Monday, October 10, 2011

Urban Emergence

I've been at my childhood home in the far suburbs these past few weekends helping my mom move, and what has caught my eye is the first real New Economy project up there. Some zombie sprawl projects--permitted before the crash--have been ongoing due to the locally-strong economy (thanks Merck), but this is the first project that has been entirely conceived and realized after 2008. It's called Cannon Square, and it's rowhomes.

Here is where it is, at the corner of 2nd and Cannon in inner Lansdale, on the site of old industry with parking lot, and this is what it looks like:
Now there are many ways, of course, to critique the design, especially when you use beautiful, truly urban neighborhoods such as Northern Liberties or Southwest Center City--neighborhoods where the effect of the housing crash was passive rather than pervasive--and of course there's little that can quell my distaste for the builder, W.B. Homes (who seem to put more effort into their subdivisions' signs than the subdivisions themselves), but there are two major things to note here:

1. New Economy projects are urban. They consist of primarily attached housing, an urban format, in urban contexts (utilization of existing infrastructure in preference to its installment de novo), commonly multilevel, with small blocks. They are designed and realized in smaller footprints, and with smaller budgets. This style was pioneered with Southwest Center City builders (such as Metro Impact), who, whatever else they claim or one says about their designs, have succeeded in bringing economies of standardization to the inherently nonstandard nature of infill, primarily by standardizing rowhome design, and is clearly catching on with the bigger builders.
2. Big builders are adapting to the New Economy. They have to. THP's spectacular collapse concomitant with the collapse of the real estate bubble in the Philadelphia area was very much due to their overextension in suburban formats to the exclusion of all others (a trait shared by other major builders). Now other major builders--such as Toll Brothers and W.B. Homes--are finishing up previously-permitted projects and showing a trend of favoring investment in urban-type projects. Toll Brothers, for example, bought large into Philadelphia with Naval Square, and are following up with new projects across the street, at 20th and Bainbridge, and in Society Hill's NewMarket hole. This is also emblematic of a larger shift to more urban environments--environments that these companies are only now learning to build in.

We will have to see whether this is an emergent trend--or just an aberration.


  1. I was on the Regional Rail to Trenton last weekend and saw an ad for Cannon Square. I meant to look it up but I forgot what it was called, so I'm glad you mentioned it here!

    I'm not sure if it's fair to say this product (at Cannon Square) is any worse than what's being built in the city right now. NoLibs and Graduate Hospital have really great OLD housing stock, but many of the new rowhouses being built aren't urban at all. I'm glad to see Toll Brothers recognizing the draw of urban living, but Naval Square is a gated-off fortress that completely ignores its surrounding context. It's a suburban answer to urban infill.

    And it seems like a lot of new rowhouses in Philly, like this one by MetroImpact have a first-floor, street-facing garage. I understand alleys aren't always available, and many homebuyers want the convenience and security of a private garage. (I live on an alley-less street in West Philly and dream of having my own parking space one day). But in the city, garages belong in back (as they are at Cannon Square) and people belong on the street.

    Better examples of urban infill (though not perfect, of course) are EYA's townhouse projects in and around Washington, D.C. Garages in back, often porches in front, small lot sizes, no setbacks, even live-work units in a few communities. This is what Philadelphia infill should look like.

  2. Well the VAST majority of housing in this country is via balloon-framing, which is an exterior skin slapped onto a frame built with standardized lumber parts. In this regard, Cannon Square has little differentiation from Metro Impact products--or indeed, Metro Impact from its neighbors (which are usually likewise balloon-framed with a brick veneer and party walls).

    W.B. Homes is a big believer in vinyl façades, though, and after getting a taste of brick I HATE vinyl! It may be attractive to suburbanites moving into their first urban experience, but living in the city has spoiled me.

    As to your point about garages--agreed in a certain sense. Garages are ugly on the street, and Philly zoning as often as not necessitates them. (Reason #343 why the Zoning Code is irredeemably broken.) Were they not so needed without more creative rereadings of the Code, I am sure their counts would drop precipitously.

    ...Although I do wonder how they will be used in the long term. This is especially important as and when form-based codes replace use-based ones, thereby freeing more and more of them up for entrepreneurial commercial activity.

  3. The vinyl siding is a shame -- shouldn't one of the benefits of the townhouse be a proportionately greater share of the resources available for embellishing the facade? -- but the overall form (especially nice to see roofs) is not bad at all. If this is the starting point for a turn toward infill it's a good sign.

    As for the garage issue, I don't necessarily believe that street-fronting garages, assuming they are voluntary and not an artifact of the zoning code, are doomed to be an aesthetic blight. So long as you're not building to accommodate an Escalade, it can be worked in quite unobtrusively:,+france&hl=en&ie=UTF8&ll=48.918375,2.242724&spn=0.000014,0.0103&sll=35.663511,139.275162&sspn=0.004149,0.0103&vpsrc=6&gl=us&hnear=Paris,+%C3%8Ele-de-France,+France&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=48.918269,2.242829&panoid=W3FP_6LebMZzG-n5lMO8MA&cbp=12,74.73,,0,0.75

    Or if you don't want stairs obstructing the ROW, this imaginative arrangement:,+nj&hl=en&ll=40.778246,-74.018793&spn=0.000008,0.00515&sll=48.913193,2.230053&sspn=0.02685,0.082397&vpsrc=6&gl=us&hnear=Hoboken,+Hudson,+New+Jersey&t=h&z=18&layer=c&cbll=40.778164,-74.018861&panoid=QiObv7DSg5v9rRBs576nxw&cbp=12,336.03,,0,-7.03

    I do think, though, if garages are put in the front, a narrow "shared space" configuration is probably worth considering. Since there won't be on-street parking, there's no need for a wider street, and it avoids the absurdity of a sidewalk in tatters from being completely shot through with curb cuts.

  4. Charlie--while a portion of the garages being built are indeed voluntary, the vast majority are so far as I can tell zoning artifacts. Secondly, the majority of Philadelphia plots are 16x90 (and before the rigidity of modern planning codes were often subdivided even further) which makes the use of architectural embellishments highlighting a building's pedestrian entrance exceedingly difficult.

    Interestingly enough, however--and this will definitely interest you--the garage does offer a raw ground-floor space which can and most likely will (given the--preferably general--abandonment of use-based zoning code) be reclaimed and repurposed into other kinds of space (working space, for example, or extensions to the residential space, or--as is already commonly practiced, storage space).

  5. Steve – about the garages, that reminds me of the laneway house situation in Vancouver where the builders, required to add a parking space to the houses, construct an otherwise ordinary room with insulation, HVAC, etc, and simply stick a garage door on the front of it for the building inspector, knowing that the residents will quickly move in furniture and turn it into a living space. It can be possible to outwit the existing codes.