Seaside, Battery Park City, the State of Our Streets, and New Urbanism

I RECENTLY spent a week in Seaside, where I was once Town Architect. In honor of Seaside, I’m uploading two essays from Street Design, The Secret to Great Cities and Towns. The first is the opening of the chapter on new streets:

Chapter 5, New Streets

TWO VERY DIFFERENT DEVELOPMENTS from the early 1980s are important landmarks in the recent history of urban design and street design. Battery Park City, a ninety-two-acre extension of Manhattan in the Hudson River that was built on landfill from the construction site of the World Trade Center, has office towers, mid-rise and high-rise apartment buildings, and stores. Seaside, Florida, an eighty-acre development on the Florida panhandle, is a resort built in the form of a town. What the two places have in common is that their streets were designed with many of the placemaking principles outlined in this book. Both projects were a radical departure from the conventional practice of the time. The histories of both demonstrate how auto-centric regulations across the country hinder the making of good streets.

It wasn’t that people didn’t understand the principles; by the early 1980s, they had been talked about and praised for at least two decades. Jane Jacobs wrote the enormously popular The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Bernard Rudofsky published Streets for People1 (also very popular) in 1969, and William H. “Holly” Whyte had been publishing his influential studies of how people use urban space since the late 1960s.2 Despite professional acceptance of the theories, however, most of the sprawl in America was built after the publication of Death and Life. Many planners endorsed these works, but the American Planning Association and its members continued to promote regulations based on an auto-centric separation of uses, with road standards established by the engineering profession’s anti-urban functional Classification system. “The pseudoscience of planning,” Jacobs wrote, “seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and to ignore empiric success.3

In the design world, many architects and urban designers quoted Jacobs as though she were a New Testament prophet, but the manifestation of her ideas in built works was slow in coming. A landmark event was New York Mayor John Lindsay’s creation in 1966 of a municipal Urban Design Group, staffed with young architects who later went on to become important urban designers, like Robert A.M. Stern, Jaquelin Robertson, Jonathan Barnett, and Alex Cooper. Working in the context of America’s largest and densest city, they chipped away at New York’s 1961 Zoning Resolution, which institutionalized Le Corbusier’s paradigm of making the building more important than the street.

Nevertheless, the city regulations affecting street design continued almost unchanged, favoring cars over pedestrians. When Cooper and his partner Stan Eckstut designed Battery Park City, New York’s auto-centric regulations still required overscaled streets that were wider than the most common streets in the city’s grid. The designers at Cooper Eckstut Associates knew how to design good streets and make good urbanism, but when it came to the size of the streets, their hands were tied.

They couldn’t ignore city law, but their design was often innovative, paying little attention to many of the conventional planning standards of the day. It was customary then for a single architect and one developer to plan and build the entire project, usually by beginning with the design of the buildings and then putting in streets as necessary—a method of planning sometimes called Big Architecture. In fact, Battery Park City had an earlier tower-in-the-park plan designed that way, but Cooper Eckstut instead began with the street plan rather than the building or buildings, as urban designers should.

They brilliantly extended adjacent city streets through the site, giving long views to the Hudson River and the open sky over it. Using those through streets as a framework, they made a pattern of streets that produced normal New York City blocks, the antithesis of the superblocks that were still in vogue with most architects and planners at the time. On top of that, they laid a simple form-based code over the plan, so that the Battery Park City Authority could sell building lots to different developers with some confidence about what would be built.

The Seaside Community Development Corp. started construction of the resort on the Panhandle several months after the Battery Park City Authority began building. The development benefited from a trend in architectural education that was perhaps the biggest change in the twenty years between the publication of Death and Life and the parallel achievements of Battery Park City and Seaside. During that brief period in the late 1970s and much of the 1980s when Postmodernism and Modernism peacefully coexisted in the world of architecture (particularly in architecture schools), a renewed appreciation for the design of traditional cities and streets was somehow floating in the air. Practitioners like Stern, Cooper, Robertson, and Eckstut were teaching as well as practicing, and from 1973 on, students in schools around the country seemed to find their way to books like Civic Art4 that had been literally gathering dust on the library shelves.

