The New Starting Point for Retail

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Sam Mouzon inside his Dinner Bell Barbecue food cart in Portland, Oregon, moments after opening for the first time

Dinner Bell Barbecue on opening day


   Burdening most new Main Streets with building the “climax condition” of 3-5 story buildings in the beginning is a poor choice in all but the most robust places, but going back to 1-story masonry buildings isn’t enough; the new starting point for retail should be the food cart. I recently returned from the NTBA Spring Roundtable, where there was great discussion on many things, including the future of retail. The single-crew workplace is the new high standard.

neighborhood grocery in Beaufort, South Carolina with flag unfurled in soft morning light, with proprietor's home tucked just behind

single-crew grocery in Beaufort, South Carolina serves a

neighborhood that would otherwise have been a food desert

   For a grocery, it’s one grocer in 500-800 square feet selling just the basic commodities like tomatoes, cabbage, spinach, one type of hot sauce, one brand of mustard, etc. For a restaurant, it’s one cook and one server. For the smallest possible B&B, it’s one person who’s clerk, cook, and housekeeper for four rooms. For the next size up, it’s one housekeeper for eight rooms and one clerk/cook. For a bar, it’s one bartender. For a coffee shop, it’s one barista. For a barber shop, it’s one barber.

American flag waving in the sea breeze of Seaside, Florida just in front of white clapboard post office

Seaside’s iconic post office at the heart of

Central Square

   We’ve seen great examples for years, like at Seaside, Florida, but keep getting charmed by the retail experts who base their projections on standard sprawl paradigms. Their arguments are compelling: “If you want to compete, these are things the market expects.” And they’re exactly right if you’re hoping to attract national retailers like Applebee's, Walmart, Bass Pro Shops, TGI Fridays, Walgreen, Best Buy, McDonald's, Publix, and the like. The problem is that if you want to compete in that arena, you’re committed to sinking millions into your infrastructure before seeing a dollar of return. Since 2008, that hasn’t been a very good approach for most of us. New retail centers would do well to compete in a very different arena.

   Here’s another side of the problem with sprawl expectations: if you listen to the retail experts, you can’t even build a corner store until you have 600 rooftops. Seaside would never have achieved that because there will never be that many houses there, yet Seaside has become a thriving regional center. There are two secrets: Appeal to customers beyond your own rooftops, and start impossibly small with your shops, like Seaside did. A single-crew workplace makes many things possible today which are impossible until decades later using the retail experts’ standards.

night lights glisten on the corrugated canopy roofing of Dinner Bell Barbecue food cart in Portland, Oregon, with window shutters glowing red just below

Dinner Bell Barbecue the night before opening for the first time

   Our son Sam started Dinner Bell Barbecue recently in Portland, Oregon for amazingly less than you could ever start a bricks-and-mortar store. A conventional restaurant is at least an order of magnitude higher; usually much more. I’ve seen $100K vent hoods in my previous life as a small-town architect, so it’s really easy to spend a million dollars (in 1990s money) to start a restaurant.

   In Sam's food cart pod, all of the food carts share a single toilet facility, and all utilities except electrical (which is overhead) gets piped around underneath the food carts. No, it’s not the most convenient, but yes, it’s highly frugal. This model is the future of inaugural retail in most places. If you’re going to CNU in Seattle, consider a side-trip to Portland to see this. It’s amazingly Lean. And food carts contribute substantially to Walk Appeal because your view changes every 10 feet or less, and often in very interesting and colorful ways.

   Andrés Duany has been saying for several years that we need to scale back the inaugural condition of town centers, and Seaside’s Perspicasity and the Airstream shops courtesy of Daryl Davis have painted the picture of the future of retail for years. Why are we so slow to catch up?


   ~Steve Mouzon

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How Fire Chiefs & Traffic Engineers Make Places Less Safe

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Water Street in Celebration, Florida centers on a canal flanked by flowering water plants, with a bridge arching over the canal in the distance.

All images in this post are from Celebration, Florida where scenes like this could soon look very different if the deputy fire chief and traffic engineer get their way.


   Of all the urbanism specialists with tunnel vision, fire chiefs, fire marshals, and traffic engineers are probably the most dangerous. And by “dangerous,” I don’t just mean that they’re a threat to good urbanism; they also get people killed, which is exactly the opposite of what they are commissioned to do. A classic example of their silo thinking is playing out right now in Celebration, Florida, where the proposed measures of eliminating on-street parking spaces and eliminating street trees will almost certainly leave Celebration a less safe place than it is today.

   Let’s look at things from both a common-sense perspective and a data-driven perspective. Getting rid of street trees does some really bad things for safety: First, it eliminates the first line of defense for those who are walking or biking on the sidewalk (when the streets are too dangerous for biking). A car crashing into a tree at 35 miles per hour will deploy the airbags, but the driver and passengers will likely walk away with little more than bruises. But a car traveling 35 miles per hour that crashes into someone who is biking or walking will likely kill them. Higher speed = more deaths and injuries.

young girl on bicycle with pink-rimmed wheels cycles by Celebration, Florida market hall

Two groups injured and killed most often are

the young (because they’re small) and the

elderly (because they’re fragile).

   People adjust their driving according to the conditions around them. On a tree-lined street, people tend to drive slower because they don’t want to hit a tree if they lose control of their car and run off the road. Lower speed = fewer deaths and injuries.

   There’s another problem with removing street trees: They make a huge difference between walking and driving in places that are hot in the summer (like Orlando). A canopy of street trees not only eliminates the strong radiant heat of the sun with its shade, but also cools you even further with the trees’ respiration, which has a similar effect to a cool mist. With a cooling canopy of street trees, most people walk well up into the 90s. With a hot sun beaming down, those same people rarely walk, even in the low 80s. But there’s another problem: humans get conditioned to everyday behavior, so when treeless streets condition them not to walk on moderately hot days, driving becomes their norm. And when you increase driving, you increase crashes and traffic deaths.

