Neighborhood By Design

Over the Bourne Bridge and down Route 151 a few miles, then a stone’s throw from a weathered wood sign bearing the legend “Land of the Wampanoag,” is the stylish studio apartment Donna Wesley, a 43-year-old pharmacy technician, shares with her husband, Stephen, and their cat, Higgins. It’s Cape Cod, all right. But Wesley isn’t boasting about ocean views or solitude. Instead, as she sits on a sofa in their spare but cozy living room, she fairly gushes about the pleasures of residing in the heart of downtown–or at least it seems like a downtown. After all, Wesley does what urban folk do: She walks to work, she walks to the post office, church, library, restaurants, supermarkets, movie theater, and to Starbucks.

“It’s really nice to wake up at 6 a.m. and go have coffee,” says Wesley, whose apartment is located above a Banana Republic store in Mashpee. When neighbor Kevin Sullivan, a 28-year-old documentary film producer, leaves his windows open, he hears something many Cape dwellers don’t: the street sounds of people talking, laughing, dining. Says Sullivan happily, “It’s almost like a little city.”

And that’s precisely the point. Nearly 130 years after Native Americans established rural Mashpee as the tribal village of the Cape Cod Wampanoags, new pioneers are establishing a very different village here: New England’s first New Urbanist community. Mashpee Commons has been known for years as a shopping destination for tourists. But in May, the one-time strip mall rebuilt as a village-style commercial center opened its first 13 apartments. They are just the start of what is planned as a whole village based on New Urbanist principles–principles that are catching fire across America, redesigning the way communities look and the way people like Wesley and Sullivan live. The movement is even sparking hope in some “old urban” communities. One hundred fifty miles to the west of Mashpee, in the city of Holyoke, plans are underway to replace a failed public housing complex with a new cluster of homes–and to design not just the homes but the neighborhood in a radically different way.

New Urbanism, or neo-traditionalism as it’s also called, in some respects is not new at all. The tenets that define the movement call for building communities that adopt the look and design of older city neighborhoods, places where homes are close together, where people can walk to shop, and where the automobile is tucked in back alleys. Design creates a streetscape of sidewalks and front porches instead of the driveways and garages that often face the street in conventional developments. Consider the sales brochure for Kentlands, a New Urbanist community in Maryland, built by husband-and-wife team Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the movement’s most visible architects who designed the master plan for Mashpee Commons. The brochure copy reads like a monograph of the All-American Hometown as it describes local residents “visiting on their front porches, talking over white picket fences, fishing from the pier at Inspiration Lake, and celebrating at festivals on the village green.” The portrait is so perfect, one wonders, Is this for real?

But the New Urbanism is not just about the look of neighborhoods. It is, perhaps more critically–and more controversially–also about the power of design to influence human behavior. New Urbanists believe designing pedestrian-centered communities will lead residents to experience the everyday interactions, impromptu chats, and human contact that help forge neighborliness and civic bonds. The same sales brochure makes clear the connection: Homes in Kentlands, it reads, “are built close to the street–and close to each other–to encourage friendships.” At its heart, New Urbanism is an attempt to repair the social fabric by repairing the way communities are designed, built–and lived in.

It is a provocative idea. But how much can design dictate behavior? If you build front porches, will people sit on them? Should there be limits on what those who design a place may impose on those who decide to live there? Part of the lure of New Urbanist communities is physical; they look idyllic. The white picket-fenced community that is the backdrop to Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show, for example, is no Hollywood set. It’s Seaside, Florida, the nation’s first New Urbanist development, built more than a decade ago by Duany and Plater-Zyberk. The Walt Disney Company is so trained on appearance in Celebration, Florida, the town it created from pasture and swampland, that residents are told what color curtains may hang in windows and which bushes may be planted in the yard.

The popularity of New Urbanism comes at a time when society–even while grasping at new technologies–wistfully remembers an idealized past, when time moved more slowly and neighbors knew one another. That’s one reason New Urbanism is catching on. At present, about 150 projects are built or under construction across the U.S., according to New Urban News, a newsletter based in Ithaca, N.Y. But as the movement comes to New England, the issues are potentially more complicated. So far, many New Urbanist towns have been built away from existing centers. The question here is: Can New Urbanist communities co-exist beside–or even in the middle of–the real New England villages they aim to replicate?

