Rise of the Mixed-Use Monoliths

Maitland mixed use RTR.jpg

Density rules new development. From Florida to Texas to points west, city boosters herald a mixture of apartments and shops as an improvement on local 'density'. Dense development can be well designed, and can contribute to the form of a city, but the new density’s formulaic style is a crossbreed of strip shopping centers joined with 1980s apartment complexes. Instead of a newly walkable urban environment, we are spawning more traffic than ever, in uninspired, pricey, new trophy projects that adorn our busy highways and replace quirky, individualistic neighborhoods with soulless, mock historic monoliths.

The official name for the form of these developments is “urban mixed use,” but they are a far cry from city-center urbanity. Each new development is a variation on beige stucco and predictable planning. A mixed-use development is not a bad thing in and of itself; for every 200-unit mixed use development in the works, 200 acres of Florida’s wilderness is kept for future generations. Their repetitive nature, however, is depressing. Nowhere is this more evident than along the ten-mile Central Florida strip called US 17-92, where five of these developments are in various stages of life.

US highways 17 and 92 combine south of Orlando to create a six-lane artery running north through several towns before splitting up once again, 17 going northwest and 92 going northeast. One response to the highway is the eccentric, prosperous community of Maitland, with 17-92 as its main street.

Premodern Maitland still exists, from the unpainted vernacular architecture of the Holly Anna orange grove store all the way up to the last vestiges of Parker’s Lumber, a railside lumberyard that dates from the 1920s. Both signal an era when Maitland actually produced something. The town's rather elegant, light brick church tower and the angled, delicate columns of Maitland Plaza, an office complex, indicate Maitland’s midcentury phase, that once-hopeful era when architecture smiled at tailfins and speed.

Maitland, however, bought big into the new density storyline. At 17-92 and Lake Avenue the first in its collection was Victorian flavored, with a foil-lined particleboard tower thrust high over the empty storefronts lining the narrow sidewalk. Chunky columns rest between the storefronts, and thin-skinned apartments perch above whizzing cars.

That development sits across from the venerable Lake Maitland Terrace, a 1960s era resort-style campus sensibly buffered from the roar of traffic by green trees and a lawn. Lake Maitland Terrace has a waiting list, and is memorably well detailed in precast concrete, built to last. But living over a busy commercial strip is in vogue today, so we can’t seem to produce any more Lake Maitland Terraces. Instead, we have the empty mixed-use hulk across the street, harbinger of more to come.

And more have arrived, indeed. Maitland’s newer mixed-use experiments are beige neoclassical foam and stucco, looking vaguely like excrescences of Mediterranean and Victorian-town villages. The newest development-in-process promises “gathering… entertainment… living… swimming…” under the baleful stare of city hall’s recent stucco-and-foam tower looming in the background.

Enthusiasm for these places has worn off among long-time Central Floridians, and reality has set in. Each one resembles the last more and more, as developers fine-tune the machine that pumps out mixed-use developments with alarming regularity. The public is already suspicious of them, pointing to more congested traffic, rising prices, and the banishment of individual businesses in favor of the chain stores. Gone are entrepreneurs building businesses, replaced by minimum-wage clerks and a store manager working for the somewhere-out-of- state home office.

The design formula appears to mix a little bit of stacked stone (for authenticity’s sake), beige stucco smeared liberally over large, puffy columns, and a shopping-center canopy facing a parking lot. A narrow concrete sidewalk turns depressingly nasty when it gets to the apartment complex, where the outdoor entry corridor inevitably takes over – a no-man’s land of trash cans, aluminum mailboxes, and iron bar security gates. Apartment floor plans still have a couple variations on the one and two bedroom schemes, with living rooms that don’t quite fit the furniture found in Ikea.

Maitland, in particular, has succumbed to a mock-historical design aesthetic of boxy architecture, carriage lanterns, and scrolled gewgaws. This city, when left to its own design aesthetic, commissions monuments along US 17-92 that nicely reference its own original architecture, a 1930s art colony built in a fantasy Mayan style. Originality, however, is out with the builders of the new density.

Further north lies Altamonte Springs. Here, the developers went for an early Soviet Union period style, Floridified, with giant, pyramid-hatted apartments. These overlook Crane’s Roost, a pretty lake that is now over-engineered with parking along its banks. Planned with good intentions, the architecture falls apart upon closer inspection, its chief design innovation being a dark red three-story stucco wall along the sidewalk, perfect for absorbing the hot Florida sun. It almost makes me nostalgic for my 1980-vintage apartment complex with its slanted redwood siding and river-rock balcony.

What unites all of these developments is their earnest puffery. Each is styled with gaudy mascara and rouge to look like something it is not. This is the DNA inherited from their ancestor, the shopping center. They all have large fat columns, thickened corners, and Neanderthal eyebrows to give them a sense of heaviness. But if you watch them under construction, you will see lots of metal or wood studs: they are hollow inside.

