Your Grid or Mine? | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Your Grid or Mine?

<i>Jackson Designers Push 'New Urbanism'</i>

Sept. 4, 2003

Turn off U.S. 51 onto Hoy Road in Madison, toward the reservoir, and drive past a number of bland gated communities until the gravel ends and you're on dirt. Keep going through the trees, under a Natchez Trace bridge, through more trees—and, suddenly, you'll emerge at a clearing near the water. In that clearing (assuming I had my bearings right) will one day be the business district of Lost Rabbit, a "town" planned for this stretch of about 260 acres of this land. Right now, it's muddy, with water lapping the shore, two-by-fours and building materials (and fast food trash) scattered as if construction workers had skedaddled after sighting a gator.

But when you're standing there, you certainly get a sense of the natural beauty of Lost Rabbit, which, if all goes as planned, will become the metro area's first real experiment in what is called New Urbanism or Traditional Neighborhood Design (TND). They're trying, essentially, to build, like the song goes, in the "new, old-fashioned way." Construction begins in the spring.

The development, undertaken by Lost Rabbit Development, LLC, is significant in that it's one of Mississippi's only TND endeavors, and it's the first to be planned in consultation with the design firm Duany Plater-Zyberk (DPZ), a company run by the acknowledged experts in New Urbanism. DPZ's principals authored the popular "Suburban Nation" book (North Point Press, 2000), and have developed high-profile projects that include Seaside, Fla., and Kentlands in Maryland.

New Urbanism and TND theories try to explain why the suburbs we've built since World War II have led to the dissatisfaction—and worse problems—that many people have with suburban and semi-urban living. According to articles by Andres Duany of DPZ, the fundamental ideas boil down simply to the concept of the "neighborhood" vs. "sprawl." Since World War II, most development in the U.S. followed the sprawl model, which gives the priority to car travel. Hence, the designs include wide roads, massive parking lots and the separation of buildings into "pods" with strict use guidelines.

"In suburbia, you typically have one type of product confined to one specific area," said Mark Frascogna, managing partner of Lost Rabbit Development, LLC. "For example, you have office parks in one area, then you get in your car, and you drive to a shopping mall … and then you get in your car, and you drive somewhere else to live."

TND, despite the modern acronym, basically means a return in city planning and suburban design thinking to the "neighborhood" model that worked prior to World War II. The key elements of those neighborhoods included streets laid out on a grid, abundant sidewalks, street parking and neighborhoods designed so that distance from the center to the edge would require, ideally, about a five-minute walk. In such neighborhoods, houses are built closer together and side-by-side—with larger and smaller houses, cottage and above-garage studios sharing streets with multi-family and even small apartment or condo buildings. Pedestrians are greeted with houses fronted by porches and stoops, not driveways and garage doors. The uses of the houses and buildings tend to be more diverse—you can get to a dry cleaner or grocery store or an ATM or a CPA's office without firing up your Hyundai.

Along with old-growth trees and historical architecture, these urban design features are what make people appreciate areas such as Belhaven, Fondren, Congress Street and the Poindexter Park neighborhoods in Jackson. It may feel like nostalgia, but people are actually drawn to older, walkable, grid-style neighborhoods because they're designed for people first and cars second.

So why not start today building such neighborhoods? Because in most of today's suburban (and many urban) areas, developing such neighborhoods is actually illegal.

"The traditional pattern of walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods has been inadvertently prohibited by current ordinances," wrote Duany in a letter to Architectural Magazine in 1998. "One cannot propose a new Annapolis, Marblehead or Key West, without seeking substantial variances from current codes."

Sprawl—the current mindset of highway-like streets, buildings set back from the road, acres of parking and miles of driving—may be easier and cheaper for land developers and contractors, but it's more expensive for municipalities, which must spend millions per mile of new road in order to get water, sewage and power services to new developments that set up on a tract of land away from the city center. Much of this sprawl is subsidized by the taxpayers in those municipalities—as well as people in nearby larger towns and cities that have to provide some of those services.

