Human-scale towns

I’m returning to something I first wrote about last year in considering how architecture contributes to neighborliness. In essence this means “human scale” towns. But what does “human scale” mean in practice? And what isn’t human scale? I’m sharing some photos from Philadelphia and State College that I think illustrate the differences.

At heart, a human-scale town is one that’s built for human experience. That means the street-level experience, which is the experience anyone will have when physically waking through a place.

A challenge of our time is reconciling two competing goals: function and beauty. So much today is built cheaply, purely for its function. A lot of our city architecture (architecture built for density) is built for beauty—to impress and to look impressive, sometimes even at the expense of its function on the human-scale. These are buildings that look wonderful from a distance, or aerially, or in renderings, but are hell to actually get into or deal with on the street-level. I think the challenge for the places like Philadelphia and State College that I particularly care about is reconciling function and beauty.

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A great example of human-scale development in Philadelphia that successfully reconciles function and beauty can be found in Center City just off of Washington Square.

A few years ago Jefferson University bought some semi-historic buildings (but probably not really historic) that they could have easily torn down and replaced with a glass tower. Doing so would have destroyed the human-scale experience of the street on these blocks. Instead they demolished the interiors of the old structures, but saved the facades and built their glass towers inside the footprint of the old structures.

You can see this along the 700 block of Walnut Street. These Google Streetview screenshots tell the story. The street-level experience looks normal. They’ve conserved the feel of the street and the complimentary of the architecture as it’s felt by passersby. But look up, and you find that the denser needs of Philadelphia are also served:

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I think this is the sort of design thinking that we need in State College if downtown is to be saved as a place worth being or visiting. If the whole downtown becomes a series of super-block style Frasier Centers and Metropolitans then we’re toast.

The Borough planners should prioritize human-scale development for downtown. This doesn’t mean everything needs to be frozen in time and ornamented like Victorian Bellefonte, but simply that street-level facades should be conserved/created throughout downtown even as their superstructures become high rises.

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The Metropolitan is an example of basically good architecture at the corner of College and Atherton. There was an Arby’s and parking lot here a few years ago, and in that light you could hardly do worse. The Arby’s had function, but no beauty. The Metropolitan (opening this year) looks like it will be both functional and (relatively) beautiful, despite the lack of any real ornamentation. It probably shouldn’t serve as a template for future development though, unless that development is replacing other surface-lots like the gas station across the street or the Soviet-style 1960s/70s era apartment blocks that spot downtown.

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What looks great about the Metropolitan is that it pays attention to the street experience, offering shops and tables and benches and tree-lined sidewalks that should calm a busy intersection. But the ideal for a small town like State College should be closer to the little red-brick homes across the street, or the A-frame style home that’s survived behind the Metropolitan with it’s little porch and lawn. One of the reservations I have about the Metropolitan is that no renderings show the back of the building that faces that little A-frame home. I assume it’s not showing that side because it ain’t pretty. We’ll see.

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The Frasier Center in State College is an example of a (failed) attempt at beauty and a lot of function and density. Again, for human-scale and older perspective, note another little red-brick home that’s survived to the left of the Frasier Center’s Hyatt hotel. The larger problem with this structure is that (in the context of Downtown State College) it is a superstructure. It occupies an entire block of Frasier Street. Further down this block toward College Avenue there are something like 10 shops that can all be visited within about as many minutes.They’re super-dense on the street-level. Then there’s this Frasier Center, with its Target and Hyatt that occupy this whole stretch. An older person will have to walk the whole block to get to Target’s corner entrance. The Hyatt requires a further walk. And that’s it: just these two things here. It’s vertically dense, but not horizontally dense like the rest of town. In this sense it’s not human-scale, and it’s fundamentally out of character with the rest of the community. This is to say nothing of the overall development’s conflicted and domineering character.

Another example of terrible superblock type architecture can be found in Philadelphia behind the Franklin Institute. There are the older, dense rowhomes that have their own character and closeness. And then there’s this enormous, deadening structure that destroys half the block. The Frazier Center does this same thing:

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Remember I mentioned that the back side of the Metropolitan is probably unattractive, since no renderings of it have been promoted? This is the backside of the Frasier Center which runs along Calder Way and is an arterial pedestrian walkway through the entirety of  State College’s downtown. What have they done with this space that could have been benches and tables and retail storefronts? They’ve put giant, blank stone walls and loading docks here. This is just across the alleyway from Cafe 210’s beautiful outdoor deck and patio where so many spend the spring and summer months. This sort of architecture desecrates State College in a serious way. It’s just the worst.

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We’ve been here before: constructing blank walls along key stretches of downtown. A bit further along Calder Way McClanahan’s has spruced up its blank walls with a beautiful mural. But murals themselves are often just creative responses to the failure to build appropriately in the first place.

Why does any of this matter? Why is human-scale development important for maintaining the spirit and magic and verve of a place like State College? We’re in the Christmas season, and no film better illustrates the values of function and beauty like It’s a Wonderful Life. The idyllic Bedford Falls is a place of human-scale, where it’s possible to run from one end of town to the other, and to breeze from Bailey Building & Loan into the candy store and then into the bank within a matter of five minutes. This breezy familiarity with a place is made possible by smart density, which is fundamentally on the street and human level. (Density comes in both horizontal and vertical forms, in other words.) The heart of State College still has that, in stretches like College Avenue between Pugh and Allen Streets in particular.

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The magic of Happy Valley comes from both its natural and built landscapes. In building the next generation of State College’s built landscape, we need a lot more of attention and love in creating and conserving the Allen Streets, and a lot less of the grand master-planning of the Metropolitans and the urge to create “signature”/super-block architecture.

Wi-Daagh’s spell wears off a bit more with every piece of franchise-style architecture that breaks the experience of distinctiveness and exceptionality and differentness and replaces it with familiarity and sameness of every other place we’ve been.

Nostalgia lives in places like State College because it retains the character of the past in a way that you can physically visit and experience. Any State College planner should be thinking about how to make State College more distinctive, rather than more similar to its peers.

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