Here’s a great illustration of how frontages are the arteries of value in a city like we were discussing yesterday. Washington Avenue on South Beach is the color-coded street running left-to-right in the image above. When you walk down Washington, it’s clear that the bones are good, but the shops that aren’t vacant are typically t-shirt shops, tattoo parlors, greasy spoon lunch counters, liquor stores, smoke shops, sex shops, and a collection of clubs, bars, and bona fide dives. There’s enough concern in Miami Beach about Washington that the city has commissioned a study of how to improve it. Before we go any further, let me be exceptionally clear about my role here: I’m a citizen blogger who happens to live just inside the top of the map above, near the center, and my only interest is in putting out ideas that might help make my town a better place. The people actually doing the work are fully capable; I’m just hoping to put a bug or two in their ears, as we used to say back when I lived in the deep South. With that clear, let’s look at some things that should be considered:
Coding Existing Walk Appeal
The seven standards of Walk Appeal: W6 Great Street, W5 Main Street, W4 Neighborhood Street, W3 Sub-Urban Street, W2 Subdivision Street, W1 Parking Lot, W0 Unwalkable.
I’ve coded Washington and its crossing streets for its existing Walk Appeal. As discussed yesterday, Walk Appeal has measurable metrics, immeasurable characteristics, and these work together to have a great impact on a neighborhood business’ failure, survival, or success. That’s because people walk further when there’s greater Walk Appeal. You’ll find people walking 2 miles or more instead of driving on W6 Great Streets because it’s so enjoyable. On a good W5 Main Street, they often walk ¾ mile or so. W4 Neighborhood Streets is where people actually walk that ¼ mile instead of driving that the planners talk about. On W3 Sub-Urban Streets, the distance drops to a tenth of a mile, and on a W2 Subdivision Street, it’s down to about 250 feet. In a W1 Parking Lot condition, good luck getting anyone (including you and I) to walk more than a hundred feet if we don’t absolutely have to, because the experience is dreadful. And in W0 Unwalkable conditions like a sidewalk between a busy arterial and a parking lot, the only people you’ll find walking are those whose cars have broken down.
Analyzing Walk Appeal
You don’t need a specialist to tell you where to find Walk Appeal… just walk out and observe where the people are.
Places with low Walk Appeal usually attract fewer people; places where it’s higher attract more. Knowing why it works that way is eye-opening, as we’ll see shortly. And businesses reach out into surrounding neighborhoods for customers only as far as the Walk Appeal of the connecting streets allow.
Along Washington Avenue
You can’t properly judge Walk Appeal from one side of a street. Walk both sides, because Walk Appeal is largely influenced by things close by.
Looking at the map at the top of this page (click it and zoom in for a better view), it’s apparent that the East (beachward) side of Washington has fairly consistent Main Street character. Admittedly, several blocks reach that standard, but just barely. The other side of the street, however, is much spottier, with the longest stretch of the lowest rating being at the school just south of Española Way. Fortunately, there is no place on or near Washington Avenue that sinks to the level of a W0 Unwalkable place, even though some relatively short stretches approach that level. And the only places that rise to the level of a W6 Great Street are not on Washington at all, but are the crossing streets of Española Way and Lincoln Road.
Washington's Crossing Streets
Businesses can fail on Main Streets if the crossing streets' Walk Appeal isn’t strong enough to pull the customers in.
If Washington Avenue is to have any hope of serious improvement, the first thing to fix isn’t Washington, but rather the crossing streets. There are thousands of hotel rooms on Collins, running parallel to Washington just one block over, and thousands more on Ocean Drive just beyond that, yet few of those people get to Washington because the Walk Appeal of the crossing streets is mediocre at best and almost unwalkable in places. The only two connections Eastward from Washington with great Walk Appeal are Española Way and Lincoln Road.
It’s just as important walking inland as well. I’ve been told that almost half of South Beach residents do not own a car, so if Washington hopes to attract them as customers, Walk Appeal needs to be improved walking Westward as well.
The Tough Demographic Factor
Walk Appeal isn’t for everyone. Some people actually gravitate to places with low Walk Appeal.
This is a tough discussion to have, because some may consider it offensive, but it’s essential to talk about this if we want to change the character of Washington Avenue. We’ve all noticed how teen goths, punks, and the like tend to hang out in places their parents would never go. And it’s not just kids, either… the rougher side of the Bike Week crowd feels perfectly at home in tough places with little or no Walk Appeal. Think about all those crossing streets with low Walk Appeal that don’t entice the average tourist to walk to Washington. They’re perfect streets for the tougher crowd. So is it any wonder that the majority of people who make it through this filter of low Walk Appeal streets to Washington are the customers of the seedy shops that populate the street? Washington is only a block away from some of the biggest fashion names on Collins, but will never entice those people to shop on Washington until the crossing streets change dramatically.