   There are even more reasons not to eliminate street trees, but that’s another story for another day, because it doesn’t involve safety. On-street parking is equally essential to safety, and for even more reasons. As a matter of fact, on-street parking and street trees top the list of things cities should increase on streets if they’re interested in increasing the safety of their citizens. To be clear, the prime benefit of these two elements is getting people out of their cars because they prefer to walk to their daily needs. The two extremes are places where everyone drives (suburban sprawl) and places where everyone walks (European towns and villages). Where everyone drives, there are huge numbers of deaths per year because of crashes. In most places where everyone walks, nobody has ever died due to running into someone else.

park benches overlook canal in the middle of Water Street in Celebration, Florida.

Imagine this scene with all the trees cut down and cars driving

a lot faster.

   Walking to daily needs is therefore the safe ideal; it’s stunning that the deputy fire chief and traffic engineer seeking to ruin Celebration don’t realize this. Here are the minutes of a recent meeting that illustrate their blindness to these facts. Note also how the officials talk out of both sides of their mouths. At one point, it sounds like they only want to remove one parking space closest to the end of each block, but when pushed, there are actually several entire streets where they want to remove all on-street parking.

   This kind of double-speak is often found at the Department of Transportation. When the Flamingo Park Neighborhood Association was fighting the Florida DOT over the safety and character of Alton Road, the DOT finally agreed to put a landscaped median in the middle of Alton. But just before construction began, they released their final drawings showing that the “median” was actually two half-block-long turn lanes with one ridiculous palm tree in the middle of the block, where the turn lanes switched from one side to the other! In good DOT fashion, it was a classic case of “too soon to know” switching instantly to “too late to change.” I’m an optimist on most things, but I fear this tactic may be used to wreck Celebration.

white-columned front porch in Celebration, Florida with flowing white curtains overlooking shady sidewalk

shady Celebration sidewalk

   On-street parking does several good things, and its alternative (on-site parking lots) does nothing good. Google “sea of parking.” Are any of the hits positive? Of course not; a sea of parking is dreadful on all counts. Beyond the obvious ugliness, they heat the microclimate by absorbing solar radiation and heating the air above them. Heating the microclimate makes walking uncomfortable and so people drive, even if the parking lot is out of sight. More driving = more crashes and more deaths and injuries.

   “But what about on-street parking,” you might ask? “That’s paving, too.” Yes, it is, but it’s a lot less paving. Parking lots need travel lanes between the parking spaces. A 65’ wide perpendicular parking bay has two 18’ parking spaces and a 29’ travel lane. On-street parking needs no extra travel lane because the street itself is the travel lane. So off-street parking requires almost twice as much asphalt and destroys almost twice as much green space as on-street parking, heating the microclimate almost twice as much, discouraging walking and encouraging driving. More driving = more crashes and more deaths and injuries.

   If parking lots were all put in the middle of the block, it would do less damage to the urbanism because it wouldn’t be visible from the street. Unfortunately, parking is far too often put in front of the building, just behind the sidewalk. If the street is heavily traveled, this creates the dreadful W0 Walk Appeal condition where people simply do not walk unless their car breaks down. Parking lots in front kill walking and increase driving. More driving = more crashes and more deaths and injuries.

Celebration, Florida sidewalk cafe flanked by thick palm trees

Celebration sidewalk cafe protected by street trees

   On-street parking makes sidewalk cafes possible. It would be insane to have lunch sitting at a table where cars were zipping by at an almost-certain-death 35 miles per hour just a foot from your elbow. But with cars parked alongside the street, moving traffic is much less of a threat. Sidewalk cafes are both the highest indicator and the highest single stimulus of Walk Appeal, which is the best indicator of places where people walk more and drive less. To make a place safe, we need more of them. I haven’t done the research yet (that’s for a later post), but there’s a strong likelihood that places with many sidewalk cafes have fewer deaths by automobile per capita than those with none. Less driving = fewer deaths by automobile.

   Walk Appeal is the strongest indicator of the likelihood of success of neighborhood businesses in walkable places. When businesses succeed in walkable places, more neighbors patronize them on foot and people drive less. Less driving = fewer deaths by automobile.

Water Street canal in Celebration, Florida

Without street trees, asphalt on the street on

the left would be soaking up heat all day long,

and therefore heating up everything

around it.

   Similar to street trees but even more powerful, on-street parking (especially diagonal parking) reduces driving speed. The possibility of a parallel-parked car opening a door in front of you subconsciously slows you down; the possibility of a diagonally-parked car backing out in front of you does so even more effectively because that would be a worse crash than just knocking someone’s doors off. If a car strikes you traveling 20 miles per hour, you’ll likely suffer some bumps and bruises and maybe a broken bone or two; if a car strikes you traveling 40 miles per hour, I hope you have your things in order, because your family and friends will be burying or cremating you in a few days. The US DOT is the source of this information (scroll down to the Vehicle Impact Speed vs. Pedestrian Injury chart). Lower speed = fewer deaths and injuries.

   It is insane that most traffic engineers don’t understand this! And their prejudice against safer design is cooked right into their standards: the AASHTO Geometric Design of Highways and Streets (the "Green Book,” which is the bible of traffic engineering), uses the Level of Service (LOS) system where streets are rated from A to F with A being best and F being worst, like grades in school. Here’s the problem: LOS A is the free flow of traffic at the highest speeds (most deadly), while LOS F is a slow-moving traffic jam (safest). Speed kills… especially if you’re walking or biking. Higher speed is OK if you’re driving on an expressway through the countryside, but it’s decidedly not OK if you’re driving in a city or town. To be blunt, the Green Book standards have probably killed hundreds of thousands of people in towns and cities. It’s deadly. Put a less dramatic way, the Green Book is great for highways in the country, but not for in-town streets. For that, you need Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares, a design manual jointly created by the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE) and the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). Sadly, many traffic engineers have apparently never heard of it, even though it reduces deaths and injuries in town, while the Green Book increases deaths and injuries in town by speeding up traffic. Higher speed = more deaths and injuries.

people walking the shady streets of Celebration, Florida on a sunny spring morning

The deputy fire chief never actually said “cut the trees down.” He

just said to remove them. But there’s no way you could move trees

like these with any chance of them surviving.

