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Posts tagged ‘suburbia’

Reviving the Flower Theatre

August 11, 2012


It’s been a busy summer, and I haven’t had time to update this blog, what with launching a new website at my day job and writing about D.C.’s architectural renaissance in The Architect’s Newspaper. I’ve also been working on a longer piece about architecture, real-estate development, and gender.

But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve focused on a community project. The goal is to find a viable temporary use for an Art Deco movie theater in my neighborhood that’s been shuttered for four years. Located in Long Branch, one of the densest areas of Montgomery County (17,000 people per square mile–the same density as San Francisco!), the Flower Theatre and the early 1950s shopping center around it are well-placed to become an attractive, pedestrian-friendly, mixed-use node for East County.

At the moment, the shopping area is in need of streetscape improvements and (most important, in my opinion) some new uses that aren’t characterized by convenience. The businesses there now include a Domino’s, a 7-11, a county liquor store, a few bodegas, and a drive-through bank. Customers park, quickly buy what they need, and then drive away. (To be fair, there’s also one sit-down restaurant and a medical clinic, both stay-a-while kind of places.)

Could a revived Flower Theatre convince the transient patrons of Long Branch to stick around? That was one question posed during a charrette on August 4, an open community discussion about the theater’s future. Organized by my friend Dan Reed of Just Up the Pike fame and held at Fenton Street Market, the charrette drew 25 or 30 participants, whose suggestions ranged from setting up a benefit corporation, to screening second-run foreign-language movies in the space, to studying Philly’s Reading Terminal Market as a model.

We’ll publish a report on the charrette soon, and we’ll keep talking to local residents, county officials, and business and nonprofit leaders. So stay tuned. I’m optimistic that finding the right temporary use for the theater will spark interest in the Flower Ave./Piney Branch crossroads ahead of the Purple Line arriving (a stop is planned for Arliss St., just two blocks away).

Thinking about the Long Branch we want now means we’ll be ready when developers start thinking about it for us, come 2015.

Sticking up for the suburbs

February 29, 2012


Now that more avant-garde architects are paying attention to the suburbs, I don’t know whether to be pleased or intensely irritated. Part of me thinks: Finally! They’ve come to realize that suburbanites aren’t all cultureless, environment-hating yahoos, guzzling resources with abandon.

The rest of me thinks: Here we go again. And I’m afraid the cynical side won out when I reviewed (admittedly online) the proposals included in the Museum of Modern Art’s Foreclosed exhibition.

Don’t get me wrong–there are great architecture firms represented in the show, firms like Chicago’s Studio Gang and New York’s Work AC. But as Diana Lind, editor of The Next American City, noted in a sharp review of Foreclosed, none of the architects involved actually lives in a suburb. Accordingly, some of the proposals suggest an intolerance for any mode of living except what might be called the hyperurban.

So Michael Meredith and Hilary Sample of MOS would fill in the streets of Orange, N.J., with ribbons of new mixed-use development, bringing the density (and aesthetic) of Chelsea or SoHo to a place that already has more building stock than it can handle. For sprawling Temple Terrace, Fla., as it considers creating its first-ever downtown, Visible Weather dreamed up a superstructure reminiscent of Archigram’s Plug-In City.

Would a place to get ice cream or kick a ball around have been too prosaic? Given the competition’s starting-point–an academic screenplay in which Socrates muses about the housing bubble–I think we can answer yes.

Annual Fourth of July parade in Takoma Park, Md.

Foreclosed has merits (it does not treat “suburbia” as a monolith, for one), but it brought up bad memories of last year’s misbegotten exercise in suburban fantasy: Open House, organized by Droog and Diller Scofidio + Renfro. In this high-design caper, architects from Manhattan and Brooklyn (sample firm name: Fake Industries Architectural Agonism) went to Levittown, the ur-suburb on Long Island, to organize conceptual happenings in houses there.

One house became a makeshift casino; another was transformed into a “Domesticity Museum.” The homeowners were, ostensibly, collaborators, although in a critique of the project as spot-on as Lind’s of Foreclosed, Allison Arieff put paid to the notion that the householders discovered their own “solutions” to suburban “problems.” The ideas were generated for them, by the designers.

Arieff was on the jury of Build a Better Burb, another design competition last year that focused on suburban Long Island. The proposals awarded by Better Burb couldn’t have been more different from the conceptual-art events of Open House: accessory dwelling units, transit networks, ecological regionalism. In other words, pragmatic strategies for sustainable suburban redevelopment.

The Flower Avenue Holiday Market reanimates a little-used parking lot in Silver Spring, Md.

Likewise, the book Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson, proves that the discipline of urban design has a lot to offer American suburbs as they evolve to become less auto-dependent and more diverse. That’s the one crucial thing about the suburbs that some urbanites don’t seem to grasp: They’re evolving.

Yes, there are houses in foreclosure and malls that have seen better days. No, car dependence and diffuse development are not sustainable. But increasingly, suburbs are the American places that welcome new immigrants, offer the lion’s share of the jobs, and allow for a degree of social equity that’s become impossible in class-stratified city centers.

Lind speculates that maybe the pendulum has swung back to the suburbs again after the urban renaissance of the 1990s and 2000s. I am sure that it has. And if fixing the suburbs is the problem of our generation–as Dunham-Jones claims–we’d better get started. Tactically, and without prejudice.