Sunday, May 24, 2015

Making Great Cities: The Dollars and $ense of Downtown Development

A large and diverse audience packed the Downtown Athletic Club’s Conference Center last Thursday evening for the third of the Making Great Cities series of community-wide forums about design excellence at the building, urban, and metro scales. Like the others in attendance, I was there to hear what proved to be a provocative and persuasive presentation by Joe Minicozzi, AICP about the simple math of smart urban growth. 
Joe is the principal of Urban3, a consulting company created by Asheville, North Carolina real estate developer, Public Interest Projects. Joe was born and raised in Rome, New York. During his youth, he witnessed the “sacking of Rome,” the systematic destruction of what was the coherent urban fabric of his hometown in favor of the kind of block-busting, car-oriented development characteristic of the time. Partly in response, he chose to study architecture at the University of Miami, where he was greatly influenced by the pioneering New Urbanists Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk. Joe later attended Harvard’s Graduate School of Design before settling in Asheville, North Carolina, where his wife is from. Prior to creating Urban3, he served as the Executive Director for the Asheville Downtown Association. 
Joe described how Asheville, a city smaller and more impoverished than Eugene at the time, largely escaped the ravages of post-WWII urban renewal. For this reason, it retained a significant stock of older buildings downtown that had fallen into disuse and lay fallow for many years. Public Interest Projects (founded in 1990 by the late Julian Price) took a pioneering approach by renovating numerous properties, guided by the belief that downtown development could be both the greenest form of growth and good business. The success of PIP’s projects is a testament to the validity of the developer’s core principles, ones shaped and guided in recent years by Joe and his colleagues at Urban3. In no small part due to PIP’s efforts, the city now enjoys such accolades as being named as one of the “10 Most Beautiful Places in America” and one of the “Top Seven Places to Live in the U.S.” 
So, what is the key to Asheville’s success? Certainly, favorable historic circumstances and Asheville’s inherent charms played a part. It was Urban3’s analysis, however, that provided concrete evidence dense downtown development is more productive and returns a greater investment to the community than sprawl. There are many advocates for fostering smart, sustainable urban centers; what sets Urban3 apart is its use of geo-spatial tools to represent economic productivity and the economic potency of urbanism. 
Joe argued during his talk that per acre, dense, highly valued downtowns generate much more public wealth than low-density subdivisions or massive malls by the highway. He pointed out how low-density development isn’t just a poor way to generate property tax revenue, it’s also extremely expensive to maintain. By comparison, dense downtowns cost considerably less to maintain in public services and infrastructure. 
Cities can generate wealth not by raising taxes, but by better exploiting the economics of land use. Joe offered a simple analogy: When shopping for a new vehicle, we often evaluate its fuel economy. We look at miles-per-gallon, not miles-per-tank, because tanks come in all different sizes. Joe says we should look at buildings in exactly the same way. An illustrative comparison is the tax revenue per acre generated by a sprawling Walmart Supercenter versus that of even a modest multistory downtown mixed-use development: the downtown project returns a much higher level of tax revenue per unit area in return for the services it draws upon. 
The larger a tract of land, the more expensive it becomes to provide services to it, especially when those large parcels sit on the periphery of the community. Our current tax structure rewards buildings that fall apart and results in too much of our land being over-serviced and under-developed. We need to cultivate wealth in our communities, which the present and prevailing models for development largely work against. Simply put, density delivers more bang for the buck. 