   This brings up another problem: eliminating on-street parking makes wider travel lanes. Of all the factors affecting travel speed, there is none more reliably calibrated than lane width. People behave differently in different settings. 9-foot travel lanes induce all but the idiots to drive no more than about 20 miles per hour. It’s important to note that you can never design for the idiots, because there’s no way to predict what someone will do when they’re in an irrational state of mind. On 10-foot travel lanes, people tend to drive 20-30 miles per hour. 11-foot travel lanes should only be used on the highest-speed thoroughfares in town, where there is good protection (like high levels of on-street parking) for people walking. 12-foot travel lanes are Interstate lanes, and we all know how fast people drive on the Interstate. In town, 12-foot travel lanes should be called “death lanes.” Higher speed = more deaths and injuries.

   Now, let’s look at some numbers. And this is just the first in a data-driven series of posts. It looks broadly at nationwide numbers for general trends. Later, we’ll compare urban form: cities with tight-knit traditional urbanism versus cities built mostly of sprawl. From a fire perspective, one would think that the USA, built mostly of modern buildings on broad streets where large fire trucks can turn easily and where most buildings are built to modern fire codes, would perform far better than European countries, which are burdened with medieval urbanism, with narrow, cranky streets and small-pipe water. Here are the recent facts, all from 2007 (the last year for which I was able to get data for all these nations):

Celebration, Florida Art Deco post office bathed in morning light overlooking plaza

The post office is one of many walkable

destinations at Celebration. If walkability

is damaged and more people drive, there’s

probably not enough parking for them all.

   Fire deaths per million citizens:

   USA: 12.4

   France: 9.8

   UK: 7.6

   Spain: 5.2

   Italy: 4.2

   So US fire deaths are over 20% higher than the highest of the Western European countries selected and almost triple the deaths in Italy. I wasn’t cherry-picking; I chose the most populous countries in Europe nearest the US. Germany, for example, is substantially lower than Italy.

   So the wealthiest country in the sample with the most modern buildings performed worst on fire deaths? Meanwhile, the other countries have buildings hundreds of years older, serviced by cobbled-together electricity and built on streets so narrow that many of them would be considered alleys in the US performed substantially better? How can this be? I’ll post later on the details of fire risk and urban form, but unless the Europeans are fantastically smarter than Americans and have much better reaction time, how else do you explain this huge discrepancy other than as a product of urban form? I suspect the primary cause of this difference that is costing over a thousand American lives per year is the difference in urban form.

   It only makes sense that places requiring four times as many miles of streets per person (or more) would be harder to protect, even if the streets are wider and allow faster fire truck travel. If that’s the case, fire departments should be celebrating places with traditional urbanism like Celebration, and bending over backwards to support that urban form (including buying smaller fire trucks) because it makes them look better by being substantially safer. Instead, they’re punishing traditional urbanism and trying to damage it enough to bring it back to the unsafe standards of American sprawl.

   It gets worse. Let’s look at those same five nations through the lens of death by automobile. If traffic engineers touting Level of Service standards were to be believed, the US should be the safest nation because more of our thoroughfares have been built to these modern standards. Meanwhile, Europe with its narrow, cranky streets should be really unsafe. Here are the facts, all from 2014 or 2015:

park bench under the shade of gnarled live oak tree in Celebration, Florida

Every comfortable destination that becomes uncomfortable by

cutting the trees down becomes one more reason not to get out

and walk. Things like this park bench help build a stronger culture

of walking in the community.

   Deaths by automobile per million citizens:

   USA: 119.7

   Italy: 55

   France: 52

   Spain: 36

   UK: 28

   So the US, purportedly the safest nation according to accepted standards, is actually the worst in this sample, and by a large margin! The most unsafe nation in the sample other than the US is Italy, where it’s standard practice to pass a car on a highway approaching a hilltop beyond which you cannot see, and Italy is more than twice as safe as the US. The safest country in the sample is the UK, which is more than four times as safe! If you average the non-US nations (42.75 deaths/million) and take the difference between that and the US multiplied by our population, then the logical conclusion is that our traffic engineering standards are killing about 23,000 people per year in the US! As with fire standards, traffic engineers should be embracing traditional urbanism with open arms because it saves so many lives per year!

   On the divide between traffic safety and fire safety, consider this: if you only count deaths by automobile of people walking and people cycling, that’s 19.4 per million in the US, which is almost 50% more than the egregious 12.4 per million deaths by fire in the US each year. To be really blunt, if every fire department in the US closed up shop and dedicated themselves to reducing deaths of people walking and biking to zero, 2,100 lives would be saved in the US every year. Over my lifetime of 57 years, 119,700 people we’ve buried or cremated would have lived instead, with not a single fire station open in the US. To be clear, I’m not advocating for that. What I am advocating for is for fire chiefs and fire marshals to open their eyes and realize that when they do something in the interest of fire safety that damages walking and biking safety, they’re likely killing people!

   Look, I understand that neither the deputy fire chief nor traffic engineer overseeing Celebration are evil people, intent on killing their neighbors. And I hope both of them are reading this. It’s likely that you guys got into your lines of work at least in part because you’re interested in helping people, and making them safer. But the standards of your specialties, because they focus so tightly on just a few specialized metrics like LOS are actually killing and maiming people, destroying families, and causing uncounted grief. Your ideals are not wrong; your ideals are good. It’s your standards that are egregiously wrong, and causing much suffering. Do the right thing, and reconsider your standards. Let Celebration live, and may each of you stand as change-makers against unsafe regulations. Make places safer in real life, not in your tiny silos. The time is now.


