What Makes A Neighborhood Viable?

a roundtable debate – Alex Marshall and Andres Duany
Metropolis
May, 1995

Our article in May about the redevelopment of East Ocean View in Norfolk, Virginia (“When the New Urbanism Meets an Old Neighborhood”), has sparked discussion – verbal, written, and electronic – about similarities writer Alex Marshall sees between urban renewal programs of the 1950s and 1960s and Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater – Zyberk’s plans for the Norfolk neighborhood. At the heart of the debate is a facet of New Urbanism that is disturbing to some critics and could impede the movement in the future: The majority of projects suggest an unwillingness to accommodate existing building stock into its new neighborhoods. New Urbanists call their movement the “architecture of community” – a questionable label when architects appear willing to remove existing communities to build new ones. But for now, the issue is whether this part of East Ocean View is viable enough to save.

ANDRES DUANY: In his article about our redevelopment project, Alex Marshall makes a false analogy between the neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal in the 1950s and the site in Norfolk. Those martyred neighborhoods described by Jane Jacobs [in The Death and Life of Great American Cities] were poor but in possession of highgrade urban qualities supporting a fine tissue of society, including many homeowners. They were, as we say now, viable.

The 100 acres of East Ocean View were half-abandoned. Indeed, the area’s development had become undesirable so quickly that a good portion of the land had remained unbuilt. Most of the existing housing consists of decrepit Section 8 subsidized rental apartments, of a most degrading type, built in the 1970s by developers with nothing but exploitation in mind. The whole affair contributes to a very high incidence of crime. Their removal in Norfolk is akin to the justified demolitions of Pruitt-Igoe [the award winning St. Louis housing project often cited as a failure of Modern architecture] and other such products that were the object of Jane Jacobs’ attack, not of her defense.The people who lose their rental apartments will be assisted into housing by the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority, which may well be the best-managed public housing in the country. They are certainly not being turned out into oblivion in the manner of the 1960s.

Apart from the apartments, the most controversy was caused by the 18 houses with middle-class resident/owners that are slated to go. Why these? Of the 18, three were on the beachfront, isolating the beach from the rest of the neighborhood. To make the beachfront public by eliminating these houses, the inland houses (the owners of only three of them wished to remain) were caught in the net of equal fairness (or unfairness). Designating these three otherwise acceptable homes for removal permitted the removal of those three that privatized the beach. The development of the neighborhood is designed in such a way that the three homeowners, retired couples who may want to remain for the rest of their lives, won’t be affected until the later phases of development, perhaps a decade away.

Granted, the decision for demolition was made before we were even interviewed for the project. But had we not approved, we would have walked away, as Marshall reported we did in Houston. There was an important condition to be respected: The City Council of Norfolk had voted unanimously for the complete demolition of the site. This was a very protracted, thoroughly public, and very contested process, through which the elected representatives of the people made a difficult decision. I understand this to be the workings of democracy and something to be intrinsically respected. I am surprised that Marshall does not report this.

Apart from the prerogatives of democracy, the stated intention of the Norfolk City Council is one that we support as a general strategy for urban cores: to decant the monocultures of poverty. This small area is responsible for the majority of the crime in East Ocean View, giving the entire bay – front of Norfolk its bad name and causing the middle class to shun it for the suburbs.

Poverty itself does not cause crime, the concentration of poverty causes crime (source: Reuben Greenberg, the brilliant police chief of Charleston, South Carolina). Our task was to design a properly balanced neighborhood which leaves the population with a mixture of the poor,the middle class, and even the wealthy. This is, in fact, the ideal of the New Urbanism, and not the demolition of fine old neighborhoods. Marshall did report accurately my politically incorrect statement to the effect that the inner cities do not need more affordable housing as much as they need housing for the middle class. . To live, our bankrupt cities need tax paying citizens. That’s a fact.