That question is being asked in Mashpee. The small Cape Cod community is still reeling from two decades of explosive growth and development. But it is now also grappling with plans to create a town-within-a town at Mashpee Commons. Already, Mashpee Commons looks more like a downtown than the strip of Great Neck Road North where the town hall sits virtually alone. The Commons has a post office, town library, church, medical center and is near the police and fire stations. It has two supermarkets and scores of shops–although some complain they are too pricey for most Mashpee residents. To some locals, Mashpee Commons was a fine commercial center. But now that it wants to be a village, they say it threatens to destroy what character and quality of life remains after years of rapid change. Mashpee Commons developer Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr. says his project will improve–not weaken–the quality of community life by creating a place where pedestrians rule and citizens can gather.

If some in Mashpee view New Urbanism with suspicion, people in another part of the state see it as a solution. In Holyoke, New Urbanism is being embraced as the critical first step in rebuilding the frayed economic and social fabric of the inner city, specifically the Churchill neighborhood, where burned-out walk-ups and high poverty rates stand testament to the decline. This winter, city officials will demolish the Jackson Parkway housing project and then begin the job of transforming it, and some surrounding lots, into a new and better neighborhood based on the vision of New Urbanist designer Peter Calthorpe. The old two-story brick public housing units will be replaced with architecturally appealing homes, each with their own street address, front porch, and small yard. What’s more, a majority of the properties will be put up for sale. When work is done, “you will not be able to tell what is public [housing] and what is private,” boasts Raymond Murphy, executive director of the Holyoke Housing Authority.

These two New Urbanist projects–Mashpee Commons and Holyoke’s Churchill neighborhood–are situated worlds apart. One is a rapidly growing Cape Cod community and the other is a deteriorated inner-city neighborhood in Western Massachusetts. But the most appealing goal of New Urbanism is also its most universal: increasing human interaction, trust, and investment. Can it work?

Visions

At the curving corner of Steeple and Market streets, between shops with historic facades and names like Irresistibles and Allusions, a stairway leads to a warren of offices, the Mashpee Commons Limited Partnership. In gazing out a large window, which looks onto the built, and the not-yet-built-but-merely-envisioned, structures, one gets the overwhelming sense of looking into the future. Especially when Arnold Chace and Doug Storrs, Chace’s business partner and childhood friend, are the ones describing the artisan shops and residences that will give way, a little further out, to single-family homes just off in the distance.

With little prompting, Chace, 50, a one-time filmmaker and venture capitalist whose family has owned the property here since at least the 1950s, describes what life in Mashpee Commons will be like someday. He envisions neighbors chatting as they walk to the mailbox, artisans creating finishes for use in Commons construction, the storekeeper who knows when someone is sick or needing help.

“It is really about creating the public spaces that are designed so people have interactions where they speak. It is not that they are flying past each other in their automobiles,” he says. “It is about thinking about the public realm, designing the public realm. That is the room in which community takes place.”

“It is about designing the public realm.”

At present, the “public realm” of Mashpee Commons comprises 40 out of a possible 150 acres of property located near the rotary that brings together Routes 151, 28, and Great Neck Road North and South. In Mashpee Commons there are 92 establishments, including a six-screen movie theater, offices, supermarkets, restaurants, and several chain stores, as well as many independent retailers selling items from salt-water taffy to expensive sweaters. And while Chace and Storrs can easily imagine the future, including four neighborhoods with some 250 residences as well as hotel rooms and more commercial space, it is not so easily built.

The project has been in the works for more than a decade already and promises to take at least another before it is complete. The start of the project dates to 1978 when Chace began redevelopment of the New Seabury Shopping Center, built by his father in the 1960s. But it wasn’t until 1986, after seeing a magazine story about Seaside, Florida, that Chace called Duany and Plater-Zyberk, the Miami architects, visited Seaside, and then hired them to design the master plan for Mashpee Commons. The design is notable because it calls for doing the reverse of other New Urbanist communities by beginning with a commercial center and adding housing later. Already, Mashpee Commons is getting attention as an innovative neighborhood, selected as one of four communities to be featured in a PBS show, “Becoming Good Neighbors: Enriching American Communities By Design,” which will air this fall. When it is complete, Chace hopes Mashpee Commons will be a national model. Says Chace: “Our goal is to have an impact on how the country is working, how we are dealing as we approach the millennium.”

