Creative Solutions for Challenging Sites

An architect discusses strategies for urban sites with infrastructure, economic and/or social challenges.

brian_keithUrban sites are often characterized by significant physical, economic and/or social challenges. Whether these are immovable objects like a sewer line cutting through a small, irregular site in Dallas, economic constraints in Garland, Texas, or a physically and socio-economically marginalized community in Spartanburg, S.C., effective development and design solutions look to optimize this physical, economic, social and placemaking potential within each community. Here’s how.

Applying creative force to an immovable object

The design solution for Alexan Trinity placed the main apartment component behind the easement and placed six rental townhomes in front — turning the typical narrow, deep townhome design 90 degrees to create wide, shallow units that maximize both the buildable area and linear street frontage.

The design solution for Alexan Trinity placed the main apartment component behind the easement and placed six rental townhomes in front—turning the typical narrow, deep townhome design 90 degrees to create wide, shallow units that maximize both the buildable area and linear street frontage.

A site nearby to Dallas’s Bishop Arts District had been undeveloped due to its small size and irregular shape: the three-acre, triangular site is adjacent to a 30-foot-high levee on the bank of the Trinity River. An active sewer main (with a moving cost of plus or minus $500,000) and 30-foot easement running at an angle through one corner of the site left a sliver of buildable land along the edge of E. Greenbriar St. Yet the city, its economic development office, and the Oak Cliff Gateway TIF District wanted a multifamily and mixed use development proposal that would enable ground-floor retail along the street edge.

Previous developers had envisioned conventional multifamily apartment buildings. On a typical site, this could have been pushed to the street edge with ground-floor retail to satisfy the city’s desires. However, due to the site constraints, this was not a viable option here, so Trammell Crow Residential (TCR) sought a creative solution.

The design solution for Alexan Trinity placed the main apartment component behind the easement and placed six rental townhomes in front; turning the typical narrow, deep townhome design 90 degrees to create wide, shallow units that maximize both the buildable area and linear street frontage. Ground-floor live/work space and garages were designed to be cost-effectively converted to retail space in the future, as required by the city. Structural components in the framing enable windows and wood wall panels to be removed and replaced by storefront in the future. Headers and beams above the non-bearing walls separating the garages and live/work spaces also allow for future enlargement of the ground floor space.

Ground floor live/work spaces and garages were designed to be cost-effectively converted to retail space, as requested by the city.

Ground floor live/work spaces and garages were designed to be cost-effectively converted to retail space, as requested by the city.

Although new on-street parking is usually not an acceptable solution in Dallas due to the city’s Street/Traffic Department’s concerns, the design team proposed on-street angle parking in front of the townhomes to meet this development’s parking requirements, create an urban streetscape, and enhance the project’s economic viability.

JHP Architecture/Urban Design worked with the City of Dallas’s City Design Studio (which provides urban design advice to projects in conjunction with this economic development office), the Oak Cliff Gateway TIF District, other municipal agencies and TCR to develop this solution. The City Design Studio and Oak Cliff Gateway TIF District became strong advocates for the creative solution, especially this on-street angle parking. The Oak Cliff Gateway TIF District provided funding for infrastructure and streetscape improvements in addition to an economic development grant.

This solution yielded 167 units at a density of 54.58 units per acre, including three one-bedroom/one-and-a-half-bath three-story townhomes (1,204 square feet) and three two-bedroom/two-and-a-half-bathroom three-story townhomes (1,627 square feet). These street-edge townhomes have been highly successful, leasing for rates that exceeded TCR’s initial projections before the final completion of the project.

To further optimize the site, JHP also created seven “granny flat” units (one-bedroom/one-bathroom units ranging from 587-966 square feet) located atop single-car garages, with spectacular third-floor roof terraces overlooking the levee to provide unparalleled views of the Dallas skyline. These structures create an urban edge for this future multi-use trail connection and screen utilities and drainage from this site.

Thinking outside the retail box

Economic constraints are another common site development problem. As a city approaches a revitalization initiative in its downtown core, planners and developers often dream of retail as a catalyst for economic growth. However, the economic reality may not yet support this conventional approach to retail in a mixed-use development: “Build it, and they will come.” Part of the problem is that most retail construction costs skyrocket when expensive steel structure or elevated concrete podium designs are utilized.

Scalable flex retail and live/work units can be a solution. With its flex retail concept, JHP has employed strategically placed engineered wood beams and columns to create open, flexible retail spaces while significantly reducing the construction cost. Modular structural efficiency is achieved when this roughly 24’ x 30’, 720-square foot housing module of the upper floors is carried through to the ground floor, where it can even easily be doubled to provide 1,440 square feet of retail space by knocking out walls. With its shallow 30-inch depth and high ratio of lineal frontage to total retail area, it is ideal for most neighborhood retail and service opportunities. The use of structural beam headers beneath party walls cost-effectively enable walls to be removed and retail spaces to be linked together to create larger spaces when tenants or retail needs necessitate bigger spaces.

Using this strategy, some flex retail spaces initially can be leased to residential tenants, small neighborhood service businesses, and/or private or municipal offices and converted to full scale retail as a neighborhood matures. Empty retail spaces can easily be modified for new retail tenants or converted back to their residential uses.

