An Extra-ORR-dinary New Haven

by Allan Appel | May 14, 2008 9:15 AM | | Comments (2)

nhiorr%20001.JPGRobert Orr’s people-centered vision for the Shartenberg site ultimately didn’t prevail. Yet he was all smiles, gracious, and even encouraged by recent planning developments in New Haven as his firm, at 869 Chapel St., hosted the fifth and final Wine, Dine, Design evening of the season, sponsored by the Town Green Special Services District.

Treating nearly 100 admirers to a compelling overview of how oil and the automobile have made modern American cities lose their way, this apostle of the New Urbanism said he was generally encouraged by the municipal plan to get rid of the 34 connector and restore the street grid, the walkability, and, thereby, the economic viability of that part of downtown.

“It’s no one thing,” said Orr, “just generally encouraged by some of the plans.”

He basically likes the idea of buildings of mixed use, no more than four or five stories high, he said, that Economic Development Administrator Kelly Murphy and the mayor have used in their preliminary descriptions of the re-envisioning of the 34 corridor.

“Let the traffic from 91 just empty out on the grid. The street grid is the key. The grid will absorb the traffic as long,” he said, “as the grid is a good one.”

By that he meant returning many of New Haven’s one-ways to two-way streets. One way streets make a city function as “arterials” or larger highways function in the suburbs, difficult to get to and from the places you need and lengthy. A city like New Haven is in its human effect just like a suburb if you have to drive everywhere, he said.

In a power point presentation, in which he wore immense erudition easily and entertainingly, Orr said that he Googled a route to go from the Sovereign Bank at Church and Chapel to the nearby Starbucks, and the answer came up 1.2 miles of one-way travel to get essentially across the street.

nhiorr%20004.JPGOrr is not quite suffering the fate of a prophet totally unheeded in his own land. In the nearby land of Hamden, he and his firm have been retained to rewrite the zoning code along several key commercial corridors, including Dixwell’s “magic mile” and State Street.

Utilizing the SmartCode, which is one of the New Urbanism’s significant contributions to planning, Orr and his team met in October with Hamden’s town planner and businesses and asked them how they want to expand and grow.

“Then we get a sense of the DNA of the area,” he said. “That means we ask people and we find out ourselves what’s wonderful or unique about an area, and we write the code not only to enable that to happen, but to expand it.”

The code, which promotes compact, walkable, mixed use, traditional neighborhood patterns, essentially tells developers what to build, not what NOT to build, which is what is standard in most cities. With the SmartCode, he said, you eliminate endless hours of haggling in front of zoning boards. “Everybody knows what’s happening and what to expect, and the predictability attracts developers.”

“We hope Dixwell Avenue’s ‘magic mile’,” he said, “will be turned into a tree-lined boulevard, with cars parking at a slant.” And along State Street, he’s envisioning a good location for an Amtrak station, and, within walking distance, community centers among the small factory-focused neighborhoods.

Orr said what drove Hamden to engage him was not only the pressing new reality of the price of oil and the vision of the town’s planner, but a sense that unless old businesses grow and new ones are attracted to Hamden’s commercial corridors, the town would have only its residential properties as the main revenue source. Sound familiar?

No starry-eyed idealist, Orr said that Petaluma, California, where the SmartCode was implemented between 2003 and 2007, attracted developers with $100 million in new investments, whereas before, for 30 years, the town had languished in steep decline.

Standard municipal codes, he said, from a human point of view, have turned American cities into the same soul-less scapes as the suburbs.

He is also building: on a half acre site in Portland, Maine, he is putting up 82 residential units, many with gardens, on a plot most municipalities would allow one single family house; and on eight acres in Mount Vernon New York, where he’s trying to revitalize a neighborhood devastated by nearby rail tracks.

nhiorr%20002.JPGBefore they heard Orr, guests such as artist Carmen Lund (center), kitchen designer Gail Bolling, and Reggie Solomon of Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs took a New Urbanist quiz on Orr’s computers to see how “new urbanist” their lives were. You got a score, which you wrote on a green button, if your answers to questions such as, “Did you take the elevator up or use the stairs?” or “Can you walk to a grocery store near where you live?” were high enough.

Scott Healy, executive director of the Town Green Special District, on whose board Orr sits, got a 100. “But I knew a lot of the questions in advance,” he said. And he does walk to work from his house on Dwight Street.

In his closing remarks, Healy praised Orr for practicing what he preaches. His architectural firm is housed in the upper floors of the Civil War era English Building, which he owns, and which sits across the street from the lot that now lies vacant due to the Kresge fire. The cavernous first floor, Orr said, has had 100 parties interested in renting it, including the Village Vanguard of New York City, but no takers thus far.

Ironically, Orr said, the fire is having the effect of making downtown more appealing since people are excited about the prospect of development there with some small, narrow, people-sized streets. Likewise, the infill beyond the unfortunate “superblocks” of Shartenberg and Gateway Community College, has immense new urbanist potential.

“It’s universally known now,” he declared, “that where you put no big box stores and highways, but smaller streets and small businesses and neighborhood and walkabilty, there you will attract and grow the greater commercial value.”

nhiorr%20005.JPGOn their way to Thali on Orange Street, where guests were destined to dine, fellow architect and last month’s Wine, Dine, Design presenter, Barry Svigals said, “Robert is a true visionary. He presents a complete picture, the deep … ecology of people in a lived environment.”

And what’s the latest idea Orr is working on? With the rise of the slow food movement and urban agriculture in great demand, why not look at the factory sites that ring New Haven? These sit, likely, upon good agricultural land, which was tilled up until the 19th century. “If we can imagine a ring of that land, urban fields worked by farmers who want to live in the city and fulfill this new need, but walk to their works, as they used to do, then we can imagine towns as they once were, as they are now in Italy, for example, as New Haven might be again.”

This evening of many visions brought to an end the season’s Wine, Dine, Design series. After a summer’s hiatus, said Healy, the always-sold out showcasing of the city’s impressive design talent, will resume in the fall.

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Posted by: Kyle | May 14, 2008 2:16 PM

Take another look at his Shartenberg proposal and weep.

Posted by: Kathy Pinn | May 14, 2008 6:15 PM

It's so good to see that Robert Orr is receiving recognition in New Haven. He has been a remarkable help to us in Waveland, Mississippi. He gave most generously of his time during the first few months after Katrina destroyed our homes and businesses.
He is now working on the design for our City Hall and Annex building, fire station and other buildings for individuals. We welcome his talent, vision and expertise...and not only that, he's fun to be with!
Kathy Pinn
Waveland, Mississippi

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