CREATIVE CAPITALISTS - Cracking the Code

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robert-orrWhen Hamden updated its zoning regulations several  ago, town officials brought in New Haven-based architect Robert Orr to change the conventional code to a new code he helped devise in the late 1970s.

Conventional zoning, known as “use-based code, focuses on separation of land uses, “so youÂ’re not allowed to live in the same district as you might work and you canÂ’t shop in the same district as might live,. Orr explains. "It takes a lot of land and essentially forces an automobile-centric lifestyle.

His alternative, “form-based” code, centers on the physical form of buildings and “where buildings get placed in relation to the street so there is a coherence and predictability,” Orr says. The approach fosters connections between streets, buildings and public spaces, along with mixed uses and walkability. “So instead of becoming conduits for automobiles,” he adds, “ streets become places for people to inhabit.

“It’s place making versus thing-making.”

Orr began contemplating such weighty issues in the mid-1970s, after growing up in Evansville, Ind., majoring in history and art history at the University of Vermont and attending the Yale School of Architecture, where he applied “on kind of a lark.” After earning a master’s at Yale, he spent a year building a house on Martha’s Vineyard while living in a tent, then became an architecture teacher at University of Miami, joining Yale classmates Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk.

“We began questioning everything,” Orr recalls. “One thing led to another. There were some failed attempts early on of exploring how you could make a better place to live, so we came up with some sort of written document, which was the start of form-based code.”

In researching old neighborhoods that function well, Orr says, they discovered “no matter what income or ethnicity, when it comes to human habitat we all like the same things and all dislike the same things to a remarkable degree of commonality.”

Their first development materialized in Seaside, Fla., where Orr designed the first buildings for Rosewalk, a group of small cottages surrounding a central garden court. Time magazine reportedly hailed the project as “the most astonishing design achievement of its era and one might hope the most influential,” and Orr, Duany and Plater-Zyberk became the founders of the Congress for New Urbanism.

Orr worked for architects Philip Johnson and Alan Greenberg before starting his own firm, Robert Orr & Associates in New Haven in 1982. Over the decades he has done town planning and residential, commercial, mixed-use and institutional projects, earning earned multiple awards along the way.

In 2003 Orr and his wife, Carol, bought and renovated a building at 839 Chapel Street, where he relocated his office.

“Because we couldn’t attract tenants, I came up with the idea of starting this co-working space called the Bourse, which sort of reflected the whole concept of bringing people together to relaunch what I loosely call ‘Project Civilization,’ where people are trying things and sharing things,’” Orr says. Mostly writers have co-worked at the Bourse since its opening in 2010. Events also are held there. The building now has a couple of tenants — a Pilates studio and a hair salon — and Carol Orr runs an antiques shop on the ground floor. But Orr still is seeking to fill at least 15,000 square feet of vacant space.

Robert Orr & Associates reached its apex in the 1990s, with 15 to 20 employees, a California office and projects in California, Chicago, the Midwest and the Northeast.

“When 2008 came along, everything just collapsed,” Orr says. “The national work disappeared. We’ve tried to get some things in New Haven but it has been an uphill struggle. We’ve got a house we’re doing in Costa Rica and a house in Florida, and it’s just a fraction of the stuff we used to do.”

Town planning remains a bright spot.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Orr used New Urbanism principles to rewrite zoning laws for the decimated town of Waveland, Miss. and redesigned the place. The project won a first-place Gulf Guardian Partnership Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Orr recently wrote code for Stony Creek to create an official Village District designation, and he’s eager to spread the word about smart code.

“If you look at organic development throughout history, there might be certain irrational types that come up with grids and square corners,” he says. “But the prevailing tendency is to avoid steep grades and take short routes, which brings me back to my frustration with the people that insist on this regimented retardation, which is not healthy, doesn’t lead to prosperity, lowers property values and tax collection.

“People get angry [about smart code] in New England,” Orr adds. “In the rest of the country, they’re really curious.”

Hamden chief town planner Leslie Creane, however, was exceptionally curious. When she was hired a decade ago, the town’s zoning code had not been updated since 1982 and was written, she says, “to encourage sprawl development, with people living further and further away from the things they need.”

Creane says the new smart code, which became effective in 2010 following an assessment of what every parcel along the three major corridors in town should be and a five-day intensive design workshop in 2007, emphasizes “human scale and continuity between buildings.

“Now that the economy has improved, we’re getting our first buildings approved.” Among them is an AAA building, which, in accordance with the new rules, will be two stories tall and close to the front of the property.

Hamden’s form-based code covers nine thousand acres, making it the second largest smart code in the U.S. Miami’s is the largest, encompassing 10,000 acres.

Orr currently is in the running to redo Hartford’s zoning code.

Creane is more than happy to recommend him.

“Robert is brilliant and fun to work with,” she says. “He’s always been a little ahead of his time — and that can be a lonely place.”

 

—   Karen Singer

 
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