great parks are finally well within reach for OKC. Of course, the plan behind all of this is the 2013 OKC Parks Masterplan. At the conclusion of this effort, OKC will go from trailing to leading other cities.

Myriad Botanical Gardens and Project 180

Project 180, begun in 2010 and scheduled to commence in 2014, but still underway and running behind schedule – is an aspirational $141 million facelift of downtown OKC’s public spaces, including the Myriad Gardens. The Myriad Gardens were designed by I.M. Pei and hadn’t been updated since, while surrounding streetscapes were similarly outdated. Funding was generated through a TIF district just on the $750 million Devon Tower, which didn’t need the TIF, but instead wanted updates to surroundings. P180 included bike lanes, street furniture, lighting, landscaping, and public art throughout the 180 acres of downtown.

The figurative result of Project 180 is a complete “180” turn in activating downtown’s outdoor spaces with people. The specific legacy though is increased attendance at the Myriad Gardens and a well-designed template that OKC is now applying to other streets, including in Film Row and Core2Shore.

“Central Park”

Just to recap: Most casual observers to planning and design are aware of OKC’s new MAPS 3-funded “Central Park” (it’s yet-to-be-named, and I’m pushing for Ellison Park or Ellison Green after the hometown literary great). $132 million total. The 40-acre north park (north of the new I-40 Crosstown Expwy) is scheduled to open in 2018, while the 30-acre south park is scheduled to open in 2021. The north park is a highly-programmed, emphatically-designed urban park, whereas the south park is a more-passive, heavily-landscaped link to the Oklahoma River. OKC Talk has detailed plans here. South Park is pictured below:

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Park architects, Hargreaves Associates, have also designed Chicago’s Millennium Park, Houston’s Discovery Green, Seattle’s South Union Lake Park, and Birmingham’s Railroad Park. Hargreaves has also given OKC a park template, based on this Central Park design, that OKC is applying to outdated parks across the city.

Military Park

This park was originally scheduled to be renovated along with Classen Boulevard’s Asian District streetscape, more than ten years ago. That didn’t happen at the time. At last, the 1.8 acre underutilized site at NW 25th and Classen Blvd is set for an ambitious makeover that will hopefully revitalize this stretch of Classen and the greater OCU area. The space has been named “Military Park” for nearly 100 years, and incidentally has become one of the nation’s most concentrated Vietnamese communities. As such, the park will feature a Vietnam War memorial along with several tributes to what Vietnam means as a homeland.

Woodson Park

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This large park, originally one of the corners of Grand Boulevard, was sliced in half by a freeway and then disinvested for decades. This project refreshes the western half of the park, which had been really disinvested and cut off from the surrounding neighborhood. $5.2 million from the 2007 General Obligation Bond.

McKinley Park

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Not a total park renovation, but a flashy new coat of paint no less for the rec center at McKinley Park, in the Classen-Ten-Penn neighborhood. As CTP has become a community development focus neighborhood, the goal here would be to generate creative synergies before the Strong Neighborhoods Initiative moves on to another neighborhood. This image is just from the call for artist submissions.

Boathouse Row

Boathouse Row now includes the original Chesapeake Boathouse, along with the OCU Devon Boathouse, the UCO Boathouse, the OU Boathouse, SandRidge Adventure Tower, and CHK Finish Line Tower. In addition to these philanthropic-supported projects, MAPS 3 has added $57 million in projects, the largest phase yet. The MAPS 3 improvements include racetrack improvements, grandstands, and the RIVERSPORT Rapids park.

Memorial Park

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Memorial Park, at NW 36th and Classen Blvd, is another park that used to be more historically significant and then faded. While it’s not ideal to tear down homes on 36th for parking for the park, the configuration allows more preservation of the original park, particularly the historic fountain fronting Classen. Very nice project for just $1.9 million, financed by the 2007 General Obligation Bond, completed in 2015.

Red Andrews Park

This park, historically an after-thought in between downtown and no-man’s land, has always been a problem. The Oklahoman couldn’t refrain from mentioning the park’s sordid park along with announcing its redesign. The new design takes parking out of the park, through a shared parking agreement with the new $10 million Valir Clinic across the street. It also lends it a definition of space that it previously never had.

