Design ideas build community

​Parks, streets, parking amenities — and the sometimes-overlooked spaces in between them — are rich opportunities for community development.

City Market space in downtown Columbia
Garvin Design Group has redesigned several historic buildings, such as those in
the City Market space in downtown Columbia.

Sometimes that means restoring a historic building or making incremental cosmetic improvements to a storefront or sidewalk. Other times, community development through design can mean focusing on people instead of their automobiles.

"We've really got to design for humans. That's the parent pushing a stroller, that's the person in a wheelchair," said Allen Davis, director of the City of Charleston's Design Division, which is part of the city's Department of Planning, Preservation and Sustainability, during a panel discussion at the Mayor's Bike and Walk Summit in Columbia in May.

For example, Charleston officials have been discussing imminent repairs to the Low Battery seawall.

"The engineered solution today is just to fill the wall, make the wall opaque," Davis said. But doing so would have an unintended outcome. Very young children and those who use a wheelchair or mechanized transportation, along with other members of the public, would lose their view of the water.

"Why have a waterfront promenade when you can't see the water? It has to do with equity, and it has to do with universal design," he said.

Davis instead described a more inclusive possibility. It would involve raising the entire walkway, eliminating the parking along the Low Battery side of Murray Boulevard, expanding the walkway to accommodate more pedestrians, strollers and wheelchairs, and inserting a buffer between the vehicular travel way and waterfront walkway. Importantly, the seawall would be rebuilt so that it's not opaque, allowing everyone to experience the view of the Ashley River through it.

Diversity, variety and vibrancy
But what about occasions when not only seawalls, but also entire neighborhoods, are up for improvement?

One way to develop community is to put pedestrians front and center by giving residents the opportunity to walk to where they want to be, whether it's a place to get a cup of coffee, a barber shop or a movie theater.

"The more commercial centers, commercial nodes you can provide in neighborhoods, in places where people already are, the better," Davis said. "I know that's hard, because a lot of residents don't want the commercial. Then when you develop the commercial aspects of the neighborhoods or new town centers, the people who were against it were the first ones there on opening day."

Designing for community development also means avoiding missteps.

If, for instance, a fire destroys two buildings and leaves two downtown lots empty, don't parcel the space out into two identical pocket parks.

"The human being is drawn to diversity and variety and vibrancy," said Randy Wilson, president of Community Design Solutions and frequent trainer for the Main Street SC program.

"The biggest recipe for boring spaces downtown is repetition, having it all be the same."

Instead, said Wilson, lay some grass down until a permanent structure can be built. Make one part of the park "active" with public games, such as cornhole or giant checkers, leaving a wall blank for public movies, and install a swing instead of just benches.

The adjacent piece of land could be a more passive park and feature trees and places to sit. And remember: If the plan is to eventually replace the buildings, "never put stuff in there that it's so permanent that people get mad when you put a building there," said Wilson.

He recommends cities and towns secure relatively easy, incremental gains as a way to change perception of a space before making major physical transformations.

"Probably the first principle is figuring out how to do the least expensive gestures you can do that are going to have the biggest visual impact," Wilson said. "You can then build credibility and confidence to tackle tougher issues and slightly more expensive gestures."

For example, he said, instead of immediately prioritizing new building facades, building renovations and roadway improvements, consider starting with quick-impact, low-cost improvements. Examples include lights hung in an alley, bistro tables, colorful umbrellas and landscaping, public art on the sidewalks, giant checkers or chess, and other interactive opportunities placed on public spaces.

Wilson also urges cities to consider how they can initially improve a greater number of buildings rather than making dramatic renovations to only a few.

"You take some of the typical components that are normally used on a building, such as paint, signs, awnings and lights, and you only offer that component in a given grant cycle," he said. For example, in a given funding cycle, the city might only address building awnings, followed by another period when the city only funds signs.

"If you were to do a traditional façade grant program to an overall façade of a building that's 25 to 30 feet wide and two stories tall, and all you have available to spend is $5,000 - $10,000, then you are likely only able to affect one or two buildings," said Wilson. "But if you were to do signs, now you can touch 10, maybe 20 buildings with news signs, and all of a sudden you're having a pretty strong impact by virtue of touching so many buildings."

Next step — Take the same approach except with new coats of paint instead of with new signs.

Historic spaces draw the public
When architect Scott Garvin, president of Garvin Design Group, begins renovating or reimagining historic buildings, he starts by researching the building's original story and character. The finished building or space fosters community development simply by attracting people to it.

Garvin favors mixed-use spaces as a way to give consumers an assortment of reasons to visit a space and embraces unusual historic features. Stripping the clutter from historic spaces, such as a lean-to or extraneous walls and infill features that were added in the mid-1900s, can also help reveal buildings' distinctive character from the 1800s.

New construction, too, has plenty of potential to bring life to a city space and invite people from diverse demographic groups.

"The No. 1 rule is it needs to belong to its place or setting, then it needs to be welcoming and friendly and invite people in, and thirdly, the building should reflect the activity of function that's inside," Garvin said. "You should see hints of that in the exterior and design."

He is renovating the former restaurant Hennessy's on Columbia's Main Street. The structure had a basement that extended under the sidewalk and an awkward mezzanine that was added in recent decades, among other unusual characteristics.

Garvin said he asked the city if he could cut holes in the sidewalk to create a courtyard, and the city allowed it, a decision that facilitated the creation of a unique sunken courtyard.

"People are going to love going there. The building was sort of telling me, 'This is what's cool about me, this long skinny, slender space without the mezzanine.'"