Forward to the Past

You don't expect to uncover any revolutionaries at the D-FW Airport Hilton -- especially ones who are plotting against the dysfunctional automobile culture of American suburbia.

The Hilton epitomizes the placelessness of modern planning: it sits in the middle of nowhere, accessible only by car or airport shuttle, ready to receive business travelers who may see no more of the area than the hotel's windowless conference rooms.

But during the last week of October, a group of architects, planners, and other consultants turned one of those conference rooms into a kind of war room with computers, an expresso machine, CDs ranging from Philip Glass to Eric Clapton, and walls covered with maps and drawings. There, they hammered out the plan for the Village of Lakeside, a 132-acre development on Grapevine Lake that represents Miami architect Andres Duany's latest effort to build a livable, walkable community in the suburbs.

By Dallas standards, 132 acres is hardly a blip, but Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, his wife and partner, have a history of making a big impact with small projects. The pair has won national attention and enduring admiration for their first town plan, a Florida Panhandle resort community called Seaside.

The idea behind Seaside, as well as Duany and Plater-Zyberk's subsequent communities, is maddening simple: design places so that people can walk -- pleasantly and safely -- to stores, parks, schools, civic buildings, and even workplaces. Duany says that instead of rigidly segregating commercial and residential areas, as suburban zoning now requires, we should concentrate all the pieces of suburban development into neighborhoods where all the housing is within a five-minute walk of a clear, recognizable retail and civic center. Such centers typically include a small grocery store, a branch post office, dry cleaners, and other service businesses. Some of Duany and Plater-Zyberk's communities also have their own elementary schools (though Lakeside likely will not).

Duany and Plater-Zyberk call it "traditional neighborhood development," and if it sounds familiar, it may be because you grew up in a small town, or in a city whose urban neighborhoods were still intact. Duany and Plater-Zyberk readily concede that their ideas are not original, but merely a rivial of the precepts that had guided city-making for centuries until the mid-20th century. Then, after World War II, says Duany, "everything went to Hell." Postwar planners combined a disdain for messy cities, a love for abstract, diagrammatic plans, and a belief in unlimited land and fuel to create the kind of urban sprawl for which cities like Dallas and Houston are famous.

Andres Duany's style falls somewhere between those of a television evangelist and a trial lawyer. With his short, slight build, his self-assurance and eloquence give him an imposing, Napoleonic presence. He has earned converts around the country with his lectures -- potent mixtures of statistics, common sense, and preaching -- that hammer away at the shortcomings of suburbs while conjuring visions of idyllic, close-knit communities. And he insists such visions can become reality -- through the use of his very specific planning principles.

"At what point is Dallas going to get extraordinary planning?" Duany asked in a public lecture at the beginning of the Lakeside design sessions. "There's a lot of green space left here. There's still enough time to change the model of development that is being applied, which is Los Angeles. If we don't do anything, Dallas will choke on its own growth, like L.A."

Like most effective evangelists, Duany wasn't always a believer. Born in Cuba in 1950, he fled the Castro regime with his parents in 1960; Plater-Zyberk's parents left Poland for the U.S. before she was born. After meeting at Princeton and attending graduate school together at Yale, the pair helped found the Miami firm Arquitectonia, which became famous in the 1980s for a distinctive brand of modern architecture with bold colors and audacious gestures.

But after becoming, in Duany's words, "disenchanted with the making of form undisciplined by urbanism," he and Plater-Zyberk split with their partners, using the Seaside job as the foundation for their own firm. While they do design buildings, the great majority of their work is town planning.

Duany's beef with the suburbs is less with its housing than with zoning and street plans, which he calls "almost a fast-food version of what planning should be." In fact, he says that Dallas homebuilders "are providing an unusually good fit with the buying public. But outside, or as soon as you leave your lot, it's as miserable as anywhere else."

He is relentless in preaching about the failures of the suburbs in social, economic, physical, and environmental terms: the need for every family to have two cars, at an average cost of $6,500 each per year; the 14 car trips per day that originate from the average suburban house (and the resultant pollution problems: remember the ozone levels this summer?); the need for senior citizens to enter retirement communities when they can no longer drive; the countryside that inefficient land use gobbles up.  

But beyond these quantifiable factors, Duany's most compelling argument is that today's suburbs discourage the kind of human interaction one finds in cities and small towns. More and more of life becomes privatized and isolated as people commute one to a car, play in backyards instead of streets or parks, and feel no identification with their community.

Some of Duany and Plater-Zyberk's rhetoric - and much of what has been written about them -- conjures up Norman Rockwell images of New England village greens or Texas courthouse squares. But the planners say nothing like these idyllic models is feasible today because they were created before cars were a planning issue. It is instead the garden suburbs of the 1920s -- such as Highland Park and University Park -- that they look to for inspiration.

