Cities can build community if leaders dare to dream.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
No one strives for alienation and isolation. All of us (well, most of us) crave community and connection—the fabric of relationships that give life meaning and a sense of joy.
You’d think we’d create places to live that nourish connections, build neighborhoods and bring people into relationship.
So why don’t our cities reflect that? Far-flung subdivisions do not communities make, especially when you factor in long commutes to work (because it’s too expensive to live near our jobs) and the routine necessity of driving to buy basic necessities, from a loaf of bread to a pair of socks.
I’m bemused by the endless debate over the Monterey County General Plan, with advocates on both sides invoking “affordable housing” as a rationale for whichever version they favor. By definition, building on rural land isn’t going to create affordable housing. The densities are too low because the services aren’t there.
If you want affordable housing, and hunger for real communities, you don’t convert rural land into low-density subdivisions. You redevelop cities with intention—to create the types of neighborhoods that foster connection, and meet real community needs.
You don’t have to create mini-Manhattans to make a big difference. And you don’t have to look far to find some great examples.
Start with Monterey, the historic heart of the Monterey Peninsula, the place where people come to work, to shop and to play. It’s not an accident. The city developed two centuries ago with its civic spaces close to homes and workplaces.
Today, it encourages high-density development on major corridors like Lighthouse Avenue and Alvarado Street, with affordable housing upstairs, and shops and offices below. The people are customers for the businesses, can walk, bike or take the bus because it’s more convenient than jumping in their car.
Think this is only possible for cities with the advantages of history on their side? Consider Sand City, which made no one’s list of cities that work 20 years ago. Now it’s home to a thriving arts community—the kind that existed in Carmel 75 years ago—where artists live and work in studios converted from old warehouses or built to order, a trend actively encouraged by the city.
And there’s a just-completed four-story design center, with affordable housing (by Peninsula standards) on the upper floors and offices for design professionals below—all within walking or biking distance of basic services, and close to public transit.
Or look to the what’s happening at East Garrison, the development project on Fort Ord land that includes a planned town center and Arts Habitat (more live-work studios) at its core.
These are urban visions worth embracing. And they’re great models for what other cities can accomplish, if they dare to dream. Consider a few possibilities.
South Main Street, Salinas: Before the Age of the Mall, this was the “new” commercial district. Post-Northridge, it has languished. But it holds such promise. Imagine three- or four-story buildings with upper floors devoted to modestly priced condominiums and apartments. That would create foot traffic and customers for ground-floor retailers and restaurants, and a neighborhood community long after the high school students and office-workers have gone home. Add in the fact that you’d be building demand for existing bus service, and you’ve begun to build a real city. Salinas has the vision in place for Oldtown—including high-rise towers for condominiums and a hotel. It’s a grand urban vision, if they can get a developer to embrace it.
Fremont and Broadway, Seaside: Nearly 20 years ago, Seaside began encouraging builders to go higher, with housing on the upper floors of commercial projects. Maybe they need more incentives to make it happen on a broader scale. The new City Center project was a missed opportunity, but there’s abundant undeveloped or underdeveloped land along Broadway and Fremont to house the people who can create the vibrant street scene that marks a true urban neighborhood. In an era of rising gasoline prices, it will ultimately be a magnet for new urban dwellers who realize that they can improve their quality of life dramatically when they can walk and bike rather than drive.
Pacific Grove’s Holman Building: Ever since the five-story department store closed, it’s been a tower of potential. Why not create live-work spaces for artists, and galleries down below?
You can find examples like these in every city in the county. Each offers potential for higher density without sprawl, for creating communities that connect us. It’s a dream worth pursuing.
KEN PETERSON is Communications Director Of The Monterey Bay Aquarium.