New urbanism pioneer Joe Alfandre helped build communities, and now son James looks to shake them up
SALT LAKE CITY — The roots of developer Joe Alfandre's new urbanism, planted 25 years ago in Gaithersburg, Md., have grown into what Alfandre calls "old new urbanism," and which — under the hand of his son James — is looking to bloom on the streets of Salt Lake City.
New urbanism is an effort to reinvent the American neighborhood, the elder Alfandre said. For him, the concept goes back to his childhood in Bethesda, Md., when a step out of the front door meant walks or bike rides filled with exploration and growth.
The concept of the American neighborhood was lost when suburbia took over and towns and neighborhoods began to cater more to automobiles than people, Alfandre said, and neighbors in today's suburbs are only likely to see each other when getting the mail or taking out the trash.
His chance to become a new urbanism pioneer — "although all pioneers know that the first pioneers are the ones that end up on their faces with arrows in their back," he says — came in 1988, with the development of the Kentlands neighborhood in Gaithersburg, Md.
"I was just kind of following my heart," Alfandre said.
In designing the neighborhood, Alfandre and urban planner Andres Duany focused on building a community by getting the scale of the suburbs back under control. This was accomplished by anchoring the community with gathering centers like schools or churches, while mixed-use developments, compact neighborhoods and diverse housing options were integrated, putting many things within walking or biking distance and therefore promoting social interaction and engagement.
"That's what this is about — it's about that thread. It's a thread that isn't ripped apart; it's a thread that's woven and it can sustain you and the community and become this great fabric," Alfandre said. "When you destroy those (gathering) centers, you really rip the fabric of society, especially American society. Americans don't just want to be sealed off. They never have. They want to move on; they want to be happy, but the American dream has been to find your place in the world and know that it's yours, know that you own it, that you share it, and that you can rely on other people to help you retain it."
In Kentlands, many of Alfandre's goals were realized and recognized, with the area being featured in publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post and Time magazine. However, in the years since Kentlands was built, new urbanism hasn't managed to reach its lofty transformational goals, Alfandre said.
Although Kentlands helped sway developers to the benefits and workability of new urbanism, the industry has split and is taking two different tracks, Alfandre said. The first of these is to copy what Kentlands did to expedite the approval process and then to change their plans afterward, and the second is to actually catch the vision and want to create it elsewhere.
"In many regards, new urbanism has not done what it set out to do, and I think it ought to be able to admit that," Alfandre said. "I am, but I don't say it in a negative kind of way; it did some good things. But the city is where it's happening."
While Alfandre's vision of new urbanism builds from the ground up, as with brand-new developments like Daybreak, in South Jordan, his son James's vision of 21st-century new urbanism focuses on building upon existing infrastructure in an urban setting.
According to consumer research conducted by Maryland-based Robert Charles Lesser & Co. in 2011, 77 percent of Generation Y plans to live in an urban core, and that is where James is focusing his efforts.
"There's an underserved market," he said.
"A rising generation seeks a new way of living. They want a place where life, work and the pursuit of happiness are combined in a renewed and sustainable way," the website for Kentlands Initiative — started by Alfandre and revived by James — said. "But you can't ever really go back. The days of neighborhoods springing organically from the soil are over. But there's a new way to bring people together — neighbors, prospective tenants, investors and the development community. It's called crowdsourcing."
For the past thee years, James has been involved in crowdsourcing in the Granary District, working with business owners, residents and investors on revitalization plans. The district is located near downtown Salt Lake City and is bounded by 600 and 900 S. and 300 W. and I-15.
"People get really worried about the idea of revitalization because they worry about gentrification," James said. "What we want to do is highlight what's existing and build off of it, and add value to it."
The city of Zion plat, initially envisioned by Joseph Smith, provided Salt Lake's early pioneers with guidelines on their city construction, from the wide streets to the mixed-development neighborhoods. Almost 30 percent of the Granary District neighborhood is asphalt thanks to inflexible adherence to the design, where the space was simply paved over, James said.
"The plat of Zion was laid out so it could be so flexible. You could do so much with it," James said. "If you look back at the lithographs, you can see in the rights of ways: It's a meandering path for a wagon, and you have streams and irrigation running down the sides. They were meant to be very flexible, so we're experimenting with turning these into more flexible spaces that can be used for a wider range of uses, not just automobiles."
The right of way on 700 South between 300 W. and 400 W. is currently in the process of being transformed into Granary Row, or what a Granary District video calls a "nomadic enclave of artists." Shipping containers will line the center of the street and act as micro-shops and galleries for a market that is set to open June 15 and run every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through September.
"These containers are just a means to an end. We're not saying that containers are the answer by any means," James said. "It's just a light, quick and cheap way to get something done and out in a cool way that fits in with the neighborhood."
On Saturday, the Congress for the New Urbanism conference will take over Granary Row for its closing social, bringing the discussions of the conference from the ballrooms of the Grand America to the streets of Salt Lake City.
"Granary Row is the very sort of 'big idea' that it hopes to foster — a bold urban venture aimed at inspiring and fostering the entrepreneurial ambitions of Salt Lake City's creative class," the event website said. "At its core, it's an experiment in ware-steading the Granary with microventures that will make the District their home — in turn sustaining the neighborhood as a place where makers live, work and play."
Although James's work in the Granary District is vastly different from anything his father ever envisioned, Joe Alfrande said listening to James talk is like listening to himself 30 years ago.
"I like to think that I planted the seed for him to be able to understand and do these things, but these are thoughts and ideas and execution in ways beyond what I ever thought," Joe said. "I really like the idea that James has surpassed me already. It's not this story of "I want them to do better" — that's a cliché — but to actually be able to see that realized, that is the greatest gift of life to me — after having him — and I'm just really really thrilled and happy that he's surpassed me. And he's so young."
The transformation of Alfrande's original new urbanism into old new urbanism with its focus on the revitalization of existing urban areas is comparable to the transformation Apple helped lead in the technology world, he said.
"Since Apple's inception, Steve Jobs was criticized for insisting on melding the hardware with the software, and now it's what this generation wants," Alfrandre said. "In a lot of respect it's the same with what James is doing, and different from what I was doing. I used the PC platform and plugged in Apple software. Other developers before that were using a PC platform with Microsoft hardware, and it wasn't user-friendly. It sufficed, but then they realized they had another choice with the two blended together. In many respects, this is going to be successful because that is what this market wants, just like they stand in line to buy the iPhone.
"People are going to be standing in line to live in a place like this. I just know it. That's not just from thinking it will happen like it was at Kentlands — that's from seeing it happen at Kentlands, knowing what James is doing here, and knowing that's what's going to happen," he said.
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