   ~Steve Mouzon

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Great Storefronts

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bicycle rider leaning into his turn off French Quarter street thronged by visitors, with green-sheathed cast iron galleries in the distance


   It may come as a surprise, but few things in walkable places are stronger predictors of the vitality of a town or neighborhood center than the quality of its storefronts. Centers in the US normally gather around a Main Street or square. European centers often gather around a plaza, place, piazza, High Street or (again) a square. But whatever it’s called and however it is shaped, the life of the center is fueled more by the quality of its storefronts than by any other factor. Auto-dominated commercial strips, by contrast, are fueled most by two things: their tall pylon signs, and tall architectural elements such as towers at the corners of mid-box buildings which are designed to attract attention quickly from motorists speeding by. Big-box buildings, of course, are their own massive billboards. But back to walkable places...

deep green London storefront with brick building above glowing orange in the sunlight of a late winter afternoon.

   Go into any neighborhood and walk down a primarily residential street, and you’ll likely find relatively few people walking, even if it’s after work. But good neighborhood centers are often thronged with neighbors after work. A few of the people on the residential streets are walking to a neighbor’s house, but most of them are walking to the neighborhood center. The primary job of the residential street is to collect them and to entertain them enough along the way that they don’t get bored before arriving at the neighborhood center.

   Think of the primarily residential streets as the opening act to the main event that is the town or neighborhood center. Streets leading to the center should have enough Walk Appeal to be interesting so that people keep walking; the center itself should be positively entertaining in order to entice enough people that it becomes a vibrant place.

French Quarter intersection with bicyclist and driver negotiating right-of-way, serenaded by street musician sitting against the corner building

   Entertainment begins at the storefront, and the reason why is primarily geometry. As you walk along the sidewalk, the views that change most quickly are those into the storefronts beside you. Every five to eight seconds, you can walk past another shop, with its unique selection of wares on display. Entertainment is the opposite of monotony, and changing the view frequently is essential to avoiding monotony. All of the places shown in this post are in metropolitan areas that have districts built of larger buildings, but fewer people walk there except at starting time and quitting time of the offices because large office buildings are much less interesting because it can take a minute or more to walk by some of them.

London shop with deeply-set bays on upper levels glows in late afternoon sun as pedestrians stroll by

   People don’t come to the center solely for an entertaining walk, of course; they usually have a reason to visit one or more of the shops. So uses do matter, and the the more frequently-visited businesses like a grocery or a third place (coffee shop, bistro, cafe, pub, or restaurant where you can bring your laptop or tablet and hang out for awhile) draw people more frequently than a shoe store, for example. The difference is that if the walk is boring or the storefronts in the center are boring, they’re more likely to drive to the shop from which they need something, pick up the item, and drive back home whereas with great Walk Appeal fueled by great storefronts, they’re more likely to walk and then stay awhile once they get there, benefitting more businesses.

   We’ve already talked about frontages in general; now let’s look in detail at the storefronts that line those frontages. And fortunately, there are a few simple steps for making them enticing. Storefronts are made up of up to five parts. Three are essential and two are optional. The building face is essential, and includes  the windows, doors, doorways and other architectural elements. The interior display is essential as well, as a storefront where you can’t see what is being sold is pointless. Signage is also essential. Many storefronts have some sort of shelter, such as an awning, gallery, colonnade, or arcade. Some storefronts include exterior seating for food or drink service establishments. We’ll look at the essential elements of a storefront that occur on the sidewalk level in this post.  The following are rules of thumb for each:

Building Face

Windows & Transoms

Quebec City shops sit upon a sidewalk coated with recently-fallen snow

   Storefront windows should be single-lite clear glass to best display the wares inside. Divided lites may be used only when the items for sale are substantially smaller than the panes, so you can get an unobstructed view of things in the window. Storefront windows may run the entire height of the glazing, or may be capped with transoms. Transoms may have divided lites because the muntins diffuse light coming into the shop, bathing things within the shop in a softer light.

Glass Percentage

New York City sidewalk overtaken with pedestrians and diners sitting under blue umbrellas sunlit beneath a crisp clear sky on autumn afternoon

   The best storefronts are 65% to 75% glass at eye level. Less glass is boring, because you can see less of the interior. More glass is also boring, but for a different reason: the closer you get to the 100% glass of a butt-glazed curtain wall, the less interesting the wall becomes because more and more architectural elements like piers, pilasters, casings, and sashes must be removed. And when walking down the sidewalk beside the curtain wall, you’ll notice that glass becomes more reflective when viewed from a steeper angle. The glass that’s 30 feet ahead of you essentially becomes a mirror, so you can’t see inside.

Window Sill Height

   Storefront window sills should never be higher than 29 inches, which is table-top height in a restaurant. Higher sills restrict your view into the store. But glass should never run all the way to the sidewalk, either, because the lowest few inches of the wall take a lot of abuse. A sill constructed of something tougher than glass should be a minimum of 6 inches tall. Sill heights should vary from store to store because that is more interesting than holding all of the sills at the same height.

Window Head Height

shopfronts along Alexandria's King Street glow in last rays of sunlight

   Window heads should be no lower than 8 feet above the floor, although they can be much taller, running all the way to the bottom of the storefront beam if desired.

Storefront Doorways

   Doors in commercial buildings are usually required to open outward by fire codes, but if the door is located at the edge of the sidewalk, someone walking quickly by on the sidewalk can be seriously injured by a door unexpectedly opening. This happened to a friend of mine; the end of the door caught him square in the forehead, splitting it open. I had to take him to the emergency room to get stitched up. So always set storefront doors back at least three feet deep into a doorway. The doorway sides can be either square or splayed display windows. A doorway isn’t just a safety device, however; it’s the best display space in the shop because it’s where people are slowing down to go inside, so they see the wares better. It’s also a good place to stand temporarily in the event of a rain shower.

