The demand for mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods has steadily increased in recent years as millennials and empty nesters, in particular, have shown a renewed interest in less automobile-dependent lifestyles. As cost of living in such larger Texas cities as Austin, Dallas, and Houston continues to rise, smaller Texas cities and towns are experiencing a trickledown effect — an influx of new residents looking for affordable urban living with many of the same amenities and advantages offered by larger metropolises. Two of these cities, Tyler and Laredo, have recently experienced renewed planning efforts, many of them organized at the grassroots level and based upon principles of New Urbanism; yet the expression of each is uniquely reflective of its particular culture and place.
The Congress for New Urbanism (CNU) originated in the early 1990s as a response to the sprawling, automobile-oriented development that dominated American cities following WWII. The preamble to its charter begins: “The Congress for the New Urbanism views disinvestment in central cities, the spread of placeless sprawl, increasing separation by race and income, environmental deterioration, loss of agricultural lands and wilderness, and the erosion of society’s built heritage as one interrelated community-building challenge.”
New Urbanism emerged predominantly from three urban design concepts — urban infill that supports walkable streets, traditional neighborhood development (THD), and transit-oriented development (TOD) — and it addresses multiple scales of development — from street, to block, to neighborhood, to region. Though initiated by architects, the CNU has evolved into a multidisciplinary organization comprising builders, government officials, nonprofit leaders, and concerned citizens, among others. Now, citizen-architects in Tyler and Laredo are helping to cast a new vision for their cities and propose development strategies based on timeless principles of human-scaled urban design.
About 100 miles southeast of Dallas, well behind the “Pine Curtain,” Tyler has undergone a recent population surge, not only due to spillover from the Dallas metropolitan area, but because it has become the rural hub for the entire East Texas region at large. Unfortunately, the city has developed in an unsustainable linear growth pattern to the south for 75 years, with demands on infrastructure increasing as the city’s boundaries are stretched. This development pattern has resulted in an inequitable distribution of Tyler’s public resources and disinvestment in the north quadrant of the city.
Nearly a decade ago, the City of Tyler developed a comprehensive plan known as Tyler 21, which cast a vision for its development into 2030. However, with a fiscally conservative government, little progress has been realized. In response, local firm Fitzpatrick Architects initiated a grassroots planning effort to leverage the city’s existing radial organization, promoting a proportionate growth pattern, densification, and a reset of the historic downtown. “We became aware as a firm that our city can have the greatest plan in the world, but without mutual consensus, support, and excitement at the leadership level, little happens,” says Brandy Ziegler, AIA, partner at Fitzpatrick Architects. “We began this grassroots effort to support and give new energy to the groundwork already laid, by doing what we do best: visualizing.” The firm has focused efforts primarily on what they term catalyst projects — projects that would best leverage financial resources to make the greatest impact on the city and create an impetus for change.
One such project reinvigorates the historic downtown core, which runs along Broadway Avenue, Tyler’s primary north-south corridor. Many of the buildings in the area are vacant and boarded up. The plan proposes a street improvement project, reducing the current four-lane street to one lane, widening the sidewalks, and introducing bike lanes, free short-term parking, and landscaping to promote walkability and other alternative modes of transportation. An estimated $3.5 million investment could change the entire personality of the downtown.
The plan also looks at infill projects, preserving the historic urban fabric and introducing mixed-use projects to lend vitality to the area. “We just recently finished a project called The Foundry. It was one of the first pioneer projects we completed downtown. It’s a coffee shop on the [ground floor] and a church [above]. It’s working,” Ziegler says.
The courthouse now occupies the central square, which is currently bisected by Broadway Avenue. Historically, it had operated as a single, unified plaza, but in 1955 — as many Tyler residents now lament — the historic courthouse was razed to build what was considered a “modern” courthouse, and the plaza split in two. Reunifying the plaza is one of the most significant moves of the newly proposed plan. “We thought, if we’re going to dream, let’s dream big. We thought this would be the most contentious piece of the presentation, but it’s actually one of the most exciting pieces people respond to,” Ziegler says.
Within the plan, the plaza is reunified, Broadway Avenue closed, and traffic redirected around the perimeter. The western edge of the plaza is redeveloped with new features, such as a civic restroom pavilion, restaurants, food trucks, and a stylized play structure in the form of a rose, inspired by Tyler’s moniker, “Rose Capital of the World.” A new courthouse — double the size of the current one — is introduced on adjacent county-owned land. The plan also repurposes two underutilized existing rail lines for a trolley or other type of mass transit.
“It’s a stereotyped area,” Ziegler says. “‘Behind the Pine Curtain’ is probably not a positive term. But there’s so much un-tapped potential here.”
In addition to improving quality of life, the plan makes a lot of financial sense. Property located along an open plaza such as this can expect its value to rise 300 to 400 percent, while retail sales can double. “A plaza like this actually becomes an anchor tenant,” Ziegler says. “When you talk to developers, their first thought is, ‘What is our anchor tenant going to be?’ The plaza becomes that and becomes the draw to downtown that gets people to linger. It really activates the whole space.”
