Orlando: The Limits of Form


By Richard Reep

To date, luminaries of the New Urbanist movement such as Andres Duany and Peter Calthorpe have done little to change Orlando. The central Florida city remains balkanized, market-driven, and vaguely cosmopolitan in nature. Orlando’s vitality does not depend on the physical form of the city, but rather the spiritual involvement of its citizens, the safety and security that they gain from their urban choice as well as the unique mix of jobs created by the employment of Orlando. These three intangible factors drive the form, and a healthy city planning process will not ignore this in favor of a rigid dress code.

New Urbanists, of course, can point to pockets of clustered development that echo their philosophy. Baldwin Park, Horizon West, and Avalon Park are three large examples. Mills Park, Sodo, and other smaller projects abound, for which the New Urbanist movement takes credit. All of these projects have in common a core that mixes residential, office, and retail in a form denser than the surrounding community does. All of these projects take great pains to store vehicles, once you have arrived to the core, in a way that masks them from view. In addition, all of these projects feature traditional architectural styles that express early 20th century America.

Yet these efforts have failed to produce affordable housing for those who truly want to live within walking distance of their workplace. This is in part because New Urbanists seem to have trouble with the idea of creating an economic base first. By contrast, older, organically grown clusters are thriving nicely, in areas such as Thornton Park. At one time, Lake Eola (a small, oval lake) separated Downtown Orlando from this older neighborhood walking distance of downtown. The area was shabby, violent, and chaotic. But efforts to drive downtown toward Thornton Park – painstakingly led by visionaries who believed in the neighborhood – has created an organically grown, variable density cluster that adds tremendous value to the city.

New Urbanists, however, are not approving of Thornton Park, perhaps because it was not their idea. They point to a violation of their form-based codes, which maintain seven stories the maximum height for a good structure. They point to the on-street parking - another abomination to their theology. In addition, they point to the older, single-family residential development that exists in and around the other development, citing its violations of their theoretical density hierarchy (six gradients of density, from urban to rural, which must occur in a specific order, and which are collectively labeled “the transect.”). Lastly, they are mute when it comes to the older, 11- and 12-story senior living towers associated with downtown churches, which happen to be 100% full with a waiting list. Somehow, this affordable housing does not fit into the Smart Code.

Parramore is another shabby, violent, chaotic neighborhood exists adjacent to Downtown Orlando, with similar potential to Thornton Park. Like cosmetic surgeons rushing to claim credit for a half-facelift, the New Urbanist professionals, when questioned about this area of Orlando, freeze with a faint smile, and mention that no private interests have approached them about Parramore. Until this happens, they maintain implementing the imagined order of a proper city, as set forth in the “Smart Code” by the Congress of the New Urbanism, is impossible. The code regulates form rather than use, and is generally referred to as a form-based code for this reason.

It is time to call off the form wars, and put effort into the basics what makes a city great: encouragement of a city’s spiritual life, solid bases for employment, and assurance of safety and security. We have to become more pragmatic in these times of economic turmoil; embrace of a strict planning theology, and the mass dumping of land-use regulation that have shaped cities for the past 50 or more years, could inhibit more organically driven growth that may be far more economically viable.

Orlando’s enduring, 10-year involvement with New Urbanism has reaped mixed results. While some organically developed areas like Thornton Park add interesting and thoughtful form to the city, many of the New Urbanist projects (which are larger in scale the farther out from the urban core) add bland, living-over-retail or office-over-retail streetfronts. These developments cherry-pick from New Urbanism what developers and city planners can agree upon: traditional architecture, vertical stacking of uses, and selective relaxation of land use codes.

Although the New Urbanist projects have contributed to Orlando’s messy vitality, it has also worsened traffic since one has to drive from cluster development to cluster development. And it also contributes to Orlando’s tax base, because New Urbanism, as implemented in Orlando, comes at a cost premium over suburban development. This guarantees developers only propose projects where they can make the most money. It also reflects the most glaring problem New Urbanism in its current form: it leaves behind the rest of us.

In reality although form-based codes claim to improve the city’s form, they also create a host of non-form social, traffic, income disparity, and employment problems for the city to solve. To improve social involvement, attract and retain meaningful employment, and deliver a safe and secure envelope is very hard work. Citizens should care what their city looks like. However, for the city to focus overly on form, placing aesthetics above the older, more proven values is not the way to create successful places that work primarily for people, not architects.