Storefront Doors

ornamental black & white double doors in New Orleans' French Quarter open to grocery

   A storefront door should be mostly glass, and may be either a single lite or have divided lites  of any pattern, because it does not have to provide a clear view to merchandise just behind it, as that floor space is used for walking, not for display. Storefront doors may be single or double, and should be distinguished from the windows in some way in order to be immediately visible to people walking by. Paint color is a common method.

Storefront Beam

   The storefront beam holds up the wall above, and the span between visible supports is fairly long: at least 10 feet; often 16 to 24 feet or even more, so the beam needs to be deep enough that  it’s obviously strong enough to carry the load. The storefront beam may be a visible steel beam, or better yet a steel beam built up with plates, angles, and rivets, which is more interesting. Or it may be clad with stone, terra-cotta, or other finishes.

End Piers

brightly-colored red, lavender, and white storefront along recovering street in Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood

   The end piers occur at the ends of the shops (and occasionally in between) and visually support the storefront beam. End piers may either be shared between two neighboring shops, or each shop may have its own end pier that abuts its neighbor’s end pier such as these storefronts (which also have intermediate piers as well). The decision of whether to use shared piers or individual piers is usually made on a block-by-block basis and is based on whether the developer is building several shops at once (where shared piers work) or whether each lot is individually built out (so that individual piers are required).

Interior Display

colorful corner store in Cincinnati's Over-The-Rhine neighborhood reaches to the sky with three bay-fronted levels above

This element should be obvious, but in today’s retail climate, it needs some explanation. Retailers should turn their wares toward the windows where everyone in the neighborhood will see them, instead of inward where only those who are already inside their shop might see them. This should be Marketing 101. But retailers complain that “my store is designed to put shelves on the outer walls, so that all the aisles are double-loaded.” This is easily fixed by simply flipping aisle and shelving. Rippled across the store, this creates the same efficiency, but with the outer aisles getting many times the exposure through the storefront windows.

   What they choose to display on those outer aisles is important. In my neighborhood, there is a grocery store which did the right thing and put windows all along the side of their store. But then they chose to display stuff like diapers in those shelves. One aisle away is their wine department. Imagine how much better they would do if they turned more enticing products like that toward the sidewalk instead of diapers!

Signage

Clover Grill in New Orleans' French Quarter glows softly orange from within, while lit by blue-white light of corner street lamp against the gathering night

   I’ve written a Sign Code for Walkable Places, the essence of which is this: Signs for places where people walk should be scaled to the person walking by close to the storefront, not the automobile speeding by a hundred feet or more from the storefront. This means that you’re permitted more types of signs: blade signs, band signs, window signs, etc., all on the same storefront. The problem with signs in auto-dominated places is that they must be very large to be seen and read before you zip by in your car. So it’s essential to limit the area of the signs in auto-dominated places, and also the number of them. Signs in walkable places can be much smaller, because you see them from short distances. As a result, they generally don’t need size limitations, or limits on sign types. And their variety makes a place more interesting.


   ~Steve Mouzon

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Preserving Architectural Character in Places Threatened by Sea Level Rise

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The Carlyle on South Beach glows a shaded pink against eerie glow of sunset-lit clouds.


   Preservation is a losing battle, and nowhere is this more obvious than in South Beach. Eventually, every building ever built will be lost, so preservation needs to be understood as the act of extending the lives of places and buildings we love the most, not the act of preserving them forever. Every thriving place has development pressure that seeks to replace old buildings with new ones that are substantially larger. Anyone who lives in Miami Beach and who wants to visualize development pressure can simply walk outside, look around, and count the cranes that dot the skyline. Preservationists have gotten relatively good at fighting back against development pressure, at least for the best historic buildings, but the pressure is there.

Sunny-Day Flooding

IMG 4111

   Here on South Beach, we have another threat to the character of our architecture, and it’s not yet clear if this threat can be opposed, at least for some of our buildings. That threat is sea level rise. When Wanda and I first moved here almost 14 years ago, “tidal flooding,” and “sunny-day flooding” were terms we didn’t hear for several years. Tidal flooding wasn’t a thing until 2009 or so. But by 2013, we were having nights like this on an accelerating basis, when the sea level was simply higher than the streets, with seawater spilling into the streets. Inland people debate sea level rise, but not South Beach residents because we have seen it with our own eyes.

   Even before the October 2013 flood occurred, the city had undertaken a massive infrastructure project consisting of improved storm drainage, huge underground storage tanks, and massive pumps to pump the water back out into the ocean before it gets to street level, putting us in the same boat as New Orleans: cities with streets that are at least sometimes below sea level. And those pumps work almost all the time, but when they failed after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans flooded and thousands of buildings were lost. So far, the South Beach pumps have not failed, and we have had no further street flooding. But we inevitably will at some point.

Raising Streets

IMG 9335

   And so the city is now raising the streets. Land is highest on the Atlantic side, sloping down to the lowest point on the bay side. Streets are being raised about 3.5 feet on the bay side, which is the existing grade near the middle of the island.

   Unfortunately, the city is not raising the buildings. I predicted last year that this approach would cause rain-driven flooding problems, and this has already happened. Here’s why: when the streets are raised but the buildings are not, those buildings may be 3 feet or more below the sidewalk. In a rainstorm, if debris like cardboard clogs the newly-installed storm drains in front of a building, or if mulch washes out of a planting bed to clog the drains, the lower area at the front of the building effectively becomes a swimming pool, and in many cases the only place for the water to run is into the building. The pumps might fail only once ever few decades; this flooding could happen repeatedly; whenever there’s a big storm. The city worked with the insurance companies on the first floods in Sunset Harbor, but the insurance companies will quickly tire of the same story each time floods occur. At some point, the buildings must be raised because they will otherwise become uninsurable. These are discussions we need to be having now. The longer we wait to start talking about how to raise the buildings, the more painful and urgent the process will be. The new administration should make this a high priority, as we cannot avoid this problem indefinitely.

