PHOENIX — There's been a trend under way toward more excellence in design.
Extensive computer data bank helps to solve cities' problems.
Somewhere between "cad," "bounder" and "blankety-blank" lies the word developer.
"There's no doubt about it," William F. Caldwell, the newly elected president of the Urban Land Institute said wearily between sessions here at the ULI's semi-annual meeting, "the word has a bad connotation. The public's perception of us is that all we care about is digging up streets."
Just exactly when bad land-use planning--or the absence of planning altogether--began raising the public's hackles is lost in the dusty corridors of time, but it is perhaps significant that it was in 1936 that professionals in the field began feeling the backlash sufficiently to create the Urban Land Institute.
A mixed-discipline organization made up of developers, planners, engineers, architects, lawyers, financial institutions, public officials and academicians, the ULI--through research and education--is dedicated to defusing criticism of land usage through a very simple stratagem: eliminate bad land planning as much as possible
"It's really hard to pin a bad land-usage (label) on any single element," Caldwell said. "Usually, it's a combination, and while a bad building design may be the most obvious flaw, it tends to rub off on the entire industry, not just the architect involved."
Although at age 49, mature by the standards of most professional organizations, ULI has remained relatively small, and has, by design, kept a low profile until recently. Its decision to "go public" more visibly, one associate member attending the fall conference said, "is a reflection that the stigma surrounding 'developer' is still very much in place even though, largely through the influence of the ULI, there's a lot more attention being paid to good land planning than ever before."
"For the last five to 10 years," according to Caldwell, who heads up Caldwell American Investments in Troy, Mich., "there's been a definite trend under way toward more excellence in design--lenders are willing to give more money for good architecture and good overall planning even though it costs more.
"That's not the way it used to be. If you had a 100% location and a good tenant, you put up your glass box--the 'refrigerator look,' we called it--and who gave a damn?" Caldwell added.
Where "developer" first began to attract negative publicity was in the big post-World War II baby and housing booms, Caldwell speculated, when inexpensive housing developments exploded across the country--cookie-cutter tract houses all too often laid out with little or no regard for orderly traffic flow, greenbelts or other aesthetic considerations.
And, in urban areas, critics bemoaned the similar explosion of look-alike high-rises characterized by one developer at this mid-October meeting as "looking like ice-cube trays standing on end."
Despite the overall improvement in land planning in the last five to 10 years, "what concerns us right now," Caldwell said, "is that there are new players in the marketplace--the S&Ls, for instance--and too much money around in the capital markets looking for a home in real estate. These players have little experience . . . even less expertise, and they're building simply because money is being provided to them.
"That inexperience is contributing to the overbuilding--the tremendous inventories--that we're seeing today, and both Los Angeles and Phoenix are good examples of it."
But, on a cheerier note, Caldwell added, both Phoenix and Los Angeles are also cities where "some good players are getting involved, too, and in Los Angeles, Bunker Hill is an excellent example of a well-planned joint venture involving the developers, the financial institutions, and the city establishing the standards."
The thorny side of trying to turn any ugly duckling city into a swan, Caldwell conceded, is that virtually every city in the country--Washington, perhaps being the major exception--grew up willy-nilly long before anyone paid even lip service to planning.
"The city, for openers," he continued, "has to realize that it has a problem and be willing to face it--because it's the city and perhaps the state, after all, that has to finance the infrastructure to accomplish anything."
In terms of specific advice, however, any city can draw upon ULI's research and educational facilities in a number of ways, Caldwell said.
"If a city asks us for help, we've got a panel service where eight to 10 of our members will donate their time and come into the host city for five days and six nights, study the problem and at the end of that time, file a report on their recommendations. The focus may be one of design or marketing or financing.
"The expenses will cost the city anywhere from $60,000 to $75,000. We do this about a dozen times a year. That's one way.