Sunday, March 20, 2005

Design Review Planning Revisited

In a recent blog Sandy Feet described how most of the design and review decisions related to remodeling of existing businesses, which is fine, but apparently some big developers have some BIG IDEAS for South Padre Island, and maybe this is where we should spend our energy. She's right, of course. North, south, and middle, SPI is expected to rapidly grow over the next five years as the "boomer" generation retires here or makes more visits. To reiterate, most of the design-based decisions to date are about signs, appearance (paint job), and trifling things like that, involving maybe $500 in improvements. Folks, we're fixing to be stream-rolled with new construction projects and my read is that we're not ready to stand up to these million-dollar projects. Indeed, the construction of several thousand hotel/motel units has already significantly altered the visual landscape of the area, some say to the detriment of the community.

And we're not ready, is what I say. South Padre Boulevard from the Causeway to the Convention Center is basically one big long corridor that offers a perfect opportunity to regulate the apprearance of commercial structures, pedestrian amenities, and screening and landscaping (not to mention traffic capacities). Don't like the tacky T-shirt shops with post-modern aluminum and plate glass? Now is your time to act; about four major projects are thought to be coming down the pike. Yup, block-long affairs, capital U-G-L-Y, and all in need of some guidance before construction.

Now, I am not certified by the American Planning Association (although I'm a planner by graduate school degree), and do not have the SPI Design Review Planning Guidance or the highway beautification documents, but I can add a few grains of salt here. Let's start by saying that most of the jobs associated with planning on SPI are actually done pretty darned well. I'm talking about zoning, stormwater, sewage, impervious cover (well, maybe), parking, signage, massing (building footprint), and things like that. The only "black eye" on parking was to allow cars to be able to park in front of establishments so they had to back out right into Route 100 traffic, which is a real no-no from a traffic safety and planning perspective (this is known as rollover-curb parking on the right-of-way; the Mall, Blue Marlin, and other retail outlets are guilty as charged here; these are probably "grandfathered," anyway).

One of the main principles of design review is that (1) the vision should apply to the entire subject area and not individual cases, in this case the entire South Padre Boulevard corridor, and (2) that performance standards should allow for alternatives while maintaining the desired outcomes, without being overly prescriptive. This is a tall order and I don't think we have "the vision thing" for that yet. For example, one presentation by a Pittsburg planning company showed how nice a shaded, pedestrian boulevard would look great except that it had red brick buildings, which look totally out of place in a beach community. And were those maple trees? On SPI, I doubt they'd make it a year.

So what the heck is SPI? Historically, SPI had been a small group of summer bungalows, some with those neat "Bali" roofs. The commercial property on Padre Boulevard was either a beach bungalow or a flat-top one story building. In the 1970s, some geodesic domes were built, although it would be a stretch to say that would be part of an Island legacy. After that, the post-modern cubist style moved in on the main drag, lead by the T-shirt shops. Essentially, there is and was no "historical district" with a defining architectural style, such as one would find in Brownsville, Harlingen, or Mission. Lack of a historical district really puts the hamper on a design review board because they can't require certain standards of performance for old buildings or, for that matter, new buildings that could emulate such a standard.

My feeling is that SPI is split between to design styles: the Spanish stucco block buildings (often with arches and flat roofs) and the wooden beach house with a big "swooping" roofs. Design review boards can actually lead architectural styles for new construction down these two paths, if it deems this necessary or "good." By doing so, the brand new block-long warehouse stores could be made much more pleasing to the eye. For example, the design board might not approve a blueprint that had more than 20 feet of straight lines without an arch, roof dormer, or something to that effect. Note that having two or more styles would be better than what is done up North, where "1890 colonial" is more the norm.

Two observations before I sign off. First, there is very little shade on the Boulevard. People love a little shade now and then, especially in the thousand-degree summer sun, although palm trees really don't do the trick that well. So one suggestion is to build some bus stops with shaded covers (and flowering plants) so that the Wave can attract more people to use transit instead of cars. Who knows, perhaps the benches could have advertisements or something, but lack of shade and lack of transit volume is really hurting the system. Attractance, is good.

Second, there is guidance about how to grapple with gambling, in the context of design review planning. I think we need to fess up that even though most people hate it, there is a high chance SPI could eventually get video lotteries (slot machines) and casinos within the next five years. There are even rumors that some of the T-shirt shops are actually place-holders for future Keno and crap-table shacks. Are we ready for that?

I don't think so. We need a comprehensive corridor plan. Let us know how we can help!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sam: this is Nancy Moyer (contributor to Sandy's blog now and then) and I agree with your comments. Let's get together when you have a chance. By the way, it has not been "easy" to work on the commercial buildings on the Boulevard, I can tell you that! We get amazing accusations about how we treat people and also about our desires to "legislate taste".