Thursday, June 19, 2008

Designing Plazas and Public Spaces in Big Box Architecture

This post continues on with the opinions expressed in an earlier submittal, that being Stuff I'm Digging. Though this time I'm writing about the middle ground... being that big-box developments have a difficult time not overwhelming a city block. And by big-box i'm referring to low-rise buildings covering an entire city block, where preferably a few different buildings would reside side by side. While big-box developers at least hopefully attempt to have a good street presence for pedestrians, albeit usually poorly, there's still always the issue of a large uniform mass looming above. Modular design and mini-insets for storefronts simply do not suffice.

My Stuff I'm Digging post praised the block intersected by Pike Street and 12th Avenue. This block has at least 8-10 different buildings making up it's presence. And what's amazing is that new buildings are taking the place of the old buildings, while keeping the amount of buildings the same. Lately, developers looking simply to profit would only proceed forward on a project like this if all or most of the buildings could be torn down making way for one cash producing behemoth. Sure, there's the bottom-line for the developer to take into considertion. After all, it is they with the initiative and means to implement this version of urban renewal. And most of the time it is indeed rundown buildings that are being replaced. But surely a responsibility to be of benefit to the neighborhood from whose ground you are profiting exists... an accountability of sorts. The picture in this paragraph should serve as inspiration for mid-block developments.

So, this is the case on a new development, The Chloe, that I'm posting about now. However, the architect, Runberg Architecture Group, is including a pretty cool feature to the design and footprint of the building to offset the nature of the project. In this case, we still have big-box architecture happening. But you'll notice how the footprint of the main building is "L" shaped, with the open space facing the street rather than the interior, thereby creating a nice pedestrian friendly presence. This approach creates the appearance of multiple buildings, yet still shares the same structure and facilities. And it brings a one story building into the fold, removing the looming large mass above and bringing the building down to human scale. Additionally, they've created a plaza-like space between the buildings, allowing for people to gather and socialize off-street.

Of course, there are codes and lot restrictions for how much a building can occupy of the footprint. And developers are indeed required to provide open space. Usually, however, this is achieved with interior courtyards that are both unappealing to the pedestrian, and to the dweller. Have you ever stood on someones balcony that faces an interior courtyard in one of these big-box buildings? It's somehow a little creepy, and in my opinion detracts from the very experience the developer is hoping to create. Community does not enjoy voyeurs, intentional or not! Not to mention, it's these balconies where tenants go to smoke... so usually blinds are kept drawn and sliding doors shut.

Selfishly, I'm looking forward to the potential opening of a bakery being that this development is only two blocks from our office... and is in fact only two blocks from the Stuff I'm Digging block as well! Also, if you take a look at the plan above, you'll notice a handful of retail spaces rather than just a couple big ones. That means cool boutiques and local shops... Critical mass has already been realized in this neighborhood, and with the addition of new projects like The Chloe, that mass will only grow.