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Wednesday, April 21, 2010

'Drive In & Drive Out' Condos: Emeryville's Alienating Architecture

'Auto Centric' City Subverts Our Goals

Public Policy Analysis
By Brian Donahue

Emeryville has had a 15 year period of explosive residential growth planned in conjunction with the growth in commercial development that has been going on even longer. The newly approved General Plan calls for more growth in the residential sector albeit at a slower pace than what we've experienced up till now. The use of the word 'planned' should be qualified since only the idea of adding more residences has been considered by the decision makers. The actual type of housing we've been getting has been supplied by the developers themselves with no intervening action on the part of City Hall. The type of housing they've been building has been what they have seen fit to build here in Emeryville; what they've estimated will maximize their profits. City Hall has kept out of their way.

Podium Development
The buzz word heard from city planners at City Hall and around the nation for that matter is 'Smart Growth'. This is the idea that cities should increase in density by 'urban infill', with use of 'mixed use zoning' so as to discourage suburban sprawl; a decidedly unsustainable growth model. Out of this noble concept has arisen a variation on an old idea: the podium development. Essentially, this is a building over a parking garage. What makes it 'smart' is the addition of so called 'liner retail' fronting the sidewalk and shielding the parking garage from view. If the building is housing, this would be called mixed use; a mix of retail and residential in one zone. Much hyperbolic rhetoric flows from planners about this whole concept; flighty talk of activated pedestrian experiences and it's inherent nexus to civic engagement. The problem is it never seems to quite pan out the way it's sold. The reason? Podium development by its very nature has systemic problems that subvert the lofty goals it aspires to. Emeryville's developers for their part have settled on this kind of building as the simplest way for profit maximization.

Drive In, Drive Out Development
This ubiquitous architecture subverts the livability goals of the City of Emeryville by taking pedestrians out of the public realm and by disengaging and estranging the condo dwellers from the greater city. The condos all come with at least one assigned parking space and the residents come and go exclusively by use of the car. These condo developments function like little gated communities, their backs turned away from the town. Some architects, aware of this glaring problem have attempted to ameliorate this civic disconnect by placing some of the units front doors facing the streets like the 'City Limits' project on 67th Street. These doors are not used by their owners since the project was designed for use by cars. There's never a reason to use the front doors and they function as a curiosity like some half remembered archaeological artifact from a bygone era.

Is there another way of building cities that encourages real civic engagement among its residents?

An Alternate Emeryville:
An Architecture Of Civic Engagement
Imagine if we could plan how our city were to look and feel, how it actually worked for the residents. Imagine if we could make a city with full realization of the benefits of the engaging psychology of space. Imagine if the sidewalks were really fully "activated" instead of the empty rhetoric we now get from the developers. Imagine coming home from work and walking a block or two to your front door. You run into friends and neighbors on your short walk, they also are heading home. You stop by a green grocer on the corner and pick up something for dinner, perhaps stopping by the neighborhood florist to pick up a few flowers for the table.

Condos With Real Front Doors
We could have all this by directing developers to build a different type of condo (or apartment) building. It would mean the end of earmarked parking spaces on site for each dwelling. Instead, residents would park at parking structures peppered throughout the city, built and paid for by the developers. These new Emeryville residents would walk a block or two from the parking structures to their front doors, right on the sidewalk, just like how our grandparents used to do, coming home from the street car stop. Each building could have a few parking spaces on site for the elderly or the infirm and a place for temporary parking for drop off. Everyone else would walk. When it's raining, people would learn to use umbrellas. All this new pedestrian traffic would lure real sidewalk retail; in addition to helping civic engagement (and exercise), we would be helping create an economic flowering as well. This new type of building would also dovetail nicely with the regime of Transportation Demand Management (TDM) the city has been touting. This is a mandated set of restrictions the city places on a developer to try to encourage use of alternate transportation by residents. Up till now, TDM's have been competing against development that intrinsically favors car drivers and these mandates haven't worked very well. Since all residents would have to walk the last block or two anyway, more residents might see benefit in not using a car at all opting instead for walking, biking or mass transit.

No More Free Ride For Developers
We would have to stop the politics as usual and embrace a more democratic development model to get there from here. We can't wait for developers to give us this style of housing, after all they've already worked out the best way to maximize their profits and it's this drive in drive out development model they keep pushing. Instead, it's going to take the city council deciding we want a livable city. The council has to take a new path. They need to tell the developers that the old way isn't working for us, the residents. The developers are going to have to accept the new awakening in Emeryville. Instead of two dollars of profit, they're only going to make one dollar of profit. The old ways of the decision makers giving away the store are coming to an end.

If we build less alienating residences then everybody wins, even those who don't live at the new condos. With a more connected and engaged citizenry, other aspects of life in Emeryville improves as well, the schools, the business sector and the government. All this far reaching civic improvement can be attained by the very simple policy of forcing people to walk a block or two through the neighborhood by not putting parking in the condo buildings. To those who might think this idea too radical, remember, this is how all cities were built for generations. The idea that cars should be incorporated into the buildings is relatively new. Our grandparents built cities like this, they used front doors. It's time we take the good ideas they left for us and incorporate them into a new ethic on how to build livable cities ourselves.


  1. Interesting proposal! You should make sure the council reads this.

  2. Sounds more like you are pissed the residents don't have to pass by the stores and shops on their way home.

  3. This is quite a thoughtful essay. I think you've made some very good points but I can't see this happening in Emeryville, at least not now. I think the die is cast here and we'd have to have a real shake up at city hall to turn towards a more pedestrian friendly environment as you have so well espoused .

  4. Can you offer some examples of existing developments with front doors that are functional? Perhaps post some photographs?

  5. There are many examples of this kind of urban housing.

    First is the apartment/condo building model and these are common in most any large city. They are usually older buildings built before the mass transit/pedestrian city planning paradigm was highjacked by automobile interests, starting in the fifties.

    Another example, the townhouse type, perhaps better suited for Emeryville is the Brooklyn brownstone model. The difference there is that there are no public parking garages peppered throughout that city. This being California, with its auto dependency, we would probably be better off with the garages. It's still too difficult to get by completely without a car in California.

  6. Thanks for a thought-provoking post. If the auto has taken 50 years to overtake our culture, how long do you think it will take to reclaim it? Better to start now, at any rate, than to wait another 50 years.

    Other ideas for making Emeryville less car-centric: prohibit overnight street parking or put parking meters on residential streets. But probably it's more effective to hold off on mandatory measures until more people are aware of the problem. Think of anti-smoking ordinances, which wouldn't have gotten off the ground a generation or two ago (when my high school had a smoking room), but which now are popular and effective.

    How to change people's minds? We need to learn how dispensable the car really is. When I first moved to Emeryville, I had no idea that I'd soon be ditching my car. But once here I found that walking, biking, and public transit were so convenient, I finally tired of taking care of the car and got rid of it. Since then I've found that I save about $4000 a year by not owning a car. That was a pleasant surprise, and that realization in itself might be enough to change some minds.