Sunday, May 21, 2006
And Finally... My Cherry Hill Village Critique
Cherry Hill Village, founded in 2001, is a 338 acre traditional neighborhood development (TND) in the exurbs of metropolitan Detroit. Unlike the rest of the Pulte and Toll Brother residential subdivisions that ignobly dot this once rural landscape, Cherry Hill Village offers an alternative to the single use, auto-oriented, and homogenous suburban “neighborhood.” This is accomplished by integrating many principles of the new urbanism.
Though the new urbanism is defined by and implemented on many different scales, it is frequently characterized as an interdisciplinary urban design movement that reintegrates walkable, mixed-use, diverse, and more environmentally sensitive patterns of development back into our town building practices. In the past two decades new urbanism has gained significant traction as an alternative to the conventional placeless sprawl that continues to degrade the political, social, economic, and environmental health of the built environment.
Cherry Hill was established in 1825 as a small rural hamlet at the crossroads of Cherry Hill and Ridge Roads. As the community began to grow its settlement pattern required the construction of a church, school, general store, creamery, cemetery, and a number of residential buildings. By the early 20th century Cherry Hill served as one of the most prolific providers of sweet corn to the growing Detroit market region. Henry Ford took notice and added Cherry Hill to his “Village Industries” program.
Today Canton Township has lost much of its rural character to national homebuilder subdivisions, but the lack of sewer and water connections always seemed to discourage significant development in the Cherry Hill area. In order to protect the area from intense development pressure Canton Township decided to proactively guide future growth in the area to “preserve the character, scale, and quality of the community aesthetic.” This response helped shape the Cherry Hill Village TND in a way that was consistent with the Township’s development goals. Thus, as the design and build-out of the first two phases has taken place, the historic community buildings that originally defined the hamlet have been preserved and integrated within the new Cherry Hill Village.
The concept for Cherry Hill Village was originally conceived in the mid -1990’s by Biltmore Properties, a leading southeast Michigan land development company who bills themselves as “Town Builders Since 1924.” Despite the catchy slogan, representatives from Biltmore Properties spent a significant amount of time learning the principles of real town building by studying the new urbanism. As a result of their work, Biltmore Properties hired Looney Ricks Kiss Architects, an architecture firm experienced in traditional neighborhood design, to successfully integrate the diverse elements of the new urbanism, and to preserve Cherry Hill’s character, scale and aesthetic qualities.
The Cherry Hill Village plan was built using a “Design, Density and Dynamics” strategy. The mixed-use village core was thought of as an “enhanced hub of civic, social, commercial and special activities” for the community. The “crown jewel” of the core is the village square, which is located directly across from the original schoolhouse and terminates the intersection of Ridge and Cherry Hill Roads.
As one moves away from the village center the density of development decreases and lot size gently increases. Eventually the pattern returns itself to the rural and agricultural uses at the edge of the development. This gradient of development is designed to be consistent with the concept of the urban to rural transect.
Though new urbanism successfully accommodates a great variety of architectural styles, a regional vernacular style of architecture common to pre-World War II is consistently the most visible and criticized component in the physical realization of new urbanist communities. Yet to many practicing new urbanists it is not the architecture, but a commitment to all scales of urbanism that truly elevates the movement above the conventional building practices. This commitment to the urbanism is demonstrated by the form of buildings, the layout and width of streets, the distance of setbacks, the placement of parking facilities, the quality of materials, and the design of public spaces that facilitate diverse human interaction, physical activity, and a high level of connectivity between all people and the places they need to go. These are the standards from which I have chosen to analyze Cherry Hill Village.
When held against its principles, new urbanist communities are often designed and implemented with varying success. This variation is sometimes explained by those in the ‘growth machine’ who have little understanding of urbanism, but a desire to target a specific segment of the real estate market. Having never heard anything about, or personally seen Cherry Hill Village until a month ago, I was curious as to how it would hold up to the design principles that I hold in such high esteem. Thus, from an urban design perspective Cherry Hill Village presented a unique opportunity for study and critique.
