The New Town of Whitehall

Urban Design, Urban Planning
[Prologue: Yes, I know this is a bit too aspirational, maybe a touch over the top, but I wrote what I felt so it must be true to some degree… and admittedly, a bit of ego is involved as I had a small hand in the making of what I believe is a great place, The Town of Whitehall. This new Town, and its neighborhoods is being constructed today in New Castle County, Delaware, and is founded by Brian DiSabatino (development manager) and Rich Julian (builder), with the help of my former firm, PlaceMakers, Robert Gibbs, Steve Mouzon, Mike Watkins, and many others.]

Whitehall was envisioned eight years ago on a 2nd story corner design studio located in a historic brick building in downtown San Diego. It came from a rudimentary understanding that small town culture was dependent upon the conception of balancing nature with our daily needs. Instead of forming a single and isolate subdivision of housing or commercial strip center shops that disregarded the surrounding landscape’s natural setting, Whitehall was organized as a variety of streets, blocks, houses, shops, schools and squares set within the beautifully Delaware’s timbered countryside. The master plan illustrates how streets radiate deep into a neighborhood defined by streams and woodlands that becomes a transcendental experience when the fall colors turn.

(The first idea is on the left; the plan today is on the right)

For this vision to becoming a built reality, New Castle County’s conventional suburban subdivision development policies and zoning regulations were updated to offer an alternative to reflect this long-standing neighborhood-to-nature interdependence upon which the character of each neighborhood is complete. Whitehall’s neighborhoods are being built as a 3-dimensional form of our spiritual and material worth expressed. The town expresses our collective values in how we choose to live our daily lives. It’s dignified, it’s flexible, and it accommodates everyone. This is a choice. To live in a city, town or neighborhood is not an accident, but the result of a coherent vision that built old New Castle, and the newer Kentlands, and King Farm, Maryland.

Conceived in the long-standing tradition of town building as a series of neighborhoods that coalesce into a new town over time, the interactions of neighbors, residents, visitors, and those who are ‘just passing by’ will build both past memories and future expectations that will shape the town’s eventual ‘community character.’ The design team understood that this traditional place making pattern brings people together while also siting lightly on the local landscape. These traditional urban design tools were used in order to build upfront a comfortable ‘sense of place’ to be accentuated over time with specialty and civic buildings as citizens move in, engage, and shape their built environment to their collective values. It also respects the existing neighbors to the east and doesn’t impede on their choices and built expressions, and the new highway will provide access to the region in need of towns, and districts, and forests, and bays.

Yes, Whitehall is personal and it is yours. And it is your choice to live and prosper in close proximity to your neighbors, shops, schools, and nature. Your parents auto-oriented status quo is shifted back to being human-oriented by this purposefully natural living arrangement as we have been expected to just get in our cars and drive to and from our homes, shops, schools, squares and parks without question. This new/old arrangement of streets, squares and buildings within walking, biking, scootering, hop-scotching, strolling and driving questions status quo as you choose to make your home personal, which matters if you care enough to change conventional expectations of how you live your life.

(New Mixed-Use Building, Mike Watkins is the consulting Town Architect)

whitehall_mixed-use-copy

The place we live in, grow up in, remember, and the culture that is cultivated in these sorts of places matter to our lives. As where you choose to spend time, which is all we really have in this world, comes a tremendous cost and forms the heritage we leave behind. Whitehall has purposely turned the chaotic, drive-by, unfulfilling auto-oriented lifestyle around to offer a more connected, comfortable, and convivial neighborhood setting to make with it what you will. You can go to school, or a shop, as well as drift off into the woods. This is a recognizably different set of promises built on the idea that the quality of our lives hinges upon our free choice and not upon the fate of those before us.

And then yet you will find Whitehall.

[Epilog: Ok, I stole that last line from Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau (Mickey Ioane), Hawaii ’78 protest song, which is one of the greatest protest songs ever written about people’s feeling about sacred land. While not beloved yet, as it will take time for citizens to transfer its character from its initial ground breaking. Whitehall is in its essence a protest statement against not being coerced to spend our valuable time and money on things and places that mean nothing to us. Our endless miles of cars, highways, gas stations, parking lots, driveways, turnpikes, 7-11’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Starbucks, drive thru garbage food, etc…]

“Just Get the Ground Floor Right…” Modernisms Last Stand

Urban Design, Urban Planning

It was Luxembourg’s Leon Krier whose transformative polemic in the 1970’s and 80’s shaped America’s New Urbanism of the 90’s and 00’s and our reformation of traditional mixed-use, walkable, urbanism today. I’ve watched my city take baby steps from outlawed urbanism (’60s single-use zoning), to downtown sub-urbanism (’80s drive-thru Jiffy Lubes), to ‘safer’ Vancouver urbanism (’00s single point towers surrounded by suburban townhouses). And, over these 40 years this one truth has been drummed into our downtown urban design consciousness, “just get the ground floor right” and everything else will be fine.

Leon Krier's Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

Leon Krier’s Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

So, we’ve stopped clipping the traditional, walkable, grid with new freeway off/on ramps. We are returning fast, one-way streets leading to those freeways into more humane, shopping promenades. We’ve added streetcars, jitneys, car and bike share stations, and protected bike lanes to help us get around. Small parks, plazas, and parklets spout up in vacant lots and street corners to slow us down and smell the coffee and craft beer. We are seriously endeavoring to repair our urban street pattern with infill redevelopment projects filling in and firming up our street walls as this interface supports the vitality and exhilaration of being downtown.

