Orem recently approved a new apartment complex for the corner of Center Street and Orem Boulevard. It’ll include a mix of one and two bedroom apartments. And according to an article written by my former colleague Genelle Pugmire, officials want to create a walkable community with a “downtown feel.”
There’s a lot to like about this project, beginning with its intentions to create a more human-scaled environment. Apparently it’ll also conceal its parking, have street level apartments and is designed to take advantage of nearby transit. Not so long ago developers and city officials wouldn’t even have bothered mentioning things like walkability or the need to conceal parking so everyone involved in this project deserves praise for moving in the right direction.
But as is so often the case, these overtures to progress aren’t enough and I expect this project to be more of the same in a currently unpleasant, unwalkable and hostile environment. In other words, they’re almost superficial compared to the existing and upcoming problems.
Take, for instance, parking. The developers claim to want to capitalize on nearby transit and a Target — which includes a grocery store — but are including 1.5 parking spaces for 1-bedroom units and 2 spaces for 2-bedroom units. That gives residents an active incentive to drive, not walk.
It’ll also mean more low-performing paved land, which is rarely walkable or aesthetically pleasing, and will drive up the cost of the development thus reducing the diversity of the residents. By contrast, if some units had no parking, or even less parking, they would be less expensive and would increase the ratio of people to cars. I wouldn’t advocate eliminating all parking for this type of development, but two spaces for apartment dwellers on a transit route and across the street from a grocery store seems excessive.
It’s also entirely at odds with current trends related to driving and everything we know about walkability. It’s a glaring example of (possibly self-imposed) parking minimums at a time when parking minimums are recognized as destructive to cities.
And that’s just one example.
Other problems include adding a 7-11 — a non-local and specifically car-oriented business that has been rejected in other communities — and the fact that there are apparently no changes mentioned for the surrounding infrastructure. That’s important because the current street is horribly designed and utterly unwalkable:
One of the corners in this intersection is going to be the site of a new apartment complex. But no matter how well-designed it is, the surrounding streets are too wide and have too much high-speed traffic to be truly walkable.
Would you want to walk here? Even adding some good design elements — which may or may not include the upcoming apartments — won’t overcome the fact that the entire area is surrounded by massive parking lots. The crusade to improve this area should start with fixing that problem.
Given the current state of the streets and surrounding development, I expect to see many people actually driving from the new apartments to Target because there are no design elements to make walking easier.
The result is that there’s little reason to believe that this apartment complex will be anything more than another cheap building in an awful, car-dependent location. I hope I’m wrong. But hearing that leaders want something as nebulous as a “downtown feel” indicates to me that they fail to understand that thriving downtowns are the result of smart, longterm economic investment. Good design is part of that investment and has real economic impacts (see previous posts here and here, for example).
Or said another way, achieving a “downtown feel” has less to do with individual elements like apartment buildings and more to do with how all the elements in a place work in concert. And unfortunately, the majority of the elements in this location are out of tune with real success.