Raising Buildings

Galveston

Galveston house before and after being raised

   We’ve done this before, and with masonry buildings, not just wood-framed houses. And we should be doing this now on South Beach, as our ancestors did in these two examples: Bay Village in Boston was raised in the 19th century after the Back Bay was filled in. Some areas were raised up to 18 feet, although some of the building main levels became basements. After the Galveston hurricane of 1900 (the deadliest natural disaster in US history) the entire city was raised up to 17 feet, which is the current seawall elevation. So there’s no doubt that we can raise 1- and 2-story buildings.

   There’s also no doubt that we cannot raise skyscrapers. For tall buildings, the best solution will probably be to demolish the second level and move the first level upward, leaving upper levels unchanged. The problem is the “Sour Spot” between the 1-2 story buildings (or maybe 3) and the high-rises. Sour Spot buildings that are too tall to raise but too short to modify are likely to be lost. It’s simply an economic reality. With sea level rise happening across the country and around the world, it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to bail us out because this is not a localized disaster like a hurricane. We’re on our own on this.

Ocean Drive Art Deco hotels bathed in sunny sea breezes along Lummus Park on world-famous South Beach

   Walk down Ocean Drive, and you’ll see that some of the most memorable examples of South Beach architecture are in the Sour Spot and likely to be lost because they’re too tall to raise but too short to move the first floor upward. Ocean Drive Sour Spot buildings won’t be the first ones  lost, as they’re sitting on higher ground; that’ll happen further back in the Art Deco District at the beginning. But no reasonable models today project a future where seas don’t continue to rise to and beyond Ocean Drive at some point.

The Replacements

random collection of recent styles of architecture along 5th Street on Miami Beach

Here’s what the replacements might look like if built in wealthy

times… a random collection of styles that just happened to be

popular at the times they were designed.

   When this happens… and there is little doubt but that it will… what will replace these long-loved buildings that form the core of the character of South Beach? If we do nothing to direct the character of the architecture, those replacements will almost certainly be a random collection of “styles du jour” that occur at the times at which they will be built. In short, we’ll morph over time into urbanism no different from any other urban beach city in the US, without the strong character Miami Beach has today that leaves little doubt in any visitor’s mind precisely where on earth they are.

South-Beach-17JAN11-9949

Here’s what the replacements might look like if built in frugal times.

   It is rare for a city to have strong architectural character, and it helps create far greater value than exists in more ordinary places. And that strong character draws millions of people to travel from around the world to visit Miami Beach every year. Will that continue once that character is eroded beyond recognition? Sure, the Post Office will be preserved, along with a few other Art Deco monuments, but what city that was thriving from 1920-1945 doesn’t have a few Art Deco monuments? Once the Sour Spot buildings are replaced by random architecture, we will clearly lose great real estate value and great annual revenues to local businesses.

Coding for Character

The Tides, a mid-rise Art Deco hotel on Miami Beach, reaches to mostly sunny skies, flanked by palm trees and yellow umbrellas

   Architect Trigger Warning: I’m about to trigger some foul emotions in the architectural community. There is a solution, and that is to code for character. This means that leaders in the city must make the choice to build future buildings that become part of a new living tradition of Art Deco architecture. If Art Deco is what people love, why not build more of it? Most architects will fight this furiously, kicking and screaming all the way. Their battle cry is “architecture must be of its time!” The fact of the matter is that there is a strong track record of cities coding for a particular character, and it usually creates great value.

   In some cases, coding for character takes the form of an "extreme makeover” such as when Santa Fe chose about 1910 to transform from a town of Victorian cottages to the adobe city it is today. Santa Barbara chose a makeover to  Spanish Colonial Revival about ten years later. South Beach, as we  all know, adopted Art Deco shortly thereafter. In other cases, places like the French Quarter in New Orleans and Charleston have chosen to code for character in order to preserve their existing character. In every case, strong character has created strong value.

Design Leadership

designers

   Who should lead this initiative to ensure preservation of the character of Miami Beach into the future? It’s not set in stone. Here, the Art Deco character was established by a community of architects such as Lawrence Murray Dixon. Architects also led the Santa Barbara transformation. Architect-driven initiatives do not have to be large at the beginning. Just a few like-minded designers can band together to get it started. The Sarasota School of the 1950s is another model where there was not a code per se, but rather a collection of architects agreeing to pursue similar architecture. The code, however, is stronger.

Civic Leadership

civic-leaders

   The initiative to preserve character can also be led by civic leaders. Mayor Joe Riley in Charleston is a great example of the “strong mayor” model. Leadership can also come from someone on the Commission that adopts the initiative as their own. The Chamber of Commerce can lead as well, as they did in Santa Fe. The bottom line is that there are many people who can step up to the plate and get the initiative rolling to preserve the character of Miami Beach. Who will it be?


   ~Steve Mouzon



Hypocrisy and the CorbMiesian Revival

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CorbMiesian Revival architecture rises amid the palm trees south of 5th street on South Beach.


   Modernism’s core hypocrisy can take down some really good guys. Richard Campanella is apparently one of them. By all accounts, including from my close friend Ann Daigle, he is well-loved and highly respected in Louisiana and beyond. I’ve read a number of his pieces, and they’re very professional, well-researched, and even-handed, except when it comes to one core point: the continuation of a much-loved character of architecture at a later time, once it has fallen out of favor. The problem isn’t whether it’s OK to revive an old style, but for which characters of architecture it is permitted and for which it is forbidden, and why there should be a difference. To be frank, Greek Revival and Colonial Revival are reprehensible to most architects today, while CorbMiesian Revival and Brutalist Revival are the hottest things going. I’ve illustrated this post with CorbMiesian Revival examples from South of 5th on South Beach (my adopted hometown), and 1111 Lincoln Road, which may be the best example built to date of Brutalist Revival.

