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Saturday, October 8, 2011

What Will Save The Suburbs?

ALLISON ARIEFF

January 11, 2009, 10:00 pm
What Will Save the Suburbs?

For a long time now I’ve been obsessed with suburban and exurban master-planned communities and how to make them better. But as the economy and the mortgage crisis just seem to get worse, and gas prices continue to plunge, the issues around housing have changed dramatically. The problem now isn’t really how to better design homes and communities, but rather what are we going to do with all the homes and communities we’re left with.


“Aerial #65″ by Sarah McKenzie. (Courtesy of the artist)


In urban areas, there’s rich precedent for the transformation or reuse of abandoned lots or buildings. Vacant lots have been converted into pocket parks, community gardens and pop-up stores (or they remain vacant, anxiously awaiting recovery and subsequent conversion into high-end office space condos). Old homes get divided into apartments, old factories into lofts, old warehouses into retail.

Projects like Manhattan’s High Line show that even derelict train tracks can be turned into something as valuable to citizens as a vibrant public park. A brownfield site in San Francisco has been cleaned up and will house an eco-literacy center for the city’s youth. Hey, even a dump (Fresh Kills, on Staten Island) is undergoing a remarkable metamorphosis into a recreation area.

But similar transformation within the carefully delineated form of a subdivision is not so simple. These insta-neighborhoods were not designed or built for flexibility or change.

So what to do with the abandoned houses, the houses that were never completed or the land that was razed for building and now sits empty?

Lands cleared to make way for houses that were not (and may never be) developed. (DigitalGlobe, Sanborn, GeoEye, U.S. Geological Survey; 2008 Google Imagery)


Take as an analogous example their symbiotic partner, the big box store. As I learned in artist Julia Christensen’s new book, “Big Box Reuse,” when a big box store like Wal-mart or Kmart outgrows its space, it is shut down. It is, apparently, cheaper to start from scratch than to close for renovation and expansion, let alone decide at the outset to design a store that can easily be expanded (or contracted, as the case may be).

So not only does a community get a newer, bigger big box, it is also left with quite an economic and environmental eyesore: a vacant shell of a retail operation, tons of wasted building material and a changed landscape that can’t be changed back.

The silver lining in Christensen’s study are the communities she’s discovered that have proactively addressed the massive empty shells they’ve been left with, turning structures of anywhere from 20,000 to 280,000 square feet into something useful: a charter school, a health center, a chapel, a library. (And, in Austin, Minn., a new Spam Museum.)

The repurposing of abandoned big-box stores is easier to wrap one’s head around: one can envision within a single volume (albeit a massive one) the potential to become something else.

But exurban communities are a unique challenge. The houses within them are big, but not generally as big as, say, Victorian mansions in San Francisco that can be subdivided into apartments. So they’re not great candidates for transformation into multi-family rental housing.

I did visit a housing development last year that offered “quartets,” McMansions subdivided into four units with four separate entrances. These promised potential buyers the status of a McMansion with the convenience of a condominium, but the concept felt like it was created more to preserve the property values of larger neighboring homes than to serve the needs of the community’s residents.

There has been a nationwide shift toward de-construction (led by companies like Planet Reuse and Buffalo Reuse, the surgical taking-apart of homes to salvage the building materials for reuse, but often the building materials used in these developments aren’t of good enough quality to warrant salvaging.

I don’t have the perfect solution for how to transform these broad swaths of subdivisions, and while I’ve heard much talk of the foreclosure tragedy, I’ve heard nary a peep about what to do about it.

A recent article in The Times spotted an emerging trend of kids usurping the abandoned pools of foreclosed homes for use as temporary skate parks. (Interestingly, this was big in the ‘70s, as you can see by watching the rad skate documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”) It’s a great short-term strategy for adolescent recreation (and for ridding neighborhoods of fetid pools, which often harbor West Nile virus), though it’s not a comprehensive solution to the problem of increasingly abandoned, ill-maintained and more dangerous streetscapes.

But there are some interesting avenues to be pursued. Part of President-elect Obama’s proposed massive public works program, for example, is to be dedicated to clean tech infrastructure. Included in this is the intent to weatherize (that is, make energy-efficient) one million low-income homes a year.