Bicentennial Park

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Civic Center Park or Bicentennial Park, same thing. Not sure which name it’s using right now, but this park encircles OKC’s Art-Deco civic center which includes City Hall, the Civic Center Music Hall (home to the OKC Philharmonic and Broadway shows), and backs to the OCPD HQ. As downtown withered in the 70s and 80s, the park became a dumping grounds for statues and plaques. I think there was a statue of every mayor, which is almost interesting. Rand Elliott, perhaps Oklahoma’s most acclaimed architect, completely overhauled the space in his recent renovation – funded by $3.5 million in Project 180 funds, similar to the Myriad Botanical Garden renovations. It’s a small space, but designed well-enough to feel significant.

In my opinion, as someone who actually opposed this redesign initially, I’m now convinced that Rand’s vision is what this space should have been back in 1930. The walking paths that elegantly fan out toward the edges remind me of the Chrysler Tower crown. I believe that’s called organic (organicist?) Art-Deco. Enhanced sight-lines in between the two similar WPA-style Art-Deco landmarks, as well as enhanced skyline views, also make a big difference. This is an Art-Deco park where such a thing should have always been.

Wheeler District + Park

Wheeler Park is OKC’s most historic park. It was an urban central park, a highly-programmed promenade, and amusement park rolled into one. One particularly damaging flood changed all of that. Then the Army Corps of Engineers came and dammed the Canadian River, and turned the former parkland into an urban prairie. The “river” literally had to be mowed twice a year. Developer and acclaimed designer Blair Humphreys has acquired the Downtown Airpark, across the river from Wheeler, and is planning to revive this neighborhood’s place in OKC. The first step was successful implementation of concert grounds to activate the site, and the second step (currently underway) is reconstruction of the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel on this site (purchased on eBay). It’s worth noting this entire project is privately-funded, though almost surely will involve a public partnership.

American Indian Cultural Center and Gardens (Smithsonian affiliate)

Definitely don’t want to get into this project’s history, but it is moving forward once again! This project, though dogged by delays, cost overruns, and political embroglio, will give OKC a world-class anchor for the south riverfront. It also solidifies the importance of American Indian culture, by placing this new landmark on the most visible, centrally-located site possible. Through an operating agreement with the Chickasaw Nation, the surrounding lands will be commercially developed while retaining the park-like setting. Also noteworthy – Hargreaves Associates once again, on the design (hence why the mounds bear resemblance to the Clinton Presidential Library grounds).

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OKC needs parks. The city that I grew up in during the 90s had the level of park investment you would expect in Dodge City; Tumbleweeds blowing through was the only reliable programming. This was before the parks renaissance that nearly every city is experiencing, before the “back to the city” movement, and before OKC itself had discovered an innovative civic investment mechanism (the MAPS penny sales tax).

The design ingenuity of this endeavor though is its breadth. Rather than just complete a few really good parks, OKC has sought to use those projects to both inform and build capacity for doing more, as well as to build a toolset of templates that the city can plug and play with. This not only reduces design costs, but also administrative costs and process time. This is why almost all cities use a template approach for streets and open spaces – sometimes the templates are bad, but in this case the template OKC has built up to is pretty good in my opinion.

OKC can do this with a continued commitment to parks across the city, and not just concentrated downtown. These projects will rely on long-term commitments, for which the city will rely on partnerships with the surrounding community. Toward that end, it is important that these parks put people first.

Lastly, never bet against a city doing something it has already done before. OKC has had great parks before, and can do it again. It really is all about making a long-term commitment. Behold, Wheeler Park, of yesteryear:

 

Of course, it will help having a vision such as this for making critical connections into the future:

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Aubrey McClendon: A Life “Outside the Box”

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Aubrey always rocked the pink tie

Regardless of where anyone is sitting while they read this, how many of you know a true visionary?