Richard Reep is an Architect and artist living in Winter Park, Florida. His practice has centered around hospitality-driven mixed use, and has contributed in various capacities to urban mixed-use projects, both nationally and internationally, for the last 25 years.

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The Amphibious Car.........

The amphibious Aquada is part speedboat, part car. The convertible has a steering wheel in the middle of the front seat and no doors. The Aquada can make dreams come true, for those that can afford it. The Aquada is an amphibious car, a car that doubles as a watercraft. A personal model has been a dream of many people since a Lotus Espirit was seen transforming into a submarine in The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the James Bond movies starring Roger Moore. It's quite a personal loan to get one, as it goes for about $85,000. It handles well in and out of the water, with speeds over 100 mph dry, and up to 30 knots in the water. The transformation takes 12 seconds, faster than the fastest short-term loans, to get the Aquada into boat mode.

What's the beef?

Again, you are taking New Urbanists to task because they don't solve every problem. It's not about solving every problem, it's about improving on current practices. Let's take the argument that NU's do not create an "economic base" first. Well, who does? Does a conventional subdivider worry about that? No. He builds houses, and if he's lucky, can convince the locality to rezone some land for strip commercial at the main entrance. The NU developer at least tries to integrate the commercial into the pedestrian fabric of his subdivision to cut down on unnecessary vehicle trips. The only subdividers who ever successfully created an economic base first were the builders of company towns, and I can't recall any of those being created in the past 50 years.

I don't know exactly what the NU consultants are proposing for Thornton Park, but I doubt that they are as dogmatic as the caricature you present, and you fail to explain why their proposals are in conflict with creating an economic base. Furthermore, since when do NUs have a problem with on-street parking? I have never heard anyone make this accusation before. They do have a problem with off-street parking in front of buildings, because of the garagescapes and dead zones it tends to create.

The issue of affordability is not inherent to NU projects. Any development that is functional, attractive, and well-located is able to command a price premium, which any sensible developer will fully capitalize on, unless he is mission-driven. If you increase the number of similar competing products, the prices will go down because of competition. The only way you can build functional, attractive, well-located and affordable housing in a city without large swaths of vacant land is to build at higher density and/or subsidize it. NU developers are at at least amenable to supplying that higher density, if permitted by the locality.

You say that cities should not obsess about form, because it gets in the way of other objectives. But cities already have regulations that address form--indirectly. Use-based zoning, building codes, fire codes, and public works standards all influence form, in an uncoordinated and unconscious fashion. The as-built results are unsatisfactory to many. Shouldn't we at least make form a conscious process? Form is going to be regulated regardless. The public seems to like NU ideas where form is concerned, so how is this worse than the status quo?

I could go on if I had time, but I have to stop there.

Thoughtful article

I am not an "urban expert".
I just happen to live in a wonderful neighborhood built in the 1930s in Denver.
I also pay attention to what is happening vis à vis renewal in my city.

I think that some chaos is necessary and it is this that "planners" abhor. THEY want to be in control. When the new urbanists plan a community that includes class-D space from the git-go, then I might have more faith in it.

Dave Barnes

painful article

Half of this article is strawman argument after strawman argument attacking some imagined New Urbanist caricature.

As for the rest, much of it is just wrong. How do new New Urbanist developments worsen traffic *more than a new conventional development*? Sure, most developments don't address all or even most of their residents' needs. The status quo is much worse and involves more driving.

How is price an inherent problem of New Urbanism? If there is a limited supply of something that is in high demand, it will be expensive. That accurately describes New Urbanist housing. How is that a fault of the design philosophy itself?

How can you describe the development that results from use-based zoning as organic? It is nothing of the sort. Use-based codes are more of a "strict planning theology" than form-based codes. I don't know enough about form-based codes to say that they're the right way to go, but you haven't made the case for use-based codes at all. The "older, more proven values" of use-based codes have resulted in cities that are pedestrian-hostile and require a car to survive. This is not a sustainable direction, and in my opinion, it wouldn't be desirable even if it was sustainable.

This article is irredeemable.