Chace may speak idealistically about creating spaces that encourage community and enhance civic life. But some believe the Commons threatens to destroy what community and quality of life remains. The concern is not unfounded. Mashpee, after all, has been the victim of considerable–and not always well-conceived–development. Mashpee began as a Wampanoag tribal village and until the 1960s members of the tribe held public offices and dominated town life. In 1950, according to figures supplied by Mashpee Town Planner Tom Fudala, 320 of Mashpee’s 438 residents were classified as “non-white.” While the Wampanoag population has remained steady, the white population has soared. Today only about four percent of town residents are Wampanoag. Meanwhile, new residents keep pouring into Mashpee. The town’s population has grown rapidly in recent years. Between the 1980 and 1990 census, it jumped from 3,700 to 7,884. And now the town clerk puts Mashpee’s population at 12,043. “Everybody in town is essentially new,” says Fudala. “There was a traditional community here that has all but been wiped out.”

With growth has come development, including new single-family homes and at least a dozen condominium complexes. This has created serious traffic and environmental problems. Already, according to reports, the Mashpee River is teeming with nitrogen, the result of more and more septic systems. Edward Baker, a member of the Mashpee Environmental Coalition, complains the Mashpee River, known for trout fishing and its historical link to the Wampanoag tribe, is “turning into a cesspool.” B. Jean Thomas, selectman from 1980 to 1988, blames poor zoning in the 1970s and failure to set aside resources to protect the environment for the current problems. “People on the planning board in years past have left us a legacy that Mashpee will never be able to combat,” says Thomas. “Mashpee is a far cry from what it was. In the ’80s Mashpee was raped.”

Such rapid change has made some wary of Mashpee Commons and its New Urbanist promises to enrich–not denigrate–local life. “New Urbanism is a new-speak concept whose time will come and whose time will go,” says Wendy Williams, local resident and author who has written to the editor of the Mashpee Enterprise opposing the Commons. “But the town will still be here. And the people will be stuck living in a town that has been turned into a new Disney World.”

Developments

So, can New Urbanism work on Old Cape Cod? Feelings in town are mixed, trust of developers is hard to come by, and there are real environmental and traffic problems yet to be resolved. So far, there has been vocal opposition to Mashpee Commons, despite the fact that, as Fudala says, “most people have come to accept it as pretty nice, visually.” At the May Town Meeting, Mashpee Commons’s latest request for a zoning bylaw change (to allow Mashpee Commons to divide large lots into smaller ones, letting Chace sell shop owners their stores) was voted delayed until October.

While Chace and Storrs have publicly expressed frustration at such defeats, some complain the two have been so over-enthusiastic as to appear arrogant when residents fail to “get it” and embrace the New Urbanism. Even town officials, some of whom have publicly supported the Mashpee Commons plan, have urged Chace and Storrs to do a better PR job. “It’s a good plan,” David L. Leveille, town selectman and member of the Mashpee Commons Advisory Committee, an ad-hoc group set up to grapple with Commons zoning issues, is quoted as saying in the July 10 issue of the Mashpee Enterprise, “They [the public] just don’t get it.” If Chace and Storrs don’t reach out, he advised them, “What I’m really afraid of is you’ll walk in there in October and get zapped again.”

Getting zapped over zoning issues is a regular challenge to New Urbanists across the country. The very nature of what New Urbanism stands for–packing homes more tightly together, making streets narrower, building commercial and residential properties side by side in some cases–counters the community planning practices, and the zoning laws, of the past half-century.

