Infill Development – Local Architect Shares His Opinions

Local architect Bruce Monighan (standing, toward the right) discusses an infill project at the UDA Design Dialogue on August 26.

Local architect Bruce Monighan (standing, toward the right) discusses an infill project at the UDA Design Dialogue on August 26.

In recent years infill development – the creation of new housing, stores and other buildings within already established neighborhoods – has become a hot topic for many neighborhoods in Sacramento, including our own.  On August 26, local architect Bruce Monighan addressed some of the issues surrounding infill, in a Dialogue sponsored by the Sacramento chapter of the Urban Design Alliance, at the American Institute of Architects building at 1400 S Street in Sacramento.  In a wide-ranging discussion with the approximately 35 or so people in attendance, which included some architects, planners and public officials, but also plenty of other interested citizens, Monighan laid out some of the challenges that face architects and urban planners in creating new developments that are positive contributions to exisiting neighborhoods.

Monighan clearly accepted the fact that infill development is going to happen in Sacramento – referring to the Sacramento Area Council of Governments’ 2004 Regional Blueprint, and the City of Sacramento’s own recently updated General Plan, both of which call for more extensive infill development in existing neighborhoods in order to rein in urban sprawl.  In addition to decreasing urban sprawl, Monighan pointed to other advantages of infill, including more efficient use of existing infrastructure; decrease in transportation needs, both public and personal (due to more compact housing development in close-in neighborhoods and less need for highways to the suburbs); and the promotion of more vibrant, “24-hour” urban centers.

So what are the disadvantages to infill?  Monighan identified several challenges, including that infill projects are more expensive to build; infill sites are sometimes constricted in available space; additional transportation and vehicle parking issues have to be addressed; and the need for architects and developers to “respond to the context” of the neighborhood – in other words, to create a development that fits into the “character” of the neighborhood.  This relates to what Monighan suggested was the greatest challenge for infill development: that existing residents of a neighborhood have particular, sometimes strongly-held, expectations about what their neighborhood is and should continue to be in the future.

In the planning of new infill projects, Monighan identified three possible options for architects and developers:  (1) Emulate existing buildings in the neighborhood – create a faithful replica of existing historic designs that predominate there; (2) Reinterpret existing buildings – create buildings that pay homage to historic designs, but incorporate current design styles as well; (3) Contrast with existing buildings – put up a building with a radically different design as a deliberate contrast to existing structures. 

Monighan then showed slides of several infill projects he’d worked on, and illustrated his preference for the second option – reinterpreting past designs with current architecture.  The look of a new building at the sidewalk level is particularly important, he suggested.  However, he expressed his dislike for attempts to incorporate historic design elements – for example, Victorian pitched roofs and horizontal lines on the fronts of houses – when they seem phony on the new building.  Monighan called this “faux historicism,” or a false attempt to be “historic.”

How does one define the “character” of a neighborhood?  Monighan said that a neighborhood’s character goes well beyond how the buildings look – it’s about how people live and work there, how people move around, the scale of the neighborhood, and many other factors.  Architects and planners, he said, should be asking themselves how people live in an interact with a place – and how they can support people living with broader, longer-term changes in the economy and environment.  City codes that prescribe certain designs for particular neighborhoods, he said, miss the point – architects have to worry about getting all the details right, but may still miss the “soul” of a place.

Neighbors, too, have a responsibility to be more open-minded about the design of new developments, Monighan suggested.  If existing residents have a narrow-minded expectation of what their neighborhood should be, he said, it will be difficult for architects and developers to create better buildings that make a positive contribution, rather than simply copying the existing style.  One attendee, Barry Wasserman (a member of the City’s Planning Commission), seemed to agree, saying the question should be posed as to whether a new building improves the neighborhood or hurts it.  Remember, Wasserman said, that a new building will probably outlast what’s around it, and indeed may be there about 100 years or more – so it’s very important that it make a positive contribution!

Or, as Monighan also put it, “I would rather see neighbors argue for quality and style rather than [simply] replication of existing design.”  Neighbors with preconceived notions about what’s right, he said, are sometimes trying to replicate the “face” of the neighborhood, rather than the “soul” of it.

In response to a questioner who asked why we don’t simply let the architects decide these questions, since they are the design experts, Monighan also held his own profession accountable.  Architects can also get it wrong, he said; and unfortunately too many of them don’t care enough about the neighborhoods they’re building in, or the legacy they will leave.  Architects have too often taken some “easy solutions,” he said, and need to do much better in the future.  In response to a different question, Monighan also criticized some aspects of modern buildings, saying that some of them are too “anti-detail” and too antiseptic, uninteresting to look at, with nothing to engage people.

The next Urban Design Alliance Dialogue will take place downtown at the Crest Theatre (1013 K Street), on Wednesday, September 30.  The topic will be K Street – development issues, the streetscape, and of course the issue of whether to bring back cars.  It should be a great discussion that ought not to be missed – and we’ll be sure to post further details about it here.

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