The above site plan displays Cherry Hill Village at full build out. Currently, phase I is complete, and phase II is nearly complete (see below). The “Uptown” district, which is the maroon and orange buildings seen in the middle right between the wider end of the “wishbone” streets, is comprised mostly of multi-family town homes/apartments and is also close to completion.
Streets and Circulation
Cherry Hill Village is located in Wayne County, where most public road design standards are skewed toward the need of the automobiles. Traffic moves fast, pedestrian amenities are an afterthought, and bicycling facilities do not exist. Cherry Village on the other hand uses its village scale and design to appropriately cater to automobiles, bicyclists, and pedestrians. This approach is accomplished by integrating wide sidewalks, relatively narrow street widths, on street parking, street deflection, multi-use paths, and a general pattern of connectivity throughout the entire development. As a result, the streets are seen as a common space amongst residents, and not as a threat to their personal safety.
Though the residential streets are well designed, the town center still lacks cohesiveness. This is because the town center is located at the crossroads of two major, but historically rural Canton thoroughfares – Cherry Hill and Ridge Roads. The town center side of Cherry Hill Road presents a nice pedestrian street experience, while the other lacks urban amenities all together. The pictures below properly display a violation of the urban to rural transect, and demonstrate an awkward lack of spatial enclosure. An improved design orientation for the town center might have defined both street edges with mixed-use buildings, while also keeping a presence on these two heavily trafficked County roads.
Also, despite a fairly tight knit core, the street pattern in the edge neighborhoods feels too curvilinear and suburban. I experienced this both in my automobile and as a pedestrian. The village master plan explains that the confusing orientation is due to odd lot sizes, and the landform created by the River Rouge. I find this hard to believe, as the River Rouge is nowhere near most of the residential sites. I am not necessarily advocating for a strict Midwestern styled grid, nor would I ask the designers to ignore topography or view sheds, but by looking at the site map one can see that a few of the edge neighborhood are glorified cul-de-sacs. This suburban pattern makes the town center seem much further away than it is for the residents on the edge. I suspect that these conditions have less to do with topography, and more to do with maximizing the amount of parcels available for development.
Streetscapes and Pedestrian Environment
As I mentioned in the section above, Cherry Hill Village is a great environment for walking. This holds true for both the town center and the residential neighborhoods.
Most of the streetscapes in Cherry Hill Village are filled with interesting design features that lead the pedestrian to real destinations like neighborhood parks, the town center, and multi-use recreational paths. I particularly feel that once the trees mature, the mews will be one of the most intimate spaces in the whole village.
However, as nice as the streetscapes are in Cherry Hill Village, the designers did a horrible disservice to the main streetscape in the “Uptown” district of the Village.
This particular district is supposed to be one of the most urban places in the village. Apartment buildings, town homes, and condominiums bring the highest density within the closest proximity of the town center. Yet, the broad side of these particular buildings opens up to parking lots, rather than the street. It effectively ruins the visual continuity of the street, and serves up many views of the ugly internal town center parking lot and the monolithic back end of the theatre (upper left, 2nd picture). Interestingly, further down the street and away from the urban core apartment buildings of a similar vintage actually do line the street. Why the first sets of apartment buildings are not oriented to the actual street is beyond me.
The neighborhood parks are probably the single most important design oriented amenity in Cherry Hill Village. The parks function at the scale of the neighborhood, and are defined by the tight residential lots that surround them. In essence the parks serve as the center to each neighborhood. They also bring a sense of rural solitude to a development that is far more urban than the typical Detroit exurban community.
From a design perspective the parks seem to strike a nice balance between programmed playground space, open grass, and the more formal village square and village green. This flexibility allows the spaces to evolve if need be, and allows the residents to picnic, play soccer, or have larger community gatherings. The neighborhood greenway path is also a great recreational amenity that affords residents the ability to move throughout the neighborhoods with ease.
