Two guys sticking with an idea can change a city, but one bad voice can ruin a neighborhood. Both these things happened at the Waters, which we talked about recently, and friends have asked me to tell more of the story. Here it is:
Nathan Norris and I were founding partners of PlaceMakers, and had been invited to the Waters to discuss the creation of an architectural pattern book. The land was studded with majestic oaks, and rolled up gently toward us from all directions.
The plan, however, had apparently been done by a conventional subdivision planner because there were "wet noodle streets" and cul de sacs slung indiscriminately across this beautiful piece of land. We were aghast when we saw it. PlaceMakers was very young at the time and needed the pattern book work, but we wanted to have no part in making better architecture in a standard subdivision.
We immediately told the development team that they were making a big mistake, and that the land plan was completely unworthy of the land. I had already served as Town Architect in other neighborhoods for most of a decade by then, and was hoping in the back of my mind that they would let me do for the land plan what I had done for many home designs: meet with the designers and help them do a radical makeover of the plan.
The Waters team took us on a tour of the land, asking our recommendations on several issues. As described earlier, the landowner pointed to a hill and said "where would you put all this dirt? The other planner said it won't work with his plan." I said "you mean the hill?" "Yes." "Leave the hill exactly where it is," I replied. "Line a street up with it, and build a chapel on the hill. We'll call it Chapel Hill." And so we did, as you can see in the top picture.
I was also very concerned about a century-old fencerow of towering oak trees, which the conventional plan basically ignored. Most of them surely would be lost. I recommended instead that they celebrate the fencerow by making it the center of the grand avenue leading into town, making it look as if the avenue had been there as long as the trees.
The landowner had apparently been having second thoughts about the plan for some time because, to our great surprise, he hired us to redesign the Waters. We held the design charrette ten years ago this week.
While the previous plan sprawled 800 or so homes indiscriminately across the land, our design built almost 2,500 homes in eight compact hamlets, preserving most of the land as either lakes or farm fields. Prior to the Waters, subdivisions in the area had been selling 2-acre lots for $40,000 for a developed land value of $20,000/acre. Within hamlets at the Waters, the developed land value immediately rose to $500,000/acre, a staggering 25 times higher.
The town of Pike Road, Alabama, incorporated shortly thereafter. They were so impressed with the Waters that they spent 2/3 of their founding bank account to hire PlaceMakers to do a SmartCode for the newborn town because places like the Waters thrive under a SmartCode, but are illegal on many counts under conventional zoning. And because Pike Road did a SmartCode, the Waters agreed to be annexed into Pike Road.
The city of Montgomery saw the town of Pike Road sitting squarely in Montgomery's growth corridor, and realized that with a SmartCode that encouraged developments like the Waters, Pike Road was likely to draw several years' worth of development out of Montgomery because by this time, the Waters had begun its first neighborhood center and a number of businesses were very interested in relocating. So Montgomery's forward-looking civic leaders banded together to bring the SmartCode to town. Dover-Kohl did the plan for downtown, and Montgomery, through the heroic efforts of many (especially including Planning Director Ken Groves,) became the largest city in the world with a SmartCode… a distinction they held until Miami21, by DPZ, was enacted a couple years later.
All of this began,* of course, because two guys just couldn't shut up about improving a plan on one single Dog Day in 2002. We were simply focused on trying to get the planner to improve the plan… we couldn't have even imagined the chain of events that would follow. So don't ever give up… you never know where today's efforts may someday lead.
That's the happy story… I'll tell you the sad part in the next post.
* Would the Montgomery SmartCode have happened without the Waters or Pike Road's SmartCode? Montgomery's civic leaders may have enacted a SmartCode in any case, as there are a number of very smart people there. So I'm not saying for sure that the Waters was the trigger… in reality, we'll never know. But in any case, it's important to believe that the things you do might make a difference… otherwise, the battle can get too hard, and the road too long.