The pedestrian friendly new Dunkin' Donuts in the Mid-City Mall parking lot hugs Bardstown Road. (Click to enlarge.)

By Doug Stern, Doug Stern Marketing Communications and Strategy

The March 23 opening of a Dunkin’ Donuts store in Louisville’s Highlands means a lot more than way-too-easy access to Boston Cream doughnuts. (The greatest blessing with which I’ve ever been cursed.)

The company’s investment means more than jobs and more than another sign of commercial health in one of the city’s most lively and livable neighborhoods.

In addition to all of that, the new Dunkin’ Donut store speaks volumes about the state of urban design and architecture in 21st Louisville and beyond. It tells us a lot about what we do – and don’t do – to encourage economic vitality when we build. The little store offers clues about how we add to life to the street, making it easier and more attractive to get out of our cars, to gather on foot and to interact with one another face to face – something I believe we’ve been wired to do since forever.

The tale of two eras

The architectural significance of the new Dunkin’ is clearer when you compare it to the nearby Dairy Queen store, the product of an earlier era just a few yards away in the parking lot the two buildings share in front of Mid City Mall on Bardstown Road.

At first glance, the two buildings seem to have a lot in common. Both are about the same square footage, one story in height and clad in stucco-looking panels with brick bases. It may just be me, but I also see a hint of classical architecture in the buildings’ flat roofs and corner pilasters.

The Dunkin’, however, hugs the street. It’s sited right on the sidewalk, much like its predecessor on the site, a walk-up/drive-through banking kiosk. Dunkin’ has a canopied and framed entrance topped by the brand’s slanted, stylized pediment, and its slightly asymmetrical façade alternates big storefront windows with solid walls. Dunkin’s drive-through stays in the back, and there’s a tiny al fresco patio to one side.

In a nutshell, the new Dunkin’ store’s details and massing do a good job of matching up with the prevailing, early-20th century commercial architecture of many of its Bardstown Road neighbors.

The DQ, on the other hand, sits back from the street, surrounded by cars and asphalt. Its drive-through window is along one side, which most customers get to by driving completely around the building. The two pedestrian entrances face Bardstown Road but are tucked around to the sides and pushed back a bit.

The neighboring Dairy Queen is surrounded by asphalt. (Click to enlarge.)

The older store’s façade is a full-width, uninterrupted span of big windows, with shrubs and parking between it and the sidewalk.

In other words, the two buildings tell the tale of two architectural eras. The Dairy Queen, with all due respect, was the product of a time dominated by the private car, a far more suburban aesthetic with less regard or understanding of the needs of older, well-established urban places – such as Louisville’s Highlands area. The Dunkin’, on the other hand, is from a far different urban design tradition, one that gives a nod to the slower pace and greater density of lots of people on foot.

Some context

I can think of a couple of explanations for the Dairy Queen/Dunkin’ Donuts dichotomy.

For starters, the appearance of the new Dunkin’ was the result of a local design review process. Since about 1990, construction projects along the Baxter Avenue-Bardstown Road commercial corridor have been held to a set of exterior design guidelines originally enacted by a Louisville Board of Aldermen ordinance.

These do’s and don’ts deal with the use of materials, the shape of roofs, placement of the building on the site and the like.

Over the 20-plus years since then, a professional staff and a volunteer design review committee have vetted the bigger projects along the corridor. These include major demolitions, big remodelings or construction of new buildings.

According to Bob Keesaer, Metro Louisville’s project architect in charge of the process, about 150 major projects have gotten a detailed, public design review.

The roots of this Baxter Avenue-Bardstown Road Overlay District go back to the mid-1970s, when both Louisville and Jefferson County adopted historic preservation statutes. Each created commissions, standards and processes to identify and protect individual landmark sites as well as whole preservation districts through a design review process similar to the overlay district.

At the latest count, Metro Louisville claims seven locally protected historic districts, big and small – such as Old Louisville, Cherokee Triangle and the Parkland Business District – comprising thousands of structures. The 81 individually designated sites span a wide range, from the Thomas Jefferson-designed Farmington to the quirky Twig and Leaf.

