180 degrees

James A. Bacon writes about how a Virginia Beach intersection metamorphed from planners’ laughingstock to a vibrant urban oasis.

|Before (from _Suburban Nation_) | After (from CMSS, via Bacon’s Rebellion)|

Andres Duany, the New Urbanism evangelist, carries a carousel of slides to illustrate his speeches with real-world examples of atrocious urban design. For years, one of his favorites — for all I know, he uses it still — was an aerial shot of the intersection of Independence and Virginia Beach Boulevards in the Pembroke area of Virginia Beach.

This suburban abomination consisted of 20 or more lanes of traffic colliding at a single point. Flanking the thoroughfares were acres upon acres of mostly empty parking lot. And shoved off to the edges of the image — separated by vast distances that no sane person would negotiate on foot — were isolated stores and office buildings. Clearly, Duany would dead-pan with his inimitable sarcasm, Virginia Beach had designed the community for the care and feeding of automobiles. People evidently did not figure into the equation.

It may be time for Duany to find a new slide.

Pembroke, the least likely of locations, is undergoing a thorough-going transformation. Several blocks are blossoming with high-rise towers, parking decks, condominiums, stores, offices and restaurants. The streets are bustling with business executives, lunch goers, errand runners, even joggers….

In what had been an asphalt wasteland a few years ago, developers have brought online 300,000 square feet of office space, a comparable amount of retail, 342 apartment units and a 176-room hotel. Under construction today are another 42,000 square feet of retail, a 1,200-seat performing arts center and a 37-story hotel/residential tower — which will be the tallest building in Virginia. All told: about $400 million in investment….

In [architect Burrell] Saunders’ [principal of CMSS Architects] view, Virginia Beach’s main contributions were twofold: scrapping the zoning codes and other regulations that locked development into expensive and inefficient “sprawl” mode, and creating a Tax Increment Financing District for the development of structured parking and infrastructure improvements. Once the city let developers exercise their problem-solving ingenuity, growth took off.

A coalition of private business interests — led by Saunders, Gerald Divaris, Frederick Napolitano and Richard Olivieri — willed the urban center into existence in the face of initial skepticism and apathy on the part of city government. The city eventually came on board with funds of its own: contributing to parking, streetscapes, and other infrastructure improvements with the increased tax revenue flowing from the new development itself.

For those who think that re-working failed suburbs is a process that will take generations, Saunders’ assessment of Pembroke is profoundly optimistic. Yes, developers and city officials should approach their task with a 50-year planning horizon. “A city,” he says, “should be built to serve generations.” But Town Center has demonstrated that it’s possible to transform large pieces of the physical environment in just a few years…

Saunders “insists [that] Virginia doesn’t need to spend mega-billions of dollars on new road and transit projects to ameliorate traffic congestion,” since the urban form along those roads (“the road edge,” in engineer-ese) can take care of much of that. In a pioneering example of New Urbanism, “1000 Friends of Oregon”:http://www.friends.org/resources/lutraq.html launched a regional modeling process entitled “LUTRAQ: Making the Land Use, Transportation, Air Quality Connection,” but the message has yet to fully sink in: not only are all three so deeply intertwined that they’re effectively different sides of the same issue, but today we can now safely extrapolate from air pollution to water and climate, the emerging hot topics in environmental management.

bq. Transportation is not an issue that should be left only to the traffic engineers. Their solution is to add more lanes of roadway. A better approach is to change where people live, work and play. “We have enough roads,” Saunders says. “We have enough asphalt. It’s a question of how you organize the use of the asphalt.”

Given that Duany always uses that slide to show just how far overboard the highway engineers and zoning engineers (aka planners) have gone, it’s quite a revelation indeed.