Residential and retail help to  screen an internal parking garage from the streets. This phase of development comprises 189 residential units and 11,700 sf retail on 2.75 acres (68.73 units/acre) in Downtown Garland.

Residential and retail help to screen an internal parking garage from the streets. This phase of development comprises 189 residential units and 11,700 sf retail on 2.75 acres (68.73 units/acre) in Downtown Garland.

This strategy has been used in Garland, Texas, where the downtown mixed-use TOD model is a key component to the realization of the citywide “Envision Garland” revitalization plan. The catalyst for phase one of this initiative, Oaks Properties’ 5th Street Crossing, addressed the economic and site challenges of a high-profile site adjacent to Garland’s Civic and Performance Center.

The solution provided for scalable retail development and shared private/municipal parking facilities to align with the anticipated future retail demand. Rather than surrounding the site with conventional high-density retail, the JHP solution placed at-grade neighborhood retail facing along the 5th Street Garland Performing Arts Center to the east, residential units fronting the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) line to the north, and live/work adaptable units along the development’s south and west shores. Residential and retail help to screen an internal parking garage from the streets. This phase of development comprises 189 residential units and 11,700 square feet of retail on almost three acres (68.73 units/acre) in Downtown Garland.

The Garland City Center project is phase two of this downtown redevelopment initiative. This project re-purposes the City Hall parking lot as a TOD mixed-use community and integrates it with a “re-skinned” façade for City Hall and the existing Granville Performing Arts Center. The site plan reinforces the street edge and introduces a new promenade plaza to engage the community’s pedestrians with City Hall. A new shared parking garage serves City Hall and the residential community.

This phase comprises 154 residential units and 1,000 square feet of ground-floor flex office/retail plus leasing office space and amenities, which are designed in a retail-storefront configuration on the almost four-acre site (44 units/acre). The city has the option of leasing ground floor space as offices until the timing is right for retail conversion.

A public-private partnership was intrinsic to the solution. The city provided financial incentives contingent on a strong mixed use/ retail component and facilitated planning and permitting to help bring this two-phase project to fruition.

Bridging the divide by restoring the street grid and streetscape

Pearl St. was widened and transformed into Nothside’s “Main Street” with bike lanes, on-street parking, wider sidewalks, street trees and other landscaping, and zoning for multi-use/mixed use development.

Pearl St. was widened and transformed into Nothside’s “Main Street” with bike lanes, on-street parking, wider sidewalks, street trees and other landscaping, and zoning for multi-use/mixed use development.

Socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods often have been physically, socially and economically divided from their larger communities. The existing street grid/streetscapes often have been interrupted in the development of public housing, and disadvantaged neighborhoods have grown up divided from the larger city by highways, railroad tracks or other physical features. These communities often continue to be socioeconomically marginalized.

This challenge was the catalyst for the community planning solution in the Northside Neighborhood in Spartanburg, S.C., where JHP was the lead urban planner on a redevelopment team led by Columbia Residential as part of a HUD Choice Neighborhood grant for a Transformation/Neighborhood plan. A 400-acre neighborhood to the north of downtown Spartanburg, Northside is separated from downtown and its neighbors to the south by railroad tracks, and from Wofford College and Spartanburg Regional Medical Center by Asheville Highway/Church Street.

The team’s redevelopment planning efforts sprang out of the larger community’s desire and leadership for change. The master plan involved community-wide workshops, a multi-day charrette, and numerous stakeholder conversations around urban planning and design to envision a solution for uniting the community both physically and socially.

The master plan reintroduced a new street pattern/grid in appropriate areas, implemented various assorted traffic calming strategies along Asheville Highway/Church Street, created a variety of housing types, and sited mixed-use redevelopment where the context and scale dictated. The Asheville Highway/Church St./Magnolia St. intersection was planned to be transformed into a new gateway plaza for the Northside, and the city of Spartanburg and Evins St. was extended across Church St. to create a new artery into the neighborhood. These steps accomplished one of the major goals identified by the charrette participants: creating new and better connections between Northside and the adjacent communities and the nearby college and regional medical center.

Additionally, Pearl St. was widened and transformed into Northside’s “Main Street” with bike lanes, on-street parking, wider sidewalks, street trees and other landscaping, and zoning for multi-use/mixed-use development. Future three- to four-story buildings were planned with retail and office space on the bottom floor and residential units above to help create not only a vibrant mixed use character, but also a vibrant “college town” feel.

New residential development was integrated throughout the plan with a variety of housing types and scales that again responded to communities’ desires: these include new single-family homes, new townhomes, small-scale housing developments and mixed-use developments.

The most effective solutions for challenging sites not only require urban planners and designers to look at the immediate building site itself, but to take a step back to gain a perspective on the role played by the site within the overall context of the larger community or city. Ultimately, a “whole community design” approach brings people together and gives them a sense of identity and inclusion in something larger than themselves.

Brian Keith, AIA, AICP, AIA, AICP, associate principal, can be reached at 214.363.5687 or BKeith@jhparch.com.