Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Nice Building, But Where is the Front Door?

Dateline: 12:30 pm June 15, 2012 Filed under:

What good is placing a building close to the sidewalk when this is what a pedestrian has to look at?

This is what I’m trying to avoid repeating in my neighborhood right now. The photo above shows an existing recently-built assisted living facility, and there is currently another unrelated assisted living facility proposed elsewhere in my neighborhood. The problem with mixing assisted living with urbanity is that assisted living by nature is a single-entrance, secure operating model. Many residents are monitored for their safety and multiple exits are more difficult to monitor. These facilities are fine in a classic suburban setting – one main front door off a front-loaded parking lot and a big buffer of grass and landscaping all around. Fitting that in to an urban setting can be problematic, as my photo shows. That is because there are no buffers in cities. Different buildings and uses must play off eachother to enhance the value and rhythm for all.

(To the credit of the developers of the building shown above, they did agree to place a hair salon at the corner of the building that faces two intersecting streets, giving the building a more retail look and making the proejct more pedestrian-friendly. But the photo shows there was still room for improvement.)

The default thinking in most cities (and now in many suburbs) is to bring all buildings close to or right up to the property line, since buildings help shape the “street wall” in to a “room.” The intent is to repair decades of suburbanizing our urban environments, but what good is a “street wall” if it is nothing but a wall? The most egregious examples are Walgreens or CVS pharmacies that built right at the corner, yet their doors and all activity face a rear parking lot. All the interesting window displays facing the street and sidewalk cannot make up for the lack of activity and people when they are at the back by the parking lot. This sort of arrangement thumbs its nose at the public realm and kills what would otherwise be pedestrian corners.

And so we are struggling with this notion as the developers and my neighborhood consider this latest assisted living facility. What is interesting is the first words out of the mouth of the development team at the preliminary public meeting emphasized four things – the building would be set back farther than the city required, it would be three stories instead of a more typical four, there would be landscaping to buffer the building, and the parking and main door with all its activity would be behind the building. You can see this in the proposed site plan.


All four of these elements are designed to “buffer” or “mitigate” the building’s impact on the neighborhood. And the development team is right from their point of view – they are proposing a facility they think will operate well and be a pretty good neighbor. The problem is, there will not be a single entrance along either facade that faces the two city streets and public sidewalks at this project (there will be one door but it will be an exit only), and I believe that is a travesty in an urban setting and must be addressed.

Shouldn’t the first consideration be how does this building and its use interact with its surroundings? What kind of neighbor is it? I’m a believer in urban context, and you cannot hide a building in the city. Ideally we’d have a clinic, beauty salon or some related use to enliven the ground floor. Even with a single-use apartment building, individual unit entrances present a wonderful solution. Not so easy with assisted living, since walk-out units aren’t workable for the safety and security of residents. I get that. The development team is proposing building articulation, balconies, a variety of materials, landscaping – all the usual suspects. I’m still left asking if this is appropriate solution or just cosmetic suburbanism?

So may I suggest the solution in situations like these is to set the building back (gasp!) so as to put the entrance facing the neighborhood. Should the residents of this facility not be treated like neighbors of mine rather than walled off from my neighborhood? I’m not the only one who likes to see the comings and goings of my neighbors, so why should this building be any different?

No need to set the building back much farther than proposed, but place the porte cochere (“carriage porch” – a covered drive-up front entrance) prominently and welcomingly at the front of the building so the activity of those residents coming and going is seen and part of the neighborhood (with the entrance as proposed at the back of the building it is hidden, yet the neighborhood street still handles all the traffic that comes and goes – they get all the bad with none of the good). It is even possible to have a front and rear entrance to the same lobby and have it be secure. The porte cochere can be placed within the existing setback, and guest parking can be in front, at the side or behind. Either way, this won’t be a big box parking lot. Employees should park under the building. Guests can also park on the street – that’s what street parking is for. There are 60 units proposed – it is reasonable to estimate at any one time there won’t be more than 15 guests requiring parking. There is no need to provide all of that off-street. Don’t overbuild the parking lot. Moreover, placing the front entrance at the actual front of the building could actually reduce traffic impact on the street by having the curb cut closer to the busy 42nd Street to the south of the site.

Oddly enough, shown below, the 30-plus year old sister building of the one shown above comes close to what I’m trying to convey – porte cochere in front shared by pedestrians, bike racks and any other plazas or public space. In other words, the activity of the building. A good neighbor indeed.

Furthermore, the proposed project will also share a parcel with an existing community garden. Thus, I think asking first how this building interacts with the neighborhood is all the more relevant. As proposed, the building not only turns its back on the sidewalk, street and neighborhood, it is separated from the community garden by its entrance drive and the building itself doesn’t address the garden in any meaningful way. I believe this is a missed opportunity.

The perverse truth is a large percentage if not majority of residents don’t drive, or don’t do so very often. They may walk – they may use a wheelchair. They may be only allowed out with supervision/family members. There are places in which to walk in my neighborhood, I’m proud to say, and they will no doubt want to do so, to visit Chris and Robs Chicago-style hot dogs, A Baker’s Wife bakery, Angry Catfish coffee shop, or just getout for a stroll – the list goes on. Making them walk around the building and not providing more direct access to our sidewalks (that’s what they are for!) is a shame at best, an insult at worst.

To the credit of the development team, they have not only agreed to keep the beloved community garden as part of the project but have also reached out to my neighborhood group to seek input on this project, allowing members of the community to voice their opinion about design issues rather than react to a design that has been already set in stone. I welcome this, and they are willing to listen and incoporate some creative solutions. For example, they plan a community plaza at the corner of the building that could be a very nice public space. And in fact, I’ve suggested the core argument of this post at neighborhood meetings and been met with a mix of consideration and practical resistance. Thus, I feel now is the time to expand on this issue in hopes that an even better solution can be found for the overall project. The development team knows how the existing model for assisted living works, but now is the time for contextual, out-of-the-box thinking.

Automobiles, shuttle vans and delivery trucks are not inherently evil, but we must not let our urban design decisions be based on them. Buffering the building to mitigate its impact in its surroundings doesn’t address the fact that the residents of this building will be my neighbors, and the physical form of the building should have a front door (if not many doors) that faces the neighborhood and dignifies those new neighbors as members of the community. I for one don’t want to live in a neighborhood where buildings turn their backs on us. Accepting the possibility that a front door may have to be shared with automobiles, vans and perhaps a parking lot is a small price to pay for a building that is a better neighbor.

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