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Norquist’s Legacy and the New Urbanism

Mayor Norquist on Cities, Beerline B, Brady Street, King Drive, and Riverwest by Sonya Jongsma Knauss

I once heard Mayor John O. Norquist described as a man who “must have been an architect in a former life.” It’s not hard to see why. His involvement in the Smart Growth movement and the planning philosophy known as “New Urbanism” both focus decisively around the built environment and how it affects the way people live, work, and play. Since 1993, when Norquist signed on as a charter member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, he has been promoting its principles religiously in Milwaukee. The goal? Strengthen Milwaukee as an urban center that offers people the kinds of benefits and amenities that only a city can provide, with its dense population of diverse peoples and opportunities. He gives a clear, readable outline in his book, The Wealth of Cities, published in 1998. Whether or not you like the changes he has made, it’s undeniable that the direction he has set for the city — whether through streamlining and making government operations leaner, promoting the “marketplace” as the ideal regulator for schools and housing, helping make city development easier to do — will affect our neighborhoods for years to come. The Wealth of CitiesNorquist leaves his office four months early to continue pursuing the same mission, except in a national capacity as President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU). The San Francisco-based non-profit is moving its main offices to Chicago. CNU works with architects, developers, planners, and others involved in the creation of cities and towns, teaching them how to implement the principles of the New Urbanism — including regional planning, walkable neighborhoods, and attractive, accommodating civic spaces. Norquist took an hour and a half recently to talk with us at Bean Head, a minority-owned coffee shop on Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive that he never misses a chance to champion. Riverwest Currents: What’s so important about New Urbanism? John O. Norquist: It’s about preserving the places we love — questioning why things have to look like Moorland Road. You know, you can’t build a street that looks like Center Street in most places today… [New Urbanism] addresses sprawl and disinvestment in the city. These are very hard to attack. Progress is slow and hard to measure. But in the physical realm (buildings, architecture, etc). you can actually change things and see it changing. The average person in the ‘burbs likes downtowns — Cedarburg, Thiensville — but they keep building sprawl! Why? That’s how it was set up. If given an alternative, they would choose to do more urban zoning.

“There’s not a single place [in New Berlin] that would look good on a postcard.”

Currents: What’s stopping them? Norquist: There’s a lack of mixed-use buildings; it’s not legal to build that way anymore. You couldn’t build Brady Street today either; everything everybody loves about these places is regulated out of existence. Take New Berlin, for example. Everything is isolated. The housing is all separated by price. You have to drive to get anywhere. There’s not a single place there that would look good on a postcard. This was caused by the zoning code put in place by the founders of the city. Currents: How can cities and suburbs change that? Norquist: We can change zoning codes to help create the urban experience. What’s needed is less separate use zoning. [In Milwaukee] we streamlined our permitting process. We have a very good plan that encourages good urbanism. If you conform to the plan, you can pull permits and start construction oftentimes within just a few weeks. Fast permitting is a big incentive to developers and keeps us from having to subsidize developments in downtown Milwaukee. The fast permitting on its own is enough to cause them to want to bypass suburban development — which has all kinds of regulations and lot size minimums, parking restrictions, etc. We make it much easier to develop in the city. Currents: Is it possible for a built environment to foster community? Norquist: A bad environment kills community. A good one doesn’t necessarily foster community. The people need to be there and do that. Stores and jobs need to be there too. But you can have a very prosperous place — New Berlin, Brookfield — with no sense of community. The commercial aspect is very important. On the commercial streets you see a really vibrant community. Brady Street is essential to the lower East Side. The storefronts are a front living room-type area. Center Street is like that in Riverwest. The Riverwalk has been a great thing for downtown.

“…[Y]ou can have a very prosperous place … with no sense of community.”

Currents: Are there specific design elements that you can point to that contribute to better community living? Norquist: Not really — mostly it’s just common sense. Look at it, and you see what you like and don’t like about it. Of course, front porches are valuable… It also has to do with being walkable. If you go out on Bluemound between Moorland and Calhoun Roads, can you walk anywhere? You don’t belong. But when you walk on Brady Street or Mitchell Street, you feel right at home. Currents: What are the most successful areas in the city by New Urbanist standards? Norquist: Brady Street, King Drive. One smart thing we did on Brady Street was to not overdo it. We helped redo the streets. There have been so many pictures taken of Brady Street over the years. It has always had all the elements it needed, we just had to preserve it. We did one artsy thing: the wavy lines next to the sidewalk — but the show is really the stores themselves. Osco wanted to come in there and have a huge parking lot right on the street; we worked and got them to come up with a different plan. We also stopped them from tearing down some apartments. Currents: What about Riverwest? Norquist: Riverwest is a great urban neighborhood. All it needs is to be fixed up. Currents: What are the main principles of a New Urbanist approach to city planning? Norquist: New Urbanism is primarily about planning and architecture. But it’s also about things like school and transportation choices. It is hard to attract families to the city if there are no good schools. Competition and market forces create better schools… I’m not for school choice to scapegoat MPS. In terms of the city, if it wants to attract people who are parents, with enough money to live wherever they want, it needs to offer school options. Transportation is our first priority right now.

