Archive | October, 2012

The Legacy of Levittown.

15 Oct

After finishing Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights by David Kushner, I have spent the past week educating myself in the Levitt Brothers and their enormous contribution to housing, land use, and race relations in America.

By David Kushner

The Levitt family were a team of three men: Abraham (father), and William and Alfred (sons.) Historian Kenneth Jackson described them as,”The family that had the greatest impact on postwar housing in the United States…who ultimately built more than 180,000 houses and turned a cottage industry into a major manufacturing process.” Veterans returning from World War II met an enormous shortage of affordable housing. Having served in the military himself, Bill encouraged Abraham and Alfred to invest in over 4000 acres on Long Island and use innovative building techniques to meet the housing needs of veterans. They built the first Levittown in New York in 1947, the second in Pennsylvania in 1952, and two more in New Jersey and Puerto Rico. Alfred designed homes that could be built on an “assembly line” as such. Pieces of the home would be delivered to the site and over two dozen construction teams would move from house to house, doing just one task (ex: installing windows, painting walls, etc.) This allowed the Levitts to build 30 houses a day, and sell them for very affordable prices. William marketed these towns not just for their attractively priced homes, but for their strength in community. With the FTA subsidizing mortgages, Levittown in New York and Pennsylvania, were extremely popular and offered a “lifestyle” to young families. As seen in the video below, this was revolutionary home building:

The “legacy of Levittown” is huge. In addition to the innovative construction techniques that builders are challenged to match today, these developments were America’s first suburbs – William Levitt has been coined as the “Father of Suburbia.” The Levitts developed a construction/marketing machine that saw a massive consumption of countryside, quickly. They sold a lifestyle where commuting 40 miles one way was not only acceptable, but desirable. In a way, the Levitts helped build the foundation of suburban sprawl that we have today.

construction of Levittown

The delivery of housing materials to the building site waiting for construction. (Source:University of Illinois at Chicago)

Perhaps the Levitt’s legacy that is not as well-known, and certainly not celebrated, is racism in the housing industry. While racial segregation in housing was not unknown during this time, the Levitts put in place a restrictive covenant that only allowed houses in Levittown to be rented or sold to a member of the Caucasian race. He believed that higher property values were related directly to the developments being all-white. Unfortunately, so did the people who bought the houses. They all used that defense in preserving the restrictive covenant, even when the federal government enforced integration with cases like Brown vs. the Board of Education. David Kushner’s book, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights, details the Myers Family who bought their house Levittown, PA, despite the restrictive covenant, from a man desperate to sell. The result was months of violence against not only the Myers, but their next door neighbors, the Wechslers, a Jewish, equal rights activist couple. The case, especially after involvement from the KKK, gained international recognition. The endurance of Daisy Myers and her family against non-stop threats and violence, coined her the “Rosa Parks of the North.” Below is a condensed summary of a documentary made at the time, chronicling this civil rights struggle. Definitely pick up David Kushner’s book to get a personal account of the story, it truly is fascinating.

My book club had the great pleasure of speaking with the author, David Kushner, via Skype. When I asked him what the urban planning legacy of Levittown is, in addition to the obvious, he suggested the innovative design of architect Alfred Levitt. While Levittown, PA offered 6 different house models for purchase, Levittown, NY only provided two. However, they were designed in a way that allowed personalization and extension over time. Alfred recognized that his clients would be looking for the most affordable home immediately after the war and offering only two models would achieve this. He also realized that over time, those people would become more financially secure and would want a larger house. By designing the models in a way that could be easily adaptable, people with emotional ties to Levittown could remain, strengthening the community, and the identity of the town would evolve, adding to the place’s character. David Kushner was right –  this is revolutionary in it’s own right.

Levittown two model houses

The two house models offered in Levittown NY: the colonial and the ranch. (Image: University of Illinois in Chicago)

The result is that now, Levittown, PA remains almost identical to its 1950s self. Homes were not adaptable, and in combination with what is perhaps little regional growth, the town has not evolved to offer the lifestyle required of contemporary living. Property values did drop, not because of racial integration, but because the town’s lack of ability to remain relevant. It has also suffered from crime, and even acquired the reputation of being the “meth-lab of America.”

