The Importance of Design (Community Development and New Urbanism)

We need a marriage of CDC work and urban design,” says Sandy Phillips of the Manchester-Bidwell Development Corporation and former director of the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development. “Nonprofit urban infill housing should be designed for the community, not for other architects.”

Good design reinforces the special character of urban neighborhoods and produces affordable housing that will stand the test of time. But what constitutes “good” urban design? That mostly depends on the particular neighborhood. However, in Pittsburgh we’re finding that successful project designs determined through community planning processes often fit within an emerging set of architecture and design principles called “New Urbanism.”

New Urbanism is based on pre-World War II urban form, where cities were walkable, mixed use, and transit oriented. The school of thought began to coalesce in the late 1980s and was formally organized under the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993, with a charter of principles, including design guidelines for inner-city revitalization. Key principles include cities, towns, and neighborhoods with identifiable centers and edges; compact development that preserves farmland and environmentally sensitive areas; infill development; interconnected streets friendly to pedestrians and cyclists, often in modified grid or web-like patterns; mixed land uses rather than single-use pods; mixed-income neighborhoods; discreet placement of garages and parking spaces to avoid auto-dominated landscapes; transit-oriented development; well-designed and sited civic buildings and public gathering places; and architectural design that shows respect for local history and regional character.

New Urbanism is now a topic of frequent and vigorous debate. Prominent early projects, such as the towns of Seaside and Celebration in Florida, were built on greenfield sites, leading to the accusation that New Urbanism could be more accurately called the “New Suburbanism.” The principles of New Urbanism, however, have also been endorsed by HUD through its HOPE VI program, and have been used successfully in numerous urban affordable housing projects across the country.

In Pittsburgh, four communities have developed projects that benefit from the New Urbanist perspective. New Urbanist architects such as Urban Design Associates (UDA) and Stefani Danes have worked closely with local CDCs and residents to produce affordable housing that fits with its neighborhood, mixes different income groups successfully and holds its own in the market.

These four communities are all late 19th and early 20th century neighborhoods that began declining after World War II, but otherwise they face different challenges. The Hill District and Manchester are comprised mainly of African Americans, while the South Side is predominately white and Oakland is racially-mixed. The Hill and South Side have a large percentage of elderly, while Oakland houses many university students and Manchester has a sizable proportion of public housing families with children. Extreme poverty characterizes the Hill, though all except the South Side are well above the city poverty rate.

Community Refill
Crawford Square, in the lower Hill district, is an example of “Community Refill,” the rebuilding of a large area destroyed by urban renewal practices. The Lower Hill was a dense African-American neighborhood in the middle of the 20th century. Its population and proximity to the central business district made it a target of urban renewal in the 1950s under the Urban Redevelopment Authority of Pittsburgh (URA). Between 1956 and 1961, the URA forced 8,000 residents to relocate to make way for “cultural projects.” Due to growing neighborhood opposition, only the Civic Arena and two high rise apartment buildings were completed. After the 1968 riots, redevelopment planning largely ceased.

The Hill Community Development Corporation was formed in 1987 to help restore the community’s social and economic fabric. Though new housing had been built in the Hill in the 1970s and 1980s, most of it was small scale, low density ranch-style housing, reflecting a Model Cites-era belief that for cities to compete, new housing should look like what was being built in the suburbs. This housing, along with high rise apartment buildings, had little revitalizing effect. It was not of sufficient scale, nor was its design conducive to the emergence of a lively, pedestrian-friendly urban neighborhood.

When the URA went back to the lower Hill in the late 1980s things were different. Urban Design Associates, which had begun working with Hill District residents in the 1970s, was brought back in by the developer. UDA worked with neighborhood residents through the Hill CDC to design Crawford Square to look like a Pittsburgh neighborhood next to downtown.

Becky Foster, who worked for the URA at the time, emphasizes that Crawford Square “had to look like its Pittsburgh roots and not turn its back on the Hill district, and it had to be competitive development with the suburbs….” With this goal in mind, the project design involved multistory houses that sit close to the streets, forming a walkable grid. Most of the housing is stacked or attached, reflecting the predominant row houses of the community. The traditional architecture, reminiscent of Pittsburgh’s historic “streetcar suburbs,” fits in well with the location close to downtown. Crawford Square is a project at an urban density, with more than 400 housing units on 18 acres, and it mixes both rental and owner-occupied and subsidized and market rate units.