Drawing upon another analogy, Joe cited Moneyball, the analytical, evidence-based approach employed by baseball’s Oakland Athletics. The team utilized rigorous statistical analysis to determine that on-base and slugging percentage were better indicators of offensive success than batting average, runs-batted-in, or stolen bases. Similarly, Urban3 evaluates a potential development from the perspective of its per unit productivity as opposed to its overall cost. There’s a greater return to cities if landowners are required to pay in proportion to the value of public goods and services they receive (like a public services user fee) rather than in proportion to their own investment. This is evidence-based thinking. Examples such as Asheville prove such a perspective encourages more construction, improvement, and maintenance of buildings. A welcome dividend is greater employment and economic vitality. 
Joe Minicozzi, AICP
Joe’s presentation was chock-full of information, engaging, brisk, and entertaining throughout. He quoted such luminaries as Jane Jacobs, Ian McHarg, Michael Bloomberg, and Charles Montgomery to convincingly drive home his point. In rapid-fire fashion and coupled with illustrative charts and graphics, he explained the value of using geo-spatial tools to represent economic productivity and the economic potency of urbanism. I struggled to keep up, reflexively oscillating between affirmative nodding and furious scribbling on my notepad. Forty-five short minutes elapsed and his riveting message was over. I thought his speech was brilliant.
And yet here I am, mere days removed from Joe’s presentation, scratching my head. His basic premise—that dense downtown development is the golden goose of urban economics—is so logical it appears self-evident. So too is his point that “form follows finance.” The numbers don’t lie. Regardless, I can’t recall if he actually described how cities are supposed to implement his ideas and methodology. Given how coherent and commonsense his ideas are, why haven’t they already taken root everywhere? How do we overcome the intransigence of those who favor and/or profit from the status quo? What is the blueprint? 
I’m sure I’m simply naïve. This isn’t baseball. The problem has many more layers of complexity and cannot be modeled after a game (even if Elizabeth J. Magie Phillips modeled the board game that would become Monopoly upon the Georgist principle that economic value derived from common opportunities and resources should belong equally to all residents of a community, but that people own the value they create). The controversy surrounding Eugene’s Multiple-Unit Property Tax Exemption (MUPTE) is a case in point. The MUPTE program offers a property tax exemption on the new structure or incremental change in the property value of the building that comprises the project for a maximum of 10 years. Advocates argue MUPTE encourages dense development that otherwise would not occur (ultimately resulting in enhanced property tax revenue once the exemption expires). Opponents claim developers do not require the subsidies. Using tax policy to shape urban form is obviously fraught with political challenges. 
What’s obvious to Joe and those of us who understand the desirability of vibrant, dense urban centers may not be so clear to those who adhere to a different set of values. Development patterns that evolved over much of the past century will be difficult to undo. The suburban lifestyle, fostered by decades of pleasant imagery and appeals to independent American sensibilities, remains desirable to many but is also sustained by the current economics of real estate. The fact it is also ultimately unsustainable (in both the environmental and fiscal senses) is what many civic leaders fail to understand. 
Perhaps the key is to reveal to everyone the clarity of what is hiding in plain sight. Money is a measure everyone understands. If governments overhaul their tax codes such that the inherent value of the land and commonly shared infrastructure is taxed rather the buildings that take advantage of them, the disparity between the value of the land and the tax revenue it generates per acre will be ameliorated. Maybe Joe was simply driving home the point that data is our guide, that all we need to do is the math, trust the numbers, and thereby understand the physical form of cash flow. Who knew tax-literacy could be a key to achieving design excellence? 
*    *    *    *    *   
Kudos to the members of AIA-SWO’s Design Excellence Committee for bringing in Joe Minicozzi as the 2015 Making Great Cities speaker. The committee definitely “hit it out of the ballpark” with Joe (there’s another baseball idiom). And big thanks to the sponsors for this year’s program—The Barn Light, the City of Eugene, Downtown Eugene Inc., Dustrud Architecture, the Eugene Association of Realtors, Mindbox, PIVOT Architecture, and Rowell Brokaw Architects—for supporting this excellent installment of the Making Great Cities series. The bar has been set very high for all future presentations. I’m looking forward to them.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