“People should know that freeways actually create more congestion, and street grids reduce congestion. Congestion is like flooding; when you “dumb down” the system, it will concentrate the traffic.”

Currents: What are you hoping to accomplish, transportation-wise, in Milwaukee? Norquist: The rules in transportation are so brutal and anti-urban… having Waukesha impose their transportation values on Milwaukee is really awful. But there is really no other model out there. People should know that freeways actually create more congestion, and street grids reduce congestion. Congestion is like flooding; when you “dumb down” the system, it will concentrate the traffic. I will keep fighting freeways while I am at CNU. It is so stupid to make them bigger. It will even hurt the suburbs. It is the big patch of urbanism that is Milwaukee that makes Wisconsin a player in the information technology culture. The governor has complained that Wisconsin has brain drain, that we are losing young people to big cities. Well, Wisconsin does have a big city! If we haul jobs and people out with big roads and sprawl, we will lost much of what makes it good. Milwaukee is still pretty intact, but if the state keeps wasting so much money on freeways… Currents: Could you give us some specifics on how you are trying to accomplish your transportation agenda? Norquist: What we’re trying to do is get the development community and people at large to see that there’s choices other than building big roads. There were a wide variety of roads built before WW II. Now there are just a few varieties: freeways, arterial roads, etc. We need to change the rules — it is currently illegal to build the main streets people love. Laws need to change at the city and state levels. CNU has been working with organizations in various states.

“We need to change the rules — it is currently illegal to build the main streets people love.”

Currents: Is there any hope of joint planning between the city and the outlying suburbs? Norquist: It is joint planning; it’s just BAD planning. There is hope though; the real estate market has figured this out — the city is a good place to be. They are really capitalizing on the downtown condos. Katie Falk, who has been the best seller in the state for real estate several times in recent years, does mostly city condo sales. Urban is attractive and cool, and worth preserving. People are figuring this out. Roundy’s is moving their headquarters into downtown from Pewaukee. Bank One is moving 900 employees into the city. I’m optimistic that when buyers are favoring the city, the government will respond to these kinds of people. Currents: With so many expensive condos going up, there has been a concern that downtown and in our neighborhood prices are going to go up and cause hardship for long-time retired home-owners, low-income owners and renters, and others. Does New Urbanism address racial and socioeconomic gaps? Norquist: Dan Solomon who did a lot of the Beerline B planning and building is a New Urbanist. There’s a mix of prices, even though they always emphasize the high end in the media. There’s a greater mix of prices and rents than in the suburbs. Half of downtown would be categorized as affordable… People are concerned about gentrification, but they know when they sell their house, they’ll get a pile of money. What’s worse? Houses could be losing value. Currents: Will you push for any specific limitations or requirements for the Park East Freeway Development? Norquist: You need to have the market working with you… market forces will take care of keeping housing affordable; a contract isn’t necessary. This happens naturally. Currents: What are you most proud of accomplishing during your four terms as mayor of Milwaukee? Norquist: Riverwalk. The Commerce Street development — a template for good urban development. Reducing the tax load in Milwaukee so instead of being the highest in the area, it is relatively average and comparable to other communities. The School Choice initiative. Tearing down the Park East freeway! Currents: Which of the mayoral candidates would do the best job of carrying forward the torch for the New Urbanism? Norquist: I don’t want to comment on that right now. Currents: What would you say to one of the candidates I heard recently on an At Ten program criticizing your focus on architecture and dismissing it as insignificant? Norquist: Well, all the candidates are going to be looking for ways to criticize me; after all, they need to be and do something new, so I won’t take offense. But I disagree strongly. The physical form of the city is one of its strongest assets. Sprawl is ugly and non-functional, and particularly nasty to poor people, since you need a car to get anywhere. When Norquist takes the job at CNU, he will commute from Milwaukee until his son finishes out the school year. One might guess he’ll be taking the Hiawatha, Amtrack’s Milwaukee to Chicago service. And after June? “We’ll live in the city of Chicago, of course. Near a rail system. I never got to do that before; couldn’t get rail to catch on in Milwaukee.”

