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Mixed-use key to making density work

A bolder attitude on the part of designers, developers, neighbors and city planners could begin to see the positive creative potential in mixed-use development, and help to nurture it, rather than circumscribe it in ridiculous requirements.

Hewit Architects

You see them all over town -- neighborhood buildings with two to five stories of usually wood-framed apartments over a base of retail and parking housed in a concrete structure. Concrete high-rise versions are creating a livable downtown.
Madison Crossing
Madison Crossing, at 16th Avenue East and East Madison Street, features 24 residential units, a 15,000-square-foot ground-floor grocery and a parking garage on the second level.

The concept is nothing new. This typology with shops at street level, and apartments above, can be found in cities throughout history. The rediscovery of this building type might be seen as a critical point in the recent urban response to freeway congestion and sprawl.

Development of the freeway facilitated "suburban" development and the separation of work and residence became a characteristic of city growth. Classic planning in the past 100 years, with its notion of separation of uses may have also contributed. This made sense in an era dominated by heavy industry. Similarly, development of the mall contributed to creating cities without night life, organized around the workplace. Unfortunately, the cities made in this era were lifeless, drab places, mainly because of this forced separation.

Closer examination of the life of cities found that people thrive on spontaneous and circumstantial interaction. At the same time, the economic shifts of the last 40 years seemed to erase the need to separate work, shopping and home life. Complex, multifaceted urban spaces bring people together in different ways, creating the kind of interaction and synergy. Cities thrive on the need for people to come together in so many ways, which cannot be strictly planned. Only recently have planners seen the value to be gained in enhancing this spontaneity and mix of urban uses.

The rising cost of housing, traffic congestion and the need to ensure the long-term economic viability of city centers/downtowns also helped to contribute to increased multi-use development. Growth and methods to manage that growth, such as Washington State’s Growth Management Act, combined to increase densities in urban centers.

Mixed-use development was a partial solution. An effort on the part of city planners, seeking to create “urban villages” helped to bring about much of the recent mixed-use development in Seattle, a good deal of which occurs in Neighborhood Commercial zones.

While a mixed-use character pre-existed in many neighborhoods, it was a viable mode of development, which had been neglected, and as a planning tool, could help to foster interesting growth, while providing an opportunity to preserve a neighborhood’s unique characteristics. If done correctly, both planners and developers realized that mixed–use development made sense.

Increased density has not come easily or painlessly, however. Seattle’s legacy of single-family neighborhoods and neighborhood-friendly system meant change in the city was often met with an endless series of challenges and appeals. At some point the choice became clear -- either allow endless sprawl in the suburbs or allow increased density inside the city.

Increased density does not mean simply switching houses for apartments, however. People need places for all their activities, including recreation, entertainment, and learning.

What makes it work?

As any retail landlord knows, getting the right tenant mix is crucial to a project’s success. In multi-use, the same maxim holds true. Successful developers assess and form the retail to support both the neighborhood and associated residential use. It is essential for all uses to be viable. This may require identification of key commercial and retail tenants, if possible, before design begins in order that the building’s program and design can be responsive to tenant requirements.

Commercial and retail tenants, knowledgeable about their specific tenant improvements, systems etc., often participate along with the developer in providing necessary input for the architects to assist with project design and development. No simple formula works in all places, and mixed-use development does not cure all the ills of a city. As a tool for the development of a more civil urban life, mixed-use development holds great promise. One need look no further than the Pearl District in Portland and Yaletown in Vancouver, B.C., to see viable, vibrant neighborhoods comprised of developments, often in former warehouse buildings, combining residential, commercial and other uses.

Formulaic design without appropriate accommodation for proposed tenant needs, lack of attention to which uses will work for a particular location, and/or myopic focus on the residential portion of a development is often less successful. Any major development happens only through the combined efforts of many parties; developers, the community and public agencies. The city of Seattle has developed tools, incentives and has allowed for creative trade-offs for development. For example, provisions in the zoning code allow for more flexibility in the building envelope to better serve a particular situation. Similarly, the city has identified certain streets as ‘green streets’ and requires developers to be responsive in their plans for sidewalks and street amenities to create a green quality.

Implemented properly, such policies can benefit both owners and the public, and help create successful mixed-use development.

Design review has proven to be an asset to the community and developer and has helped significantly in shaping good mixed-use residential development.

What's next?

From an urbanistic standpoint, mixed-use development has yet to live up to its full potential. Some neighborhoods, such as Denny Regrade/Belltown neighborhood, have benefited, with the beginnings of an interesting 24-hour vitality developing in the wake of mixed-use development. In other cases, neighborhood commercial areas, such as Roosevelt, still have yet to congeal in a truly urban way.

Why aren’t we making architectural and urbanistic hay from this unique building type and its fascinating urban potential? A bolder attitude on the part of designers, developers, neighbors and city planners could begin to see the positive creative potential in mixed-use development, and help to nurture it, rather than circumscribe it in ridiculous requirements. Downtown Seattle is projected to have 27,350 multi-family residential units by 2015 and population of 38,000. A thriving residential population will demand retail and other amenities offered in mixed-use development. Open space, schools, libraries and grocery stores are elements which can create quality neighborhoods. Some suburban areas, however, have yet to see positive street life and pedestrian quality develop due in large part to an orientation primarily focused on the automobile.

Another interesting typology is Transit Oriented Development (TOD), which often includes mixed-use development as part of or adjacent to a transportation hub. Planning for such development is occurring in direct relationship to development of the Sound Transit multi-modal transportation system in the three-county region. TODs can accomplish a variety of worthwhile goals. These include encouragement to use alternative modes of transportation and such development can create interesting urban character in places where it doesn’t currently exist.

As the region continues to grow, and pressures on land prices continue to escalate, planners and developers will need to begin to identify areas outside the city center where mixed-use development would be appropriate. The concept is fascinating.

The old railroad suburbs outside Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, all focused on a village center, a kind of pedestrian node, in the midst of primarily single-family residential towns. The creation of this kind of a nexus within the undifferentiated fabric of suburban or neighborhood residential development is a real opportunity.

The prospect of reinvigorating these areas with sporadic nodes of active, pedestrian, urbane life, could prove to be a fascinating, highly worthwhile endeavor, provide better utilization of land, and create the necessary interaction and vitality associated with urban neighborhoods.

Doug Hofius is an architect with Hewitt Architects, currently working on Welch Plaza, a mixed-use residential project in Seattle’s Central District.

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