A Tale of Two Lectures

“We’re both enabled and burdened by that which has come before us.”—Stefanos Polyzoides

Two lectures occurred in the same week in Charlotte. Both were conducted from bi-coastal lecturers, and both were a forum on public space, housing, and the comprehensive need to understand historical context and precedent, and proper infill development.

Tuesday’s Eye on Development—Civic by Design forum’s topic rested heavily on how infill development is changing historic neighborhoods in the Queen City. Sure, swanky rooftops, structured parking and contemporary facades are en vogue; residents are flocking to these residential blocks like their building is the latest trend, until the novelty wears off when the next new development is built. However, Tom Low, a local architect and urban planner who organizes the free discussion series, advocates that what’s not being properly addressed is maintaining the quality of the public realm. Which would you prefer—a building that provides a blank parking deck on street level or ground floor restaurants and retail? The answer, although inherently obvious, does not always make its way to the drawing table. This is a hot topic in our local development context as redevelopment is reshaping and redefining the character of our beloved neighborhoods. With the City’s zoning ordinance being severely outdated (last time it was updated was back in 2000), City Council is preparing to embark on a rewrite. Stronger design standards and higher barriers to entry are two ways in which development could help create a more viable neighborhood, with paying particular attention to the public realm.

Thursday’s Housing and the Architecture of the Missing Middle lecture advocated to make room for the middle, by providing helpful reminders on maintaining balance in design. Stefanos Polyzoides, renowned architect and urbanist of Moule and Polyzoides, stressed that there is “a constant conflict between that which is historic and new….One must balance between development and preservation.” By understanding history, Stefanos advocates to aim high and not repeat the mistakes from the last fifty years of development. He discussed how “Crayola zoning is a great thing for five year olds” and how the “FAR mechanism is the work of the devil.” FAR, or floor area ratio, is calculated as Gross Building Area/Lot Area and is determined by the amount of land in a development. This proportion of FAR to land is the fundamental issue which has spawned the development we see today. Moule suggests instead of letting FAR dictate design, designers should focus on typology and density. Tower buildings and single-family are two ends of the residential development spectrum. We should focus our efforts on the middle types of housing, as it is middle density that makes a great city. Stefanos offered a plethora of precedents, all stemming from his work in California. The main themes and takeaways of his middle model work:

  1. Density can be achieved without destroying the neighborhood. Mix up the housing typologies; don’t make your design homogenous.
  2. Make housing look like part of the urban fabric by fitting your building into the neighborhood character.
  3. Be unconventional and unique, differentiate your building from those in your context. Make it diverse.
  4. Ensure that the building signature changes, having no run of 100 feet or more be the same.
  5. If you make a place right, people will find it and will want to live here.
  6. Take density and tame it.
  7. Unique, unconventional building types ultimately add value within the housing market and can be very financially lucrative. The chance is worth the end payoff.

Stefanos’ closing comments to the group reiterated the importance of historical precedent, urban fabric and learning when to say “no” to a development project. “Flex your muscles and eat your pride depending on the job as an architect,” he stated. With the correlation between Tom’s and Stefanos’ lectures, it’s evident that these development stresses are not only felt in our local context, but on a national and even global scale.