Noted urban planning writer Jonathan Lerner weighs in.
[Editor’s note: Jonathan Lerner’s work has been published in Landscape Architecture, The Architect’s Newspaper, Metropolitan Home, Metropolis, and The Washington Post. He wrote this op-ed specifically for What Now Atlanta.]
Unless you’ve been wearing a blindfold, you surely will have noticed the recent completion of Novare Group’s glassy Skyhouse Midtown condo tower at 12th and Peachtree. Or maybe not. One glassy condo tower can look much like another, especially in a district where high-rises are exploding skyward as fast as fireworks and most are just as gaudy. The fact is, it takes thoughtful design to make a building both distinctive itself and appropriate for its site and surroundings.
Actually, Novare Group has taken the cookie-cutter approach to a new level. It has other Skyhouse projects in various stages of development on 6th Street in Midtown Atlanta, and in Dallas, Houston, Austin, Orlando and Charlotte. They share more than a brand name. The buildings, from the outside at least, appear virtually identical. (There’s a Skyhouse planned for Buckhead, too, also the same but for a different roofline.) In fact, the renderings on the Midtown project’s website and for the Dallas, Austin and Orlando projects on Novare’s corporate website are the very same image – right down to the clouds, trees and buildings in the background. And you thought they grew palm trees in Orlando.
The country is already amply furnished with suburban corridors that are mind-numbingly indistinguishable. Those aesthetic wastelands are propelling people back into city centers. Are the repopulated city centers now to become interchangeable too? Isn’t there something different about the climates, terrains and cultures of places like Orlando, Austin and Atlanta that ought to be reflected in the architecture their citizens are obliged to live with?
It’s too easy, though, to demonize Novare for saddling Atlanta with three of these rubber-stamp structures about which the nicest thing to say is that they’re utterly forgettable. Novare has done excellent projects in the past, including the restoration and repurposing of the landmark Biltmore Hotel on West Peachtree Street, and the urbane and energizing Metropolis condominiums on Peachtree at 8th. But Novare is a developer. And as Atlanta’s dispiritingly banal skyline and suburbs illustrate, developers’ principal concern is rarely aesthetic.
So somebody else has to ensure that what gets built is pleasing to look at and reflects the character of the community rather than leaching the community of personality. Recent changes to Atlanta’s zoning regulations that require ground level retail and pedestrian-friendly streetscape design were an important step toward making the city more livable. Now what about the way buildings look? We live in a culture that privileges private property and entrepreneurialism. But does that give developers the right to clutter the city with ugliness?
Some parts of this city may be past saving. But Atlanta’s intown neighborhoods were built early enough – before automobile culture came to dominate both urban planning and architecture – and were then essentially left alone, so their original character endures. Right now the pressure is on in Midtown. But soon enough it will be imperative to develop densely all through the central neighborhoods, particularly around the Beltline, and especially if its transit component or any other new intown transit is built. The density is a good thing. It’s what will support transit, retail businesses and safe, agreeable neighborhoods. The challenge is to build density so that it gives pleasure rather than offense.