Good urban mixed-use design depends on reinforcing connections with the surrounding neighborhood and creating appropriate adjacencies between retail and residential uses. All this while separating residents from the grittier aspects of city life.
These connections with the neighborhood not only enhance the quality of life for all who live there; they increase a development's value, as well.
Look Beyond the Site Plan
Good community interaction depends on all forms of physical, visual, and audible connections. Few things are more frustrating to transit-oriented city dwellers than spotting a new restaurant or shop from the train, bus, or bike—or seeing these transit options from their balcony—and realizing “you can’t get there from here.”
Once the project is in the ground, it’s a little late to consider such connections. Instead, during planning, the development team must look well beyond the borders of the site to identify the diverse neighborhood activities, functions, and people that residents and retailers will want to connect with—and then reinforce these components in a variety of ways.The result will yield a neighborhood that naturally becomes integrated with the community’s on-site amenities.
Transit-oriented development (TOD) is perhaps the highest, best use of community connections. Carrollton, Texas, even markets itself as the place “Where Connections Happen.” In fact, Union at Carrollton Square, a four-story multifamily building with retail on the ground floor, is right on the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) line, with elevated tracks passing alongside the building's third-floor units, whose upgraded windows are reinforced against the noise. The impetus for the project was an attempt to develop the area around the existing DART station, where retail and conveniently located housing now emphasize the community’s ideal “live, work, play” location.
Similarly, Edgewood Atlanta, which includes JHP Architecture’s Columbia
Senior Residences and is the future home of a new project called Edgewood
MARTA, markets its three residential communities’ ideal locations as being within
walking distance of the Metropolitan Area Rapid Transit (MARTA) rail and bus
stations; the local network of bike and pedestrian trails; and the Edgewood
Retail District. The new development is so closely linked with the MARTA
station that the train platform is part of the project's master plan. The plan is intended to increase the density of livable space nearest the tracks
while transitioning comfortably into the single-family housing across the
street. The project team achieved this balance by using a stepped approach, from five stories at the tracks down to three stories
in closer proximity to the single-family neighborhood.
Engage the Municipality
Not every urban project is a TOD in its formal sense, but every urban project should be transit oriented, ideally, because transit isn't limited to rail: It includes all vehicular, as well as pedestrian, modes. Great non-TOD connections can be realized by involving the municipality in the planning process. The developer and design team of the Post Katy Trail mixed-use community, for example, worked with the city of Dallas to provide direct access between the community and the popular pedestrian and biking trail for which the property was named.
Amenities include a trailhead plaza, dog waste receptacles, water fountains, and a bike repair station. Not far from the popular pedestrian trail, the historic M line trolley route connects downtown to nearby West Village. The trolley was part of a large network built in the 1920s that faded into a tourist attraction until an influx of new residents in the area began using the old system as a convenient way to travel between local restaurants and bars. The idea has caught on so well that the town is now adding a new, modern streetcar connected to the M line and heading further downtown.
Similarly, Old Town Carmel on the Monon, in Indiana, connects its loft apartment residents and on-site retail with downtown Carmel and the Monon Trail. The complex nicely fills the gap between the recreational feature and the main street, forming a pedestrian connection while extending the retail corridor downtown. Despite its newness, the development maintains the historic character of downtown Carmel.
Provide a Respite From the City Too
Creating connections between retail and residential uses is fundamental to urban mixed-use design, but, at the same time, residents need a respite from the intense stimulation of city life. Otherwise, the neighboring attractions are just a little too close for comfort.
Being on a transit line, though convenient, creates design challenges in terms of sound buffering for residents. A brick building skin and sound-rated glass absorb a lot of noise, and a compatible use at grade—say, live/work, retail-ready spaces—provides marketable units that can coexist with cars, trains, and buses. Residential units on this level can be further shielded using a set-back design and/or awnings over the first-floor retail and live/work units. These strategies, in fact, were used for Union at Carrollton Square, Post Katy Trail, and Old Town Carmel.
Similarly, residents don’t want to look at the highway even if they do want convenient access to it. Good design distracts the eye and mind to focus on more-desirable aspects of the environment. At 2660 Cityplace, a mixed-use infill TOD in Dallas, such strategies included orienting the building so that the six-lane street isn't directly in view, and recessing and rotating the balconies toward a good view of the downtown skyline.
Just as proximity to transportation creates design challenges, so do the borders between a development's residential and retail uses. Some people initially are attracted to the urban cachet of life above retail, but exposure to the sounds, lights, and smells eventually wears thin, so turnover may be high. Attracting and retaining residents and retail tenants depends on remaining sensitive to adjacent uses and creating appropriate separations between them. Effective design strategies can maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages for both sides.
Concrete and/or fabric awnings above retail are a good first step in mitigating sound and light transfer to apartment tenants, as is the elimination of residential balconies above. A concrete podium between the retail level and residential units offer an even better acoustic solution, as at Post Katy Trail. Adding an interstitial space above the podium takes sound separation a step further and provides space to run residential plumbing without going up through the retail area. Again, setting back the residential mass is another strategy that also provides a platform for a common terrace, as at McKinney Uptown apartments in Dallas. Separating retail from residences with parking and/or office space, as at One Museum Place in Fort Worth, Texas, is another solution.
What to do about the food exhaust smells that restaurants and other eateries emit? Take all the exhaust shafts from retail kitchens and bathrooms through the roof of the residential levels, not through the sidewall. It sounds obvious, but many architects don’t do it. Then it’s, sniff, sniff: “Seafood for ‘dinner’ again?” night after night.
Park Avenue, a new mixed-use community in Little Rock, Ark., pulls together many of these concepts. Comprising four- to five-story dedicated residential; five-story retail/residential; and freestanding two-story retail buildings along a new “Main Street,” the project was developed on part of retail giant Target’s existing parking lot.
Separation can get down to the nitty gritty when we start talking about separating retail from residential trash storage and utilities, a big challenge in mixed-use buildings, where retail virtually doubles the space required for utilities. This issue was recently the topic of a planning meeting for Pinnacle Place, a mixed-use project in Fort Worth. The problem: Where to hide the retail and residential trash at a building with no ‘service side’? The best solution turned out to be hiding the garbage receptacles in plain sight, doing away with Dumpsters in favor of separate, well-ventilated retail and trash storage rooms with hot-water hose bibs for thorough cleaning. The Pinnacle team also painted and detailed the trash rooms' roll-up doors to match the other doors in the building, effectively disguising them.
If space allows, utilities, another potential eyesore, can be incorporated into the elevation of the mixed-use buildings. Fire and water risers "disappear" inside hollow columns at the Bell Lancaster in Fort Worth, for example. Power cables can be hidden in a garage or behind a partial wall. Water valves, meters, cable boxes? Ditto.
Effective use of such design strategies enables residents to engage in city life while escaping it, too.
As the examples above show, the right connections and adjacencies form the basis of sound mixed-use urban design. Thoughtful analysis, collaboration, and creative design strategies build communities appealing to cities, developers, residents, and retailers alike.