Miller Hull

Perspectives. Back on the Block: Reenergizing the Urban Core

1-19-2024 | Perspectives

Back on the Block: Reenergizing the Urban Core with Catalyst Placemaking Strategies

Most cities experience contractions in their lifetimes. As economies slow and cultural unrest percolates, many choose to move out of the downtown area, draining energy from the street life of the city. Although these dips in population are a natural part of a city’s evolution, vacant storefronts and empty sidewalks create a negative feedback loop and require creative solutions to spark a return to urban life. When there is little recent economic investment or attractions in an area, any new development needs to create its own sense of place. Each thoughtful intervention at the scale of a block or corner contributes to an archipelago of vibrant zones that forms our mental map of the city.

This opportunity exists within multiple types of development, and whether the building is commercial, educational, or civic, its potential to reinvigorate is vast. That is, if the building’s design is approached in the right ways. Throughout this series, we will explore best practices for new urban development, and examine how Miller Hull has applied these strategies to its mixed-use, higher-education, and embassy work. The following themes and their case studies represent the firm’s approach to urban renewal and explain the design conditions needed to attain lasting value from these catalyst developments.

Designing a Neighborhood within a Building
When a downtown space becomes vacant, the continuous fabric of the city is torn, breaking the link from one activity node to the next. When embarking on a project in a depressed area within the downtown core, it is critical to replace these experiential gaps with generative placemaking strategies that can adapt as the neighborhood recovers. By creating potent adjacencies between ground-level spaces and corresponding exterior gathering zones, businesses can take hold and support each other by building up collective foot traffic. First generation businesses may need initial subsidies from developers or city agencies to be successful, but as activity returns, more established second-generation businesses often replace some of the pioneers, forming a more economically resilient zone. 

The ambitious aim of Parco, a new mixed-use development in downtown National City, CA, is to create a microcosm of the city itself, replicating the diversity and culture of its surrounding neighborhoods, while injecting a model of increased density and scale that is both self-sustaining and capable of re-integrating with the city at any time. Aiming to establish a launch point for the neighborhood’s next chapter as a vibrant urban center, it was important that Parco support a social lifestyle available to residents of the building and the community. Accordingly, the ground floor is held by retail spaces, local art, and is abutted by the project’s bold reclamation of alley space for patron dining, all of which prime the block for the social and commercial energy that is to come.

There is also a robust commitment to neighborhood-scaled retail, creating opportunities for small local businesses to find affordable leases and advantageous co-location with compatible uses, energizing the urban experience, and anchoring the block to its surroundings. Inside, the concept of community continues. Elevated communal spaces at the rooftop and residential plaza levels allow tenants to congregate and socialize, providing spaces conducive to late-night lounging or collective cooking that are backdropped by ocean, mountain, or cityscape.

National City is coming back to life. Until then, there’s Parco, a self-contained neighborhood and generator to help sustain the region’s soul until its new era of urbanity begins.

Creating a Coalescence between Public and Private
Have you ever walked through an urban plaza? Felt the brief sanctity of a small park interjecting your walk from the office to the bus stop? If so, you have likely experienced a privately owned public space, which exists in every city, often intermingled with public botanical gardens and municipal squares. Typically land that is privately allocated for public use, these urban areas of respite and recreation that blur the public and private realms facilitate the kind of interactions that make cities so special. They give space to the exchange of ideas, the congregation of humans, and the chance encounters that bring joy and excitement to the days. But the hustle and bustle of typical city life is brought to a slow trickle in many of these disinvested downtowns, and a new development won’t always be able to rely on the buzz of neighboring properties. In reality, for a new development to have any chance of success in a commercially idle environment like this, it will need to generate its own energy by engaging in a strong dialogue with the buildings and infrastructure that envelop it.

IDEA1, a development in San Diego based on the pillars of Innovation, Design, Education, and Arts, is a Miller Hull project that is especially effective at creating this liminal space. Spanning the entire city block, the building contains 360,000 SF of office, residential, fitness, and restaurant space, giving true meaning to the term ‘mixed use.’