The new Milwaukee Rowing Club pier on the RiverWalk

Further Reading

The Man

As Riverwest and neighboring communities continue to experience a trend of growth and increasing property values, writers for the Currents and active members of the Riverwest Neighborhood Association have been studying the hazards and benefits of “gentrification” here and in other cities. Since this topic continues to be of great interest and concern to Riverwest residents, this regularly updated, public list of web links has been created as a convenient source of information. It includes articles that have appeared in the Currents and mainstream media pertinent to gentrification, redevelopment, the New Urbanism, and related housing/land-use issues.

 

The Seaside Debates: A Critique of the New Urbanism Edited by Todd W. Bressi Rizzoli, 2002; 160 pages. Reviewed by Erik J. de Kok

A professor of mine in the Department of Urban Affairs and Planning at Hunter College of the City University of New York recently returned from a two-week vacation on the Gulf Coast in the Florida panhandle. I asked her if she had the chance to visit Seaside, the infamous neotraditional town, featured in the movie The Truman Show and designed by a team of architects and planners who would later on become some of the founders of a movement known as the New Urbanism. She replied that she had spent several days there, walking and talking with people in the shops and others hanging out on the street or near the beach. So I asked her what she thought of the place, and she told me that she witnessed what she could only describe as “an overpriced resort where the only ‘regulars’ are minority service workers and cleaning ladies, who can’t even afford to live in the town.” In fact, she said that most of the original single-family buildings were quickly converted to rental housing for vacationers, once the owners realized their income-generating potential. The New Urbanism has created “more subdivisions than towns; densities too low to support much mixed-use development, not to mention public transportation; and relatively homogenous demographic enclaves…” Now I must admit, I wasn’t surprised at her response, because in my experience as both a student and a professional in community development and planning over the past 7 years, I have sensed a general skepticism amongst veteran architects and planners regarding New Urbanism, many of whom seem to think that it’s nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to the problems generated by American suburbanization, just the latest fashion in superficial design solutions that do little to change the social and environmental problems generated by sprawl or meaningfully improve overall quality of life. There is certainly no shortage of this type of skepticism in The Seaside Debates, a collection of essays which originated from a 1998 symposium organized by the Seaside Institute, a New Urbanist organization based in Seaside, Florida. However, the town as such is not the focus of the book, despite its prominence in history as the pioneer of New Urbanism. Rather, the book provides a well-rounded critique of the New Urbanism movement, the successes and failures of several places in which its principles have been applied and their possibilities for inducing lasting and meaningful change in the way that buildings, blocks, streets, neighborhoods, towns, cities, and regions are developed. The first third of the book introduces the reader to the movement’s formal umbrella organization, the Congress for New Urbanism (CNU), which formed in the early 1990’s; the Charter of the New Urbanism, the formal document which lays out clear and concise principles to “guide policy, development practice, urban planning, and design”; and the history and development of the “lexicon” of the New Urbanism. Interestingly, all of the essays in this long introductory section are written by the “apostles” of the movement, so any reader expecting any sort of debate at the outset will be somewhat disappointed. It’s critical, however, that the reader have a basic sense of what New Urbanism actually is, and how several of its founders conceive the movement’s paradigm shift from various experiences and in different places. A prior knowledge of fundamental urban planning and architectural design principles is helpful to understand the concepts in the book, but not essential. The second section of the book finally lives up to the title, with two brilliant essays: “A New Vision of New Urbanism”, by architect, partner in the design firm Cooper, Robertson and Partners and former New York City Planning Commissioner Jaquelin Robertson; and “Arguing the ‘Against’ Position: New Urbanism as a Means of Building and Rebuilding our Cities,” delivered by Alex Krieger, chair of the Harvard Graduate School of Design . Robertson tracks the history of American development and how the resulting suburban “ring-around-the-collar” sprawl came about (in a tone quite similar to the writings of James H. Kunstler and other authors in the last decade), and then presents constructive challenges about the future of New Urbanism, asking a series of tough questions in the context of ongoing social and environmental sustainability, functional vs. formal design, and preservation of traditional forms in community building. He states these words of caution: “The first part of CNU’s crusade was the easy part. That is, it was easier and smarter to deal with villages, towns, and resorts, to sell down from the top and then infiltrate local government. But the Modernist establishment of academia is tough to infiltrate. Ironically, both academia and government