Don’t Fear the Incompatibility

A few weeks ago Opticos Design released their diagnosis of the city’s current land development code. As part of the process related to that document’s release, city staff has scheduled a number of “CodeTALKS,” which are envisioned as “a series of community conversations on the key issues identified in the Land Development Code Diagnosis.” While the topic of the first CodeTALK, “compatibility,” isn’t mentioned anywhere in the diagnosis document, it should have been, so the decision to address compatibility is a welcome one.

Needless to say, “compatibility” is a loaded term, and many others have tackled the subject. Chris Bradford has covered how Austin’s version of “compatibility” severely limits the height of buildings across the city. Ben Ross has argued that the very term “compatibility” is little more than a euphemism for status, and Daniel Kay Hertz has shown the (incompatible) buildings of Chicago’s Hyde Park and facetiously noted that “modern zoning saves us from this sort of hellscape.”

I’d like to extend that last point with some examples from Fort Greene, Brooklyn. I stayed in an Airbnb on Clinton Ave for three weeks in the winter, and while it was immediately apparent how special the built environment was, it was hardly an appropriate time to take pictures as there was no sun, denuded trees, and grimy black snow everywhere. Thankfully, I was back in NYC this past weekend for my brother’s birthday, and rode a citibike down to Fort Greene to take pictures.

Let’s start with the single-family homes on the block:

Single Family Home on Clinton Ave

Single Family Home on Clinton Ave

This house sits on a fairly Austin-sized lot, 5,040 sf, but with a gross floor area of 5,280 sf, you could never build something similar here on account of our McMansion ordinance. You’ll also notice there’s a larger building directly next door. We’ll get back to that, but first let me show that this kind of building is by no means the outlier on the block. Here’s another across the street:

Another beautiful single-family residence, right? It certainly looks that way, but it isn’t. This is actually a 7-unit multi-family building. This one occupies a 9,000 sf lot, but that’s hardly unheard of in Austin’s urban core neighborhoods. To take but one example, the Hyde Park (Austin) house where Sheryl Cole held her campaign kickoff campaign sits on a 26,000 sf lot! Back to Brooklyn, the “house” above covers 13,600 sf of gross floor area, which gives a very family-friendly average unit size of almost 2,000 sf (it’s a walk-up, and too small for any real amenities, so I doubt the common areas take up much space). And here’s another example:

clinton_av_mansion_apt_2

This one is also on a 9,000 sf lot, but includes 12 units (60 du/ac!) and over 21,500 sf of gross floor area. I suspect this one, and the earlier example, were originally built as palatial single-family residences and as the market shifted, the structures were repurposed as multi-family dwellings. Ok, ok, so the block has a number of nice old buildings, but they’re all pretty “compatible,” right? No quite. Take a look at what’s next door to the one above:

Varying setback, different types of buildings, uniformly awesome.

Varying setback, different types of buildings, uniformly awesome.

A couple row-houses (also divided into multi-family units), a couple row houses in a very different architectural style, and an apartment block. Amazing, right? How about the other direction?

clinton_av_streetscape_2

Our original “house” is the one visible behind the trees, and directly next door is one of the 14-story towers of the Clinton Hill Cooperative Apartments. 14 stories? Next door to a “single family” home?!?! OMG, THE BLEEDING!!!1 And there’s even more mis-matched buildings when you get to the corner.

clinton_av_corner_apts

And at the other end of the block, the rest of the cooperative apartments follow a classic “tower in a park” form.

clinton_av_towers

But add it all up, and here’s what it feels like to walk the streets:

clinton_av_sidewalk

Or a little ways down:

clinton_av_sidewalk_2

It has an incredible texture, one that feels entirely natural and approachable. It’s a quiet residential street with an amazing “character.” There’s nothing that feels “incompatible” even though I’m sure every building would violate the compatibility requirements of Austin’s code.

Oh, and the area is dense enough that a volunteer out to register voters last Saturday could just sit on a corner and talk to the people walking by. She didn’t need to go find some big event with lots people. She could go to them, right in their neighborhood (and likely hers as well). Try that on an average neighborhood corner in Austin and you’ll be lucky to see a dozen people all day long.

If we want great neighborhoods like this, it’s time to stop fearing incompatibility and embrace it with open arms.

Note: Explore the block for yourself on Google Street View.

  • neil21

    Is there really no merit to further analysis here? Is there some level of abstraction at which these forms could be by-the-book compatible?

    For example, all but the 14 story tower-in-park look fairly T3,4,5 to me. They have varying setbacks, but generally the bigger buildings are set forward and the smaller set back with front yards. The front yards are still defined by a wall, unlike the tower-in-park.

    Was there noticeably any difference in pedestrian count in front of the 14-story vs the others? I’d suspect less lingering there.

  • Chris Lazaro

    Other than the fact this level of architectural detail would be prohibitively expensive to build today, I completely agree with your observations. And, aside from people who want to live on large plots of land (not people we’re having the urbanism argument with anyway), I can’t imagine why people wouldn’t want to live on a street like this.

  • At least there’s a continuous sidewalk here, unlike in many many places in Austin. I’ll take a continuous sidewalk every day of the week over “compatibility.”

    Neil from reading your comment I still don’t understand why proscribing setbacks is a good thing, necessary, or present in every/most great cityscapes.

  • As I posted on Cory’s blog, anyone who is afraid of eyestrain due to varying building heights or setbacks should avoid going to Asian hellholes such as Tokyo and Seoul (among others). They might go blind.