A Framework of Considerations

Cloister of Eberbach Abbey, Germany
(This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)
The following passage from Bill Kleinsasser’s self-published textbook Synthesis outlined his belief in the need for an inclusive, always-to-be considered structure of true architectural principles: a coherent theory base (and value base) to help architects make genuinely good places for people. 
Throughout his teaching career, Bill’s faith in his hypothesis never wavered. He was convinced of the need for an emphasis upon commonly understood frames of reference. In particular, he impressed upon his students the essential importance of developing physical conditions that are experientially supportive for people. 
Bill often expressed a disdain for others who dismissed the notion of such a structured approach to design. He zealously preached the need for a comprehensive yet concise framework of considerations that could be adjusted or changed when necessary, and that could be used again and again in design. He rejected the view that the use of such a framework would reduce intuitive effort or otherwise impair creativity. 
Looking back, I am convinced of the rightness of Bill’s approach to design education. Many designers flounder outside the safe harbor of time-tested design principles. Synthesis provided Bill's students with an easy-to-understand and fundamental way to approach design. It was his singular contribution to architectural theory, one which remains as applicable today as it was when he was with us. 
Experiential Support
In the design of man’s surroundings, it is not enough to respond exclusively to technological theory, constructional expediency, economics, dimensional requirements, academic organizational principles, and other relatively measurable guidelines. This kind of design leads at best to impersonal surroundings and at worst to surroundings that are inhumane. 
The most essential objective of environmental design is the development of physical conditions that are experientially supportive for people; that is, the development of conditions that will provide opportunities and meanings that people will need daily through time and continuously through space—conditions that will explain themselves to people, evoking physical, sensual, and intellectual response. Experiential supportiveness in the man-made environment is aimed at helping people develop to their full potentialities as human beings. 
An environment which is experientially unsupportive is an environment where there is little variety and choice (people are forced into this or that), where too much is fixed (people can effect little and will feel ineffective), where isolation (instead of community) is the rule, where experience is fragmented and connections are difficult (connections to nature, to other people, to activities and events), where there is too little of the richness and eventfulness that encourages people to discover new patterns and to renew themselves. An experientially unsupportive environment leaves out much and is limiting. It does not add to the meaning of life. It is apt to contribute to depression and hostility. 
For many people today, the man-made environment is experientially unsupportive. Many facilities and options that should be there are missing or inaccessible. Many spatial characteristics are restrictive and constraining. Misfits are caused constantly by change, inflexible rules, poor definition of requirements, failure to recognize opportunities, and sameness. 
This deficiency exists because we lack a well developed, universally accepted, humane value-base for environmental design. People are unaware of what is missing and what the man-made environment could be like. Designers do not have the theory base to know what to do. Supportive design is more the result of good luck than informed intention. 
Without a humane value-base, environmental design is vulnerable to practices that are self-defeating. For example: 

  • The man-made environment is usually developed in large chunks and discontinuously, both in time and space, as if each piece had to be auspicious and autonomous, or as if each had to be done all at once and once and for all. This practice has caused much negative contextual impact. It has also spawned the habit of not developing spaces with the richest experiential potential: those between buildings. 
  • Economic and technological considerations often dominate and distort humane development instead of facilitating it.
  • Experiential character is determined by land-value formulae, technical convenience, codes, and arbitrary budgets, instead of by careful, thoughtful consideration of the supports and opportunities that will be needed by people as time passes and circumstances change.
  • Often the users of the environment are not consulted about their own places, causing immediate misfits and alienation.
  • Often the environment is designed to suit first purposes and first users only, causing rapid obsolescence.
  • Often users who wish to stay in new places (or must stay in them) have no way of adjusting or changing them, which causes them to seem impersonal and out of control.
  • Often models and lessons which explain the success or failure of similar places are not used, causing repeated mistakes, frustration, and loss of trust.
To establish the value-base for environmental design that we do not now have, we must demonstrate environments that embody experiential response. We must find ones that exist and we must make new ones. To be able to do this, we must develop criteria for analysis and design that are experientially specific, detailed, and comprehensive.
To aid in the generation and organization of such criteria, a framework of considerations about human environmental needs over time is required. While imperfect at any moment and ever-changing, the framework will allow designers to consider many aspects of man’s relationship to the environment and to form many related ideas for design. The quantity and quality of the ideas will depend upon the experience, knowledge, time, and heart of those who do the considering, but the framework—because of its comprehensiveness and its many sub-frames—will expand substantially the design base of all who use it.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The 2015 Making Great Cities Program