How often does news regarding a business leader’s personal life spread like wildfire, through social media, text messages, in passing, and at the dinner table? How many communities are indelibly linked to such a titan of industry, where you all know him/her, but he/she doesn’t know you but still plays the role.

How often does an urbanist, a planner, a bicyclist – write glowingly about the guy who has single-handily furthered the practice of fracking?

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Outdated aerial (just showing the older Georgian section) of the Chesapeake Energy HQ Campus in OKC, from The Lost Ogle

Aubrey McClendon, the lightning rod founder of Chesapeake Energy, was that guy for Oklahoma City. He was (past tense is still weird) to OKC as Jeptha Wade or John D. Rockefeller were to Cleveland.

My hometown of OKC is an undeniably oil-dominated city, with the economy inextricably linked to oil’s volatile boom and bust cycles, drawing energy professionals from across the world, but offering few opportunities for the hometown kids who don’t go into energy.

Aubrey founded several energy companies, and even got booted from the largest one, but unlike most of these guys whose real talents may be better suited for trading stock futures – Aubrey was energy. He exuded energy; and not only in an enigmatic way, but also as an actual geologist, geographer and physicist. He was a rare breed of CEO that, despite his controversial compensation, got down in the nitty gritty and did it all. Including the infamous micro-managing.

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OK State’s new Spears School of Business – notice a resemblance?

I remember when Chesapeake kicked him out of the company he created. He had just given a huge donation for Oklahoma State’s new business school, and everyone on campus was worried if that would still happen (it did).

I’ve had many a friend work for him, all sharing… interesting experiences. Not bad, just interesting. Said interesting experiences exist amongst the entire community, well beyond his payroll. Commuters on Western Avenue would frequently spot him down in the weeds measuring distances between trees going in a new streetscape project. Restaurateurs have told stories of him coming in to taste-test every possible variety of salad garnish, striving to perfect the corporate cafeteria’s healthy food options.

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Loud City

He brought the NBA to OKC, giving the state a brighter spotlight than ever before.

He brought Whole Foods to OKC, against their will, which has been so successful they are planning several more stores.

He brought the world’s premier rowing venue and related boathouses to the “Oklahoma River,” an overgrown ditch that was previously a line item in the city’s mowing budget.

And yes, he brought big earthquakes to Oklahoma, as the tremors are now reaching the magnitude 5 threshold on a regular basis, causing real earthquake damage.

He was crazy.

In a city full of conservative squares, he was special. He was reviled and revered.

Omaha has no idea how good they have it. Buffett similarly gets stuff done, without his assets marked by such volatility, and without his persona embodying even more volatility. Buffett is steady.

Aubrey is not. Indicted one day. Dead the next.

It’s been a weird week. But yes, for those of you back home, I heard the news alright.

Love him or hate him, the story of Aubrey McClendon is best summarized as that of a guy who didn’t just think, but lived outside the box. Incredibly, and despite it all, he now goes back into a box – to rest.

OKC: Tower Theater Lights are back

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Drone aerial over NW 23rd, with the revitalized Tower Theater on the right, and its new public parking (formerly a dirt lot) across to the left, and the bustling (often congested) 23rd corridor dead-ahead. Photo credit Stephen Tyler, whose awesome Vsco page is worth a look. http://vsco.co/stphntylr/grid/1

It’s hard to believe that Devon Tower was finished 4 years ago. Hard, no, impossible. It’s amazing how time flies. For those who track urban progress, these big-ticket projects often serve as benchmarks not just for the communities we love, but for our own lives. I remember as a kid driving into downtown OKC, pre-Devon, thinking what a nicely balanced skyline we had. Similarly, I remember driving down NW 23rd just dreaming of the potential.

For those who don’t know, 23rd Street is the inner north side’s main east-west corridor, carrying between 25,000 and 18,000 cars a day, from the State Capitol west through the inner northside’s tree-lined historic neighborhoods. One block off 23rd, in either direction, usually looks great. On 23rd itself, until recently, has always looked terrible. Somehow the resurgence of the inner northside has evaded its main drag, where seedy landlords and underutilized sites have managed to cling to dear life while their ilk around them have given way to signs of progress.

