Too Much of a Good Thing

(T Wall Enterprises)

(T Wall Enterprises)

There’s a significant difference between consistency and mimicry. One helps neighborhoods thrive and one makes them boring.

Imagine the best urban housing design. It’s probably 3-5 stories, natural stone or brick, large windows, sidewalk access, some creative colors, window boxes, walk ups. Great stuff.

But imagine the same design repeated for blocks and blocks. Imagine the same design repeated in every new development. Suddenly, your neighborhood—and entire cities—begin to feel artificial.

Take, for example, the emergence of the retro baseball stadium design. In 1992, Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore lit a revolution in stadium design with a beautiful brick and steel retro structure. Evoking the classic days of early-20th century baseball, the stadium was a hit.

Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Photo by Keith Allison)

Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (Photo by Keith Allison)

Soon, other cities borrowed the same principals. 20 other new Major League Baseball stadiums have opened since 1992, and just about all of them followed the same brick and exposed steel concept. By the time you got to Citi Field in Queens in 2009, it looked like a massive copycat operation. It wasn’t bad, it was just tired.

The same goes for urban housing, commercial and retail development. We see developers locking themselves into the same cookie-cutter façade each and every time. Hey, if it worked the last 20 times, it will work this time, right? Hey if it worked in one neighborhood, it will work in all of them, right?

Just this week, the Madison Plan Commission approved a new 189-unit apartment building in my neighborhood. It’s okay. I would say it’s better than the empty crane lot that currently sits at the corner of Mifflin and Livingston. It’s not horrible and it’s not ugly. It’s probably too massive for the site in reality, but it’s not horrendous.

That’s probably why my neighborhood council gave in a neutral opinion. Because it’s nothing interesting. In fact, it just looks really similar to other designs by the same developer.

There’s no indication that the architect gave any thought to creating a unique development for our unique neighborhood. It was designed in a vacuum and looks like dozens of other apartment buildings in the city.

Thanks to the dedication of neighbors and city commissions, the design has improved over the initial renderings. But in the end, our neighborhood gains a structure that will evoke nothing more than a, “meh.”

When you stare at this development in 18 months, there would be no way of knowing which of 30 recent apartment buildings in the city you were actually looking at.

Are we on Park Street or Livingston Street?

Are we on Park Street or Livingston Street?

We’re reaching a point where buildings, like the one soon to rise in my neighborhood, have become so overdone that they will tarnish neighborhoods.

New density is great. Urban infill is great. More housing is great.

But is it too much to demand a bit of neighborhood-appropriate creativity from our local architects?

There really can be too much of a good thing.