In aiming to return neighborhoods and communities to pedestrian-centered environments, developers run up against zoning requirements created for an automobile-based society. Car-centered urban design got a big boost from Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, who in the 1930s envisioned the “radiant city” drenched with sun and clean surfaces, an urban environment in which sectors of life–homes, recreation, work, transportation–were segmented into separate regions connected by elevated freeways. Some critics, including University of Maryland architecture professor Roger K. Lewis, view the Congress Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne and the 1933 Athens Charter, embracing Le Corbusier’s vision, as nearly the opposite of the principles espoused by those who created the Congress for the New Urbanism in 1993 and set forth their own principles in a 1996 charter.

It is easy to see Le Corbusier’s influence today: Homes are clustered in suburban developments, while stores are at the other end of town in shopping malls. Parks and public recreation areas are elsewhere and centers for transportation–buses, trains, airports–are still elsewhere. And to get from one to another, of course, one drives. As a result, to build a quality New Urbanist development, “you need substantial changes in zoning in 99 percent of the municipalities around the country,” maintains Rob Steuteville, editor and publisher of New Urban News. In Orlando, he says, a project to redevelop the downtown was met with so many requests for variances by contractors that the city finally voted to re-adopt its old 1926 planning codes.

To build a New Urbanist development, “you need changes in zoning in 99 percent of the municipalities.”

Although the question is, strictly speaking, about zoning–how much and what can be built where–it really speaks to the vision of how people ought to live in a community. Antoinette Brooks, a real estate agent and member of the Mashpee Commons Advisory Committee, says it’s impossible to stop growth in Mashpee. She views Mashpee Commons as an appealing project and says opposition to it is based on ignorance: “This is going to be a wonderful, wonderful place to live. In essence, what they are trying to do is what we absolutely need.” Brooks says there is a dearth of rental apartments, including for retirees. At 57, she says, “I am getting close to the point where I don’t want to drive at night. I want to be where I can walk to church, walk to get a cup of coffee. I would love to get a place up at Mashpee Commons.”

Indeed, MaryAnn Russell of Sandwich was so eager to get her daughter, who is 26, handicapped, and cannot drive, into a Mashpee Commons apartment that she arrived at the open house with a check in hand. “She’s enjoyed being able to pick up and go to the movies without saying, ‘Dad, can you drive me?’ ” Russell says of her daughter. “It doesn’t make you feel very independent when your parents are responsible for every move you make. Now she can get her own haircuts. She can shop for her own clothes.”

For those who live inside the perimeter of Mashpee Commons, the convenience of walking to shop, get a movie, or mail a package is clear. But what of the New Urbanist promise of cozy community? Kevin Sullivan, the documentary film producer, like other tenants interviewed in July, said they hadn’t had much contact with neighbors yet. “Everyone goes their different ways,” he says. “It’s not like I’ve gone out of my way to meet anyone or anyone’s gone out of their way to meet me.”

To be fair, it’s been only a few months and there are only 13 apartments–a very small community. But it’s also worth noting that design may be able to put you next door to someone else, provide a communal laundry room, and put park benches on the streets, but individuals must decide to interact. “The sales pitch is that it’s a traditional village, but you look at it and it is still surrounded by acres and acres of free parking, if you know what I mean,” observes Town Planner Fudala. The transition, clearly, will take time–for Mashpee Commons Limited Partnership as well as its new residents. Sullivan says he was surprised to be awakened at 4 a.m. by a guy operating a leafblower outside his window, spiffing up the streetscape. “When I went to pay my rent I said, ‘This isn’t just a commercial place anymore,'” says Sullivan, who concedes that sometimes he feels like he’s living, not in a neighborhood, but in the middle of a tourist attraction. It’s a common criticsm of New Urbanist communities: They look fake.

That is a challenge to New Urbanists, whose community-building goals depend on achieving a certain visual effect. As Storrs leads a walking tour, he proudly points out New Urbanist design features of a building which, he says, was constructed to look as if it were built and added onto over time instead of how it was actually done: all at once. But as he nears a structure with yellow clapboard siding and white trim, something catches his eye and he does not like it. There are burgundy-colored blinds in the second-floor window. “Those are probably some of the most hideous curtains I have ever seen!” he says. “I’m going to ask them to change those blinds. It does not work with a yellow building.”