Occasionally, a new book made a strong impression. The bilingual Rational Architecture Rationelle5 from Maurice Culot’s Archives d’Architecture Moderne was treasured, particularly for its glimpses of the work of the architect Léon Krier. Although Krier had no built work at that time, his entry in a French competition to design a new neighborhood called La Villette came in second, behind a plan by Bernard Tschumi. For students poring over texts like Civic Art, Tschumi’s scheme seemed like conventional planning of the time dressed up with French intellectual conceits, but Krier’s design was eye-opening. It had some of the most beautiful drawings in the recent history of architecture and urbanism, but the ideas it illustrated were even better. Krier’s entry was a fresh design for a normal European neighborhood, with streets and squares and a public realm with civic monuments. The concept was simple, but it was executed with astonishing richness and invention unlike any other work being published at the time. It gave encouragement and inspiration to students who went on to become New Urbanists, Classical architects, or both.

At least part of the reason these students were open to studying old models was that they were one of the first generations to grow up in a world of cul-de-sacs and suburban arterials. They had personally experienced the old and the new, and they frequently found the latter lacking. Plus, there were the cases where the new models were proving to be just plain bad: the highly acclaimed and award-winning Pruitt Igoe, a textbook tower-in-the park housing project in St. Louis, was such a disastrous social experiment that the city had to demolish it in 1972.

It was the students of that generation who designed Seaside a few years later in 1981, under the leadership of Miami developer Robert Davis and architect Andrés Duany. Davis was a little older than the others, but the entire team had three advantages that helped them design Seaside: no one on the team had designed a new town; the county on the Florida panhandle where they built Seaside had virtually no planning or building regulations; and although the market was in a recession when Davis started planning Seaside, he had inherited the land debt free, so there was time to ponder what to do. Fate gave the team a tabula rasa to work on, and they designed a place on the Gulf Coast where they would enjoy spending time. Davis wanted a place where generations of families would come for the summer year after year, as he had with his grandparents. And there was talk of building Seaside so simply and reasonably that even architects would be able to afford a second house there.

When Davis revisited the site on the Gulf Coast where he had been many times as a child, he was appalled to discover that the paradise he remembered was overrun with Miami-style condominium high-rises behind large parking lots. So Robert and Daryl Davis took Duany and his partner Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk touring in southern Alabama and on the Panhandle to look at local small towns and building types that Davis admired (Figure 6.27). Eventually, they came up with a plan that was essentially the program for a large resort hotel broken down into small parts. Instead of hotel rooms, they planned small houses arranged in the pattern of a small town, on normal streets. The spa was placed at the back of the town and called The Country Club. The public meeting rooms and
shops were the downtown, and so on.

A model for the streets of Seaside came from a nearby beach town called Grayton Beach, where Davis had spent many happy boyhood summers. Grayton had unpaved sandy roads and occasional boardwalks. Most of the time, people on foot shared the narrow roads with the cars. Davis was also influenced by Streets for People, calling Bernard Rudofsky one of his heroes.6 And Duany, who had recently met Krier, brought him onboard as a consultant.

The Seaside streets they designed were narrow: there was a hierarchy of streets with different widths, but the most common width was eighteen feet. Outside of the downtown and a few other places, the streets had no sidewalks and no signs other than stop signs here and there and an occasional speed-limit sign. Davis experimented with various ideas before he settled on some of the details. The first road was paved with clay, but clay had wash problems in a hard rain, and it could be messy in a light rain as well. In the second year, Davis switched to compacted oyster shells for the roadbed. The oyster shells could also have wash problems when it rained, and they were dusty when it was dry in the hot Florida sun. Davis settled on tinted concrete bricks, leaving the oyster shells by the side of the road where there were individual parking spaces.

Just as in Grayton Beach, walkers, cyclists, and cars shared the road, creating the first “shared spaces” street in America since Organized Motordom took control of the country’s streets in the early twentieth century. As much as possible, the plan followed traces on the land of things like paths through the dune grass to the beach. On the highest point in Seaside, the plan had a small traffic circle with a gazebo in the center (Figures 5.61, 5.62, and 5.64).