One can already see how those in the construction industry can begin to make the shift from new construction to home retrofitting. It’s the centerpiece of “The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems,” the best-selling, Al Gore- and Nancy Pelosi-endorsed book by environmental activist Van Jones. Though we hear a lot in the news about new LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design/) buildings and incentives for implementing the latest green technology, it’s often the case that fixing leaks and insulation are just as effective in reducing the carbon footprint of single-family homes (which account for about 18 percent of the country’s carbon footprint).

As people increasingly stay put — and re-sell homes less — this retrofit strategy makes sense. Millions of homes, not just low-income ones, are in need of the sort of weatherization the Obama plan describes. The non-profit Architecture 2030, established in 2002 in response to the global warming crisis, is leading a major effort in this arena with the goal of dramatically reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of the building sector by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed and constructed.

And after decades of renovation-obsession that has simply gotten out of hand, it seems a prudent time to swap Viking ranges for double-paned windows and high-efficiency furnaces. It’s the perfect moment to fix what we’ve got. Despite their currently low numbers, green homes typically re-sell for more money than their conventional counterparts.

I still dream that some major overhaul can occur: that a self-sufficient mixed-use neighborhood can emerge. That three-car-garaged McMansions can be subdivided into rental units with streetfront caf├ęs, shops and other local businesses.

In short, that creative ways are found not just to rehabilitate these homes and communities, but to keep people in them.

Foreclosure in St. Louis



A reprint from B.E.L.T.

December 7, 2008
St. Louis Foreclosures: Immediate & Future Solutions



Watching neighbors move and public auction signs multiply is depressing and frustrating. But rather than sink further into feelings of helplessness, now is the time to think of solutions for the present and plan for the future. Optimism is the strongest ally of possibility.

A CHANGING LANDSCAPE
● Economic downturn is preservation’s best friend. When developers lose access to loans, they stop eyeing buildings for demolition. Right now, a threatened building is safely tucked away in a cedar chest under a layer of mothballs.

● Look around your neighborhoods and notice that the teardown pandemic has ground to a halt. There is no money or buyers for in-fill McMansions, so there’s no point in continuing this practice. This also means homeowners who have been willing to sell to new home builders now have to stay put and come back to good terms with a home that was perfectly fine before the allure of “easy” money.

● The energy crisis is organically leading us back to common sense. It now costs far too much to heat and cool a giant house, and do we properly utilize all those extra thousands of square footage in the first place? If the marketplace is an honest indicator, this bit of news from the Associated Press is encouraging:

Houses have been getting bigger fairly steadily since the Census Bureau began tracking the average size of new U.S. homes three decades ago. But now the economic downturn is likely to turn that trend around, says the Associated Press — particularly as production builders continue to scale back floor-plan sizes. After trimming some of its 3,400-square-foot homes to 2,400 square feet last year, for example, Los Angeles–based KB Home recently rolled out a new line of Southern California homes that start at 1,230 square feet and are priced at just over $200,000.

● The cost of living far away from business and retail centers is also taking a toll. Everyone is now acutely aware of how much it costs to drive, and many have voluntarily found ways to reduce that cost. A Center for Neighborhood Technology report shows that people who live in cities and inner ring suburbs spend up to $2,100 less annually on gasoline than residents of outer ring suburbs, who can easily average $4,000 a year on gasoline, alone.

REVERSE IS NOT NECESSARILY NEGATIVE
Today’s economic downturn puts many of us in the position of going backwards. When we have to give up the large house that's an 80-mile round trip from work, it can feel like a failure. But for those who have survived being unemployed or broke, we often learn that less quantity can improve the quality of daily life.

Being forced to give things up never feels right, but in the long run, accepting the way things are generally works better than fighting for the way we think it should be. Americans have become adverse to the concept of sacrifice, as if it compromises what we’re entitled to. But we now have solid proof that so much of our entitlement was based on shady credit practices, and there really was no there there.

So, how do we turn lemons into lemonade? We can look backwards to where we originally came from – the city centers and their inner-ring suburbs – and explore the opportunities they present.

REMODEL THE PAST FOR A BETTER FUTURE
The empty houses in the city of St. Louis and the original suburbs that surround it are the key to living smarter. All amenities, utilities and infrastructure are already in place and can easily be reshaped to meet our current standards of living. The daily awareness and acceptance of green living now pairs perfectly with financial downturn, and solutions that can benefit us all are right under our noses.

The greenest buildings are the ones already standing, and retrofitting an older home for energy efficiency is quickly becoming a remodeling industry standard, which means demand reduces the price of doing so. Plus, the state of Missouri is continuing energy efficient tax credits for homes and businesses in 2009. Couple that with the promise of an energy-conscious president, and more tax breaks and incentives for retrofitting existing older homes becomes a real, national possibility.