CorbMiesian mid-rise tower south of 5th street on South Beach is composed of steel and glass.

CorbMiesian Revival architecture is still

mainly steel and glass, but the steel is now

allowed to be stainless rather than painted.

   In short, if it’s Modernist, you’re a hero for bringing it back. If it’s not Modernist, you should be banned from the company of thoughtful architects. Hypocrisy incarnate. Let’s look at how Richard unfortunately falls prey in his post New Orleans' historical revival architecture: A look to the past for inspiration? Or solace?

   But this late-20th century brand of historical revival was different. It was more emphatically neotraditionalist -- that is, purely pastiche, lacking an underlying philosophy and seemingly motivated mostly by nostalgia.

   Campanella acknowledged prior revivals of Greek and Roman architecture in New Orleans, but he’s clearly put off by recent traditional architecture. I can’t read his mind, but this seems perilously close to disrespecting it because it’s a present-day threat to Modernism. In his meticulously-researched piece on post-Katrina architecture, he shows how New Orleans residents have chosen traditional characters of architecture <even if poorly executed> over Modernist characters of architecture <even if superbly executed by nationally-known masters> by a margin of 14 to 1. <These are my insertions not found in his piece.> Why would people choose mediocre traditional buildings over masterworks of Modernism? More on this later. And if you haven’t noticed already, “pastiche” and “nostalgia” are insults thrown around regularly by Modernists at those who have not joined their clique. To be clear, I consider Campanella to be an unfortunate bystander who took up these terms from his architect friends, because according to his CV he didn’t go through architecture school.

Tilted pilotis on CorbMiesian Revival building reflect major conflict in Modernist architecture between the necessity of uniqueness and the desire to revive dead Modernist styles.

Le Corbusier’s pilotis are still a favorite method of supporting upper

levels of a building, but in order not to be a straight-up copy, some

of them are tilted today. This is not accidental. When my son was in

architecture school, his professor told him “if you do not tilt or break

your columns in some way, I will fail you.” It’s really amusing to

witness Modernists being conflicted between reviving historical

Modernist styles and the Necessity of Uniqueness.

   For families in the market to build a new house, pattern books increasingly featured historical designs, making their selection convenient, and builders streamlined their construction, which lowered their costs. Historical revival became de rigueur in both old neighborhoods and new subdivisions, and features like faux Creole hipped roofs and Victorian turrets started popping up region-wide.

   When have pattern books ever not featured traditonal designs? Traditional designs are those which have been proven to work. Most people like proven things. Only a few (including me) are willing to take risks to explore new stuff. Calling them “historical” rather than “traditional” is an attempt to relegate them to the past. If people living today choose them fourteen to one, what’s historical about that? That’s a contemporary and present-day fact.

Curvy CorbMiesian Revival building reaches skyward with irregular profile

CorbMiesian Revival architecture can be

rigorously rectilinear or completely curvy.

Corbusier was more well-known for his

curvy buildings, but Mies occasionally did

them as well.

   Also, what is a “faux Creole hipped roof?” Richard, you’re a great researcher, so you surely should know what a Creole roof accomplishes. A hipped roof is one where each plane of the roof supports their neighboring planes, which is inherently stronger in a hurricane. Creole roofs often have a slope in the 8:12 to 9:12 range, which hurricane experts today tell us are in the sweet spot of being too low to easily fail in overturning and too high to easily fail in uplift during a hurricane. One exception is the Creole cottage, which may be up to 12:12 because there is living space within the roof, and those upstairs walls reinforce the roof. Meanwhile, the trademark flat roofs of both Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, grandfathers of today’s CorbMiesian Revival, have the absolute worst failure rates in uplift stress. 

   The “bell-cast eave” that often occurs at the permiter of the building in many Creole hipped roofs? It unlocked the mystery of living traditions because of its utilitarian purpose: torrential rains coming off a steep roof would dig a trench in the yard, whereas rains broken by a shallower eave come off in more of a spray than a sheet of water. Simply put, there’s nothing faux about a Creole hipped roof. It’s a roof shape proven over centuries to perform very well in the region. One of the great Modernist conceits is that “nothing that came before us is worthy of us.” I think that’s a Wright quote but can’t find it at the moment. In any case, the pell-mell rush to discard anything old also turns out to discard anything proven. Is that what we really want?

   Contemporary designs, meanwhile, usually entailed commissioning an architect, which might slow the process and raise the price, while possibly limiting the home's future curb appeal to only those who liked modern architecture.

CorbMiesian Revival building composed of curved concrete floors supported by tubular columns.

Beyond the all-time favorites of steel and glass, concrete is a common

building material in CorbMiesian Revival architecture as well.

Concrete floor slabs can easily be formed into curves.

   Agreed on all points. And because your own research shows that those who like Modernist architecture are roughly 1 in 15 (1 to 14), who in their right mind that didn’t like Modernist architecture would choose to build something so hamstrung in the market?

   Neotraditionism won further ground when the New Urbanism movement, which sought to recapture the intimacy and walkability of pre-automobile neighborhoods, extended the retro aesthetic to entire developments and fortified it with a social policy argument.

   Let’s be clear. The New Urbanism has always researched the things that people love most from the beginning, and began doing so at a time that nobody cared to even ask the question “what do the people love?” New Urbanists then had the audacity to actually build lovable homes and businesses. The Modernists will never forgive them for that, because it lays bare the greatest failing of Modernism: their core precept (the necessity of uniqueness) necessitates unlovable architecture almost all the time because they’re required to dispose of every characteristic of buildings that has ever been proven lovable in human history. Yes, there is the one-in-a-million Eiffel Tower which becomes deeply loved by a people and even by the world. But for each of those, there are countless tons of dreck put up that people get rid of as soon as possible. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last.