The proof is in the … well, donut

Despite occasional griping, the value of design review – whatever its source – has become part of doing business in most communities. After a generation’s worth of architectural guidelines and oversight in the greater Louisville area, most businesses and property owners – particularly the ones who have been through the process – understand that the pluses far outweigh any minuses.

Dunkin’ Brands Inc. isn’t complaining. In fact, the Camden, Mass., parent company for Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins regards being a good neighbor as part of its brand. According to its website, Dunkin’ Brands has invested in children’s health and wellness projects in its markets, developed more nutritious menus and healthier portions, and rolled out a LEED-certified prototype store in St Petersburg, Fla.

Scott Morris is on board, too. He’s the franchisee and developer of Louisville’s new Dunkin’ store, having moved to town a couple of years ago from Great Britain by way of Western Kentucky. (His wife’s a native of the Bluegrass State.)

“Our neighbors are our customers,” Morris said, explaining that going through the additional layer of design review on Bardstown Road was worth it. He points out that his company, Pace Development, is locally owned, and “we live here.” That includes some family in the Highlands.

Overall, the design review took about 14 months, including ironing out the technical concerns of the public works department about the layout of the store’s drive-through. Even before that, Morris explains, he spent a lot of time studying the neighborhood and how it works. “We’re happy with the way the store turned out.”

Morris summed up the results of the process on the design of the store by saying, “It looks great.”

Tom Owen sees things the same way. The metro council member took office New Year’s Day, 1990, right after the statute was passed by the old Board of Alderman creating design review for the Baxter Avenue-Bardstown Road commercial corridor, stretching the 3.05 miles from Phoenix Hill Tavern to the Bambi Bar. He is quick to credit his aldermanic predecessor, Linda Solley, for engineering the ordinance.

As Owen puts it, “Every great city in the world recognizes the importance of the interplay between the places we build, their surroundings and the people who inhabit them.

“People want the ability to look out, wave to someone walking by and have that person wave back. It’s the way the Creator intended.”

The Dunkin’ does this. It recognizes that the pedestrian vitality of Bardstown Road helps set the neighborhood apart, culturally and economically. The new store settles into its surroundings like a good neighbor, using its height, materials, siting and other details to create the impression that it belongs.

It’s part of a generation of local buildings – in the Highlands and elsewhere in Louisville and Jefferson County – that look and function differently than their predecessors. Buildings such as…

Highland Cleaners at Edgeland

Taco Bell near Grinstead

The two Walgreen’s pharmacies at Trevilian and at Hepburn

Kroger’s near Trevilian

Heine Bros. Coffee at Eastern Parkway, or

The Valvoline across the street

In fact, the people-friendly, character-enhancing design principles pioneered by the landmarks commission and our two overlay districts (buildings in the Central Business District are also subject to exterior design review) have been embedded in the local development code for the entire metro area. I’m seeing Dunkin’ Donut’s traditional-looking, pedestrian-friendly style show up in recent commercial projects throughout Jefferson County.

What do all of these buildings have in common? Why will the new Urban Outfitters store, for example, have a door on Bardstown Road, instead of only around the side, facing its parking lot?

A ballet

The answer is because these projects and dozens of others like them all put people and the walkable, people-oriented quality of our surroundings first. They all demonstrate an appreciation for the value – economic and otherwise – of good design.

Each of them is not only congruent with the prevailing scale, materials and density of what’s around them, but they also encourage life on the street. Or, as the great Jane Jacobs described it, these buildings “promote social and economic vitality.”

Here’s how Jacobs explained the importance of life on the street – the kind being promoted by the new Dunkin’ store and others like it. It’s long, but read it anyway.

Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city.

It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.

The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.

Jacobs wrote those words in 1961. With them and her seminal book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” she turned the world of planning and architecture upside down. Jacobs and a handful of other planners, architects and critics began to chip away against the rigid sterility of Modernism. They argued against neighborhood-busting highways and the loss of what makes cities more livable, sustainable and – at times – messy.

They were – as we know all too well in Louisville – often too late. Nevertheless, Jacobs planted the seeds of historic preservation and a more humane way to choreograph our built environment.

A half century after “Death and Life,” the Dunkin’ Donuts store was born.

About Doug Stern: Doug Stern is a Louisville-based business writer-editor who can explain the difference between Richardsonian Romanesque and Queen Anne architecture.