The team took great care to make the streets comfortable places to be. In place of minimum setbacks for buildings, there were build-to lines, placed so that the buildings would shape the street. In other words, rather than saying that a house could be no closer to the street than twenty feet, the Seaside code specified that all houses on a particular street must be exactly ten feet from the street’s edge, and no more. The build-to line for the downtown buildings was on the front lot line, and no building there could be set farther back.

After construction started in 1981, Seaside developed slowly. Davis set up a stand where he sold shrimp, sangria, and lots, and in the beginning, he sold more sangria than land. But, as the market has proven time and again, because Americans in recent years have not made enough good places—places where people want to be—the law of supply and demand drives prices up for those smart enough to strike out on their own to meet an unfilled demand.

Within a few years, the price of lots had gone from $11,000 to $100,000, and the last few of the four hundred or so lots sold for almost $4,000,000. Davis wanted to limit the number of houses simultaneously under construction, and every year there were too many buyers. So once he sold the number he wanted, he raised the prices in the fall or the winter to a point of sales resistance—but in the spring the buyers always came back, willing to pay that much more. It quickly became clear that Seaside would not be a place for impoverished architects. (Even the charrette members who received lots in lieu of cash or checks did not foresee Seaside’s phenomenal success and most sold too early in the process, thinking they were making a good deal for themselves.)

With success, came problems. Impressed by Seaside, officials from the local county (Walton County) talked to Davis about how to spread the good fortune around. Davis sponsored some charrettes for critical pieces of land along the coast, and Walton County decided that planning was the secret to Seaside’s success. Contacting the American Planning Association, it was given names of planning firms in and around Walton. To make a long short, the Alabama firm hired by the county came up with a plan that immediately made many of the standards at Seaside illegal—including its distinctive street widths. Making matters worse, Davis was only partway through building Seaside when the rules were changed: in order to finish the rest as originally designed, he had to get a variance for each new section as he went along.

By the standards of the new countywide code, the streets were too narrow, and the way they “lay lightly on the land” didn’t meet construction standards. Being designed to let water pass through the road and into the ground, the roads didn’t have the required gutters and drains. Instead, the bricks were laid with pervious joints, and the oyster-shell parking spaces were also pervious. The wider streets near downtown had a pipeless drainage system that directed the water to a large, grassy bowl in the center of town that fills with water in hard rains. The rest of the time, it serves as an open-air amphitheater.

Seaside was the first “New Urban” design to be built, and it garnered a lot of praise. In TIME, Kurt Andersen wrote that it was one of the best designs of the 1980s, calling Seaside “one of the most influential projects of the decade, and, hopefully, decades to come.”7 Around the country, similar projects began to appear. Not because they were copying Seaside, but because the time was right. The designers and builders of these projects quickly discovered that planning and zoning rules made it difficult or even impossible to build walkable, mixed-use places. Most of America by that time had regulations that prohibited anything other than arterial roads, collector roads, or cul-de-sacs, usually with engineering standards that required wide roads, clear-cut areas on both sides of the roads, and one-size-fits-all requirements for drainage, on-site water retention, location of electrical supply boxes, and the like.

In 1993, Duany, Plater-Zyberk, Davis, Krier, and approximately two hundred others (including the authors) met in the Athenaeum in Alexandria, Virginia, at what was planned to be the first annual meeting of a new organization called the Congress for New Urbanism. The mission of the CNU was the advancement of walkable, sustainable cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Perhaps half the original membership was made up of architects who had rejected most of the planning principles they had been taught in school. One requirement for membership was a pledge not to contribute to sprawl. Many of the participants were passionate about their desire to create great streets, and there were many war stories about how difficult it was to do that. So when you see a new street or a new retrofit that isn’t quite right, remember that what you are looking at may not be what the designer wanted. The trailblazing new streets required the painful upending of two generations of entrenched bad practices, and many arguments about them were lost. Slowly, however, examples have emerged that prove Americans can again make civilized streets. The work is improving, and the evidence is mounting.

Seaside (Part II)

About John Massengale

Architect, Urbanist, Author, Educator
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