With this 2-dimensional base being well laid, downtown agencies are successfully getting new developers to build their 3-dimensional building’s ground floors in a more humane manner. The market supports this trend and every project’s ground floor has clear window shopfronts, and detailed transoms and awnings have returned with restrained signage, public restrooms, and shops spilling out onto the sidewalk. And nobody dares to dispute getting this first ground floor layer right. The 2D traditional urban street pattern has crept up to shape the 3D base of new architectural design… again, in a more traditional, humane manner.

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana - Rick Caruso)

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana by Rick Caruso)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal ('39 Expo Futurama)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal (’39 Expo Futurama – Wikipedia Image)

And, here is where we find the last bastion of of the modernist architecture… fighting for survival in the materials, shapes, forms, and style of the building’s upper floors. Garish, look-at-me architecture still reigns in this narrow 25 to 140 feet range above the ground floor.

Seen This Proposed for Your Downtown Yet?

Seen One of These Proposed for Your Downtown Yet? (Image: LA Streetsblog)

I find it interesting that modernism has evolved from being a very big idea, to its ubiquitous mid-century development standard, to its now marginalized position between the ground floor and roofline. I completely agree with Witold Rybczynski that modernist architecture fits best in a natural setting, as well with Leon when it sits in juxtaposition to traditional architecture and urbanism.

Bilbao's Big Idea Wasn't,

Bilbao’s Big Idea Wasn’t, “Hire a Starchitect!” It was Learning How to Architecturally Tune a Place to Create Visual and Cultural Complexity! (Image Unattributed)

John Nolen, San Diego’s original urban planner, once wrote in 1907 that city planning finds, “A place for everything, with everything in its place.”  Having been tested and vetted over three generations, maybe modernist architecture has finally found its appropriate place in our everyday life… within a very narrow range pushed as far away from people as possible.

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

Stand in the Place Where You Live… Being Context-Sensitive

Urban Design, Urban Planning

Every city and town are formed by its neighborhoods, districts, corridors, and its downtown. Each of these place types range from a more urban extreme, such as downtown, towards its more suburban, rural, or natural boundaries. And, each of these include a broad spectrum of public and private functions and places.

Looking in more detail, each neighborhood has its own set of more urban centers, general areas, suburban, and rural edges. For example, in my San Diego neighborhood, our center is the 100% shopping corner with coffee shops, boutiques, bars, mixed-use buildings and bus stops. And, my neighborhood boundary is formed by canyons and Balboa Park. In between are a variety of housing types ranging from garden apartments, bungalow courts, and small lot homes nearer the center to large lot homes along the canyon edges.

Single-use districts are places of industry, education, and regional institutions. These include airports, hospitals, and military bases. I tend to put suburban sprawl in these single-use districts with their ubiquitous pods of housing and strip centers, and nary shall the twain meet.

A city’s corridors are either natural, such as rivers, beaches and protected habitats, or urbanized, such as railways and thoroughfares. Thoroughfares may link one side of the city to the other, or one side of a neighborhood to another, and often change character as they transition from downtown, through older streetcar neighborhoods, and finally to a city’s suburban edge.

01-intro.indd

Neighborhood Core, Center, General, and Edge Areas (Image by DPZ and Center for Transect Studies)

These thoroughfare corridors are made up of two main elements: centers at key intersections and those segments in between. Thoroughfares may range from well-connected primary streets to less-connected secondary streets. Their centers may range from more intense vertical mixed-use, on at primary cross streets, to less intense horizontal mixed-use at secondary street intersections. A corridor’s intensities and patterns depend upon if they have service alleys and lanes or not, and/or if they have rigid gridiron pattern, a curvilinear network, or are auto collecting arterials in a dendritic hierarchy of streets from freeways to cul-de-sacs.

Intersections have differing intensities depending on street type(s) and number of connections.

Intersections have differing intensities depending on street type(s) and number of connections.

All of which means that context matters.

Using place type elements begins a context-sensitive approach to place-making allows for both understanding the existing conditions, such as discerning if the site is on a primary avenue in a downtown neighborhood or on a secondary street in a suburban residential district, as well as being able to plan for the most appropriate design intervention if it is located in an older streetcar neighborhood with rear alley access. And with that said, a well-connected street will change its character over many miles.

In short, general thoroughfare types range from Highways (connecting regions), to Boulevards (connecting cities), to Avenues (connecting neighborhoods), to Streets (connecting blocks), and then to Alleys (connecting lots).  Each of these support a variety of transit, bicycle, pedestrian, car facilities. By understanding a corridor via its place and street type proponents can use this context-sensitive approach to retrofitting our auto-dominated streetscapes, as well as to explaining changes to local stakeholders and decision-makers (I hope…).

Avenue Plaza 2

Seattle Retrofitting and Transforming its Streetscapes.

Thinking Aloud (and on TEDx) About San Diego’s Urbanism

Urban Planning

I’ve been fortunate to have been invited twice to speak about my ideas on urbanism at San Diego’s TEDx American’s Finest City events.

The first one was held in 2012 at Scripps Oceanic Institute (Walter Munk is a true American hero) and was on my thoughts on how to code/build towards a local community character in post-redevelopment California. The idea originated from a week Leon Krier spent in San Diego and his approach to creating a ‘there, there.”

Coding for Character TEDxAFC

The second one was held in 2013 at the NewSchool of Architecture + Design. This talk was on my ideas of San Diego’s next urbanism, after the suburban exodus back to downtown. As always, inspired by Leon Krier, I see our culture becoming more secure with urban living. Plus, our cities are built upon trends and urbanism is simply the latest.