Levittown, NY, however, transformed over time and remains a healthy suburb. No doubt it’s proximity to Manhattan is responsible in part, but it is impossible not to attribute some of its success to Alfred’s design. As he had imagined, practically none of the original model homes can be found in the town of 6,000 houses. They have all been adapted, not demolished, over time. The fact remains, that while now Levittown, PA only offers 6 types of houses, Levittown, NY offers an infinite number.

Suburban development in America has definitely happened in waves. White flight, followed by returning vets and the contemporary suburbs we have today. They do not share the same physical characteristics: Levittown was built on a connected street network and modern development is organized around disconnected cul-de-sacs. In addition, houses in Levittown were modest in size, while McMansions today sprawl across large lots. Even though this great book was primarily based on the civil rights struggle in Levittown, as I read, I kept looking for those correlations between suburbs through time.

As soon as David Kushner stated that the greatest urban planning legacy of Levittown was Alfred Levitt’s allowance for personalization, I realized that this was the connection I had been searching for. It appears that through the evolution of suburbia, we’ve actually designed it in progressively more destructive ways. Most recently, property values in modern suburban developments have been the least able to sustain the economic recession, in comparison to urban neighborhoods.

One characteristic that modern suburbia most has in common with the Levitt’s less successful town in Pennsylvania, is it’s lack of personalization. Personalization is important to the physical, economic, and social sustainability of a place, as I detail in this earlier post: Holy HOA. The ability for people to personalize their own house, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Today, when we’re in a gated community off a belt loop interstate, we could be anywhere in America. And when you’re standing on a street corner in Levittown, PA, you could be on any street corner in the town. Anonymity = unimportant. This is not an unreal correlation to make.

Houses in Levittown NY

Houses that have been personalized over time in Levittown, NY

Therefore, in light of Levittown, NY’s climb to a town of pride and Levittown, PA’s descent to mediocrity, as well as their seemingly similar physical characteristics and social, historical context, it is not unreasonable to attribute the difference in their success on the ability, or lack thereof, of properties to evolve.

It’s ironic that after decades of similar suburban development, we fail to make the correlation between their design and the effects that they have on society. Today in the most recent developments, where cost of production and sale price is as important as it was to post-war growth, customers still pick their house out of a pattern book. Lack of personalization is still one of the biggest plagues of sprawl.

There is no doubt that the Levitt Family received credit where credit is due in their influence on American housebuilding. While this is mostly painted in a positive light I am devastated at the little publicity of the racism that served as the foundation for their all-white communities. The same week as I was finishing up David Kushner’s book on Levittown, I watched Bill O’Reilly defend his hometown as the product of American entrepreneurship at it’s finest. He put the Levitts on the pedestal where they seem to remain in the media long after their passing.

After reading, Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon, and the Fight for Civil Rights, it’s hard to look past the misery that the Levitts created for two brave families, and an entire race. As an urban planner, it’s hard to look past the propagation of urban sprawl and unsustainable growth, that set a norm for development in our country for decades. But instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I propose we try to find the positive in the Levitt’s contributions. It seems ironic that the brother that took the least credit for his family’s success, Alfred Levitt, is the man whose vision is the most relevant to the urban design challenges we face today.

Erin’s Google+

Tampa City Spotlight: Providing Transportation Options in Downtown

10 Oct

In a series of posts part of the Congress for the New Urbanism‘s City Spotlight Series, members of CNU Tampa Bay will examine the current conditions of Tampa, urban trends and the initiatives (or lack thereof) put in place by the city, and how CNU can meet these needs. In this third post of the series, Jared Schneider, a planner in Tampa will examine transportation networks within downtown Tampa.

What makes cities great? In my opinion, many of the great cities of today are what they are because of an innate desire to change the status quo. It comes from the passion, caring, and vision of good leaders as well and residents to say, can we make our city better? It comes from the investment and civility of the business community. It is this attitude and culture of caring, I believe, that makes many cities great.

Often the tough decisions involve transportation related issues within downtown areas that have an impact on the linkages between the surrounding built environment and open spaces. In particular, many great cities have invested in a wide range of transportation choices to provide a holistic transportation network as well as to instigate redevelopment and provide improved connectivity. CNU has focused on this topic through its Project for Transportation Reform. Specifically, I feel that CNU’s Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares and Transportation Networks initiatives can help serve as guides to providing transportation options in downtown Tampa.