1111 Lincoln Road, arguably the best Brutalist Revival building built to date in the US, glows against a clear evening sky

Here's 1111 Lincoln Road, which is arguably

the best Brutalist Revival building built

so far in the US. 

   And this gets back to one of the foundations of this Modernist hypocrisy: the assumption that the architects know and the people don’t. This “retro” slur that Campanella unfortunately uses is common as well… another way to consign anything non-Modernist to the past, and banned from ever being built again. But the people know how to value what they love most, and have no problem at all signing earnest money checks for more-loved characters of architecture (even if poorly executed) over fabulously-executed examples of unlovable architecture. The proper contrast isn’t retro vs. Modernist, but lovable vs. unlovable.

   The rebuilding after the Katrina deluge of 2005 formed an experiment of sorts in which the architectural tastes of thousands of New Orleans families might be further revealed. With such bad memories behind them, would families opt for a refreshing contemporary look?

   Richard, look at your own work! All signs, as you noted, pointed toward a break from tradition, for something new! But your own research painstakingly shows that this was not the case, by a margin of 14 to 1! Why is that so? If all the signs point to one conclusion yet the evidence points overwhelmingly to a very different reality, does that not suggest that our foundation assumptions are very seriously wrong?

   With various levels of flood risk at play, would they opt for sustainability?

   What is sustainability? Is it Gizmo Green? Something you can buy from Home Depot? Or is it building things that can be sustained in a healthy way, long into an uncertain future? If the latter, then it’s essential to know the people, the things that they love, and why. If it can’t be loved, it won’t last. Architects really must develop enough humility to earnestly listen to regular people if they are to have any hope of actually accomplishing this.

1111 Lincoln Road Brutalist Revival building, with raw concrete aglow in late afternoon sun as cars sit silently inside

Brutalist Revival buildings are built primarily with concrete;

steel is mostly used for accessory items like the guardrails on

1111 Lincoln Road.

   We may conclude that, for better or worse, most folks wanted the new New Orleans to look like "olde" New Orleans -- despite that, from the 1720s to the 1970s, local society had a completely different sensibility, importing new ideas and experimenting with the latest design thinking, as if to say "we are confident about the future." Only when that confidence nose-dived in the late 20th century did the architectural eyes of the average New Orleanian turn backward.

   Richard, you’re asking the wrong question here, and coming to the wrong conclusion. It’s not “olde” versus new, historic versus modern, or any similar chronological divides. Rather, when people’s lives are severely disrupted, it’s a known fact that they turn to things that are known to work. It’s absolutely no surprise that the people of New Orleans chose what has been proven in the region to work for centuries versus the hodgepodge collection of Modernist styles du jour. Why is this even in question?


   ~Steve Mouzon


   PS: I’m speaking in New Orleans at the CityBuilding Exchange March 8-10. We’re arriving early. I’d be delighted to buy you a coffee or whatever else you’d like to drink and talk about these things if you’re interested. Ann speaks very highly of you.


Want Some Walk Appeal With Your Tacos?

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late morning crowd enjoying breakfast at the News Cafe on South Beach's Ocean Drive, just across from Lummus Park


   Restaurants in places with good Walk Appeal are inherently less fattening than unwalkable ones because meals come with embedded exercise. I just walked to my favorite restaurant and back, and burned 113 calories. That might not seem like a lot, but 113 calories each day for a year is enough to lose almost 12 pounds, which is why people who live in places with good Walk Appeal are thinner.

Groceries

Alton Road's Whole Foods sits between two neighborhoods with strong Walk Appeal

   We don’t eat out every day, of course, but we do walk to the grocery store pretty much every day. Whole Foods is 60 calories away; it’s where we shop most often. Publix is 93 calories away; we shop there as well. Walgreens is 56 calories away.

   We rarely buy more than one day’s worth of food; often only one meal’s worth. There’s no doubt we eat fresher and therefore more nutritious food by doing this rather than by driving an SUV to the grocery and stocking up on a week’s worth of food. Some people from unwalkable places are shocked to find that we walk over a mile round trip to shop at Publix. “How can you lug all your groceries the half-mile home?” The fact is, when you’re buying only a meal or two at a time, there are never so many groceries that they don’t fit in my single reusable bag.

Drinking Establishments

Playwright Irish Pub opens to South Beach street corner with chamfered entry below circular Art Deco building corner

   If you’d like some beer with your tacos, Walk Appeal might actually save your life someday. Almost everyone who visits this neighborhood pub walks there. If they have too much to drink, they stumble home, and the worst thing likely to happen to them is to stagger and fall, and bump their head. Contrast that with people who visit a bar in sprawl. Because it’s surrounded with bad-to-hideous Walk Appeal, everyone drives there. And if there’s no designated driver, those who’ve had too much to drink will far too often get behind the wheel anyway, endangering their own life and the lives of everyone else along their route.

   I’m of the opinion that cities should strongly consider the Walk Appeal surrounding an establishment trying to get a liquor license. Granting a license to a bar on the highway guarantees that some people will be drinking and driving.

Sidewalk Cafes

tourists stroll along Ocean Drive on South Beach as patrons enjoy brunch at the News Cafe

   Eating and drinking establishments don’t just benefit from good Walk Appeal; they can actually contribute to it as well. I did an entire blog post on this earlier, but it bears repeating: nothing makes a stronger contribution to Walk Appeal than a sidewalk cafe. That’s because the most interesting thing to someone walking is seeing other people. And while you might see someone for a moment on a sidewalk, they are likely to be sitting at the cafe eating and drinking for an hour or more. Or if you’re in Paris, they might be there all day.


   ~Steve Mouzon

Walk Appeal book front cover

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