Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Pushing harder for good design

The Town Council met yesterday with the Ram Development team to talk seriously about our expectations for the design of the downtown project. When we had a pre-bidders conference on January 11, I made my own wishes clear: The last thing we want, I said, is a bunch of facades that imitate a shopping mall that imitate a real downtown. Prior to that, as we drafted the request for qualifications document, we went out of our way to take out references to the "historic character" of downtown--we wanted to signal that we were ready to break away from that. I was far from alone in hoping for a distinctive design that looks forward, not backward. I thought this message was heard by the bidders.

But such is the strength of the neotraditional movement that that's what we got anyway from both teams who bid on the project. I preferred the Ram proposal because of its understanding of the importance of the public space--for the basic way the space is laid out and for the team's enthusiastic indication of interest in making it work for us. But there isn't much to like about what, at yesterday's meeting, Ram president Casey Cummings admitted was a "safe" architectural style.

It's kind of remarkable that the Council is in 100 percent agreement on this. We're not interested in faux-Colonial or faux anything else. The planning principles of new urban design are great, but it ought to be possible to separate the planning from the architecture, as I've argued here.

In yesterday's meeting, another point I made was that I hope they will incorporate principles of "green urbanism." This morning in a note to the Council I explained what I meant:

TO: mayorandcouncil@townofchapelhill.org


When I suggested to the Ram team yesterday that their project should reflect the principles of "green urbanism," I was bringing up the concept talked about here:

"Just, Green and Beautiful Cities," Yes! magazine, Summer 2005

This article is talking about a movement that recognizes that while urban development has contributed a great deal to environmental problems, urban development can also provide opportunities to intervene with strategies for improvement:

"It [the environmental movement's negative view of cities] started with John Muir’s celebration of nature in reaction to the ugliness of industrial development, urban pollution, congestion, and noise. But this bias against cities is changing. Environmental groups now acknowledge that the way we live in cities is at the nexus of many environmental challenges."

The byproduct of this kind of thinking is a new emphasis on incorporating the natural environment into urban spaces.

Please pass this link on to the Ram team and encourage them to pick up on these ideas as much as they can.

We meet with Ram again next Wednesday afternoon.

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