Herriges Rezoned: A City Shaped by Many Hands

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This illustration by design firm Bevan and Liberatos caught my eye when it was shared on Facebook by ThreadATL, an Atlanta advocacy group that promotes good urban design. It illustrates two different ways of achieving the exact same urban density. One represents the archetypal “Texas Donut” apartment complex—a style of building that fills up an entire city block, with a parking garage hidden in the center (so called because it typifies Dallas’s recent apartment boom). The other illustration depicts a traditionally developed block in the historic district of Charleston, South Carolina.

The authors write:

The numbers aren’t on the illustration, but both blocks have the same number of bedrooms and the same amount of commercial space, even though the Charleston block has buildings from only 2-4 stories, while the donut has six. There are 13 gardens in this Charleston block, none in the donut. There are 68 porches in the Charleston block, none in the donut.

The advantages of fine-grained development should be familiar ground to regular Strong Towns readers: See, for example, here and here. But the Bevan and Liberatos illustration provides a good opportunity to revisit. The difference exhibited by the Charleston block versus the Texas Doughnut is at the heart of what we mean when we talk about incremental, traditional development, and it’s worth contemplating the advantages of the traditional approach.

Many Owners, Not Few

How many different owners likely own the property in the bottom (Charleston) block? How about in the top (Texas Donut) one—and why does this matter? One reason is the resilience, or antifragility, and the adaptability of the resulting place.

That Charleston neighborhood can grow to host an eclectic mix of owners and residents. Some might occupy their own homes; some might rent them out. Some might maintain their property better than others. Some might make additions or modifications. Some will plant gardens, some will have lawns, some paved patios. All this eclecticism will result in a bunch of natural experiments in what makes a great place. A bad building, in this setting, can’t do nearly as much harm as if a building spanning an entire block is poorly designed and creates an unappealing environment. A poorly designed Texas Donut can deaden street life for a generation.

The big Texas Donut apartment building has one owner, although it has many tenants. This may work fine when it’s shiny and new, little to no maintenance is necessary, and rents are profitably high. But what happens over time in a neighborhood that has a bunch of these? What if the property management is shoddy, or maintenance is deferred, or the owner goes bankrupt, or the neighborhood takes a downturn? The scale of the resulting blight quickly becomes a (literally) big problem.

Or, on the flip side, the sale of a large building like this to a new owner who jacks up the rent, or evicts the tenants and redevelops the property, creates an instant displacement crisis. In contrast, the whole block in Charleston, with its dispersed ownership, is never going to change hands all at one time—there is greater stability in that respect.

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