The Congress for the New Urbanism is holding its annual conference in Denver June 10-14, complete with bus tours of our most well-known new urbanist enclaves. But how do you judge walkable, neighborhood-based developments? Is it by the diversity (or lack thereof) of their residents, the number of parks nearby, their stumbling distance to a local watering hole? Over the next few days, we'll explore and judge -- oh yes, judge -- six of these developments and find out for sure just which is the most urban of the new urban.
I made my maiden voyage to Belmar -- the mixed-use development in the irregularly beating heart of Lakewood -- at around 6 p.m. on a recent weekday evening. It's a nice time to experience a neighborhood. It's a time, between work and dinner, between day and night, that active people engage the place they've chosen to live. In Wash Park, young families walk the dog or water the plants. In Highland or LoDo, ties are loosened and pints tipped. In Greenwood Village, high school kids swarm into Chipotles, still sweaty from whatever it is they were practicing, their parents swooping through parking lots to pick them up or waiting busily at home.
In Belmar? Sad to say, nothing.
Envisioned as a new "downtown" of sorts for Lakewood, Belmar opened five years ago on the site of a razed mall. In some ways, it's too early to judge its success: Five years, after all, is the blink of an eye in Neighborhood Years. Then again... it opened five years ago, and it felt like a ghost town. No one was shopping. No one was drinking. No one was eating. No one was there.
Maybe I picked a bad time. I'm sure it gets busy on a sunny Saturday for the farmer's market, or on a December evening for Christmas shopping. But those aren't signs of a thriving neighborhood; they're signs of a functional, convenient mall. And during my visit, that's all it was -- an open-air mall surrounded by apartment buildings, a convenient place to live if you really like the Gap. Nothing more, nothing less.
Stumble-ability: Can people stumble home from a nearby bar or restaurant?
There a few bars and restaurants stumbling distance from the handful of apartment complexes that surround Belmar -- an Elephant Bar, Mark & Isabella, and others. But if their happy-hour crowds are any indication, you'll be stumbling home alone.
Multi-modal: Can people ride their bikes/skateboards/unicycles/go-peds without getting smashed by an SUV?
There's certainly plenty of room to navigate on foot, but there are no bike lanes and no streets blocked off for pedestrians, skateboarders or bikers, which would go a long way toward encouraging people to hang out.
Economic diversity: Can poor people live near rich people?
The prices seem to encourage it, with home prices ranging from the $200,000 to $1 million. But maybe that's the problem: You can't design a neighborhood to be economically diverse; it ignores human nature. Economic diversity happens over time as neighborhoods change from one thing to another, and they're coolest when they're in the midst of it.
Real diversity: Is there mix of people, or is it just a gated community with smaller lots?
Among the 25 people I saw walking around Belmar, there was, in fact, diversity -- a mix of young white professionals and Hispanic teenagers chowing on McDonald's and Ben & Jerry's. Not sure if this made it more a vibrant neighborhood, but it did make me hungry.
Green space: Are there open, public spaces where people are recreating? (parks, public gardens, creeks, greenways)
There's none embedded in the new Belmar 'hood, but it's walking distance to the expansive Belmar Park. It's too bad they couldn't do a better job connecting the two.
Transit test: Does it have mass transit attached or nearby that people actually use?
Sure, you can snag a bus, but you're traipsing past cars and parking lots to do it. It'd be hard to do for more than three days without thinking, "F this, I'm driving."
Mixed-useless: Is there a mix of shops and business integrated with housing? How many are chains?
It's a mall surrounded by apartments surrounded by more strip malls. If you don't mind crossing some busy streets, you can get what you need on foot. But it's a sea of chains, a 3D walk through the ads in your Sunday paper.
Civics search: Are there public buildings, community institutions or civic centers that serve a non-commercial, public need?
Though they're not integrated into the development, the library, police department and other civic services are just across the street.
Priced out: What seems to be the average price of a home? An apartment?
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Belmar is certainly affordable, with places for sale in the low $200,000s and for rent for under $1,000 a month. But the prices make it hard to figure who they're trying to attract.
Urbanish: Does it feel like a dynamic urban place? Or is it just lipstick on a suburban pig?
At the end of the day, it just doesn't feel urban. But when you call Dick's Sporting Goods and Nordstrom Rack your anchors, maybe you're not going for urban.