Improving Walk Appeal
Improving Walk Appeal is neither art nor rocket science. Most measures are as simple as third grade geometry.
The four things below are all measurable. We’ll look at only a few examples of how to implement them on Washington, but it should be easy to imagine other places along the street where these principles would work as well.
No building makes a greater Walk Appeal impact for fewer dollars than a well-placed liner building.
Washington liner buildings should have retail on the first level with stairs interspersed that rise up to serve two living units each on the levels above. I’m familiar with many good thin house designs from the years working on the Katrina Cottages initiative.
Every parking lot on Washington should be lined with liner buildings, which need not be more than 18 feet deep. They can be as thin as 14 feet, however, or possibly even 12 feet. The worst frontages on Washington are all parking lots, but the longest bad frontage is at the school. Simply put, the school doesn’t want to be on Washington. Its tall metal fence is built of cheap aluminum tubes, with crude spear-tips curving out to the street, almost like a prison fence, except turned the other way to keep people out, not in.
If the school board sold the outer 12 to 18 feet of its property for a liner building, that liner building would serve as a completely secure wall, and Washington would get a very interesting block of shops on the street with customers living above. For that matter, it’s possible that the school board could keep the property and develop it themselves, if that’s legal.
Buildings along a street should be tall enough to enclose the street space as an outdoor room.
Ever hear anyone say “I’m too short for my width?” Washington has that problem as well. Most buildings along Washington are 1-story, with a few taller buildings sprinkled in. But it is about a hundred feet wide, building face to building face. The world’s greatest streets (make that W6 Great Streets) typically have street enclosure ratios close to 1:1, meaning that the buildings are as tall as the spaces between them. That’s tough to do in the US, where our streets are wider than most European streets. American Main Streets are doing well if they achieve a 1:3 proportion, and below 1:6 (like most of Washington), there isn’t enough enclosure to make the street feel like an outdoor room. So Washington definitely needs to grow taller. How much taller? The best urbanism in the world is usually 3-5 stories tall. Leon Krier says 3 stories for a number of good reasons; Christopher Alexander says 4 stories for other good reasons. Paris says 5 stories (often with an attic tucked above). Because Parisians love South Beach already, I’d suggest that we make them feel even more comfortable, and allow Washington to grow up to 5 stories tall, with any vertical addition taking a building up to at least 3 stories in height.
Getting the storefront right is a building's most important Walk Appeal role at the scale of details.
Measured walking along the sidewalk, glass should occupy no less than 60% of the wall at eye level, and ideally closer to 70%. The sill should be no less than 6 inches from the ground, and no higher than 30 inches. And the top of the glass should not be less than 8 feet from the sidewalk. People walking by can therefore see enough of the interior of the shops that it’s entertaining. But that’s only the beginning.
It’s really boring to walk past lots of the same stuff. This applies to both the stuff in the stores and the architecture of the exterior. So ideally, the shops should be narrow enough that your view changes ever 4 to 8 paces. That pretty much describes the shops on the East side of Washington as they exist today. So keep them that way. Any building height that is added should not change the storefronts, nor the width of the shops because what is there already are the bones of an awesome avenue of storefronts.
There is no greater barometer of vitality than sidewalk cafés, and no greater Walk Appeal role for the sidewalk.
Sidewalk cafés do great where traffic is very slow, or there is on-street parking to protect the patrons. Washington Avenue has both. Sidewalk cafés achieve close to silver bullet Walk Appeal status because humans are social creatures, and we love seeing other humans. Streets with thriving café scenes are almost guaranteed to get pegged as “vibrant” by everyone, and become many people’s favorite places over time. Today, the city tightly regulates sidewalk cafés, reportedly charging establishments a fee for every seat on the street. City Hall would come out ahead by stacks of cash if they allowed seats for free, because their other tax revenues would increase substantially not only from the eating establishments, but because the higher Walk Appeal would draw people to the other shops as well.
Obviously, the task at hand is greater than the scope of a single blog post, but if Miami Beach gets these things right, they will be well on the way to a fabulous Washington transformation. And I hope this illustrates how powerful a transformative tool Walk Appeal can be. What do you think?
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They’re the thinnest and smallest of a city’s elemental parts, but “frontages,” a geeky planning word for the space between the front windows and doors of a building and a civic space or thoroughfare, do more to create or kill value in most cities than any other part of the city. Rarely more than a couple dozen feet deep, and often as thin as a few inches, the total acreage of frontages in a traditionally-planned town is less than that of thoroughfares, and is tiny compared to civic spaces and building lots, which are the other three elemental parts. Yet they make the greatest difference in the vitality and sustainability of the city.