Elbert Hatley, executive director of the Hill CDC, points out that while it tries to fit into the character of the neighborhood, the new design wasn’t just a copy of what used to be there. “There was such a long time lag between the clearing of the Hill and the years of deterioration, rubble, vacant lots, blight. After 40 years of deterioration on the Hill, the connection to the old urban form was lost,” he says. So Crawford Square’s street pattern is a modification, not a copy, of the old Hill street pattern, although it remains a grid with a distinct urban flavor. Parking also had to be integrated into the project – a challenge not faced by 19th century architects.

Crawford Square is the largest scale new housing undertaken in the city in decades. Initially, the project stirred up old fears of residents, whose distrust of the city – and particularly the URA – lingered from the urban renewal era. But as the Hill CDC worked with community-based groups and residents, they could see that the proposed new housing had no resemblance to the urban renewal projects of the past, nor did it look like a piece of misplaced suburbia. It seemed respectful of both the neighborhood’s history and current housing needs. Elbert Hatley notes that “Skeptics and critics are believers now. The gentrification concern has been dispelled, based upon the facts.” Hill District residents occupy 30 percent of the Crawford rental housing and 37 percent of the homeowner units. African Americans occupy 83 percent of the units.

Neighborhood Infill
New Urbanist principles have also come into play in smaller-scale infill projects that operate within a neighborhood’s existing built environment.

Holmes Place in the Oakland neighborhood was developed in the late 1980s by Oakland Planning and Development Corporation (OPDC). OPDC had produced a community-based Oakland plan in 1980, with assistance from UDA, which centered on creating affordable housing options and promoting homeownership, especially in the parts of the neighborhood that had suffered from slum landlords.

In the mid-1980s, OPDC purchased an abandoned school property for new housing. OPDC and designers Stefani Danes and Steve Quick brought the community into the planning and design process, organizing focus groups to determine what the residents wanted. They wanted owner-occupied new housing. Unlike many other CDC projects, OPDC had its own development fund and maintained control over the project, enabling it to keep the community involved in the design process. Over the year-long process, design features were incorporated from Chatham Village, the famous 1930s Pittsburgh housing development by Clarence Stein and Henry Wright, and from the South Oakland neighborhood itself. Holmes Place presents a dignified façade to the surrounding neighborhood, with window rhythms, pitched roofs, lighting fixtures, internal pathways, screened rear parking and landscaping all blending the project harmoniously with its setting.

Holmes Place contains 40 townhouses and 24 garden-style apartments on 2.5 acres. The project met the need for housing affordable to lower-income households – including a large number of service workers at the nearby universities and other institutions – within the context and scale of the neighborhood. The project has remained affordable in the 1990s.

In the South Side, Stefani Danes designed a different pair of adjacent infill projects, Fox Way Commons and New Birmingham. The South Side contains a lively retail district of late Victorian buildings brimming with art galleries, restaurants, coffee houses, bars and retail shops, but despite successful commercial revitalization in the 1990s the neighborhood still has an increasingly elderly and poor population.

The South Side Local Development Company (SSLDC) had its roots in the neighborhood’s commercial revitalization. Then in a community planning process, two needs were identified: affordable new housing and riverfront housing.

Fox Way Commons contains 26 affordable housing units made up of a renovated warehouse building and infill. New Birmingham is a 32 unit, market rate development, reflecting the South Side’s traditional design of 32 units on a block (acre). As in Oakland, planning and design for Fox Way Commons/New Birmingham began in community meetings. The community made it clear that they wanted projects that blended in well with the neighborhood context. New Urbanist principles were critically helpful. They encouraged the close study of the architectural character of the neighborhood, and the use of that knowledge to create fresh designs which satisfy current market demands while still reflecting the surrounding urban context.