While New Urbanism theory is often applied closer to town, TND is applicable for suburban development, as well. Michael Barranco, whose firm serves as the town architect for Lost Rabbit, prefers to see Lost Rabbit as a "village" instead of simply a better suburb.

"It's very much like the European villages. They don't have everything that you can get in the larger towns in those areas, but there's enough to sustain yourself," he said.

There's no question that, like those European villages, Lost Rabbit will have a "residential resort" feeling to it—most of its home-owners will still commute to work and may opt to hit the fast food restaurants and superstores on their weekend shopping trips. But Barranco also paints an attractive portrait of a dad who works in an office or loft near the marina in Lost Rabbit and can take off at 5 p.m. to hop in a boat and go fishing with his son or daughter.

According to Frascogna, Lost Rabbit will be about 90 percent residential and 10 percent commercial, with most of the commercial space focused in the marina area. Lost Rabbit will not be a municipality—it will have a school, post office, a town square and public parks, but no courthouse or mayor's office. And it won't have a Home Depot or Kroger, either, according to its managers.
"I'm a big believer in Montgomery Hardware and Brent's Drugs," said Barranco, who lives in Fondren. "People are starting to wake up and realize that quality of life means something."

Lost Rabbit also won't be cheap—lots will start around $30-35,000 and the managers will require builders to adhere to some significant quality controls. Barranco said prices for finished homes aren't yet known, but at a ballpark estimate of $125-$150 per square foot construction cost, a 2,000 square-foot home would approach $300,000 for starters. Unlike many actual municipalities, Lost Rabbit doesn't have to plan for subsidized or affordable housing, nor does it have an existing wage-earning or working-class population to service.

But Lost Rabbit isn't one-size-fits-all, either. Multi-family housing, live/work loft-style buildings and small cottages, condos and rentals properties are all part of the plan. Wide sidewalks will connect the three "neighborhoods" within the development, each of which will have different densities and slightly different road characteristics. And, in a detail that Barranco is particularly proud of, the mile of reservoir shoreline that stretches at the edge of Lost Rabbit will not be sold for homes, but will be open to everyone, with private residences set back far enough to accommodate public use.

"We'll celebrate [the shoreline] and use it for public enjoyment," he said, adding, "You'll still be able to see the moon on the water at night from those houses."

Previous Comments

ID
77177
Comment

And I'll betcha that the residents of Lost Rabbit will be, at the minimum, 95+% white.

Author
Reader
Date
2003-09-05T15:29:20-06:00
ID
77178
Comment

I thought that, too, when hearing about how much the property and building is going to cost. With the current income break-outs in the area, that's probably the sad truth.

Author
ladd
Date
2003-09-05T15:41:44-06:00
ID
77179
Comment

Sure greenfield New Urbanist development like Lost Rabbit is problematic. A typical New Urbanist response to the high cost of property and the homogeneity by income and race is to simply invoke the "supply and demand" theory. Ie. lots of people want to live in a place like that and the market reflects that demand... Fine. Build more. The response is furthered by the argument that local land regulations -- zoning, etc... are such that it's quite difficult to build mixed-use communities (though Lost Rabbit with its 90/10 split isn't too mixed use, now is it?). It costs a developer money to get variances, special permits or to work up plans, make presentations to planning boards. Fix the codes/ordinance -- we can do that just as long as the legislature gets together and changes the state enabling legislation. Good luck. Add on top of that the investment community is typically interested in funding development projects that are safe (meaning funding stuff that's like other stuff that's been built in the past). This makes money more expensive and harder to find (which also costs a developer more money). Talking to friends in the development field have led me to believe this is the hardest thing to change. The flip side though, is think about all the other subdivisions we don't hear about, you know, Fox Trot or Autumn Woods or whatever their names are. They typically are homogeneous by income and race as well. On top of that, when was the last time a conventional subdivision like Fox Trot mixed housing types and offered stuff from apartments to townhouses to single family detached? As long as we're building on greenfields (Andres Duany consistently uses this statistic -- 95% of all development now is greenfield development) we may as well make mixed-use development one of the choices for consumers. On the other hand, if you look at a place like Jackson where the population has declined from 220k in 1980 to 184k in 2000 (I think that's right), there seems to be lots of space for people to live and where the infrastructure doesn't have to be built up from scratch and then maintained. My two cents on a Friday afternoon.

