The Best Cottage Court Guy I know

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Front row left to right; Bruce Tolar, Steve Mouzon, Jason Spellings, and Jene Ray Barranco.

Last weekend I was working on a charrette crew that included my colleague and partner, Bruce B. Tolar.  Searching through my hard drive today I came across my (improvised) remarks from when the New Urban Guild gave the 2015 Barranco Award to Bruce, the Developer/Builder of Cottage Square in Ocean Springs Mississippi.

“For those of us who knew Michael Barranco and were there for the Katrina charrettes, this is a person who really made a mark on our lives, not just because we showed up and did work together, but because his character was such that it was like playing in a pro-am: You really upped your game when playing around Michael. Very genuine. No artifice. No phoniness. He was genuinely concerned about every person he ever met, and wanted everyone’s life to be better. He decided that architecture was his way to do that.

With his passing, there is a hole in the CNU, but the New Urban Guild offers the Barranco Award to practitioners who are that kind of stand-up guy. It’s about the character with which you comport yourself. It’s about how hungry you are to learn. It’s about how much you care about your community. It’s about how much you love and encourage your fellow-citizens. With that said, I’d like to introduce you to this year’s award-winner, Bruce Tolar, through some of his work. <begin slides of Bruce’s projects>

The original Katrina Cottage which by itself was great, but Bruce took it out of the total chaos and mayhem and bad financial circumstances that were pretty much an everyday deal in Ocean Springs at that time, and all along the coast. And from nothing, he created the peaceful excellence of Cottage Square, where he put the pieces together into something amazing which that community cherishes. It has even become a tourist destination. Imagine that: an interim housing solution after a hurricane has become a tourist destination!

So Bruce pulled together all the Katrina Cottages that were built as prototypes for demonstration purposes and brought them to Cottage Square. And he made something out of the pieces, just as we all try to do, which is to aggregate a great place from small incremental parts. It is a modest place, with gravel sidewalks; a place where you can operate a tiny business out of those tiny buildings. And the community that has formed there has become a real anchor to Ocean Springs. From there, Bruce launched an expansion, which was an incredibly ambitious project in a place governed by FEMA… <cough> <laughs and applause> … a terrible environment to work under, but he is doing amazing, excellent work with modest little pieces.

He reached out to nonprofits in the area; he connects with so many people; he’s been in that town forever, serving on many boards; and the idea that there was something to be done after a hurricane, and fixing civilization in general, was a natural thing for Bruce. The people love this neighborhood. The nonprofits he’s been working with have been tremendously empowered by seeing one guy’s ability to put people together and make things work. Bruce is the best design caulking gun you can imagine, pulling everything together on modest means and making things happen. So with that, I’d like to present this year’s Barranco Award to Bruce Tolar.”

If you are traveling along the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Mobile you should give yourself a treat and stop to walk around Cottage Square.  It is a special place built in tough circumstances by a remarkable guy.

Does Your Town Need an Authentic Asshole?

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Atlanta Small Developer Boot Camp – October 2015

 

One of the themes I have seen following the recent election, is that many people are tired of being talked down to by people who seem to think they are better.  Call it a backlash against smugness, for lack of a more precise term.  Recently I proposed that for people trying to build better places, the alternative to smugness would be to become authentic assholes. I am serious on this point.  Authenticity appears to be the quality that lets you get a partial pass on being an asshole, as long as you don’t talk down to people..

I’m directing this approach to the Architects, Engineers, Planners, Policy Folks, and Academics who are members of the Congress for the New Urbanism or similar place making advocacy groups.  If being the fancy people who know stuff, (the people perceived as smug or condescending) is not working, then let’s not be those people.  Let’s be authentic assholes.

The fire marshal’s mandate is not a collection of sincere feelings that we should help the community process through group hugs. It’s bullshit that hurts the town. Some asshole needs to call the fire marshall out for being part of a calcified over-reach that makes no sense.

Off-Street Parking minimums? More bullshit that needs to be called out. Municipalities completely suck at guessing how much parking is going to be needed for all possible land uses, and the community was wrong to give them that job. The result was they picked numbers that produced fewer complaints and phone calls. Some asshole needs to call out that lazy bullshit in stark terms and poison the well. Make the position of advocating for such nonsense so awful that anyone who defends parking minimums (or maximums) is discredited for being a lazy bullshitter.

You want to make a difference at the local or regional level? Become a developer or a builder. Free yourself from the shackles of propriety and elaborate argument. Every community needs people who can build and rebuild the place. That’s where we can find our place in the moral, economic, and cultural fabric of a place. Architects, Engineers, Planners, Academics have a professional obligation to at least appear to be interested in making the city a better place with ideas. People who are fearful see a host of horrible outcomes, real or imagined, when ideas are advanced in clumsy ways disconnected from the base concerns of daily life. Developers and builders are not burdened with those expectations and when the dust clears there are buildings built or rebuilt, people find benefit in the buildings or they don’t. (–Keep in mind that the bar for a decent building or street is quite low many places). Nobody expects virtue from a developer. They may look to exact virtuous action from the developer under duress, but they really do not expect it as a natural expression of what is in the developer’s greasy soul. An exaction or tax is often given reluctantly, out of resignation.  An unexpected gift can be a sincere expression of our better nature.