Scattered Site Infill
The Manchester neighborhood was built as largely middle class housing in the 19th century. Suburbanization and white flight, coupled with the clearance of the Lower Hill, shifted Manchester from a predominantly white neighborhood in 1950 (83 percent) to a largely African-American neighborhood by 1970 (71.4 percent), with a steady population decrease over the decades.

As in the Hill District, early experiments in new housing resulted in suburban-style low-density ranch developments. Coupled with public housing units, this accounted for much of the new housing construction in the neighborhood. However, thanks to citizen organizing, Manchester was designated a National Historic District in 1974, which halted the demolition of housing under federal urban renewal programs and has made restoration and rehabilitation of the area’s Victorian housing stock a key component of housing development in the area. By 1999, 279 URA, city and private historic buildings had been restored.

In 1995, Manchester Citizens Corporation, the local CDC, received a $7.5 million HOPE VI award from HUD to demolish existing public housing units, build new public housing units, acquire and renovate existing properties as for-sale and rental housing and build new mixed-income for-sale housing. The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh (HACP) demolished 107 public housing units in the neighborhood, largely low-rise apartments and townhouses which were about 35 percent vacant. “The units were incongruous with the rest of the neighborhood, poorly maintained and designed, and readily identifiable as public housing,” according to Manchester 2000, the community’s revitalization plan. Their modernist architecture, with its flat roofs and austere façades, stuck out visibly from the surrounding fabric. In contrast, the replacement houses were designed as three-story units with off-street parking, backyards, and brick front facades, conforming to Manchester’s historical character. Other units were historic rehabilitations. New Urbanist design principles have enabled the new public housing units to blend seamlessly into the surrounding area, rather than stand out and invite stigmatization.

Bottom Up Principles
When communities are deeply involved in the design process, they often come up with something that looks like New Urbanism, whether they apply that label to the final product or not. The New Urbanist design principles in these four communities emerged from the “bottom up,” from the goals of residents working toward revitalizing their own neighborhoods. These communities explicitly rejected more common post-World War II forms that had previously been imposed on them – urban renewal, high rises, low density housing, and land clearance for more highways. Reinforcement of each neighborhood’s historical “sense of place” proved to be a high priority for residents, not an optional frill. They wanted something familiar to them – reinforcing what they knew and liked in their neighborhoods – combined with modern amenities.

As UDA principal Ray Gindroz remarks, “The fundamental principle of our work comes from opening up design to public process. What you get when you do that is more information, but you also get contact with real places and real people. It becomes impossible to impose artificial and abstract ideas.”

Designers like Gindroz, well-versed in New Urbanist design, assisted the community to articulate, visualize, and implement their ideas. The results were a set of designs that respected neighborhood context, maintained existing urban densities, enhanced the pedestrian environment and tamed the automobile. Crawford Square rebuilt a grid pattern that had been destroyed by urban renewal decades before. All projects here put parking in garages or pads behind houses or clustered in small lots, off the street face. Crawford attempted to build density where destruction had once prevailed, while Holmes, Fox Way and Manchester developed projects conforming to existing densities in those neighborhoods, which enhanced the pedestrian environment of the neighborhoods, unlike earlier urban renewal projects and modernist designs.

In the publicity surrounding the New Urbanism, these types of affordable housing projects are frequently ignored. They are not “front page architecture,” as Stefani Danes says. New Urbanist design is not a panacea for inner-city decline, but it offers a mode of architecture and urban planning that community builders should consider as they plan affordable housing projects in the coming years.
Contact:
Hill Community Development Corporation,
2015-17 Centre Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Manchester Citizens Corporation,
1319 Allegheny Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15233-0942

South Side Local Development Corporation,
48 South 14th Street, Pittsburgh, PA15203

Oakland Planning and Development Corporation,
235 Atwood Street, Pittsburgh, PA 15213

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Sabina Deitrick is associate professor in public and urban affairs at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and co-director of urban and regional research at the University Center for Social and Urban Research, University of Pittsburgh. Cliff Ellis, Ph.D., AICP, is assistant professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Program of the Department of Geography and Planning at the State University of New York at Albany.
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Cliff Ellis , Ph.D., AICP, is assistant professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Program of the Department of Geography and Planning at the State University of New York at Albany.

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