Development and Historic Urban Neighborhoods

Everyone bitches about the design of urban infill. It doesn’t matter if you’re in OTR, Walnut Hills, the Banks, or Covington. Every community is unique. Every community has character. Most of it is historic in nature, or at least developed incrementally over a long period of time. No one looks at the new infill and says “yeah … that’s a perfect reflection of who we are as a community”. It looks the same. It tastes the same. It smells the same.

So, what should we do?

We (should) want development that is respectful of the character of the community (sometimes historic) but is expressive of who we are as a community now, not 100 years ago. Development in Walnut Hills should look different than development in Covington or development on the riverfront.

It’s tricky. Much of what is getting built looks the same, walks the same, is the same. It doesn’t express anything other than the cookie cutter aesthetic and formula for creating a profitable development. The same formula applies anywhere in Cincinnati. Or anywhere in Indianapolis. There’s nothing wrong with it. It works. It’s profitable. It pays for itself and makes money for folks taking the risk. But it’s not who we are. It’s not what we want.

Boone Block under construction

Boone Block under construction

Re-growth and renaissance of our urban cores is being spurred by a trend and desire to move back to our city centers. This is where it all started. Urban re-growth creates a new challenge for cities, architects, citizens, and developers as demand rises for housing near the activity of historic city centers. On one hand, historic districts with a plethora of old buildings have an inherent vibrancy, especially with the right resources applied to them. New types of residences, like the Boone Block townhouses, upcycle existing structures for contemporary use while maintaining the original character. On the other hand, expansion and new construction have been unable to successfully re-join the scale and texture that makes historic areas unique.

Much of this problem is driven by economic reasons; it is more cost-efficient to build multiple floors on bigger lots. The results are buildings that span entire blocks with as many floors as the local zoning will allow. For example, the new Aqua apartments in Newport are designed for the current economic landscape. They consume the whole block with five floors of living spaces above multiple floors of parking. Their scale is proportional to Newport on the Levee and other high-rise buildings along the waterfront. With main roads on two sides, the complex is separated from the historic neighborhoods to the east, choosing instead to face the Levee and river. The Aqua buildings are suitable in this location because their context allows for their scale. However, if the same complex was built only a few blocks away on Monmouth Street, it would feel completely out of place. A development of that size would tower over the two- and three-story historic buildings, ruining the character and presence of the area.

Aqua on the Levee

Aqua on the Levee

New developments don’t fit with the existing context because they cannot economically address the scale and construction methods of buildings built in the early twentieth century. Just look at the commercial strip of Madison Avenue here in Covington. These buildings were built over an extended period of time by many different architects. Though they differ in style and ornamentation, they share general proportions, frontage heights, and common materials like brick and stone. None of the buildings on Madison Avenue take up an entire block on their own. Instead, the smaller lot sizes create a rhythm on the street, a cadence to the window displays and entrances. The “rhythms” are nested within one another; the rhythm of windows across a building facade sit within the rhythm of buildings on a block, divided into rhythms of blocks by the crossing streets.

The materials of these old buildings--brick, stone, plaster, and wood--are still used in construction today, but in different capacities. Where before brick and stone made up the bearing walls of buildings and limited the height of the structure, now they are applied like wallpaper. Plastering and woodwork, which often decorated the outside of a building, are now interior elements. This disconnect between how materials were used before and how they’re used now is part of the reason why new construction doesn’t have the same feeling as our historic neighborhoods.

Madison Ave in Covington, KY

Madison Ave in Covington, KY

The economic success of our cities depends on growth and change. At the same time, we’re responsible for challenging the status quo, ensuring that additions to our urban neighborhoods are places that make it better, not just bigger. If we want our new buildings to fit into the character of old buildings, we need to address the existing scales and rhythms and character regardless of the economic implications. To save the character that makes our neighborhoods unique and vibrant, and therefore create the demand for housing, responding successfully to the community’s personality must be the top priority.

Parking is also a big influence. Historically, it was not needed, but today everyone demands it. It is impossible to provide parking for any size development and maintain the mass and form of our cities. Some cities are decreasing parking regulations and are choosing to promote walkable communities, public transportation and mixed use zoning to provide needed amenities within close proximity (see Portland, Austin, and Baltimore). This is, of course, what was done when our cities were created. We must balance the desire for parking (a perceived need) with the desired aesthetic.

So…. what can be done?

Build incrementally. Take cues on massing, material, and form from the existing context. Consider the character of the existing architecture, but build something for now. Reconsider parking. Build holistically. Provide community amenities in a proximity that reduces the reliance on the automobile. Develop meaningful public transportation.

We’re going to try something. Stay tuned.