This is a framing thing. When New Urbanists propose a better place that starts to sound like some kind of utopia and the built effort that follows only delivers 68% utopia, folks get disappointed and pissed off because their high expectations (however unreasonable) have not been met. If a developer commits to meet all local codes and regulations and to deliver something the market seems to want and the built result is 32% utopia, people are accepting and sometimes even happy, because their low expectations have been exceeded.

Be virtuous in your heart, but don’t wear it on your sleeve. Be cunning and deliberate. Have a plan for your neighborhood. Gather resources that others cannot access. If we can be the people who actually get stuff built during a recession (And that stuff doesn’t suck), if we can build well, despite the severe shortage of skilled construction labor, who is going to mess with us at the local level?

If you would like a glimpse of what an insurgency of Small and determined developers might look like, wander over to the Small Developer/Builders Group on Facebook and see what those folks are talking about. We worked to keep the group fairly politics-free. If you are not on Facebook, find somebody who is and they can guide you.  Come to a Small Developer Workshop where you will meet folks who are serious about making a difference in their neighborhoods (even if other people think they are assholes).

Nobody suspects virtue in a developer. You can pick the opportunity to surprise them. Under-promise and then over-deliver.

Let’s Line the Edges of Parking Lots with Small Shop Front Buildings.

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I think there are lots of great precedents for small single story main street buildings that work well.  Above are some studies David Kim and Will Dowdy did on small, shallow storefront spaces that could be used as parking lot liners or in conjunction  with small apartment buildings and cottage courts located behind the small commercial/flex building to provide mixed use without requiring the use of commercial steel pipe fire sprinklers that can be required if the residential and non-residential Occupancy Types were combined into in one mixed use building.
The intent was provide a wide/shallow space that could be flexible.  We settled on a depth of 26′ as this leaves an 18′ dimension between the 8 x 8 accessible restroom and the storefront.  We were also looking to keep any columns or other intermediate structure out of the floor plan and 20′-32′ of depth is readily spanned without going nuts on the truss design.  You can get pre-engineered bar joists at 40′ long, but we wanted to keep the construction technique within the skills of residential trades.
Keeping the depth modest allows for daylighting of the space from a transom and light shelf over the storefront and awning.  Spaces this small are easily heated and cooled with a ductless mini-split heat pump/air conditioner.
Using a single pitch roof truss, sloping from the street side to the rear, with a parapet on the street side can provide lots of room for signage, while screening compressors or kitchen hood fans from the street view. 

Buildings that are flexible enough to house small and inexpensive workspace for retail, services, food and drink, etc. should be in the Small Developer’s tool box.  You may know an under-utilized parking lot that could be lined with something like this.  Could be good way to follow up on testing the location with some food carts.

Steve Mouzon has some very interesting thoughts along these lines.  His blog has better production values than mine does, so I encourage you to click through and check it out.  Steve Mouzon’s Blog Original Green

You’re an Urbanist? Excellent. Why Aren’t You a Developer Yet?

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A napkin sketch showing how to add an attached ADU and a detached ADU to a small existing house on a 50′ x 100′ lot in Portland, OR.

I continue to ask Urbanists “why aren’t you a developer yet?” That’s a sincere and serious question. I am serious about recruiting Architects, planners, engineers, activists who consider themselves to be urbanists (New or otherwise) into the ranks of the small developer cohort because I think it is the best way for an urbanist to have an impact in a place they care about. If you have devoted thousand of hours of study and practice to what makes a good place, why leave the construction and renovation of buildings to developers? This question becomes a bit more pointed when you recognize that many conventional developers are doing work in urban settings under duress or without much of a clue how to make their efforts fit a more urban context.  I think the typical generalist/urbanist will do a better job than whatever big development outfits are working in their city.

While Urbanists are working to heal the city or build better places, they should hang onto some of the buildings that get built/rebuilt along the way.  Having a modest portfolio of buildings that pay rent will help them weather the next recession.  (It is really hard to make a living doing fee for service or consulting work when nothing is getting built).

With those reasons in mind, we still need to have a sober and realistic grasp of what is involved for someone making a transition to become a developer, given the arena they are likely to operate in.  This stuff ain’t easy.

People tend to think that all real estate developers make a ton of money, because some developers have.  For every major league star in the real estate game there are scores of people hustling to make a living by making their neighborhood better.  Lots of people are fooled by the guy in the nice suit driving a  very nice leased vehicle.