Previous articles in this spotlight series have highlighted Tampa’s transportation challenges as a City of Corridors and Tampa’s past as a bustling urban center dependent upon a robust streetcar system. This article will focus on downtown Tampa and the challenges of providing a suitable transportation network for pedestrians, bicyclists and automobiles. The article will also highlight recent transportation advancements in downtown Tampa.

Downtown Tampa Aerial

Photo of downtown Tampa and surrounding areas courtesy of Bing Maps

Similar to many downtowns throughout the country, the transportation network in downtown Tampa mainly functions to move cars in and out as quickly as possible. There are a number of wide, higher-speed roadways and an abundance of surface parking lots, indicating to visitors and residents that the automobile is a priority and pedestrian and bicycle activity is secondary. This has had a dramatic influence on land use and the built environment in downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods. That being said, many of the greatest cities in the world have wide roadways as well, but where some of the most famous cities differ is that they provide a balance of transportation options and often do a great job of providing parking opportunities that don’t adversely impact urban form.

Similar to a number of other downtowns, Tampa has seen resurgence in recent years in new residential developments in the downtown area – the developments of Channelside and Encore, as well as the Skypoint and Element Towers. The success of these developments will rely on providing a balance of transportation options to support the population increases in the downtown area.

One of the things that I have experienced while walking around downtown Tampa over the last 7 years have been the missed opportunities to make some considerable enhancements to the existing transportation network. It makes financial sense to hold off on making major design improvements until they can be coupled with scheduled roadway maintenance or planned infrastructure upgrades such as stormwater/drainage improvements, landscaping improvements, and roadway re-surfacing projects. Yet in many cases over the last few years, these projects have been completed without taking the opportunity to improve the design of the roadway by enhancing pedestrian mobility, adding facilities for bicyclists, or to improve the downtown from a landscaping or placemaking standpoint. From the perspective of local government, a lot of this is easier said than done, especially considering the current economic condition and challenges faced when funding projects.

Tyler Street Tampa

Pedestrians crossing Tyler Street in Downtown Tampa between John F. Germany Public Library and the Straz Center for the Performing Arts

When these opportunities arise, thought should be given to whether or not the current condition can and should be changed. When capital projects are identified and programmed, we should be asking what we can do to build a more connected network of sidewalks or bicycle facilities. An overall transportation vision should already be adopted and in place when capital projects are contemplated or when new development is proposed. This vision should include providing safer, convenient connections and crossings for pedestrians and bicyclists as well as access to public transportation. Last year, the City of Tampa embarked on a master planning process for downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Much of the public feedback received throughout this effort revolved around livable transportation and placemaking. This vision should be built upon and specifics should be developed for how roadways in the right context should be improved when the right opportunity arises. If the opportunity presents itself to improve roadways that have been identified as focus areas, the basic strategies for how to redesign them will already be in place.

pedestrian crossings tampa

Long pedestrian crossings

While attending the Mobility and the Walkable City sessions at CNU 20, it was interesting to hear how several cities have been able to fund and implement pedestrian and bicycle projects. One discussion in particular that stuck with me was how many of the mayors or public works departments implementing these projects have a directive to review all resurfacing or maintenance projects for the feasibility of road dieting to better accommodate bicyclists or pedestrians. It was refreshing to see how these places have a proactive culture to provide more transportation options. These cities understand that resurfacing projects are opportunities to create something better, rather than maintaining the status quo. There were specific projects being implemented or that have already been constructed as evident by the number of bicycle tracks or improved pedestrian facilities such as wider sidewalks or improved crossings which have actually been built.

One of the positive initiatives that has been discussed earlier in this series is the City of Tampa Walk-Bike Plan developed by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.  The Tampa Walk-Bike Plan identifies several projects in the downtown area, as well as a host of other projects throughout the city, in existing public rights of way. The purpose is to “complete the City’s bicycle and pedestrian grid” by enhancing connectivity and safety for bicyclists and pedestrians. There are two main types of projects identified: “Complete Streets” and Stand-alone projects. The purpose of Complete Streets projects is to better incorporate bicycle, pedestrian, and transit modes by reviewing the possibility of road dieting. Stand-alone projects are the “low hanging fruit” – and constitute minor adjustments that can be made without changing the existing roadway geometry, often including the construction of sidewalks or modifying pavement markings to designate bicycle lanes. This initiative is a good step in the right direction because it provides a cost-effective way to enhance bicycle and mobility on the interim. The more expensive “Complete Streets” projects will be considered whenever an “arterial, collector, or neighorhood collector roadway is widened or resurfaced” through a multi-governmental coordination process.