Along a thoroughfare, the frontage is divided into the public frontage, which is located on the thoroughfare’s right-of-way (including sidewalks and usually street trees) and the private frontage, which is the part of the building lot between the property line and the front windows and doors of the building. When buildings front directly onto civic spaces (such as plazas), however, the frontage is simply the thickness of the front wall and cornice of the building. The frontage isn’t very tall, either; the part that drives vitality and value extends no more than three stories high.
Healthy frontages create value by building high
Walk Appeal; unhealthy ones do not.
Walk Appeal is that characteristic of a path which entices people to keep on walking, sometimes for miles, rather than stopping short. Enhancing Walk Appeal is a frontage’s primary job. A decade or two ago, achieving high Walk Appeal was considered an art form, but now we know it’s simpler than that. Much of it is simply geometry, and is therefore measurable. Other characteristics of Walk Appeal are immeasurable, but are equally real. And the impact of
Walk Appeal can be startling, meaning the difference between failure, survival, or thriving to neighborhood businesses. One other thing… as this image illustrates, places with great Walk Appeal typically have strong Bike Appeal as well, and allow each mode of transportation to coexist and thrive. Basically, Walk Appeal is a good indicator of a friendly place for all sorts of self-propelled transportation.
Thinner frontages create more sustainable urbanism and enhance Walk Appeal.
When buildings are placed closer to civic spaces or thoroughfares, several benefits accrue. But one word of warning: pulling buildings to the street brings screams of protests from the Landscape Urbanists, such as I witnessed at CNU19 in Madison, Wisconsin when Charles Waldheim proclaimed “whenever you insist on pulling buildings to the street, you lose!” I asked “you lose what?” several times, but he turned away and never responded. Waldheim and his colleagues want the freedom to place architecture wherever they want it in the landscape. They are masters at beautiful parks, but this is no way to build a sustainable city. He repeatedly cited Detroit’s Lafayette Park as a sterling example, but when we visited a year ago during the first Lean summit, nobody was there. Literally, there was not a single person on the streets other than us. It was beautiful, if you like Miesian architecture in a garden, but had very low Walk Appeal, as was evident because nobody was walking. But if you’re more interested in building sustainable urbanism, here are some of the benefits of thinner frontages:
Thinner frontages set the stage for more nourishable places by leaving more space in the rear.
Someday, we’ll build an agricultural aesthetic people other than gardeners will love. When that happens, we’ll be able to plant edible frontage gardens. Until then, edible gardening that enhance the nourishability of a place will likely be restricted by many cities to outdoor rooms hidden from public view. So the closer a building is to the front of the lot, the more room there is on all but the most urban lots for edible gardens behind the frontage.
Buildings closer to the sidewalk are more interesting to walk past than those further away, enhancing Walk Appeal.
Like Nourishability, this accessibility benefit is no more complex than third grade geometry. Walking close to a building is more interesting than walking further away for at least two reasons: your view changes more quickly, and you’re able to see more details of the building. Additionally, you may be close enough to speak with someone on the edge of the building. Making a walk substantially more interesting may make the difference between someone walking and driving, giving them more choices of means of access.
Why put any buffer between people on the sidewalk and businesses hoping to serve them?
The worst offenders are shopping malls surrounded by seas of parking, and they’re dying across the country. Second worst are strip commercial buildings with parking lots in front. When is the last time you’ve walked to a strip commercial establishment? A sustainable place must be serviceable, so that you can walk to the daily services of life in your neighborhood, and that works best when commercial or mixed-use buildings are pulled right up to the sidewalk, with nothing screening storefronts or signs from people walking by.
We’ve known since Jane Jacobs that “eyes on the street” make it more secure. Be sure they’re close enough.
Again, this is third grade geometry. The closer people are to the street, the better they can see and help supervise what happens there.
Thinner frontages allow buildings to be adapted to more uses over time.
Buildings pulled closer to a thoroughfare or civic space can be used for more things over time than those further back. Consider the two extremes: buildings built directly on the sidewalk can be almost anything: civic, retail, offices, residential (townhomes), lodging, industrial, or even storage in those inevitable low points all urbanism faces at some points in the future. At the other extreme, a building located at the end of a five-mile driveway is likely to be one of two things: either a very wealthy person’s estate home, or the chemical plant so located that it can blow up and not kill everyone in town. When buildings are adaptable to more uses over time, they usually last longer.
I could go on, as properly designed frontages can influence the lovability and frugality of buildings as well, but you get the picture. Just as a rudder can steer a ship many times its size, nothing steers the prosperity of a town or city like well-designed frontages. Simply put, they are the arteries of urbanism.
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