Author
Matthew Dalbey
Date
2003-09-05T16:53:28-06:00
ID
77180
Comment

I thought that, too, when hearing about how much the property and building is going to cost. With the current income break-outs in the area, that's probably the sad truth. Then why give it so many inches understanding how the development won't pass so many of your publication-to-date smell tests? I can't help but feel with this latest issue (of the JFP) that you all are saying, 'Hey, suburbia isn't half bad (and is even palatable) if more new development will be like Lost Rabbit and if we can reconfigure (or work towards reconfiguring) our existing suburban environments along Wann's 31 steps to suburban nirvana. (Which, by the way, I feel one could make a stronger argument would be easier to implement, deliver more bang for the retrofit buck and yield more near-term health benefits right here in Jackson than out in the burbs.) I also feel like you all have given the whole redevelopment of the Electric Building downtown a big time pass on only providing luxury apartments in their housing equation -- in your frantic push of doing something, anything (I feel a Todd Rundgren tune coming on) with downtown Jackson. That isn't going to be cheap housing in that building and, while it may attract members of your vaunted "creative class", I'd betcha your looking at a minimum 75% white population there also. In many downtown redevelopment efforts around the nation when public money is involved there is a requirement, hard and fast and upfront (Hello, Harvey's office, meaning pre-contract), that [x%] of new housing units will be set aside for "low income" residents (purchase or rent) in order to promote diversity (99% ot the time unstated.) I've not heard of any such requirement regarding the Electric Building and it really rubs me the wrong way. The Mayor has decided to cut a deal to take that building off of the tax rolls for 10 years (in effect increasing one of the largest millages in Mississippi for the rest of us property owning Jacksonian Joes/Janes) but I don't see the redevelopment doing a dang (overt) thing to promote race relations, or class relations, or "income" relations, here in the city. Just when I think I am beginning to reach some level of agreement with parts of your agenda you, (the JFP), throw a splitter. You need to decide what's really at the core of your civic belief system because you can't have it all. We're only about ~420k strong. The Jackson MSA doesn't have the tax dollar$ to fight a two-front battle. Reader Btw, Dalbey, look at the numbers (2000 and 2002). Jackson is tracking to be ~167,000, or thereabouts, by 2010. That's only circa =<40% of MSA total. This decade is the now or never decade for this city.