At this writing, the plan has been presented to nearly 300 individuals in the public and private sectors, including the city manager, city planner, parks board director, and business owners. Fitzpatrick Architects also worked directly with the City of Tyler on an application for the BUILD Grant. Organized as an 80-20 match program — with 80 percent of funds supplied through the grant and 20 percent by the city — the grant could potentially provide an additional $6-$7 million for capital improvements.
As Ziegler excitedly explains, “There’s been a huge response. We’ve not had a negative word. Everybody that we’ve shown it to has gotten more and more excited. We’ll adjust some things as we get feedback in real time, keep it live. Not that this is the only concept that would work, but with the conversation, [we want to] make people aware that this would be a huge benefit to our community.”
Located along the U.S.-Mexico border on the banks of the Rio Grande, Laredo is the United States’ largest inland port and its third largest port, overall, with nearly $200 billion in trade passing through the city annually. In September 2017, the city adopted Viva Laredo, a 500-page comprehensive plan composed of 12 chapters addressing land use patterns, mobility, downtown and inner-city revitalization, historic preservation, housing, sustainability, health, public parks, economic development, education, arts, and culture. However, because of Laredo’s border proximity to Nuevo Laredo — they can be viewed as one city with an international boundary and a language barrier in between — Viva Laredo expands beyond typical New Urbanism principles to include a chapter on global initiatives, which outlines strategies for increasing connectivity and coordinating cultural, economic, and educational opportunities with its Mexican sister city.
Laredo’s previous comprehensive plan had lapsed 25 years prior. As a result, the city government brought on Frank Hickey Peña — a joint venture formed by two local architecture firms based in Laredo — to devise an update. “There were a lot of things that happened that made it possible for the kind of comprehensive plan that happened in Laredo, a confluence of forces,” says Viviana Frank, FAIA, founding principal of Frank Architects. “The city was really starting to feel that they were in need of some vision, of some plan, and it permeated not only the administrators, but the citizens themselves. They had no clue what process we were going to go through. It was a really exciting 18 months in the city, for many of the citizens and representatives, [because they realized] how empowering it is to build consensus and to actually plan the city.”
In addition to Frank Hickey Peña, the Miami-based town planning firm Dover, Kohl & Partners was added to the team, along with Angelou Economics and nine other consultants. “That was what brought the strong influence of New Urbanism into the mix, here — partly because we were aiming for the kind of planning that puts people first, and that’s what Dover Kohl’s strength is,” says Mario Peña, AIA, principal at Hickey Peña Architects.
“We had just had success in El Paso with a comprehensive plan, and Laredo was another border community,” says Jason King, principal at Dover, Kohl & Partners. “It feels like the national media describes the border one way, but we see it in a different way. We see it as a young, growing, energetic place in our country. Along the southern border, there tend to be diamonds in the rough, underdog cities where people really want to be. Once you capitalize on what they have to offer, border cities really are what America is.”
The plan garnered support from residents, public officials, and city staff alike, through extensive participatory planning exercises and such public engagement efforts as an officially recognized New Urbanism Film Festival, interactive focus groups, and a 10-day charrette, as well as a Viva Laredo website that tallied over 35,000 visitors along with hundreds of electronic residential and business surveys completed.
“What we’re doing is, we’re creating a long-range plan,” King says. “What’s nice about Laredo is they have a lot of new arrivals and recent immigrants, and they understand progress through generations. It might not happen in your life, but, if you work toward it, it might happen in your grandchild’s life. It’s a receptive audience.”
The excitement generated by Viva Laredo has resulted in the mobilization of grassroots citizen-based advocacy groups focused on a variety of issues, like urban agriculture, sustainable food systems, and biking — even prior to the plan’s adoption. “This comp plan empowered the community, where they really felt like they had a say,” says Frank Rotnofsky, AIA, founding principal of Frank Architects. “You keep hearing more and more, with anything that’s being planned, to make sure it works with the comp plan. It’s part of the vocabulary, now. The city council people, themselves, now have started and are pushing master plans in their own neighborhoods. That would not have happened without the comprehensive plan.”
In the public realm, the City of Laredo has made numerous strides in establishing the framework needed to implement many of the plan’s initiatives: the creation of the Arts & Culture Commission; the Ride El Metro public advocacy group; a new bike/pedestrian coordinator position within the city’s Traffic Department; adoption of Laredo’s first open data policy; an urban agriculture ordinance; funding for bike infrastructure; and an overhaul of Laredo’s Land Development Code — to name just a handful.
As the open data policy reflects, Laredo is targeting planning efforts based not only on desire but on data. A participant in Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program, Laredo has access to technical support and expertise on how to best leverage data to improve services and fund “what works.” This approach aligns with the philosophy behind much of the public outreach efforts involved in the creation of Viva Laredo, which Peña explains were as much an educational exercise as they were a planning exercise — not only envisioning a better city but learning what a better city should look like. King concludes:
“I think one of the lessons in I learned in Laredo is that you can go into a place without a solid commitment to urban planning, and working with the community and its stakeholders, you can help build it.”
Anastasia Calhoun, Assoc. AIA, works at Overland Partners in San Antonio.