Joe Minicozzi
The AIA-SWO Design Excellence invites everyone with an interest in fostering vibrant downtown development to this year’s installment of the Making Great Cities lecture series. Entitled The Dollars and $ense of Downtown Development, the lecture will be delivered on Thursday, May 21 by noted advocate for smart and sustainable urban centers, Joe Minicozzi
Joe Minicozzi is the principal of Urban3, a consulting company created by Asheville, North Carolina real estate developer, Public Interest Projects. Urban3's work in pioneering geo-spatial representation of economic productivity has prompted a paradigm shift in understanding the economic potency of urbanism and the value of well designed cities. Their studies of cities in the US and Canada have prompted the reevaluation of public policy and a broader understanding of market dynamics created by tax policy. 
Joe is a sought-after lecturer on city planning issues. Numerous industry journals and international conferences have featured his work. He is a founding member of the Western North Carolina-based, non-profit Asheville Design Center. Joe holds a Bachelor of Architecture from the University of Miami and a Master of Architecture and Urban Design from Harvard University. 
Sponsors for this year’s event include the City of Eugene, Dustrud Architecture, Downtown Eugene Incorporated, the Eugene Association of Realtors, Mindbox, and The Barn Light
If the previous Making Great Cities lectures are any indication, we can expect nothing less than an inspiring and thought-provoking evening from a true leader in the field of design excellence on the urban stage. I plan to attend Joe Minicozzi’s presentation and I hope to see all of you there as well! 
What:  The 2015 Making Great Cities program: Joe Minnicozzi 
When:  May 21, 2015 – 5:30 PM 
Where:  Downtown Athletic Club, Eugene 
Cost:  Free 

Saturday, May 9, 2015

A Change in Leadership at the University of Oregon

Frances Bronet
For those of you who are not aware, Frances Bronet, acting Senior Vice President and Provost for the University of Oregon, will soon be leaving Eugene to fulfill the same role on a permanent basis at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Oregon’s loss will certainly be IIT’s gain, as Frances did a tremendous job during her tenure as dean sustaining and growing the School of Architecture & Allied Arts through a challenging period for higher education in Oregon. She leaves knowing AAA is thriving, more diverse, and better equipped to prepare future leaders in the design of the built environment. We’ll all miss her dynamic personality and vision, and wish her the best in her new position. 
Frances recently notified members of the AAA faculty of her decision; here is her message: 
Dearest Colleagues, 
I will be leaving in July to take on the role of Provost and Senior Vice President at Illinois Institute of Technology. It really is with a heavy heart that I leave now. AAA is on a strong trajectory; I am so proud to have been part of its history. Brook Muller, who has been our great acting dean in the School of Architecture and Allied Arts—about to become INTERIM dean—will remain in his role until a national search is conducted. The new President, Michael Schill, is inspiring, and the University will thrive with Scott and Mike as your leadership team. 
AAA as been a remarkable place for me, a gift of brilliant, committed colleagues with immense ambition. The faculty, staff, students, friends, volunteers and alumni have been dedicated stewards and powerful visionaries. We built on incredible programs from Eugene to Portland; led on a legacy of making a difference in the world; and hired amazing world-class talent. What can I say? You have given me so much. It has been an honor to be a part of AAA and UO for this last decade; I am humbled by the intellectual generosity and enveloping community. 
Many of you know that I never relinquish friendships. Anticipate hearing from me, and know that you have an open invitation to visit me in Chicago. 
With my sincerest gratitude, 
Frances Bronet
Acting Senior Vice President and Provost
University of Oregon

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Be Inspired

Jenna Fribley, AIA, LEED AP
Guest Viewpoint by Jenna Fribley, AIA, LEED AP
The following is a reprint of an article written by Jenna Fribley from the Spring 2015 edition of the Oregon Architect newsletter. Jenna is the current president of AIA-Southwestern Oregon and owner of her own firm, envelōp design