ALEX MARSHALL: The guts of Duany’s defense are that it is okay to tear this neighborhood down because it is troubled and the people are poor and the buildings aren’t pretty. I disagree with this philosophy. I won’t say that a government can never level a neighborhood, but the area’s existing homes would have to be in worse shape than those in East Ocean View, and the people who live in them treated more fairly.

Duany also makes serious errors that undercut his arguments and suggest how little he has paid attention to the neighborhood he is replacing. Here are the most obvious:

None of the homes in this area are Section 8 housing. All the homes, both apartments and single-family houses, were privately built. This part of East Ocean View has no public housing of any kind. The brick apartment buildings Duany is apparently referring to are standard suburban-style apartments built in the 1970s. Being brick, they are probably better than many such apartment complexes that litter the suburbs.

None of the families have been relocated to public housing. At last count, 75 families have been evicted from the neighborhood. The only guarantee the housing authority made was to place residents (who so desired) at the top of the waiting list for public housing – something that complies with federal law governing public housing. The fact is, East Ocean View has no public housing, so it is unlikely present residents would choose to become public housing tenants. By design, the city is using private banks rather than federal money to finance the project, which exempts the city from having to guarantee relocation assistance. Duany says residents “are certainly not being turned out into oblivion.” In fact, this is exactly what is happening to them.

Regarding the Norfolk City Council, Duany defends the urban renewal decision because the political decision was unanimous. The same urban renewal in the 1950s and 1960s, which Duany joins in criticizing, was also approved by duly elected democratic governments. Does this mean it was right, or exempt from criticism? The fact is, the people in the condemned neighborhood had little political voice.

Duany asserts his plan will make the beach more public. In fact, an essential component of the city’s plans is reaping the profits from a series of new half-million dollar houses that will front directly on the beach.

Duany ends by saying he seeks only to “design a properly balanced neighborhood and to leaven the population witha mixture of the poor, the middle class,and even the wealthy.” His apparent capacity at self-deception amazes me. The new neighborhood will not have any poor people in it. The most the city has ever talked about is having homes in the price range of a high-school teacher – firmly middle-class.

Duany’s talk about diversity obscures the anti-urban nature of the project and his design. The new neighborhood, if built as planned, will be less dense and less diverse. By some estimates, up to 1,800 homes were in the East Ocean View neighborhood at the time the clearance project was launched. Duany would reduce the density to a third of that – 400 to 600. This area has blocks full of single family homes and apartments that are quite viable. It also has blank spots and abandoned housing, which would be perfect for redevelopment through a process that does not involve driving people out of their homes. The only reason to tear down the entire neighborhood is because of a cynical belief that no middle or upper-income person would be willing to move into a house next to that of a working-class person.

What if the city had taken the estimated $35 to $40 million the project will cost and subsidized the building of middle-class houses on those vacant lots Duany mentioned? Then the city would have had a chance of creating a genuinely diverse neighborhood, better off than the present one, but one not founded on force and exclusion. I am not against gentrification. Like Duany, I favor restoring a healthier tax base to center-cities. But there is a difference between gentrification – which I think of as a poor neighborhood gradually being infused with wealthier residents – and the clearance of people from their houses so wealthier people can be put there with the help of taxpayers’ money.

Norfolk is doing just what it wanted: tearing down a poor neighborhood and driving its people elsewhere – across city lines, some officials hope. When preparing the project, city officials used a feasibility study that estimates Norfolk would save millions of dollars in police and social costs because up to a third of the project’s displaced residents would leave town. In this noble endeavor, Duany is helping.

I don’t mean to say that Duany or his staff are without talent. His new plan has its beauty. Its planned road system carefully weaves around existing trees and carves out small parks. The mixture of town houses and grand homes with the now – standard front porches will be more interesting than the usual suburban subdivision. But Duany’s new neighborhood will have no history and reveal its lack of roots in its false, cheery appearance. It’s hard to resist concluding that Duany, the New Urbanist, is tearing down a real urban neighborhood to build a fake one.

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