Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Mixed Use Receives More Disrespect

I’ve written before about the Jane Jacobs’ vision of mixed use, her ideal neighborhood combination of buildings, jobs, and people where the sidewalks are occupied from dawn until long past dark, offering a near-continual public place of safety and involvement.  And I’ve written before about how hard it is to achieve a neighborhood that even comes close. 

Jacobs’ prototypical mixed-use neighborhood was remarkably well-suited to mixed use.  As she looked from the window of her Greenwich Village townhouse during the writing of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, she gazed upon a setting that was a residential neighborhood by day, with a good mixture of streetfront retail.  In the evening, a convivial neighborhood bar defined the neighborhood, with longshoremen unwinding after late shifts along the nearby Hudson River and an early Bob Dylan doing occasional sets.  It was an unusual confluence of uses and jobs that few places can match.

But the fact that Jacobs’ neighborhood was remarkable shouldn’t deter us from trying to emulate it as best we can.  Instead, we seem to have forgotten that mixed use remains a desirable goal.  Indeed, we seem to have forgotten what mixed use even means.  Instead, we often describe a drivable suburban shopping center bundled with a small dental office as mixed use.   It’s emphatically not the mixed use of Jane Jacobs. 

A pair of recent events reminded me of our growing lack of respect for the goal of mixed use. 

I’ve been involved with a proposed mixed use project.  With a location near downtown and with residential units over streetfront retail, it legitimately met the local standard for mixed use.  But it only began to really feel like Jane Jacobs’ mixed use when the developer made two key decisions.  He dedicated one of the buildings to senior housing.  And instead of paying the in lieu fee for affordable housing, he decided to include affordable units within his project, mingling them with the market rate units.

With those two changes, the potential sidewalk life went way up.  The market rates units were likely to create an evening presence on the sidewalks.  Seniors were more likely to be out and about during the midday hours.  And the affordable unit people were more likely to work shifts other than eight-to-five, filling the sidewalks during other parts of the day.  Although seniors plus affordable plus market rate wasn’t Jacobs’ original example, the developer had created the potential for an effective mixed use setting.  I was eager to see it come to fruition

However, the unconventional nature of the project worked against it in the financial market.  With the recession in full swing, the developer couldn’t secure construction funds.  Potential investors were interested, but were uncomfortable with the senior housing and affordable elements of the project.

Several possible investors asked city hall about eliminating the senior living and the affordable units.  In a perfect world, I would have expected the city planners to have looked for ways to preserve the mixed use opportunities of the approved project, exploring alternatives that would have motivated the investors to participate in the project while still retaining the best aspects of the approved project. 

Instead, the planners assured the investors that the senior living and the affordable units could be easily removed from the entitlements.  Presumably, the planners were trying to encourage immediate investment in the community.  But they were effectively throwing away a potentially thriving mixed use neighborhood in exchange for near-term construction dollars.  It was a trade that Jacobs would have denounced.

As it turned out, even with the city’s surrender, funding remained difficult.  The project remains unbuilt.  It’s still possible that the initial vision will be followed.  But if that is to happen, it will apparently need to be despite city hall rather than because of it.  And that’s a shame.

In a similar story, I recently attended a public meeting at which a proposed project was discussed.  It was a nondescript project, a medium-sized chain retail store with a second building of small offices for rent.  Few folks would be able to walk to the project from their homes.  It was a prime example of drivable suburban development, although the project was more the result of drivable suburbia than the cause.

When the city planner described the project status to the committee, he noted that the General Plan designation had to be changed from Business Park to Mixed Use before entitlement.  Think about that.  A project that has absolutely nothing in common with the Jane Jacobs’ vision of mixed use must be designated as mixed use in order to be approved.  It was proof that the zoning code and general plan had lost all sense of what should be meant by mixed use.

And yet nobody on the committee even blinked.  The upside down use of the term “mixed use” seemed to mean nothing to any of the committee members.

To be fair to the committee, their interest was only a peripheral element of the project, not the entitlement process itself.  But the story nonetheless shows that the Jane Jacobs’ vision of mixed use, which should be a guiding light in the 21st century land use world, has been lost.  And that bothers me deeply.

There is a little bit of good news on the mixed use front.  The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), in a move that is far too late and still not enough, but at least in the right direction, has made FHA funding for mixed use buildings somewhat less restrictive.  After eighty years of public policies that suppressed mixed use through the aptly-named “form follows finance” mechanism, it’s a good change.  But much more is needed.  Bob Dylan would probably agree.

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

No comments:

Post a Comment