I don’t know how people arrive at the amount of money they assume is made on a development project. The assumptions may be ridiculous, but until somebody actually goes through the process, it is not reasonable to expect them to know the math.

I also recognize that until you can demonstrate otherwise, a new developer is part of a disgraced enterprise. So folks considering taking up this work should not expect thanks or regard.  Start small. Hustle on a small project will help you acquire the know how and relationships that will make larger or more complex projects possible, but hustle will only take you so far and you don’t want to get into a project that will turn you into a former developer because it is too big or complicated.

She tells this story way better than I do…

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Sarah Kobos, the Bard of Tulsa

 

Writing is hard.  Sarah makes it look easy.  Take a look at how she describes the mechanics of a team exercise from the Incremental Development Alliance’s Small Developer Boot Camp.  She lays out that rather technical set of tasks and rolls right into the real world limitations of the moldering zoning codes you find in most cities these days.

Accidental Urbanist

My favorite quote from Sarah:

“Everyone has sexy dreams, but as a developer it’s important to maintain a long-term, monogamous relationship with math.”

 

 

Building Houses or Condo’s for Sale? Bad Dog Ginger!

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The wisdom of Gary Larson’s Far Side
This afternoon I got another phone call from someone convinced that they should develop condominiums and sell them. I am really struggling to find a better way to communicate on this really basic point. I feel like the guy in the Far Side cartoon above.
 
If you have the know how required to produce buildings that people live and/or work in, using that very valuable resource to produce houses or condos that you sell to people has a huge opportunity cost.  Opportunity cost is a big deal, as in lost opportunity and wasted opportunity.  What else could you have been doing instead of building and selling?
I cannot emphasize this enough. If you have the wherewithal to build something, Don’t sell it.  Hold onto it and rent out space in your building. The market for new or renovated rental buildings is hugely under-supplied in most markets, particularly in anything even remotely resembling walkable urbanism.  There are lots of places where a couple of decent buildings will have a wonderful effect upon the neighborhood.  The people who fill in the missing teeth in the neighborhood will do well, while doing good.
 
Our culture has created completely unrealistic expectations for what is supposed to happen when you buy a home. Avoid putting yourself in a place where you have to deliver on all the delusional nonsense that fills the heads of people who watch too much HGTV. Build to hold and rent. Build in places where the amenities are exotic stuff like proximity to transit, day care, $2 coffee and a genuine local bar.

How do you know there is a demand for decent renovated or new apartments close to food, drink and day care?

 

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The Blenheim Apartments in Denver.

In most places the demand is large and the supply is pretty damned small.  So just how large is the demand?  If we were able to wave a wand and redirect the entire US housing industry to deliver only new rental housing in walkable urban places tomorrow, we would not catch up with the demand until 2050

If you understand urban places and have the ability to produce modest buildings for a living, I encourage you to figure out how to build apartment buildings and mixed use buildings, rent them out and and hold onto them. You should look for opportunities to do this in walkable or even marginally walkable places.  Avoid completely car dependent locations so you don’t have to build swimming pools nobody uses.
If you are a contractor, I think this might work out better than building for other people.  If you are an Architect or urban designer I think this will work out better than performing fee for service design or consulting work.
If this seems like a crazy idea, please read Arthur C. Nelson’s book Reshaping Metropolitan America and give it a a little more consideration.
Here is a link to Dr. Nelson’s entire data set (in excel file format).
Go ahead and download it and poke around.  At a minimum, cruising through the spreadsheet will make you want to read the book , where Dr. Nelson very helpfully explains what all these data mean. I suspect that if you are half as geeky about this stuff as I am, you will hone in on the place where you live to see what the housing future holds for a place you care about.
 You can look up your Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and find out the annual demand for new rental apartments is going to be in your place.  Then hop over to the US Census website to look at how many multifamily building permits were issued in your county in 2014 and 2015.  http://censtats.census.gov/bldg/bldgprmt.shtml
For example, I live in Albuquerque.  In the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County MSA, the annual demand for new rental units, according to Dr. Nelson is 4,000 units.  Imagine that a quarter of those units get delivered by the apartment fairy in the form of converted single family houses and the demand number comes down to 3,000 units.
In 2014 there were 400 units built in Bernalillo County, so the short fall of 2,600 would roll over into 2015.  add the conservative number of 3,000 units for 2015 and that comes to a demand for 5,600 new rental units.  I check in on the permit activity for the City of Albuquerque and the number for the city (admittedly not the entire MSA) for 2015 was 570.  So now the demand for 2016 is something over 8,000.    Vacancy for apartments in Albuquerque over the last couple years has been less than 2% (–about what you would see when apartments need to be repainted and re-carpeted between tenants)  Rents have gone up 5-10% a year in this market with the higher rents in the walkable parts of town.
Is your area any different?  Do you see an opportunity?