With Jenna’s permission, I’m republishing her article here on SW Oregon Architect for the benefit of those who read my blog but do not receive Oregon Architect. I’ve always been impressed by Jenna’s energy and outlook, which shines through in her writing. Read what she has to say and you’ll see what I mean: 

Setting foot on campus to participate in student design reviews is always a treat. I savor the opportunity to get out from behind the computer and stroll leisurely to campus, to take a mental break from the demands and concerns of my projects, and to let my mind wander with a bit of nostalgia as I return to the all-too-familiar setting of Lawrence Hall. My top priority upon arrival is to head to the Hearth Café for a treat to fuel me through the mental-energy demands of reviews. Although the goal of reviews is to provide useful feedback to the students about their projects, I like to think of the activity as a fun exercise to keep the design side of my brain nimble, like a series of fast-paced, 15- to 30-minute charettes. 

My favorite reviews to do are mid-terms. Students are still early enough in the term and in the design process that your feedback actually helps them to reconsider and refine their projects. Typically they are at the point in the process where they have zoomed in and puzzle-pieced the program elements into the project, but often at the expense of their initial big ideas. I like to brainstorm with them about how to re-infuse the project with the conceptual inspiration and organizational ideas that they started with, while reassuring them that the design process is cyclical and this is to be expected. 

Often as we get into this dialogue, you can see the transition from “presentation mode” to an unscripted, passionate, lively discussion. What inspired them about the project when they first started brainstorming about it? What do they envision as the experiential sequence through space? What priorities are guiding their design? Daylighting? Sustainability? Relation to physical context? Cultural context? Structural or material innovation? And what attracted them  to architecture school in the first place? 

When I was in school, one of my studio instructors challenged us to think, as designers, “What do YOU bring to the project?” A draftsperson can draw plans, an engineer can stamp drawings, but as a designer you bring the “poetry” to the project. In my mind, the idea of “poetry” is a higher-level set of priorities and organizational concepts that, when overlaid with the program, give the project deeper meaning, clarity and/or purpose. 

It’s easy to lose the poetry of a project once you start fussing with square footages and ADA clearances and electrical receptacle placement. It’s important to keep orbiting the design process through cycles of conceptual review, to keep sight of the big ideas. However, this type of exercise is also remarkably applicable to life and career priorities beyond the project. 

Architecture isn’t a job you just fall into, and I hesitate to even describe it as a “career path” due to its (often) nonlinear trajectory. It’s more of a career “journey” that you have to put a lot of time, energy, passion, and dedication into. Just like the design process, you can keep tweaking and shifting and reworking your approach indefinitely. Without clear priorities it’s easy to second-guess yourself or get discouraged, especially when project deadlines and daily tasks push aside your long-term goals and dreams.

I often reflect on what brought me here and assess whether my current path is accomplishing or on the trajectory towards achieving my life goals and career vision. Some goals are personal (like teaching), while others might be better accomplished through collaboration with others (like entering a design competition). However, there are often even bigger, more altruistic visions—perhaps the ones that enticed you into the field of architecture—that are most impactful when shared with a larger group.

This is the main impetus for participation with AIA. I feel that, as a group of like-minded creative problem-solvers, we can accomplish great things—important, game-changing, make-the-world-a-better place types of things. So let's do this. Let's show the world the value of design in the built environment. Let's offer new ways of thinking about age-old problems like homelessness, disaster relieve, and resource management. Let's be an asset and available resource to our communities. Let's make a difference. Be inspired.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