Similar to other industrial cities, Tampa has historically turned its back on its waterfront. Downtown Tampa is surrounded by water on three sides yet appears to be so disengaged from its geography – most waterfront parcels are privately owned and public spaces and parks face inward. Historically, the Hillsborough River was used to provide transportation and drive the local economy. At the turn of the 20th century, wide channels were dredged to bolster Tampa’s growing shipping industry. A century later and things have changed; industry is mainly moving out of the area and downtown Tampa is reinventing itself as a regional entertainment destination and urban neighborhood. A major initiative to reinvigorate downtown Tampa is the completion of the Riverwalk.

historic tampa river

Historic picture of the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa Courtesy of the University of South Florida

With the last few segments of the Tampa Riverwalk underway, the city has been turning its focus to its riverfront. The first discussions about enhancing public access to the waterfront location began in the 1970’s and the first design standards were set in 1989. As several developments came to fruition such as the Straz Center for Performing Arts and the Tampa Convention Center, the first pieces of the Riverwalk’s waterfront promenades were built. Over the years the discussion has continued with new ideas to engage the waterfront. One unique effort has been [re] Stitch TAMPA that is an international design completion that included proposals from designers from around the world, including locally, for how to engage the waterfront and establish urban open spaces.

riverwalk downtown tampa

Tampa River Walk near the Straz Center for the Performing Arts

Recently it was announced that the city will receive an $11 million federal grant to finish two smaller, more expensive gaps in The Riverwalk. Once completed it will provide an uninterrupted 2.4-mile connection for pedestrians and bicyclists from the Straz Center for the Performing Arts on the north, to the Channelside district to the southeast, and will include several museums, open spaces, and other landmarks along the way.

tampa riverwalk map

Courtesy of usacanadalionsforum.org

Another interesting development is the “Zack Street Promenade of the Arts”. The project reclaimed nearly two full automobile lanes to provide widened sidewalks, improved street crossings, and landscaping for pedestrians with the intent to integrate Public Art into the streetscape.

pedestrian crossings downtown tampa

Zack Street Downtown Tampa

Top left Zack Street before improvement courtesy of Google Streetview. Top Right and Bottom pictures of Zack Street after improvement

While the Zack Street Promenade has room for improvement, it will serve as a fantastic gateway to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park located by the Riverwalk. The waterfront park has become the heart of downtown with major events held on a weekly basis. It is also edged by the newly constructed Glazer Children’s Museum and the Tampa Museum of Art. The Promenade will connect the waterfront park to several other cultural amenities such as the Tampa Theatre as well as to an old federal courthouse that has been announced as a future boutique hotel. By connecting to the Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park an important pedestrian connection across Ashley Drive will be provided which is one of the major roadways in and out of downtown that provides a barrier. Visions for redesigning Ashley Drive have been discussed and should continue to be a focus. The high-speed traffic funnelling directly off two interstate ramps does not complement the built environment of downtown, and is a safety hazard for pedestrians and cyclists on a daily basis. While not technically a highway, the road could benefit from many of the principles enlisted in the CNU’s Project for Transportation Reform “Highways to Boulevards” program.

Curtis Hixon Park Downtown Tampa

Courtesy of macdillhappenings.com

While the transportation network in downtown Tampa is still heavily automobile dominated, pedestrian and bicycle activity is increasing. Providing options through pedestrian and bicycle mobility will be important as downtown Tampa continues to grow as a residential and commercial destination. The Project for Transportation Reform’s Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares and Transportation Networks initiative has applicability in certain contexts in downtown Tampa. The city has made strides in recent years and should continue to look for ways to build momentum through improving its transportation network where feasible.

Jared Schneider is a planner and project manager in Tampa and is currently pursuing a Master of Planning in Civic Urbanism degree from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. He is also a member of CNU Tampa Bay, which is a local chapter of Congress for the New Urbanism.

Please visit:
http://groupspaces.com/CNUTampaBay/ and
https://www.facebook.com/CNUTampaBay to learn more!

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