You hear a lot about it and this story from New Geography takes a look at the underlying concept.
Density rules new development. From Florida to Texas to points west, city boosters herald a mixture of apartments and shops as an improvement on local ‘density’. Dense development can be well designed, and can contribute to the form of a city, but the new density’s formulaic style is a crossbreed of strip shopping centers joined with 1980s apartment complexes. Instead of a newly walkable urban environment, we are spawning more traffic than ever, in uninspired, pricey, new trophy projects that adorn our busy highways and replace quirky, individualistic neighborhoods with soulless, mock historic monoliths.
The official name for the form of these developments is “urban mixed use,” but they are a far cry from city-center urbanity. Each new development is a variation on beige stucco and predictable planning. A mixed-use development is not a bad thing in and of itself; for every 200-unit mixed use development in the works, 200 acres of Florida’s wilderness is kept for future generations. Their repetitive nature, however, is depressing. Nowhere is this more evident than along the ten-mile Central Florida strip called US 17-92, where five of these developments are in various stages of life.
US highways 17 and 92 combine south of Orlando to create a six-lane artery running north through several towns before splitting up once again, 17 going northwest and 92 going northeast. One response to the highway is the eccentric, prosperous community of Maitland, with 17-92 as its main street.
Premodern Maitland still exists, from the unpainted vernacular architecture of the Holly Anna orange grove store all the way up to the last vestiges of Parker’s Lumber, a railside lumberyard that dates from the 1920s. Both signal an era when Maitland actually produced something. The town’s rather elegant, light brick church tower and the angled, delicate columns of Maitland Plaza, an office complex, indicate Maitland’s midcentury phase, that once-hopeful era when architecture smiled at tailfins and speed.
Maitland, however, bought big into the new density storyline. At 17-92 and Lake Avenue the first in its collection was Victorian flavored, with a foil-lined particleboard tower thrust high over the empty storefronts lining the narrow sidewalk. Chunky columns rest between the storefronts, and thin-skinned apartments perch above whizzing cars.
That development sits across from the venerable Lake Maitland Terrace, a 1960s era resort-style campus sensibly buffered from the roar of traffic by green trees and a lawn. Lake Maitland Terrace has a waiting list, and is memorably well detailed in precast concrete, built to last. But living over a busy commercial strip is in vogue today, so we can’t seem to produce any more Lake Maitland Terraces. Instead, we have the empty mixed-use hulk across the street, harbinger of more to come.