When it Comes to Transit, Not All Cities Walk the Walk

Thom Cox is the founder and CEO of Thomas P. Cox: Architects Inc. (TCA). He is also the managing partner at the firm and known for his work in mixed-use, high-density urban infill and multifamily architecture. As a member of the Urban Land Institute, he serves on the Multifamily Blue Council. Cox is also a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and he supports and participates in projects for Habitat for Humanity.Cox describes his vision as “Excellent Housing for Excellent Clients.” His goal is to produce first-class housing solutions that create value for developer-clients, owners, residents and for the communities in which they are built. He talks to MHN Online News Editor Anuradha Kher about the New Urbanist principles, the impact of the slowing economy on TCA and how they are dealing with it.MHN: What are the New Urbanist principles?Cox: We deal with projects primarily in the urban context with the pedestrian at the center. We work on the micro, district and neighborhood level. The pedestrian takes precedence for us. The idea is to calm traffic and create public spaces that can be used by residents. The key components of New Urbanist projects are that they feature a mix of various housing types and have proximity to a mode or modes of transit. New Urbanist principles are also about putting buildings in their historical context. MHN: Describe the unique projects TCA is involved with currently.Cox: Our mainstay is high-density, urban infill and mixed-use projects. When we take up a project, we believe in understanding the context of the community that the project is, or will be, established in. We have to come in and make sense between the projects and the community. Most of our projects are in western U.S.—in Denver, Dallas and Houston, as well as the Southwest—Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and California. The main focus is urban areas.MHN: What are the challenges while working in cities where transit options are limited or nonexistent?Cox: In cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, the projects are generally transit-oriented but some projects are located in suburban areas wanting to be urban. They have somewhat urbanized centers with smart growth communities, but a number of them don’t have transit options. Without being disrespectful to cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix, I have to say they are a little bit behind the curve. In these places, they talk the talk but then they don’t have the zoning regulations that support the transit-oriented development. Parking codes is one such issue. In places like LA and San Francisco, municipalities have cut down on the parking space provided to each unit. This discourages people from using cars, but in many cities in the Southwest, these changes haven’t taken place, making it difficult to build transit-oriented communities. MHN: So how do you tackle those challenges?Cox: A lot of it depends on the client and whether he or she has the appetite for modifying and waiting out for a change in codes. Our projects have a tendency to be large and single, so most of the time, developers don’t want to wait, and we end up working within the constraints.MHN: What are the cutting-edge trends in architecture today?Cox: Square footage per unit is dropping. We used to talk about averages in the range of 900-950 sq. ft. and now it is close to 800 sq. ft. This has a lot to do with construction costs. Also, we can now make spaces seem larger with use of windows, light and other neat tricks.Secondly, municipalities are pushing for density in areas close to transit and trying to get a critical mass of humanity, which adds flavor to the place. There is a big move toward this trend.Thirdly, it is quite clear now that apartments will be leading us out of this morass in the residential housing sector.Finally, as I mentioned earlier, parking per unit is reduced to almost half of what it used to be, to discourage driving.MHN: How have architects been affected by reduced construction starts and ongoing development?Cox: Fifty percent of the condos that we were working on have either switched to rental communities or have come to a halt due to lack of financing or demand. A lot of the apartment developers had switched to developing condos when the condo boom made it almost impossible for rental developers to acquire land. They are now returning to rental project development.MHN: How is the firm handling the downturn in the economy? Cox: Age helps us out. I am not a young architect; I have been through three to four such downturns. As a firm, we saw this coming and took the appropriate steps like cutting 30 percent of our staff, reducing some payrolls and reducing expenses. For example, we won’t be having a holiday party this year.We don’t spend money unless it is mission important. In addition, we are looking at doing offshore projects. There are some projects in Saudi Arabia and China that have a good chance at coming through and we are already working on a mixed-use project in South Korea. But our mainstay will continue to be U.S. projects–that’s where our focus is.