One of those signs of progress finally happened along 23rd, and it was a big one. The Tower Theater, a long-languishing art deso / art moderne landmark at 23rd and Hudson, in the heart of the Uptown 23rd district, finally turned its lights on. After numerous starts and stops, including a once-hopeful restoration by Piedmont mayor and Midtown developer Greg Banta, this community anchor is approaching the finish line as an music hall, with the potential for film screenings, and storefronts refilled with a bar and another restaurant. The work was finally completed by Jonathan Dodson, Ben Sellers, and David Wanzer. Together these three guys are taking a lot of high-profile sites, where patience has worn thin before, and bringing them across the finish line. Watch this space, because these guys get the job done where others couldn’t before.

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On the road again…

More pan-Midwestern content coming soon because I am on the road, seeing friends, family, and conducting thesis research on more awesome cities!

In this instance…

Flew to Omaha. Just wrapped up a week in Omaha and Sioux City, Iowa. Got snowed in and had to cancel other plans, but I love the snow!

Drove to Kansas City. Spent a day there. KCMO is just about the coolest town around.

Drove to OKC. Spending a week here over the New Year’s holiday. Good to be back at the Homa.

Dallas? Maybe Dallas. Debating going down there for actual Midnight NYE 2016. Or before I fly out. We’ll see if I get to it.

I am trying to get interviews with policy makers and economic developers here in OKC, for my thesis; if that doesn’t pan out, I’ll just go down to Dallas and conduct more on-the-ground research.

6-hour layover in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Just long enough to ride all the rails, I hope. And get back down to MSP for my flight back to Columbus.

What is on-the-ground research, and what does one do on-the-ground in a city I already know, you ask? I am specifically taking photos that just don’t exist online. Since my thesis is on leveraging the value capture with TOD, photos augment that by illustrating exactly what that value looks like. On-the-ground.

Here’s the trail I’m blazing this time:

Winter 2016 Trip

Stay tuned for the photo analysis!

Mixing Architecture

While my design soft spot has always and will always be architectural contrast, my professional work has led me to realize there is a strong consensus against that in most cases. To make matters worse (or better), anytime you can simplify design through a public process (where design literacy may vary), the better the outcome.

German Village, Columbus, Ohio

Looking straight north up 3rd Street in Columbus, where the German Village’s iconic slate roofs and brick cottages comprise the theme listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The listing notes three styles: Queen Anne, Italianate, and Gothic Revival (Photo credit: German Village Society)

Historic districts promote uniformity, whether we admit this or not (through the theme of contributing properties, which may be one style or several that go together). Urban design guidelines and design districts do this as well through strict standards. That said, we also must admit uniform standards do work wonders toward preserving the quality of a district.

Design is subjective, and design standards and historic districts have been proven successful in objectively raising the bar toward an enactable minimum with which we can all accept. Toward that end, this post is not meant to be an attack on standards, but rather merely pointing out what lies outside the box.

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Outdated aerial (just showing the older Georgian section) of the Chesapeake Energy HQ Campus in OKC (Photo credit: The Lost Ogle)

Most esteemed university campuses with which I am familiar also have a distinct style, often part of their brand. Oklahoma State University is Georgian. So Georgian that the Chesapeake Energy campus in OKC, with its older core of OK State knock-off buildings, is often called OSU-style and not Georgian. #SoGeorgian. University of Oklahoma is prairie gothic, which I always found to be weird. University of Texas is mission-style. University of Kansas is romanesque. KU really is stunning, as a non-Jayhawk.

The aforementioned examples revolve around classical styles, which are most commonly found in authentic samples. Developing anew in a historic motif, like Chesapeake, is rare and should be discouraged as far as architectural authenticity is concerned. That said, the future will not have homogenous 21st Century districts simply because we are almost always working with a pre-developed context. 100 years from now, the 21st Century styles that we will be preserving will be more mixed amongst older styles, so far as urban context is concerned. If we don’t reconcile our perspectives toward mixing architecture, we risk the chance of enacting the wrong standards and following the wrong approach altogether. Preservation must eventually become more sophisticated, just as development has.