It is a small moment, but it makes a big point: New Urbanism is not democratic or organic. Who decides how a village should look? In this New Urbanist community, Storrs gets to decide that burgundy and yellow do not go. That is, even as Mashpee Commons can choose to name a thoroughfare Picabo Street and to dot the sidewalks with bright red phone booths–imported from Great Britain. “They were cheap and fun,” explains Storrs. “You must have some fun!”

High hopes

“Fun,” even in the design sense, has not been a word associated with public housing. Especially not in the Jackson Parkway development in Holyoke, where a number of the 219 units have not been renovated since they were built in 1943, leaving those residents to work in kitchens with no countertops and to use bathrooms with tubs, but no showers.

In fact, nothing about the 12.8-acre complex, made up of 30 two-story brick buildings, seems fun–or even less than depressing. On a pleasant spring afternoon, children draw with sticks in the dirt as a large rusted and swing-less swingset stands like a taunt in the middle of a weedy and litter-strewn green, their “public space.” Still, there are signs here that people want to take pride in their homes: Some have used low fences to mark back yards, spaces they can look after.

What’s most striking about Jackson Parkway, though, is that these units are considered some of the better housing in the Churchill Neighborhood. John Counter, modernization coordinator for the Holyoke Housing Authority, puts it frankly: “The 14-block area outside of Jackson Parkway is absolutely cooked, dilapidated, abandoned buildings and open space from buildings the city demolished years ago.” According to Counter, the total tax owed to the city on buildings in this area is $2.9 million. And outstanding utility bills owed to municipal gas, electric, and water departments exceed the tax debt. The housing in this section of Churchill is so undesirable that half of the available market-rate apartments go unrented at any given time, compared to five percent in other parts of the city.

The issues here are a far cry from those in Mashpee. The debate there is about whether there’s room for New Urbanism in a well-established, if changing, community. Here the hope is that New Urbanism can create community where little remains. At the very least, the shared New Urbanist vision of mixing types and sizes of housing (and therefore incomes of residents) and creating buildings that invite gathering–or even merely being able to see other people walking, talking, living–has something to offer both venues. In Holyoke, as in public housing projects across the country, modern design took away the human scale. The structures built in the 1940s and later do not look like homes, but like, as one federal official has observed, places to “warehouse poor people.”

Learning from past mistakes, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is now administering a program to renovate the nation’s most distressed public housing using New Urbanist philosophies. This new approach is proliferating under the “Hope Six” program (or “Hope VI” in its official HUD designation), which was created in 1993 and has been funded each year by congressional appropriation of about $500 million. HUD describes Hope Six as a “visionary model” that will “build lives and living communities.” “The program works at the physical re-design and transformation of public housing,” HUD literature reads, “but more importantly, through Hope VI, there is a human and spiritual transformation underway.”

The idea of not merely remaking buildings, but rebuilding and supporting the lives of the people who live in them, is at the heart of the program and is why, for example, recipients of Hope Six money must forge bonds with the surrounding community. The overarching idea is to integrate public housing into the community instead of allowing it to be a discrete, stigmatized grouping of structures and people. This is happening now in the redevelopment of the Orchard Park housing project in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood. The redevelopment, supported by Hope Six funding, calls for building new housing, not in an isolated cluster, but “off site” throughout the Roxbury area. “To be honest, when the planning started, the rhetoric of New Urbanism was not as prevalent as it is today. But many of those principles are being practiced at Orchard Park,” says Louise Elving, director of housing development for The Community Builders, attorneys and development consultants to the Boston Housing Authority for the project.

Some veteran planners say New Urbanist ideas are common sense approaches to improving public housing–and not new at all. Joan Goody, of Goody, Clancy & Associates, which redeveloped the Columbia Point housing project in Boston into the mixed-income Harbor Point, doesn’t call herself a New Urbanist. “New Urbanism,” she says, “is not rocket science. Although we have been embraced by the New Urbanists and Harbor Point was the inspiration for Hope Six, what we do is plain old urbanism. The long and the short of it is there are good urban design principles that have been around for a long time that got obliterated in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and misapplied in public housing.”