National Architecture Week

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello (photo by Matt Kozlowski, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
This past week, April 12-18, was National Architecture Week. Occurring each April, National Architecture Week is the American Institute of Architects' annual effort to increase public awareness on the role architects play as a force for positive change in our communities and to elevate the public’s appreciation of design. At the national level most of this effort is online, composed of pinboards on Pinterest, Twitter chats, and the Architecture is Awesome contest on Instagram. The intent is to showcase the work of architects and encourage architecture fans to share their thoughts. 
April also happens to be the birth month of Thomas Jefferson, the nation's only president/architect (and it’s my birth month too!). 
How did I observe National Architecture Week? Well, I dolefully prepared and filed my tax returns (paying hefty tax due sums to the IRS and the Oregon Department of Revenue). My wife and I buried our beloved cat, Gracie, who passed away following a lengthy illness. I managed to miss what I’m sure was a fascinating panel discussion about the legacy of Pietro Belluschi organized by the University of Oregon’s Department of Architecture and the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. Oh yeah, I also spent way too much time at the office, working toward a deadline of increasing urgency. 
Personally speaking, National Architecture Week was a bust. Nevertheless, here during its waning hours, I feel compelled to acknowledge its observance. As an architect, it’s meaningful to me. I sincerely believe the reasons for the annual celebration are praiseworthy. For 2015, the week’s focus was upon architecture as a source of reinvention, recognizing the architect’s profound ability to impact an industry through design, a community through a building’s purpose, and the beauty of architecture itself through restoration and historic preservation. 
More than a self-serving Hallmark holiday, National Architecture Week is an opportunity every year to remind ourselves and the communities we serve why architecture is important and why good design matters.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Young Professionals Day at CONSTRUCT 2015

Cherise Schacter—CSI Portland President, Institute Certification Prep Committee Chair, and queen of the CSI Kraken—recently announced some exciting news: this year’s CONSTRUCT will include CSI’s first ever Young Professionals Day. Cherise will be leading the entire day and evening of events for this special event.
The Construction Specifications Institute hosts its annual convention each year at the CONSTRUCT Show. The 2015 edition takes place this coming September 30 through October 3 in St. Louis. CONSTRUCT will be the place to be for everyone and anyone involved with construction information. Those who attend will meet face-to-face with fellow industry professionals in a world that is increasingly virtual. They’ll find ample opportunities to look their fellow construction professionals in the eye, shake hands, trade business cards, learn from each other, and advance their careers. 
The first day of CONSTRUCT, September 30, is earmarked as Young Professionals Day. It promises to be an awesome way for students and young professionals to get hands-on mentoring from seasoned professionals and exposure to the things they should know to move their careers forward. CSI created the event specifically for students and young professionals beginning their career journeys. It will be especially beneficial to those attending CONSTRUCT for the first time. A full day has been planned to provide a positive, unique experience. 
For the extremely discounted rate of $70 (CSI members) or $75 (nonmembers), students and young professionals can attend all of CONSTRUCT. This incredible price includes: 
  • Wednesday, September 30: All activities on the YP Day agenda, including the evening’s Welcome Reception and Young Professionals Mixer 
  • Thursday, October 1 through Saturday, October. 3: The full array of education sessions(1), keynote addresses, entrance into the exhibit hall, game changer session, young professional scavenger hunt, and admittance to CSI Night Out.
Benefits of the special Young Professionals package include:
  • The best value available 
  • Connections with peers 
  • Connections with others who possess a wealth of experience to impart 
  • Participation in a technical tour created for students/young professionals only 
  • A Pecha Kucha boxed-lunch event 
  • An exclusive young professional/student exhibit hall scavenger hunt on Thursday, October 1 with a top prize of $200 cash.
All education sessions, including free exhibit hall education, provide AIA/CES learning units (HSW when applicable.) GBCI CE is provided for select presentations. 
Note: There are other ticketed events available at additional cost. Please see the CONSTRUCT website for the complete list of events during the show. 
Where else can you receive an educational experience geared specifically towards your career needs, for up to 4 days, for as little as $70? If you’re a young professional looking to grow professionally, CSI has designed Young Professionals Day for you. You deserve to be in St. Louis on September 30! 
CSI will open registration for CONSTRUCT in Mid-May. Be sure to register by September 4 to take advantage of this great offer. 
How to enroll: 
  • Click the Register Now button 
  • Choose the Young Professional/Student Full Package
Sorry, youngsters only: Eligibility is limited to those no more than 35 years old (Drat, I’m not young enough! Being an old guy sucks!). 

(1) See education sessions offered on Open the Schedule at a Glance.