Author
Reader
Date
2003-09-05T18:06:58-06:00
ID
77181
Comment

Reader: You make good points -- I'd love to see this sort of thing as a letter to the editor. I disagree with this: Then why give it so many inches understanding how the development won't pass so many of your publication-to-date smell tests? I'm not aware that we did any "smell testing" prior to writing these stories for the JFP. (Full disclosure: When we got in this morning, it did smell a bit like the office cat might have killed something and dragged it in. Fortunately, it was cool enough to open up and air the place out -- we even put out the recycling, just to be safe.) My story is part of a package of stories about the suburbs and how they could be improved, so the story was written within that context. To me, quite frankly, it's more a piece about TND in general that used Lost Rabbit as a local angle. I think the most interesting thing about Lost Rabbit is that it is an attempt to build a better suburb using TND/new urbanism as a starting point. My take after studying the issue is that *sprawl* is generally considered bad for people and bad for the municipalities -- including the core cities -- that are forced to support suburbs. Telling a story about ANY other approach, particularly one happening in Mississippi, is interesting. So, if you "can't help but feel" that the stories seem to suggest that sprawl is part of the problem and new approaches to density and mixed-use are part of the answer, then there's some truth in that. The absolute ideal is that more people would move back to the city and add to the tax coffers. (I don't want them all in the city, because, hey, some people just really love to burn piles of leaves in their frontyards.) I would think that, after reading some of these stories about the suburbs, some people like ourselves might decided we're pretty pleased with urban life. But if we can't get everyone in town then the next step, in my opinion, is to build better suburbs. There are still ways to get taxes into cities from suburbs -- particularly suburbs that don't have the same sort of disdain for their cities that Jackson's seem to have for Jackson. Matthew can probably help with some of those ideas -- regional planning authorities, commuter taxes, etc. And better suburbs might mean happier people, a better environment, the demise of Wal-Mart... (Ok, I'm dreamin' ;-) I pointed out in the story that there won't be any low-income housing and there isn't a plan for any, which is something I would generally consider a bad thing. It wouldn't have seemed appropriate in the story to say what the racial makeup of Lost Rabbit will be, because I have no way of knowing that beyond crass speculation. However, unlike nearly all suburban developments, this one does mix housing types, sizes and so on so that there isn't a $140-160k pod that's separated from the $180-200k pod. I I think it's interesting that someone's trying that. Mixed use commercial and housing types, a higher density of housing, and a plan that develops a bit more organically than most developer-owned suburbs is something that seems worth discussing as a solution to many of the ills that the suburbs suffer. But it's clearly not the end-all. It's interesting that the Lost Rabbit management tends to conjure Fondren and Belhaven when they point out the positives in their design for Lost Rabbit. I also think that some readers will read the story, have a similar reaction to yours and, perhaps, decide that it's important to encourage this sort of development closer in to town. I hope I have the opportunity to write about that development. If it doesn't happen, maybe I'll have the opportunity to write an opinion piece that encourages it to happen. (In fact, I think the work already being done in midtown and the JSU area -- and clearly Fondren, Belhaven Heights and Broadmoor -- are examples that qualify.)

Author
Todd
Date
2003-09-05T20:14:22-06:00
ID
77182
Comment

(continued from previous -- went over my word count...) As for the Electric Building, I again don't feel like I'm responsible for a "frantic push of doing something, anything...with downtown Jackson." I might be accused of occasionally "frantically pushing" a grocery cart around Winn Dixie looking for just a little decent produce, but the rest is hyperbole. The Electric Building is certainly a compromise -- I suppose any public/private partnership is -- but I think the city is involved (1) because it's a high profile project that the mayor can talk about in speeches (2) because it keeps an Entergy presence downtown and (3) it's designed to improve the visual landscape a bit and jumpstart other mixed-use projects. I wonder if a project like this would really qualify for the sort of low-income housing requirements that you say happen around the country -- even the financial district in Manhattan was exempt from certain low-income requirements when developers turned office buildings into lofts and condos. This Electric building project will still be 80% commercial -- municipalities offer this sort of corporate welfare all the time to keep or attact businesses to downtowns, office parks, industrial areas and so on. If it were a new residental project with a certain minimum number of units, I could see it being a more likely target for low-income housing requirements. Also, if I'm not mistaken, your facts are wrong on the tax break -- when I asked around at the press conference, I was told that it's only improvements to the building that get a tax break, not the current assessed value. Unless something has changed, it won't be "taken off the tax rolls." Agree or disagree, the argument the mayor has made for improving downtown's commercial and entertainment offerings is that it's the most accessible part of town to people of all income levels, wherever they live. It offers the best public transportation, the best mix of business/public sector uses and it offers a number of housing types and neighborhoods within walking (or biking, etc.) distance. The more jobs that are downtown, the fewer people have to figure out how to get to Clinton or Byram or a Madison County office park to find work. More jobs downtown might also encourage middle class neighborhoods throughout the core of the city. One of Johnson's lines is "a city can't survive if the core is rotten" or something to that effect. While I honestly hear you on how it "rubs" -- which is why I make a point of asking the developers how much these spaces are going to cost when I'm interviewing them -- I think there's nuance to the Electric Building deal -- there's good and bad. (In fact, there is a thing or two I still want to look into. ;-) As for the creative class -- being a creative class member and being entrepreneurial aren't mutually exclusive. I think downtown offers some interesting opportunities for creatives that may only get better over the next little while.

