An Appraisal: Creating a mindset about good urban design

Part 2

Steve Poe’s Moxy hotel on Washington Street is an example of good urban design. | Courtesy of Poe Companies

In reviewing the state of modern architecture in Louisville in Part 1, we examined the challenge and opportunity of the city amid its growing pains. The question we must now ask is, how can we bring back the 19th-century mindset when it comes to urban design?

How do we start to encourage developers to start creating higher quality designs for new hotels, residences and apartment buildings? A lot of the conversation centered on the answer to this question focuses on the creation and enforcement of design standards in Louisville’s Zoning Ordinance.

Stanley Collyer, a journalist and editor of an architectural publication called Competitions, suggests that are some basic elements that could improve the appearance of modern buildings: variety in color and material, creating interesting details around windows or along cornice lines.

Examining how local zoning regulations can be modified to promote such design elements can certainly be a valuable part of the equation, which in theory should ensure some kind of minimum quality in the design of urban buildings.

However, in practice Metro Louisville consistently struggles with sticking to its proverbial guns; projects like the West End Walmart show that, when the economic value of a proposed development is deemed to be big enough, design standards of any kind suddenly become an obstacle to be cleared away.

If Louisville truly wants to build a high-quality urban environment in and around downtown, it has to develop a culture of consistently enforcing the zoning standards created specifically to do just that. We as a city have to stop being afraid to say “no” to a project, no matter how economically valuable, that is proposing a substandard design.

But Louisville should not just be relying on sticks to encourage better urban design; it should be offering carrots as well. The main driver of simple, bland designs is cost; therefore, efforts should be made to reduce the cost of building in Louisville as much as possible.

One method is examining zoning standards that require expensive elements to be included in a project and determining if any should be eliminated. A perfect example of this is minimum parking requirements; parking spaces can be extremely expensive to build, costing anywhere from $5,000 per space for surface lots to as much as $35,000 per space for underground facilities.

As a result, forcing a developer to build them (especially in dense urban areas, where land is scarce and alternative transportation options are plentiful) can add a substantial premium to a project’s final price tag. Building and fire codes can also be a source of unnecessary construction costs if they require expensive materials to be used in new buildings.

Until 2016, the Kentucky Plumbing Code required the use of cast iron pipes in buildings over 45 feet in height; permitting builders to use PVC piping instead undoubtedly had a positive impact on the balance sheets for larger building projects in the state.

Finally, another source of higher construction costs can be development and permit fees; one study of seven California cities found that fees represented 6 percent to 18 percent of the final listing price of an average home. Louisville should comprehensively examine fees charged to local developers and determine if there is any room for lowering them.

Bill Weyland’s Hilton Garden Inn at 4th and Chestnut is a well-designed urban building.

None of these are a direct incentive for better building design but, crucially, lowering construction costs would free up precious room in a project’s budget. Developers could spend this newly freed cash on a more unique or elaborate design for their project and would certainly be less incentivized to seek variances or exceptions from Metro design standards.

However, measures like these can only go so far; Metro design regulations can only get so strict before they start infringing on private property rights, and all the budgetary tinkering in the world cannot incentivize a developer to change the design of his building.

Ultimately, we as a city have to start creating a culture, a mindset where good urban design is the rule, not the exception; the same mindset that guided the builders of all those beautiful warehouses and factory buildings in Lancaster. It’s hard to say where precisely how we do this, but there could be one place where we can start by talking.

Modern mixed-use infill building in Richmond, Va. | Photo by Porter Stevens

Far too often, developers and urbanists have found themselves on opposite sides, be it at a contentious zoning hearing or courtroom battle. If we truly want to start seeing better buildings constructed in Louisville, these two groups need to start speaking to each other in a more meaningful fashion. It doesn’t have to start with something large scale, or overly formal; it can be something as casual as a chat over a beer or (as this is Louisville) bourbon.

But it’s high time the various players in the design and development scene start building a meaningful dialogue so that we can answer the questions central to this debate: What does a “non-generic” building look like? What design elements are consistently missing from new buildings? Is there such a thing as a “Louisville-centric” building or design style? By answering these questions, we can start to create a consensus of how to shape our idea of what “good architecture” looks like in 21st-century Louisville.

On a recent visit home for Thanksgiving, I took a walk with a friend through the historic Schnitzelburg neighborhood, which has been home to a lot of new development activity in recent years.

As we strolled the quiet streets we saw, nestled among the 100-year-old shotgun houses and corner stores, several new structures designed in cutting-edge 21st-century style. It was a bit jarring at first, but the more I looked at the modern building the more I came to appreciate what it was adding to the street it sits on: history.

In addition to many other functions buildings, and the styles in which they are designed, help tell the history of Louisville. From the Georgian style of Locust Grove to the ornate Victorians of Old Louisville to the humble shotguns and bungalows of the early 20th century, the story of how our city has grown and changed over the decades is writ in the architecture found along its streets; why should that story stop at 1940? We should be more open to new architectural styles, as they can add new shapes and colors to the rich tapestry of our city’s built environment.

But accepting new architecture does NOT mean we have to accept bad architecture. We should continue to work and speak out for building designs that are unique and interesting to the eye, that create an open and welcoming environment for pedestrians, and that are designed in a way to elicit pride and respect from the average Louisville citizen.

That, after all, is the ultimate goal: to build a city that we can all be proud of. It’s a goal I think everyone, from architects to planners to developers, share; what’s up for debate is how we get there. But with time, cooperation, and maybe a little bourbon to smooth the way, I believe that we can work together to build a beautiful 21st-century city.  

Corrections: This post has been updated to correct a photo caption. Due to an editing error, the modern building above was incorrectly described as being in the Schnitzelburg neighborhood. The building is in Richmond, Va. It also corrected the occupation of Stanley Collyer.