Statewide, imagine the positive financial growth that can happen by encouraging people to move back in and remodel existing homes, businesses and retail. There is little debate that historic tax credits are the primary catalyst for the revival of downtown St. Louis; expanding this concept to help private homeowners and small businesses benefits everyone. For instance, sizable pockets of South St. Louis have been revived by recent immigrants buying and remodeling existing storefronts; drive through the now-bustling Bevo Mill area for tangible proof that what once was is also what can be. These Eastern Europeans instinctively understand the thrift of reviving existing density through sweat equity and old-fashioned loans. Throw in usable tax incentives and credits, and we natives can do it, too.

We can no longer afford to keep reinventing the wheel, especially when the basic concept of the wheel is what made civilized progress possible. If we view a 1,200 s.f. house in Ferguson through the lens of a McMansion, it’s a downwardly mobile downgrade. But if we look at it through the lens of possibility – reconfiguring floorplans, building additions, energy retrofitting – it becomes a potentially rewarding endeavor.

Even without state or national government intervention, we are already learning (or is that re-learning?) how to better use our resources. We don’t really have much say in the matter, and the survival instinct serves us well. We are constantly being told that things will get much worse before they get better, and this is true. Part of “much worse” is the honest threat of losing what we currently have. But the options we have ahead of us need not be a consolation prize. We have already begun the process of retrofitting our lives, and if all levels of government could work with us on retrofitting our built environment, the opportunity to apply ingenuity and responsibility can create future gains from our current losses.


AN IMMEDIATE CALL TO ACTION
Each new empty house on your block is cause for worry: down goes property values, up goes the potential for crime. The bank that foreclosed on that home is not your new neighbor; they are your new problem.

We often have a tendency to not want to get involved: it’s their problem, not mine. But when there is no there there, it’s in your best interest to get involved. It may not be possible now, but in the future, someone can buy the house next to you if it has been protected. So, protect your investment, your block and your neighborhood with a little extra effort.

Please keep an eye on the newly empty houses on your block. Act as if they are on a long vacation and make the effort to clear up any obvious signs of abandonment: phone books on the porch, newspapers in the yard, etc. If a sunporch door is flapping in the wind, try to secure it. Try to turn off any neon signs advertising the house as a sitting duck. If this is more than you can or will do, then please let someone else know so they can take care of it.

Contact the Citizens Service Bureau about any problems with a vacant house. Let them do the research and enact the solution; that’s what they are here for. Call 314.622.4800, or online at this link. It is easy, painless and gets results.

There are two key factors that turn a block bad: fear and apathy. We tend to apply this to new and unusual additions, but it applies double to this new wave of subtractions on our blocks. A foreclosure devastates the family it happened to and reverberates out to the neighbors who remain. You can ease this sense of helplessness, and pay it forward, by helping out now with a little bravery and concern. Please.
The late spring and early summer saw a good deal of activity in landscaping as well as repairs at Forester Square.






New Spirea


New Trees


Meadowbrook Hall

Cranbrook 2009








Thursday, July 23, 2009

Spring 2009

River Woods Park, Auburn Hills










The Old Gate


Sunday, February 1, 2009

Winter 2007

River Woods Park, East of the Clinton River


Winter 2007

Friday, January 30, 2009

Transition


A small, neo-classical pergola designed to be a threshhold leading from one public area consisting of a large semi-circular pergola, and heading to anpother public area: a small neo-classical bath house (visible in the distance ) by the swimming pool.

Forester Square, 2008
Date stamp incorrect

Traffic Cameras


MDOT camera at I-75 and University today at 0811 hrs.
Looking south. Chrysler HQ on the left.
Google Earth coordinates:
Lat: 42°39'55.64"N
Long: 83°14'28.02"W

Winter 2007

Part of the Clinton River Trail



approximate Google Earth coordinates:
Lat: 42°38'11.16"N
Long: 83°12'39.02"W

Winter 2007

The Clinton River and River Woods Park





approximate Google Earth coordinates:
Lat: 42°38'31.12"N
Long: 83°12'55.11"W

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Autumn 2008

Forester Square in Auburn Hills, Michigan in the fall of 2008





Google Earth Coordinates

Lat. 42°38'22.94"N
Long. 83°12'41.55"W