Author
Todd
Date
2003-09-05T20:46:03-06:00
ID
77183
Comment

I'll leave discussion of stuff like "TNDs" to all y'all who know something about it. It does make me giggle, though, to be accused of being pro-suburbs. I hate the suburbs; always have. But, the truth is, all those landscapes of identical houses aren't going anywhere soon, and more are being built. If there is a specific "agenda" here, it is to get people to think about healthier and more sustainable options as they're building them, and what they can do to make existing ones more liveable. At the same time, I think this package of stories retains the urban-living spirit by showing that the suburbs ain't everything they're cracked up to be. At the same time, I don't mind--even like--that someone thinks the JFP is throwing "splitters." It amuses me that some people complain about us for supposedly having a monolithic agenda; then others (and sometimes the same ones) complain that we publish unexpected pieces. I want to constantly surprise our readers, and keep ideas bubbling around a bit. And it's very important to realize that we are in no "done" on this topicódon't think for one minute that the subject of affordable income housing downtown and elsewhere is not going to a continual theme in the JFP. But I'm certainly more immediately concerned with luxury housing (or other development) that displaces people, which of course isn't the case with Lost Rabbit or the Entergy development. I'm reminded of my time in NYC: the gentrification happening on the Lower East Side, which was replacing affordable housing with luxury, was of much more concern to me than the luxury high-rise apartments being put into abandoned office buildings down on Wall Street. That doesn't mean the mix and overall effort toward affordable housing and diversity isn't important -- it is -- but rich people have to live somewhere, too. ;-D And if moving their expensive furniture downtown to a mixed-use building rather than hiding out somewhere around the reservoir is going to help the local tax base, then I'm for it. At the same time, though, I want to see other mixed-use and affordable housing spring up around it downtown. And that's where the planning comes in. But--and correct me if I'm wrong, urban planners--it's going to be difficult to get that kind of urban living thing going without encouraging some sort of high-end development to get money, convenience stores, shops, etc., downtown. All that said, Reader, I appreciate your comments about this. I'm glad someone is bringing up the income and diversity issues, and questioning us on our examination of them, and I encourage you to keep doing that here.

Author
ladd
Date
2003-09-05T20:51:27-06:00
ID
77184
Comment

It seems to me suburbia is bad if it is the only option (I wrote choice a number of times, but thatís not the right word). Itís also bad if within that option of suburbia there is only one type of suburbia ñ single-family homes for a small segment of incomes. I guess there may be other opportunities for living in the suburbs such as gated apartment complexes with parking lots, but those are single use too. And fine, we need some of those too, but if thatís the only rental option, itís no good either. In the Jackson metro area we have municipalities that have local regulations that prevent multi-family housing from being built. Thatís not right. A regional understanding of the housing options is probably a good conversation to start. As far as downtown is concerned it seems to me that itís possible to argue that the ìprogressiveî position to take on housing development is probably to support higher end housing in the near and medium term. Whether or not itís progressive is probably besides the point,though, so just hear me out. I think Todd wrote about transit and jobs and other stuff downtown. Thatís a positive for downtown development. Other stuff thatís need includes real basic stuff like a grocery store and other services typically in close proximity to where people live in higher densities and where a range of incomes can be supported. Downtown doesnít have this stuff so the market will likely support people who have the options of getting in their cars and driving to all the services they need. Build higher end housing and some services begin to evolve. More housing, more services, etcÖ I donít think there will be a gentrification or displacement issue ñ thereís no people to displace and a number of parking lots could use some gentrification, I suspect. Since JRA and the City own a bunch of property that can later be developed for low and moderate incomes, the subsidy for future mixed-income housing comes in the form of cheap land rather than vouchers or other transfers. Maybe itís progressive to just support downtown development of any type. Development that will be supported by the market as it is. Finally, thanks to Reader for pointing out the early projections for continuing population decline in Jackson. It would be interesting to map the rise and decline of population within the different areas of the city. I suspect there is a relationship between some of the design conditions and the relative rise and decline (moderated by income too). Though as long as the state bureaucracy, the med center, and the universities are here in Jackson, I think Jackson will continue to chug along somehow. I also think itíll be real interesting to see West Jackson grow and thrive over the next 10 years or so.

Author
matthew.dalbey
Date
2003-09-06T13:20:26-06:00

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