are more flexible and intolerant of deviations and challenge than they should be. Neither is easily given to physical risk taking to the same extent as individuals and entrepreneurs are. Nor are they particularly practical. And both are still too arrogant with respect to the public’s wishes and needs.” Krieger, on the other hand, shows no mercy: “The New Urbanism is an impressive, powerful, growing, and great movement, but perhaps not quite as great as you, its founders, claim it to be. Lighten up. Enough self-congratulatory testimonials. You are practically the establishment now. One of the few things still missing is some humility or, barring that, a bit less hyperbole, and barring that, at least a sense of humor. … Every one of your broad aims is dead-on. History, however, rarely evaluates a movement on the basis of its stated aims. The success of the New Urbanism will eventually be measured by comparing its achievements against its claims. And this is where you are setting the rest of us up for disappointment.” He goes on to accuse New Urbanism of creating “more subdivisions than towns; densities too low to support much mixed-use development, not to mention public transportation; and relatively homogenous demographic enclaves,” among other criticisms; and he encourages those present not to constrict the possibilities of what constitutes “urbanism,” which he fears is at risk of being oversimplified and diminished in its applications in neotraditional forms of development. The third section of the book focuses on the eight New Urbanist practitioners who presented recent or ongoing design & planning projects in various contexts. The projects include: • Main Street Revitalization, Kendall, FL (Victor Dover, Dover Kohl and Partners) • Crawford Square and Bedford Dwellings, Lower Hill, Pittsburgh, PA (Raymond Gindroz, Urban Design Associates) • Seattle Commons, Seattle, Washington (Douglas Kelbaugh, University of Michigan) • Pasadena Civic Center, Pasadena, CA (Elizabeth Moule, Moule and Polyzoides) • Civano, Tucson, AZ (Stefanos Polyzoides, Moule and Polyzoides) • Carlyle, Alexandria, VA (Brian Shea, Cooper Robertson & Partners) • Cornell, Markham, Ontario (Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, DPZ & Company) • Three Urban Blocks, Los Angeles, CA (Daniel Solomon, Solomon ETC Architecture & Urban Design) Editor Todd Bressi points out that the inclusion of these case studies are intended for the reader to engage in a “deductive exercise, a commentary on New Urbanist practice and priorities — and, to a lesser extent, on theory — that must be drawn out from the presentations and critiques.” He also notes that most of the projects were concerned with urban infill on vacant or underutilized sites, or reconfiguring failed urban development patterns, to show that New Urbanism isn’t just about retrofitting suburban development for higher density. The presentations and critiques give the reader a sense of the complexities and often painstaking processes that take place in the planning and design process, including many of the failures, both on the part of New Urbanists as well as the public and private sector without whom it would be impossible to accomplish any project. Some of the graphics for the eight project presentations are not easily readable due to the size constraints, limiting the reader’s ability to understand the discussion fully. The book concludes with a synopsis of the projects by Donlyn Lyndon, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and principal in the firm Lyndon-Buchanan Associates; as well as some general comments from various attendees of the symposium. While giving credit to each of the presenters for their well-thought projects, Lyndon brings up some issues for further discussion and exploration, such as the fact that little attention was paid during the “debates” to the thoughts and experiences of diverse types people from different socioeconomic and place experiences who will eventually inhabit the public spaces and neighborhoods that are designed. This is a perennial issue, particularly for visionary designers and planners who often focus on the process and potential outcomes, rather than public purpose and the end-users. The final general comments section is quite lengthy and at times circuitous, but includes some enlightening discussion, particularly about the tensions in the idea of New Urbanism as a growing mainstream movement that bends and flexes its own rules in order to simply get things done. Erik J. de Kok is a professional transportation and environmental planner with a consulting firm in New York City. He lives in the borough of Brooklyn and is currently completing his masters in Urban Planning at Hunter College, CUNY.

Books on City Issues

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Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 10 – October 2003

Riverwest Currents: With so many expensive condos going up, there has been a concern that downtown and in our neighborhood prices are going to go up and cause hardship for long-time retired home-owners, low-income owners and renters, and others. Does New Urbanism address racial and socioeconomic gaps?
Mayor Norquist: Dan Solomon who did a lot of the Beerline B planning and building is a New Urbanist. There’s a mix of prices, even though they always emphasize the high end in the media. There’s a greater mix of prices and rents than in the suburbs. Half of downtown would be categorized as affordable… People are concerned about gentrification, but they know when they sell their house, they’ll get a pile of money. What’s worse? Houses could be losing value.