Friday, December 23, 2011

Harbor Town (Part 2)

On Monday, I introduced Harbor Town, a Memphis, Tennessee project from the early days of new urbanism.   I visited Harbor Town in May, while escorting my mother on a trip to see some baseball games.  Today, I’ll finish my tour of Harbor Town and offer some overall observations.

A key element of new urbanism is accessibility of retail space.  On that count, Harbor Town succeeds well, although with a couple of quibbles.

The retail center is near the south end of the development.  On west end of the retail area, nearer to the Mississippi River, the retail area is anchored by a 34-room boutique hotel.

Whether by design or by success-driven expansion, the hotel rooms are located in several buildings, some of them above other streetfront retail uses.  Although the scattered rooms likely present a management challenge, they also reduce the mass of the hotel and result in a more street friendly setting.  At almost $300 per night, it’s not a hotel for the masses but, based on an internet check, seemed well-liked by the folks who stay there.

On its east end, the retail area includes a school, gym, grocery, restaurants, and other retail services needed to fulfill most of life’s daily needs.  We didn’t visit any of the businesses but, from the street, it felt like a comfortable place to live and to enjoy one’s community.

In between was a pair of structures that looked to have begun life as residential condominium projects.  However, as the increasing commercial vitality of the neighborhood justified, the streetfront units were converted to commercial uses.

I’m always pleased to see this option.  In some places, new urbanism has been misunderstood as a destination rather than a journey, with the result that mandated streetfront retail space sits empty or underutilized for years, undermining both the project finances and the perception of new urbanism.  New urbanism isn’t about creating a perfect community just like the town in which our grandparents were raised.  Such a community would often fail financially in the 21st century.

Instead, new urbanism is about giving a community the pieces it needs to evolve as the world changes.  A condo that can begin life as private residence before transitioning into a realty office meets that goal.

Regarding the quibbles, one is the location of the retail area.  Located near the southern end of Harbor Town, the retail area is more than a half-mile from the northern end of the community.  Accepted new urbanism theory is the many folks will walk a quarter mile, some will walk a half-mile, and almost none will walk more than a half-mile.

The retail area is well-placed to draw customers from downtown Memphis.  Indeed it is barely a mile from some of the prime downtown destinations.  However, it’s less optimally located to serve its own community.  I wish that there was second site within the community for a lesser retail center, one than needn’t have a hotel or a gym but would still meet neighborhood needs.  Unfortunately, I didn’t see such a site.

The other quibble is tied to the first.  When we turned the corner from the main retail street, we were confronted by a parking lot.  Not a large parking lot and one that that also serves as an alley for homes that front in a different direction, but still an incongruous use after the comfortable pedestrian setting of the retail area.

It’s not a surprising use, given that the retail area probably draws customers from downtown Memphis and that some Harbor Town residents live beyond a reasonable walking distance, but it was still a disappointment.  One may hope that there is a long-term plan for replacing the parking with residential or retail as the community evolves.
Looking at Harbor Town as a whole, another shortfall struck me.  During our visit, which lasted two hours, we didn’t see a single bus.  A subsequent internet check confirmed that there is no transit service to Harbor Town.  This is unfortunate for at least two reasons.

First, many households, despite being located in a community that is intended to encourage non-auto transportation alternatives, are nonetheless forced to have two cars.

Second, Harbor Town, although a community that offers quiet, satisfying pleasures to adults and a safe environment for young children, may be perceived by teenagers as stultifying.  If I lived in Harbor Town and had a 16-year-old in the house, I would like him to have easy access to the grittiness that is downtown Memphis, especially if the safe haven of Harbor Town remained only a bus ride away.

Looking at the island as a whole, there are other land-use observations to be made.  To the north, along the primary island collector, are a couple of apartment complexes that appear to date from the 1960s or 1970s, before Harbor Town was envisioned.  They’re set back from the street, reducing the convenience to the transit that will hopefully someday serve the island.  Except for jogging, there aren’t many activities in which the apartment residents can engage without first getting into a car.  One might have hoped that the new urbanist concepts of Harbor Town would have flowed around these complexes, providing them with non-automobile alternatives, but it didn’t happen.

Even worse, to the east of these complexes are soulless streets of standard stucco homes that appeared to date from the 1990s and early 2000s.  Despite the mostly superb example of Harbor Town to immediate south, the next wave of development defaulted back to the type of housing that can be found in almost every American city.

There is where many would decry the failure of the development community to give us the type of housing that we crave.  I’m not one of those people.  Instead, I recognize that builders can only build what lenders will fund and that lenders will fund only what they think will provide a safe return.  So instead, I decry our own inability, working through our governments, to provide the incentives that the developers need to believe that they can build more Harbor Towns and still achieve acceptable financial returns.  As is so often the problem in a democracy, the failure to achieve a better world is often on us, not the infamous “them”.

On that note, which hopefully sets our marching orders for 2012, Tony and I wish everyone a Merry Christmas.  We’re not taking any time off the holidays, so will be back next week with more new urbanism thoughts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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