"Neighborhoods like these were designed to accommodate the car, but they are made for the happiness of people, not cars," Duany says. He took his design team on a tour of Highland Park and the Highland Park Village shopping center during the week-long planning process.

The developers of Village of Lakeside were delighted at Duany's interest in Highland Park as a precedent, since their history and that of Highland Park are closely linked. Lakeside's "town founders" (as Duany and Plater-Zyberk shrewdly refer to their developers) are Peter and Betty May Stewart and their five adult children, who own a real estate development company called Penteco. Mrs. Stewart is a granddaughter of Colonel Henry Exall, who laid the groundwork for Highland Park in the 1880s by building Turtle Creek Boulevard and what became known as Exall Lake.

In the 1970s, Stewart began acquiring land at the southern tip of Flower Mound, including a piece with 60-foot bluffs that offer a spectacular view of Lake Grapevine. The land, minutes from D-FW Airport, was zoned for "campus commercial" development (that is, suburban corporate citadels like those of Frito-Lay, EDS, and JCPenny in Plano). But Penteco president Alan Stewart, one of Peter Stewart's three sons, says that real estate brokers and planners "all kept coming back to one thing" when they saw the property and its view: "Wouldn't this be a great place to live?" Stewart heard about Duany's work with mixed-use developments and invited his firm to plan the site.

The way Duany and Plater-Zyberk plan a town illustrates how different their thinkin is: most planners talk to their clients, go back to their office and create a plan, then work to get it approved by the client, the various engineering and marketing consultants, and city authorities. Instead, Duany involves all these parties from the beginnin with week-long intensive design sessions he calls "charrettes." (The word comes from architecture school; at Paris' Ecole des Beaux Arts in the 19th century, students would work day and night to finish their projects before a charrette, or cart, came by to collect them. Architects struggling to meet a deadline still say they are "on charrette." ) He brings a team of designers and artists with him, mostly from his own firm, and after touring the site, the group begins drawing, talking, and debating.

On the first day of the Lakeside charrette, each of Duany's 11 designers drew up a plan; the group critiqued these plans with the Stewarts, getting the sites fundamental design issues on the table right away. Among the most pressing was the view: should it be public or private? Modern developers typically create high-priced lots that back up to desirable features such as lakes, creeks, golf courses. But Lakeside will employ a more public-spirited, democratic approach: a street running along the lakefront, lined with apartment buildings of four or five stories.

The group also hashed out the question of block size -- an important one for Duany, since a system of frequent, interconnecting streets (contrasted with the suburban pattern of long, winding streets and cul de sacs) makes it easier for people to walk between destinations and cuts down on car trips. (He claims that his neighborhood development yields 60 percent fewer car trips per day.)

But when the blocks are smaller, streets -- which are expensive to build -- take up more of the land. The planners decided on small, city-sized blocks connected in a loose grid ,though Alan Stewart says that may ultimately require modification for financial reasons.

As the group worked to narrow the original 11 plans to four, Duany greeted each morning of the charrette like a general, briefing members of his team and assigning tasks. One designer explored different options for the office district at the south end of town; another drew floor plans of houses to demonstrate how Lakeside's plan would accommodate the desires of the local market, such as two-story ceilings and opulent master suites. Team members huddled over their drafting tables or wandered around the room exchanging ideas with colleagues, observers, and the Stewarts. Local civil engineers, landscape architects, and real estate brokers provided additional ideas and information. By week's end, Duany had narrowed the list of master plans to two.  

That is as complete as Duany wanted the process to be at this point; anything further leaves too little negotiating room with Flower Mound city officials, who still must approve the project's plan. That remains more than a minor obstacle. For all the positive attention Duany and Plater-Zyberk have gotten, both in professional circles and the press, their work is still looked on with puzzlement and suspicion by many government zoning and planning officials, whose current codes prohibit many components of Duany's "traditional" neighborhoods--especially the mix of uses and the narrow street widths Duany advocates to increase density and slow down cars. The process of winning zoning variances and other approvals for Lakeside is likely to take up to a year.

All that said, what will Lakeside, this modestly revolutionary community, look like? While the plan is not final, one can expect a retail center similar in size to that of Highland Park Village at the entrance to the community from International Parkway, the road that stretches north from the airport to Flower Mound. From that entrance, a grand avenue will curve through the development, gradually exposing the view of the lake until it terminates at the site's highest point. There, the planners anticipate some kind of civic building or park where, Duany says, "people enjoy the sunset over the lake every day as a civic ritual." In between, there will be a variety of housing types: apartments, townhouses, detached houses, some with garage apartments.

