Friday, October 05, 2007

Following Up at River Garden

Today I finally had the chance to take some pictures of the River Garden development that has replaced the St. Thomas Projects in the Irish Channel. I live nearby and have always thought that the developers did a fairly amiable job in implementing a design scheme true to historical architectural patterns. I drive through all the time and visiting friends always express utter shock when I explain that the structures represent a form of public housing. I also stopped into the lease office and picked up their literature, there are properties available for lease.
First, here's an overhead from google:

View Larger Map

m.d. filter
, who I thank for largely initiating this conversation, remarked in his original post that
"the new River Garden as a housing development looks less appealing from above than the courtyards and walkways of the 1940s developments."
In a sense, he is correct, the design principles guiding the new housing developments of the HOPE VI era of HUD emphasize that buildings directly interact with the street. The New Deal developments that are scheduled for demolition are oriented toward inward courtyards explicitly hidden from street view. For that reason, it is not surprising that overhead shots of the two development styles reveal that older construction to be more centered upon intricate landscape design while the new projects are constricted by the city's preexisting street grid. m.d. filter is careful to qualify his reservations about the design River Garden development as influenced primarily by the overhead shot, and I don't want to mischaracterize his feelings on the development. He also cites a 2007 article in the New York Times
that is critical of new public housing design principles:

The housing agencies’ tabula rasa planning mentality recalls the worst aspects of the postwar Modernist agenda, which substituted a suburban model of homogeneity for an urban one of diversity. The proposal for “traditional-style” pastel houses, set in neat little rows on uniform lots, is a model of conformity that attacks the idea of the city as a place where competing values coexist.

This is reinforced by the plan’s tendency to isolate the new housing from the rest of the city. Often arranged along dead-end cul-de-sacs, the proposed developments lack the mix of big and small buildings, residential apartments and retail shops that could weave them into the surrounding urban fabric.

This characterization of new housing projects would make me pretty sore as well. I hate cul-de-sacs more than is probably healthy. Yet the NYT description cannot be accurately applied to the design of the River Garden development.
Here is the visual evidence from today's photos:

Far from homogeneous, the buildings that comprise the River Garden development represent different historic New Orleans styles. Notice how building heights, colors, and architectural embellishments are varied from one home to another. The street grid is maintained and block facades are oriented toward the public street space. The design principles at play are similar to those utilized for the new MLK projects in Philadelphia that I discussed earlier this week.

A description River Garden's application of New Urbanist principles can be found at their own website.

Certainly, I don't think everything is perfect. The development's application of mixed-use ideals, a Wal-Mart, is a bastardization of those principles. Additionally, the properties are not completely indistinguishable from non-affiliated neighbors. Hokey cobblestoned intersections and signs (see photo) demarcate the development and do give the aura of a suburban subdivision.

Most importantly, however, HOPE VI redevelopment can be viewed suspiciously because of issues relating to human displacement and the elimination of units reserved for the poor in favor of the sale of some units for market value. There is a loss of housing for the poor because HOPE VI does not include a "one-for-one" rule that legally maintains the same number of units for impoverished residents before and after redevelopment. (see wikipedia)

For me, this is the most objectionable part of national trends in public housing redevelopment and why this issue is so contentious and divisive in New Orleans and in other urban communities. I went by the lease office at River Garden and picked up literature. There is ZERO mention of low-income housing, though it may have been possible to discuss it with a representative had I had the time to meet. It is logical that I may have been profiled as likely interested in a market-rate lease. Additionally, their website seems to downplay affiliation with HOPE VI.

Solely from a design standpoint, however, while not perfect, the application of new urbanist principles is extremely encouraging. River Garden isn't so nasty to look at all.


Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting discussion about how to build successful low income housing. Design plays an important role but so do other factors such as economic opportunity and integrating low moderate and middle income within the same neighborhood if not the same develpment. What is the current housing situation in New Orleans? Would it make senseto save some of the old projects but change the economic mix so communitiesare not so isolated? Is that possible or desirable? If demolition is held up will that slow the pace of development of low income housing? Are rents up or down in the city. Don from Philadelphia

Anonymous said...

In truth the developers would like to see a higher mix of "market value" renters in River Garden but take it from a "market value" (1450.00)renter, this is still a ghetto at heart. Sign a lease here and see how quickly liberal idealism fades. All of the problems of the old St Thomas are still there (think it might be because the same people are here?)except now the tax payer is paying for better appliances. And thanks to section 8's, theres plenty left over to buy 40k SUV's and Mercedes. Oh yeah, drive through sometime and count the out of state tags.

Anonymous said...

WOW! looks like a Tulane student wanted to "give back" and got more than they bargined for to say the least. I live in River Garden and I see mostly earthy white people walking around...and their dogs (and don't pick up the sh!t). This place is local new orleans at its best. Most of the residents are teachers, cops, and young residents (doctors). Yeah...the St. Thomas people are their, but at least they speak.