Before sticking a shovel in the ground, Biltmore Properties used a visual preference survey to help them determine the overall architectural style of the Cherry Hill Development. Traditional Victorian architecture common to southeast Michigan was preferred and is therefore consistent throughout Cherry Hill Village. Simple geometries and rectangular, square, or L-shaped homes give the residences a feeling of coherence, but also allow the close-knit buildings to differentiate themselves with unique porches, turrets, roof types, and other distinct architectural details. Exterior building materials are primarily brick or wood clapboard, which despite several variations (some ugly) again provide a feeling of unity to the architecture. The town center is primarily brick and features three and four story buildings, as opposed to the residential neighborhoods that feature either one or two story homes. Thus, one might say the town center, “plays nicely” with the surrounding neighborhoods, but also clearly defines itself as a commercial district.
In the development industry it is typically said, and often lamented, that form follows parking. However, by following several principles of the new urbanism, Cherry Hill Village manages to create a more balanced approach. This is done by integrating alley ways, screened parking lots, on street parking, and by placing garages behind principle residential structures. This type of design demonstrates that though cars are welcome in Cherry Hill Village, they are not the priority. My only gripe related to parking is the aforementioned “Uptown” situation where parking is clearly prioritized over the built form. The area suffers because of it.
One of the biggest challenges to creating a new town center is getting the retail to prosper. Many new town centers intelligently integrate commercial uses within the design of the community as a whole, but still find that retail struggles until the right balance of demand and space is achieved. Though Cherry Hill Village has already seen a financial service office and a pizza restaurant come and go, its vacant retail space is quickly disappearing. As of my last visit, a new coffee shop, florist, gift shop, and bank are getting ready to join an insurance agency, general store, ice cream shop, dentist office, fitness center, the Cherry Hill Village sales office, and a daycare in the town center. Also in the pipeline are a recently approved K-8 Canton Township school and a full service grocery store. With no other commercial activity nearby, Cherry Hill Village has positioned itself to also become the town center for all of the nearby Pulte subdivisions, which offer no such amenities.
Despite the seemingly early commercial success, it is actually the Village Theatre that has defined the early success of the Cherry Hill Village. With a capacity of 400 and over 300 performances throughout the year, the Village Theatre is a major draw for the region and has given the most prominent street corner an identifiable and community oriented use. This was an intelligent strategy.
Another great success for Cherry Hill Village is the diversity in its housing stock. With single family homes, condos, town homes, apartments, and auxiliary units of all sizes and price points, a wide range of people can find something affordable in Cherry Hill Village. Moreover, besides the “Uptown” district, the different housing types are well integrated throughout the various neighborhoods. It will be interesting to see how long the area remains affordable, especially after the new school is constructed.
Since Cherry Hill Village is the first new urbanist TND development to be designed and significantly built out in the State of Michigan, its successes and failures are being closely followed by those with a stake in the development of the region’s built environment. Fortunately the early success of Cherry Hill Village has brought the need for smart growth in southeast Michigan to the forefront. Moreover, the development has demonstrated that new urbanism can provide comprehensive design solutions for building places with lasting value. Cherry Hill Village also provides a concrete example of how the private and public sectors can work together to simultaneously meet their seemingly disparate goals.
On a macro level Cherry Hill Village is a success. However, its exurban location and the quasi-suburban design features (streets patterns, parking and configuration in Uptown) open the development up to a well-deserved level of criticism. However, when considering that Biltmore Properties had no prior with TND experience, they have managed to produce a quality alternative to what could be characterized as “more of the same.” Yet, as successful as Cherry Hill Village has been thus far, when I asked their proud lead engineer if the company planned to do another new urbanist project, he furrowed his brow and said, “I don’t know, it’s awfully hard.” This where the real critique needs to happen.