Throughout Lakeside, there will be parks about the size of a city block within a two-minute walk of each house--what Duany calls "hollering distance" for parents and children. There will also be a larger, eight-acre park near the center of the community. Most of these green spaces will be designed around existing natural features, including a wetlands area and a number of large trees.

You can also expect an architectural style quite different from your average North Dallas development. While Penteco will build the streets, utilities, and other public spaces in Lakeside, other builders and developers will build the houses, stores, and offices--which raises one of the most controversial aspects of Duany and Plater-Zyberk's method.

To insure that the buildings that go up in their communities can coexist harmoniously, the developments always impose a strict architectural code. Based on local precedent, the code dictates the kinds and colors of materials that builders may use, the shapes of windows, the angle of roofs, even the varieties of plants. In some of their towns, including Seaside, houses are required to have porches and picket fences.

Some architects view such rules as stifling creativity; some builders regard them as anti-capitalist. "Developers call me a communist, and architects call me a fascist," says Duany. But those who sign on to his methods ultimately learn to live happily with the sort of privately imposed restrictions that they would never countenance from government zoning planners, Duany says.

The architectural style Duany and his team members settled on for Lakeside is the kind of clean, simple aesthetic pioneered in Texas by the late architects David Williams and O'Neil Ford. They were, in turn, inspired by the lean, metal-roofed barns and houses of the Texas Hill Country, with masonry lower stories and balconied wooden upper stories. The range of allowable colors--yellows, reds, tans, and browns--was drawn from rock samples on the Lakeside site. The look is as spare as some modern architecture, but with a scale and language of detail that give it a warmth and historical resonance. And it is dramatically different from the ubiquitous, mongrel-like local suburban houses--with their concentration of gables, arched windows, and columns--that architects deride as "North Dallas Specials."

Duany insists that his developments need architectural codes because architects and builders don't behave responsibly: "When traditional towns were designed, planners could count on architects to be responsible urbanists, team players." Modern architects, though, "have been taught to be individualists and to mangle plans."

To those who conclude that he and Plater-Zyberk are peddling nostalgia, Disneyesque historical kitsch, Duany responds that any good architect--regardless of his aesthetic leanings--can work within his guidelines.

But his lectures and his own firm's work reinforce the idea that traditional urbanism is about more than just finding better physical patterns for communities. In his slide lectures, compelling images of long-gone community life--a turn-of-the-century crowd on a New England green, for example--recur, and he promises tremendous turn-back-the-clock social benefits along with his design.  

Some of these are obvious: if more people lived near where they work, they could reclaim some of the best hours of the day that they now spend commuting. And neighborhoods with their own civic and commercial centers would help people better identify with neighbors.

But some of Duany's claims seem to confuse cause and effect: some of our sense of alienation and rootlessness has to do with our increased mobility and divorce rate, for example. And when Duany blames the suburbs for creating the need for retirement communities (because old people can't stay in the suburbs after they quit driving), he forgets about the breakdown of the extended family, another reason retirement homes become popular, and one whose connection to postwar planning is remote at best.

Another of Duany and Plater-Zyberk's ideals is a community of mixed incomes; that is why they insist on a variety of housing types. But so far, their built projects have been victims of their own success.

Seaside, for example, started out as a middle-class resort. But because the town was so different and so appealing, property values soon skyrocketed. (Some of Duany and Plater-Zyberk's draftspeople had been paid in Seaside lots, which ended up funding their graduate educations.) "Until this kind of development becomes normative," Duany notes, "people will bid it up."

Lakeside, too, is likely to become as much a high-end enclave as its model, Highland Park, although it is hard to say how builders will react to the traditional-neighborhood idea. Market forces could also affect the mix of housing: if buyers don't take to the attached row houses, for example, the zoning may change accordingly.

However Lakeside progresses, it won't get there overnight. If the city approves the project, it will likely take three or four years, as it did at Seaside, to achieve a critical mass of housing. Alan Stewart expects that it will take five to 10 years before construction is complete. Eventually, Lakeside might have apopulation of up to 2,000.

Traditional neighborhood planning won't bring back the Bedford Falls-like hometown so many of us mistakenly search for in today's suburbs. But it could do a world of good toward shaking us free--or at least freer--of our cars, resulting in great gains for the environment, the economy, and our well-being.

And even the aspect that seems hardest to imagine now--the ability to live and work in the same neighborhood-- begins to look feasible if you consider the computer-driven potential for working at home or from remote "telecommuter" offices. Some entrepreneurs are setting up suburban "office hotels" where people can use an office and communicate with their employers and colleagues via fax and modem; such hotels would fit beautifully into the commercial centers of Duany's traditional neighborhood developments.

It will be an especially satisfying irony if it is technology that finally puts us back on the sidewalk.

Mark Alden Branch, a former senior editor of Progressive Architecture, lives in McKinney.

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