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Corner of NE 2nd and Walnut in OKC’s Deep Deuce area, with the new Aloft Hotel, LEVEL apartments, replete w/ Native Roots grocery store and a bikeshare station in front (Photo self-attributed, taken in 2013)

Modern design districts come in two forms. On one hand you have something like Deep Deuce in OKC, which is almost entirely new infill, developed over parking lots for which OKC’s historic black main street was demolished in the 50s and 60s. With very few original pieces still extant, those have been mostly restored, and some of the infill features nods to the red brick warehouses that once were. However, most of the infill, for lack of an authentic surrounding context, has been pretty outrageous – with free reign for architects to create a 21st Century neighborhood. Steve Lackmeyer, downtown beat writer for The Daily Oklahoman, wrote about Deep Deuce as the “complete” mixed-use neighborhood other cities dream about.

Cleveland Botanical Garden and CWRU

Mixed design built within landmark historic district in Cleveland’s University Circle. Modern landmarks such as Frank Gehry’s Weatherhood School and Uptown CLE wedged between CWRU’s historic quads and Little Italy. (Photo credit: Bill Cobb)

The last and most common case is where modern design truly coexists in a mixed environment, which usually includes a more nondescript historic building stock (else the modern would be toned down). In the case of University Circle in Cleveland, perhaps Ohio’s most magnificent square mile, few neighborhoods have so masterfully blended old and new, landmarks alike. That said, sometimes the new does endanger the old. CWRU has famously targeted entire historic districts for demolition, such as Hessler Street – giving rise to the famous Hessler Street Fair where the historic street stands tall against outside threats. Little Italy, (the smattering of cottages between the tracks and Murray Hill in the above photo), is better-protected – but its corners have been reinforced with high-end modern condos.

That mixed context, in my opinion, is the most impressive. I hate seeing historic landmarks in University Circle threatened, but as long as the neighborhood can evolve and retain ALL of them – University Circle remains the unquestioned most spectacular square mile of Ohio. It’s a rich and varied architectural cultural that befits Ohio’s cultural district. It’s as simple as that. Tearing down a building is not unlike the Cleveland Museum of Art moving out the Monet to make room for the Chihuly (which they would never do!), however refusing to make room for the Rothko also diminishes the overall value and authenticity.

That said, you don’t put the Rothko, Chihuly, and Monet in the same frame, let alone gallery. In Columbus, a locally-significant developer Jerry Solove (his family name is on the new OSU Medical Center), has proposed to demolish one of Old North Columbus’ most historic High Street blocks. While within two blocks there exists entire blocks of strip malls that could easily be demo’d for their concept, they of course must demolish the best block to make way for 11 stories of modern student housing. Worse yet, the entire project is designed to cleverly slip through zoning and design review in a city with shockingly weak development controls. The only two homes whose zoning would need to change have been swallowed into the development as a façadism nightmare. The setbacks going up every two floors also circumvent the height limits inherent within the zoning classification. With the city zoning administrator’s signature in hand already, the development could practically begin tomorrow and irrevocably demolish what little historic integrity remains on High Street, north of the OSU campus.

Just because there isn’t much integrity left doesn’t make that low-hanging fruit for redevelopment. Sophisticated cities, which Columbus just isn’t quite yet, find ways to retain the good and focus redevelopment opportunities where those opportunities actually exist. The flip side is the argument that “this argument is irrelevant because said development has this site, not that site.” That is the developer’s problem, not the city’s, or community’s. Otherwise there is natural development pressure to keep building up on the good sites, continuing to ignore the bad sites. What gives in the end? When that happens, you get the below nightmare (which really should also render the empty block of strip mall parking two blocks away).

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Google Earth Aerial of Old North Columbus, with the Pavey block outlined in red on the right, and a strip mall screaming for redevelopment outlined in red on the left

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Pavey Square at High and Northwood in Old North Columbus, notice the two otherwise beautiful Second Empire homes swallowed up (Photo from Columbus Underground)