In Holyoke, they are trying now to undo the recent past. The Holyoke Housing Authority has received $15 million in Hope Six money from HUD. That, combined with other federal, state, and local funds, tax credits–and $11.3 million in money from residents who will be able to buy their homes–is allowing the $44.4 million revitalization to begin. The plan calls for building 272 units of housing which will be integrated into the neighborhood. Streets that now dead-end in the Jackson Parkway project will be extended through. The housing authority also plans to put 172 of the units up for sale to people with incomes ranging from 40 percent below to 115 percent of the area’s median income of $45,500, further increasing stability and a sense of pride in the neighborhood. And as that work begins, private companies like Marken Properties, one of the largest property management firms in Holyoke, are also rehabilitating housing in the Churchill neighborhood. Because lenders want a stable community, executive property manager Ann Berezin says, the public redevelopment has helped them get financing for nearby projects.

The redevelopment is also part psychological. For years this section of Churchill has been a place of last resort, where you went when you couldn’t go anywhere else. Turning it around requires not just new design but new thinking, says Gerry Joseph, director of the Springfield office of The Community Builders, the private, nonprofit group developing Holyoke’s project. “This is really about remarketing and repositioning a neighborhood that has hit bottom,” says Joseph. People need to re-envision these blocks as a neighborhood that is safe and that is somewhere they are proud and happy to live.

To current housing project residents, however, all the lofty hopes of New Urbanism are not even part of the talk. In the spring more than 100 of the 209 families in Jackson Parkway were relocated. All will be gone by mid-fall. It is a move many make reluctantly. Melvin Sanchez, resident services coordinator for Jackson Parkway and a member of the city planning board, says he doesn’t talk to tenants about such New Urbanist amenities as porches and picket fences. “I bring up all the issues they come to me with over the years–the roaches, or that they don’t have hot water,” says Sanchez. For Teresita Colon, 58, who climbs the stairs of the two-bedroom unit she shares with her 32-year-old son and 10-year-old twins she has just adopted, the boys’ bedroom is her source of frustration. “The room is too small,” she says, speaking in Spanish. “I can’t fit the other bed.”

While Sanchez is eager for the new housing, he says the major engine for change will not be New Urbanist design, but helping residents find work that pays a steady and living wage. Right now, 64 of the project’s families are on welfare. “If we just put these people back in these new places, in 10, 15 years we’ll just be back right where we are,” he says. If new residents can get skills–and not just the skill-of-the-month that a particular program is peddling, but something they want to make a career out of–Sanchez believes this place can become a working-class neighborhood.

Such efforts are beginning. As the housing authority plans for the December demolition of old units, Counter says they are setting up a resident-owned business that can help with the job. Instead of discarding bricks, made and baked in nearby Westfield, the business will collect and recycle them for use in the new housing. “Some of it is symbolic,” says Counter. “But it’s also a cheap way to get building material.” In another touch, Counter says they will preserve the 30 mature trees on the property so new construction will look more like an established working-class neighborhood.

Will a more coherent neighborhood result? So far, the housing authority has had difficulty engaging tenants in the project. The talk–and concern–has been focused on them as individuals, not as a group. They worry about where and when they are moving and not what may come as a result. It may be many of these residents don’t return. Joseph says rhetoric about New Urbanism may be better left in the background, at least for now. People who move to Seaside, Celebration, or other high-profile New Urban communities come not just for the design but because they seek community. Joseph cautions that residents here may not have the same communal agenda: “We need to be careful about raising too high expectations that a similar kind of resurgent civic involvement will result from using these New Urbanist techniques in a situation like Holyoke.”

Meet the Author
So can New Urbanism make us better neighbors and more engaged community members? It may be too tall an order for design alone. Then again, it may be too early to tell. What’s clear is that New Urbanism is self-conscious about its role in helping, and not hindering, human interaction. At times, it is perhaps too self-conscious to the point of being inauthentic. At the very least, though, it opens discussion on an important issue: finding ways, not merely of living, but of connecting.

Laura Pappano is a visiting scholar at the Henry A. Murray Research Center at Radcliffe and a regular contributor to CommonWealth. Catherine Malmberg, a Harvard junior interested in New Urbanism, helped research this report.