Repeating the mistakes of the past

The Silver Palm Place apartment project consists of 120 apartment units on the site of Dunbar Village, a housing project with a very troubled history. Jane Jacobs provides the best insights into why these types of ‘barracks style’ housing projects failed in the first place [Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 20]:

One of the unsuitable ideas behind projects is the very notion that they are projects, abstracted out of the ordinary city and set apart. To think of salvaging or improving projects, as projects, is to repeat this root mistake. The aim should be to get that project, that patch upon the city, rewoven back into the fabric – and in the process of doing so, strengthen the surrounding fabric too.

So the goal here needs to be incorporating the new site plan into the street grid, weaving it into the fabric of the neighborhood rather than make it a place ‘other than.’ That was the first failing of the original Dunbar Village and so many public housing projects nationwide. Reconnecting the Dunbar Village site back into the neighborhood was the recommendation in the Coleman Park Neighborhood Improvements Plan (below) as well, based on input from neighborhood residents, stakeholders, professional planners and architects.



Unfortunately the current site plan is sorely lacking in street connectivity as currently proposed:

Site plan, with my comments in red
Site plan, with my comments in red

The buildings are inward-facing in a ‘garden apartment’ style. Garden apartments are designed with a 10-15 year life as desirable product, after which time these stick built properties inevitably decline. The garden apartment builder builds for the 5 to 7 year holding period. Oftentimes gated and with roving security, these properties can maintain themselves as safe and desirable communities in the short term. In the long term, as the properties age and they are outdone by newer deliveries, cutbacks in roving security and maintenance can exacerbate their decline. It appears from the report this property will be neither gated nor have roving security. It is good it is not gated for all the reasons Jane Jacobs states above; however, this means the property needs to embrace the neighborhood, not turn its back to it. Natural surveillance or ‘eyes on the street’ will be in integral part of the proper functioning and security of this site.

What this projects represents is a dangerous hybrid: Neither fully city nor gated garden apartment. The clear path forward is to embrace the city and reweave the site back into the neighborhood, but this cannot be accomplished through half measures. In fact, a compromised approach would confer little of the benefits of ordinary neighborhood functioning (aka ‘city’) without the paid security measures found in garden apartments.

The parking deserves its own special scorn. Our nonsensical parking approach punishes the person choosing to walk, ride a bicycle, or take public transportation, while rewarding those who drive. The bicyclist will be greeted by a non-street; a sea of parking, and provided with 8 total bicycle racks for the entire 120 unit project! Costs for gas, insurance, and car payments eat up household budgets, and the cost of vehicle ownership is estimated at well over $9,000 per year. In a neighborhood with a median household income of $13,761 in 2012, to build in a style that basically requires a car shows a callous disregard for the realities and needs on the ground. What purpose do minimum parking requirements serve here, other than to further impoverish the residents?

Data from ArcGIS
Data from ArcGIS

The arrangement of head-in parking will create light pollution from headlights at nighttime to those unlucky enough to live on the parking lot side of the project, and will provide a breeding ground for crime as the natural street surveillance will be ineffective, instead replaced by the social dynamics of a parking lot. In this environment, the residents of the community can be overwhelmed by strangers parking in front of their homes and essentially exerting control over the space between buildings.

The Staff report contains many good observations by Mr. John Roach, lead planner on the site, as well as crucial recommendations for improving the site plan. Mr. Roach must have read Jane Jacobs. Below are the recommended conditions to the approval and several images depicting the recommended changes. See Staff Report starting at page 45 for the analysis ACM_20296:

1. A street grid shall be provided throughout the Dunbar Village site that ties into the existing neighborhood streets. This network should include complete east/west connections through the entire site at 17th Street and Adams Street, as well as a north/south connection from 15th Street to the approved senior housing complex. The street grid should represent urban neighborhood streets with narrow travel lanes, parallel on-street parking, sidewalks, crosswalk, street trees, traffic calming, etc.

2. The overall development style shall be that of smaller building footprints with walk-up units that front directly onto the desired neighborhood street network, with surface parking occurring behind the buildings.

Some may counter: But this site plan contains attractive pedestrian paths and landscaping? Surely, it will be well used? Here’s Jane again:

Super-block projects are apt to have all the disabilities of long blocks, frequently in exaggerated form, and this is true even when they are laced with promenades and malls, and thus, in theory, possess streets at reasonable intervals through which people can make their way. These streets are meaningless because there is seldom any active reason for a good cross-section of people to use them. Even in passive terms, simply as various alternative changes of scene in getting from here to yonder, these paths are meaningless because all their scenes are essentially the same. [D&L, p. 186]

It is crucial to the health of the neighborhood that the two recommendations made by Staff are part of the project requirements of approval. This project is salvagable, but only if we do not repeat the mistakes of the past. The commission should not recommend but require the site plan to incorporate the two staff recommendations above.


      • Jesse – if this could be presented, that would be amazing! I am so happy you wrote about it. Last meeting, I felt like I was alone, stating how the roads and grid need to connect to enhance the quality of life and safety of the area. It seems as if housing was saying – well at least we are building something, and how we should all be grateful for that! If you are going to build – build it right!

  1. Baron Haussmann

    I firmly believe that if this development continues to have a monoculture of poverty then it will be doomed to failure regardless of the type of housing planned.

    What would be an interesting concept is to build Katrina style cottages, 500 to 1,000 sq.ft .in a traditional neighborhood grid with on street parking You could also have a few larger houses with granny flats in the rear yard. The private housing market doesn’t build this product, because with all the soft costs you have to build a larger house to make a profit. I think there is an unmet demand for well designed small houses.

    Some of the new houses for sale would to middle class people at very attractive prices if they agreed that it would their primary residence for a number of years. For example an entry level school teacher or a police officer with an annual salary of $35,000.

    You would also provide a mechanism where it is easy for renters of the other houses to purchase if their circumstances improved. Other countries with successful public housing programs due exactly that. They put people in modest houses that want to some day own.

    The granny flats would be another way to have additional low rent units.

    • Great idea.

      What is also interesting is that Joe Minicozzi’s study showed that there are shotgun houses on Douglass Avenue in this blighted neighborhood that are actually paying far more in property taxes per acre than houses in Ibis or Riverwalk. Our tax code penalizes the efficient use of land and rewards the land hoarder.

  2. Baron Haussmann

    Dunbar village pays $0 in property tax. Yes, zero.

    Contrast that with the Douglas shotgun houses that have been around since 1924.

    A comparison of these two typologies probably warrants a post of its own.

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