Grafted onto this mask is an apartment block, but not one like the brownstones of old. These have no connection whatsoever to the street – no stoop or entry door on the sidewalk. Brownstones had architectural scale and character made famous by Ada Louise Huxtable; for example, she could date one by the lintels over the windows. No such luck here. The only decoration that adorns the exterior façade is a stucco control joint pattern.

It’s as if every movie has to have blockbuster special effects, and can’t just tell a good story with actors anymore. By contrast, these developments replace a midcentury minimalism of architecture with a now- lost delicacy. Lake Maitland Terrace wasn't special before the rise of mixed-use properties along the highway, but it was about itself, and nothing else: it didn’t pretend to be a Victorian main street or a Mediterranean hill town. With no special effects budget, it simply offered good views and workable, decent floor plans.

I don't believe that the hollowness marking the current taste in commercial development reflects the taste of everyone who actually uses it. Many of these places are vacant, a wave of retail space crashing upon us just in time for the online shopping trend. Welcome to the new America.

What can we, as local users, do to combat this? Humanize them, renovate them, and add our own local color as they get older. Steer them closer to our own specific pathways. A certain sidewalk here might get a sun shade or a trellis added to shade it, converting it from an oven to a lovely pocket park.

The spaces that we love in our town grew that way over time. We cannot let these hollow, mixed-use monoliths defeat or dispirit us. They are here to stay, and more are coming, so our job is now to take ownership of these buildings and start individualizing them. The sooner we can inflict the spirit of place upon them, they will cease being monstrosities, and become members of our own community of buildings.

Richard Reep is an architect with VOA Associates, Inc. who has designed award-winning urban mixed-use and hospitality projects. His work has been featured domestically and internationally for the last thirty years. An Adjunct Professor for the Environmental and Growth Studies Department at Rollins College, he teaches urban design and sustainable development; he is also president of the Orlando Foundation for Architecture. Reep resides in Winter Park, Florida with his family.

Photo of Maitland by the author


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Mixed Use

Your comments were spot on... however, the argument that high density somehow preserves that 200 acres elsewhere is pure fantasy. The only way that could be true is if the developer actually purchased the 200 acres of developable land and dedicated it as a preserve - and I'm not aware of ANY Mixed Use development that had actually done that! All that will happen is that supposed 200 acres will eventually get developed. Minneapolis has many mixed use developments - all seeming designed by the same architect - the trendy mix of cubism with some metal and some brick - all which over time have become as replicated as that suburban home in the suburbs they complain about - in other words, the supposed problem they solve will simply fall out of flavor just like the mansard roofs of the past, or the awful multi-colored towers that became a blemish along the I-94 corridor at the University of Minnesota. What looks cool to some today can become a problem in the future.

Perhaps, one reason for the mindless replication of architectural style is software that has buttons you can press to add a certain style to a building, or perhaps we have lost the ability to actually become inventive designers (at least here in the midwest).

As far as mixed use, I'm taking a developer on tour today to show the multiple failed mixed use developments with 'for lease' signs in almost every shop window... Yes, some have most, if not all housing units rented because of the recession (when people lost their homes). However, as we recover, those residents and the Millennials are now purchasing homes again. Before the recession there were about 5,000 empty condo units downtown Minneapolis - now we have a ton more multi-family units built... what will happen when we get back to 'normal' and the majority of residents become home owners and not renters? Will the mixed-use projects be as empty in their housing units as their commercial square footage? Of course - this is just opinion and I could be wrong, but opinion based upon five decades of observation on the national housing market.

Either/or versus both/and

Mr. Harrison,

Your comment caused me to do a little research and, unfortunately, your thesis of both/and is indeed the way Florida operates. Our regulatory system guarantees that both the 200 in-town AND the 200 suburban units will be developed.

The way it does this is by a flat impact fee structure - you pay as much for a residential unit on an existing road as you do if the municipality must build a new road to it. So this does not incentivize one type of development over the other. If anything, it subsidizes dispersion.

Florida's most stressed resource is water; and with this resource both of these scenarios are also equal to developers. The only benefit is to the the user, who will use more in the suburbs to water his lawn. This benefit, however, does not count when choosing to invest in land to develop.

Like a bus that takes a few cars off the road, an in-town mixed-use can take a few single family homes off the land. I don't know about Minneapolis, but in Central Florida this choice has been lacking. A little, however, goes a long way, and oversupply is distinctly on the horizon. I just wish they incorporated more spaces of production rather than consumption, and they were a little more thoughtful in their design.

Richard T. Reep, AIA, LEED-AP
Adjunct Professor, Rollins College
Senior Designer, VOA Associates Inc.