But beyond its commercial connections to the community, IDEA1 attempts to tap into the social heart of the neighborhood through its large central courtyard which has become a community living room of sorts, establishing a verdant space that is open to the public and accessible to everyone. While the development embodies a laboratory for creative placemaking and entrepreneurial growth, its human scale and inner public space allude to its ability to integrate porosity in a strategic way, establishing ground level energy, while allowing for the inward and outward flow of people.

A coveted green space within the community that has become a defining asset, IDEA1’s courtyard was even written into the zoning codes as an official public space. Tempting as it may be to use all available space for paying tenants, the benefits that come from devoting a portion of a private building’s area to public consumption is invaluable. Not only do these spaces fill the drab urban gaps with life, but they create the birth site for the city’s renewed energy.

Using Adaptive Reuse to Turn the Obsolete into the Elite
Replete with a wide array of historic buildings from multiple eras, cities contain a nuanced architectural vocabulary that speaks to the different aesthetics and building functions of the past. Though often the exteriors of these buildings add to the visual charm of any metropolis, the interiors are easily rendered obsolete as society’s needs evolve, and the expectations of a building’s purpose inevitably change.

For this reason, many developers choose to reuse these buildings, maintaining (for the most part) that which makes their exteriors authentic to their original state, while reshaping their interiors to accommodate the kinds of businesses and technologies that are currently in vogue.

Meanwhile, the environmental benefits add a second incentive, as the most sustainable buildings are the ones that already exist. The embodied carbon of these original structures is immense, meaning that a huge amount of energy would be wasted if the building was to be demolished rather than adapted. Also, depending on the condition of the building, it is often more cost-effective to convert only the interiors rather than to dismantle the entire thing, and build entirely anew.

Miller Hull’s proposal for the City of Seattle’s Office to Residential competition demonstrates the relevance of adaptive reuse in today’s cities, and shows how the post-pandemic surplus of vacant office spaces can be converted to help re-envision the city at multiple scales.

This proposal celebrates the cellular grid of a historic building’s timber structure by converting each bay into a residential unit, while carving out a shared, central courtyard. Rooted in the DNA of good design, this approach recognizes the neighborhood as a holistic community, rather than just a series of plots. What’s more, it speaks to housing inequality, the climate crisis, and urban resurgence by adapting the existing building stock, and imploring us to unlearn the bad habits of the past.

Pioneering in a Changing Neighborhood
8th & Republican, a mixed-use development in Seattle’s transformed South Lake Union neighborhood, was the first block completed in a rezoned four-block residential pedestrian-oriented street in a former low-density industrial area. The block needed to generate its own energy for the first couple of years as the adjacent blocks took shape and the rest of the neighborhood filled in.

By shifting away from the street grid and setting the building back from the street at mid-block, space opens up for a generous public courtyard which becomes the backdrop for a well-loved neighborhood cafe and sets the tone for the bustling street life that continues to develop. This initial move to form public space within the block enabled the small pioneer business to establish a devoted base of customers, answering a need for casual gathering in the emerging urban pocket.

Community-building spaces continue into the two-story lobby featuring a common table, social mailbox pylons, a gathering lounge for entertaining and flexible workspaces designed for chance encounters throughout the day and into the evening. The Work Yard fronting the alley provides a covered courtyard where residents can enjoy the benefits of a single-family backyard, encouraging activation of the alley space. On the roof, a sunset deck with terraced-wood seating frames views to Queen Anne, Gasworks Park and Saint Mark’s Cathedral.

For many of us, cities embody the ultimate place. Filled with pedestrian-friendly corridors, public transit, important cultural events, and a blend of new and old, these metropolises are the rapidly beating hearts of our society. But just as with every living organism, cities are in constant motion, always changing and shifting. Filling and deflating before swelling once again. Despite the predictability of these states and the market’s eventual upswing, early development in these downtown nodes continues to be seen as a risk rather than the real opportunity it is: a chance to contribute to the shaping of a city’s new era. If these developments are designed to create community, engage the public, and reuse existing infrastructure, then they will surely activate and catalyze their surrounding blocks, promising growth and regrowth as the city continues to evolve.