"We are constructing cities for an economy that no longer exists"
The architect said to be responsible for the success of downtown Mountain View gave a passionate talk Monday night. Michael Freedman made an economic argument for a "vital city centers," transit-oriented growth and higher density development.
"I think of Michael as the architect of what downtown Mountain View has become," said Mayor Mike Kasperzak as he introduced Freedman to a group of over 60 people in the Adobe building on Moffett Boulevard. The April 30 event was sponsored by over a dozen organizations, including the Mountain View Coalition for Sustainable Planning.
Freedman's firm, Freedman, Tung and Sasaki has created plans for districts and corridors all over the state and the country. But he claims that economic factors now make redevelopment more vital than ever, or cities risk missing out on a new economy based on innovation, creativity and knowledge.
"Attracting innovative companies — that's what we're used to doing," Freedman said. "That's wrong. Cities themselves are the engines of innovation," he said, citing such places as Manhattan, Boston and San Francisco.
"Millenials don't like to separate work from play from home life," Freedman said of the young workers in the "new economy" who like to live in places where most of their daily needs are within walking or biking distance. Many are also very concerned about the environment. One Google employee in the audience said that he considered car travel "almost criminal" and prefers transit and bicycling.
"The business park is a dead end," Freedman said of the sort of development north of highway 101 in Mountain View. He mentioned the Googleplex, which was once built for Silicon Graphics in the late 1990s. "When we first built that, I was here, and we thought it was new."
But really it was "the beginning of the end" for that type of development, he said, showing sketches taken from Google's early plans for a new Googleplex that show a "main street" running down the middle.
Silicon Valley's rise happened in spite of its development pattern, not because of it, Freedman said. He gave credit to Stanford University and the military at Moffett Field for fueling Silicon Valley's birth, which spread even inside people's garages. It was a a time when suburban sprawl actually worked. In the 1970s he said he criticized Mountain View's business parks, which often didn't even have sidewalks.
"We thought we were so smart, but it fit here," Freedman said. Oil was cheap and the car ruled, fueling the country's "prosperity machine" for much of a century, allowing cities to be divided up by use and connected by roads, freeways and expressways.
But the "new economy" is entirely different. It's based on innovation and information, Freedman said, pointing to a phenomenon outlined in books such as "The Rise of the Creative Class." It will mean "a break with the past" as significant as the industrial revolution 150 years ago, Freedman said
Freedman said well-built cities, and those of the future, have inviting "city centers" where there is a mix of activities, a mix of homes, workplaces and retail, allowing an "overflow of information" critical to innovation. He said retail was like the "electricity" of the city, and decisions about where to place it were of critical importance. Freedman even criticized Steve Jobs' baby, the design of a new Apple campus in Cupertino, which looks like a spaceship. But really it is just a new twist on an "old-fashioned business park," Freedman said.
Freedman marked a year, 2007, as when what he called the "modernist" vision for cities began a marked decline.
The country is now "overbuilt with drivable suburbs," Freedman said. Areas made up of suburban sprawl have not held up as well during the recession, while many urban areas have been "highly resilient" when it comes to real estate values.
Suburban sprawl and transit-oriented development "are not the same, not even close," Freedman said. Car-centered development works well with lower densities, office building with a floor-area-ratio of .35 or less to leave room for sprawling parking lots, Freedman said, as exemplified by most local business parks.
Transit-oriented development works best with higher densities, FARs above .8, he said. In Mountain View's general plan, FARs of up to 1.0 are being considered for Mountain View's business parks. Local cities are starting to exist somewhere in between the two ideals, and complaints about traffic and opposition to projects are common. But "we will soon break out of that," Freedman said.
Freedman recalled one failure, in creating a plan for extending BART to Livermore's downtown. The public had at first gotten behind the project, but political decisions killed the plan in favor of a "park and ride" station along Highway 580.
He defended his plan to one audience member who criticized Freedman for his "utopian visions," saying it would have tripled the cost to tunnel underneath downtown Livermore. Freedman defended the project's cost "an investment" in the future.
"If they don't connect to transit in a good way, the economy of the Bay Area will pass them by," Freedman said of Livermore.
Freedman didn't take all the credit for the transformation of downtown Mountain View from "dead as a doornail" to a vibrant and inviting place. He mentioned former City Manager Bruce Liedstrand and the support for the vision from the city's residents,. Residents were once skeptical about allowing higher density downtown and narrowing of Castro Street from four to two lanes, and threatened to be very disappointed if light rail couldn't be brought to downtown, which did eventually happen.
"If you want something great to happen in Mountain View..." Freedman recalled Liedstrand saying, you have to start by creating a vision that residents support.
"What I learned from Bruce, I've been doing that for 20 years — start at the end."
Email Daniel DeBolt at firstname.lastname@example.org