Ludlow Yards: Our Approach to Non-Generic Urban Infill

Our last post posed the question, “why doesn’t infill development fit in our communities?”

We talked about some reasons: economic factors, contradicting construction methods, scale, and most of all, a disregard for context. Being the ambitious malcontents we are, we refuse to believe we're stuck with generic design. So we rolled up our sleeves, sharpened some pencils, and sketched a little to see if we could do better. The result is Ludlow Yards.

Ludlow Yards, a mixed-use development concept

If you attended the Ludlow: Beyond the Curb event last weekend, you probably saw our vision for the grassy field near the railroad tracks laid out on a giant billboard. What makes this concept so different from the developments we discussed in our previous post? We took an approach that we think respects the community and celebrates its history. Here's why:

It speaks to the vernacular.

Ludlow Rail yard

Ludlow Rail yard

We began this project by getting to know Ludlow better: we researched the city, walked around, took pictures, and dug up historical photographs. Accessible by train, Ludlow began as a suburb of Cincinnati and grew with the railroad industry, becoming a staple of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad. To the west of the existing commercial “center” of Ludlow was the old Ludlow Lagoon. To the east, where our site is located, was the rail yard. We drew upon the established railroad industry for architectural inspiration. The result is a building that achieves the density of apartments, but whose gabled rooftops allow it to co-exist with the neighboring architecture, past and present. Its size is modern, but its shape is traditional. Warehouse buildings all over the country are being renovated into upscale apartments. The huge windows, high ceilings, and solid construction make them very desirable and easy to adapt. So we thought, “why not start with a warehouse?”

It engages the sidewalk.

Preliminary sketch of the site

Preliminary sketch of the site

The edge of the building is about fifteen feet from the curb for the majority of its length with the distance varying slightly for the different parts of the building. The sections that are closest to the sidewalk have big windows so that the activity inside blends with the activity outside. The variation in sidewalk width along with the street trees creates different kinds of spaces for pedestrians to enjoy: spaces for walking, for resting, for gathering, etc. A variety of uses on the ground floor (such as office space, retail, and restaurants) draws all kinds of people to the site at different times of day.

It creates active public spaces.

Through mixed uses and an irregular footprint, the building becomes a space for things to happen. Program was a strong driver of our design process. We situated quieter uses, like offices and apartments, near residential uses and organized the semi-public uses, like a brewery, cultural museum, creative classroom, or arts center, near the existing railroad bridge. This corner, as the gateway to Ludlow, is the perfect place for a plaza. Moving the building away from the corner not only creates visual interest, it creates a landmark for people to meet up, an art piece that represents the city, and a space for events and gatherings. Opening up the adjacent building with garage doors and creating a public terrace on the second floor allows for flexibility and connects the plaza to the building’s activity. Apartments, restaurants, retail, community, and public spaces combine to keep the space vibrant and engaged 24/7.

It responds to scale.

The Train Shed Typology

The Train Shed Typology

Though the site is in a section of Ludlow with single-family homes, Ludlow’s growth and the area’s industrial history suggests housing of a much larger scale was the way to go. To bridge the gap, we chose a building typology—the train shed—with roots in Ludlow’s history. Instead of trying to build new high-rises in the small, historic center, we’re bringing the warehouse district back to its industrial-sized origins.

Lastly, it wouldn’t work anywhere but right there.

The reason we (and Ludlow!) love this project so much is because it belongs here. This proposal wouldn’t work anywhere else. Yeah, you could build it somewhere else, but unless it’s a suburban Midwestern river town with strong historical ties to the railroad industry trying to cultivate a new sense of urbanism, it wouldn’t really make sense, would it?

So yes...infill development is often generic and indistinguishable from other projects in other cities. Take a time-tested design that looks decent and doesn't offend anyone and it will make money. We all want our cities to prosper and high-end cookie-cutter developments attract people and help it grow. But we think there's a better way. If you take the time to get to know a community and find out what makes it special, you can develop something that is both modern AND celebrates the history of its surroundings. And when you're done, you have something that looks like it belongs.