Welcome back to another issue of the Jambalaya!
Today I’m very excited to share with you the first look at a project I’ve been working on for the better part of two years. Welcome to the first walkable neighborhood in the Shoals and one of the most walkable new neighborhoods in the country: West Village!
We are turning a 12 acre infill site into a new neighborhood center right in the center of Florence, Alabama. The neighborhood has a substantial amount of existing housing surrounding it, but the site formerly had a hospital on it that did little to contribute or serve this neighborhood. We will build both new housing and new commercial space to support many new critical neighborhood businesses (more on that later!)
The healthiest neighborhoods in the world have a diverse mix of missing middle housing types. True to that idea, at West Village you will find a range of housing types: from studio, one, and two bedroom apartments to courtyard homes, townhomes and single family homes available for purchase.
But a healthy neighborhood isn’t just housing; not by a long shot. It also offers commercial spaces for small business owners who are interested in locating a business in the neighborhood. Most important of all, the owners of these businesses will be able to purchase the real estate to ensure continuity in the neighborhood.
Finally, no great place is complete without lively public gathering places such as the central plaza pictured above. This spot will host a range of active programming throughout the week; from markets to movies to live music.
The result of all this is that when you live at West Village you will find most daily needs just steps from your front door. To start your day you can walk to get coffee from the local cafe, meet new friends at the gym, or walk your dog along the project's public trails. In the evening, you can dine out with friends at one of a number of neighborhood restaurants, or head to the main plaza for drinks and live music.
Now that my obligatory sales pitch is finished, let me speak frankly with you, dear Jambalaya reader. West Village is a big deal to me. It’s not only a groundbreaking project, but it’s in my home town - a place that I love tremendously and am hell bent on doing everything I can to improve.
Florence is the beneficiary of two major trends: it is home to the fastest growing university in the state and it has become a hot spot for remote workers looking to relocate to a community that offers a better life at less cost.
This growth is great, but neither students nor remote workers (nor, as it turns out, over half of Americans) want to live in a suburb that’s a 15 minute drive from anything interesting. They want to be around other people and activities, and they want to be able to walk or bike everywhere they need.
Since you presumably subscribe to the Jambalaya to learn more about how this dish is made, let’s take a closer look at three of the main ideas that the project is built on.
Ah, walkability: that controversial idea that people should be able to accomplish basic daily needs on foot, rather than being dependent on a big steel box to do something as simple as eat or see another human.
True walkability is something so simple and so agreeable in theory, yet in most American cities it is nearly extinct due to a complex web of policies, inertia and incentive structures.
Florence is fortunate: the city has been mercifully untouched by the interstate highway system and many of the 20th century practices that lead to extreme auto-dependence. Once an economic curse, lack of a massive interstate means today Florence offers a quality of life simply unthinkable to those living in an interstate-fed city.
With this project we are simply extending that already very walkable urban fabric and adding a new neighborhood with its own character and amenities to a network of several already very good neighborhoods.
In practice, this means that dozens of neighborhood businesses will provide most daily needs within walking distance of those living in the neighborhood, while numerous large employers, a rapidly-growing university, and hundreds more businesses are just a few minute walk or bike ride away in adjacent neighborhoods. If this sounds sensible to you, that’s great news! It’s how cities have been built since the beginning of time, barring one embarrassing stretch from the 1950’s through today.
We call this car-optional living. Living permanently without owning a car in nearly all of the U.S. today is impossible. But it is already very feasible in Florence to live as a one-car household (if a couple) and to use ride-sharing or car-sharing as needed. It also saves you a tremendous amount of money! It is not only more convenient for daily life, it’s far better for physical and mental health as well.
Walkable environments are far more social as well. A home that is in the middle of nowhere might make for a good writing retreat, but does not make for a happy and healthy life. Humans are wildly social animals, our wellbeing improves with each hour we spend with other humans, and when we are socially isolated (like in a single-use suburb) our health rapidly deteriorates.
When one lives in a single-use suburb, there is tremendous friction in just coordinating to see a friend. In effect, social connection becomes another daily chore. Like most annoying chores, this means that it often doesn’t get done.
This can sometimes be mitigated by a social network at work, but it’s still only a band-aid, not a solution. Much more natural is to simply allow folks to see other people during their daily activities!
After all, are you going to stop and talk to anyone at the Starbucks drive through? Or are you going to say hi to a friend you see sitting outside of the neighborhood coffee shop below when you walk past?
A neighborhood like West Village makes socialization an effortless byproduct of daily life rather than a part-time logistics puzzle.
You probably noticed that I just made about 4 different arguments for the importance of walkability. That’s correct, because it is both such a simple but impactful idea. The rarity of walkable environments in the United States means that when developers actually build it, they stand out as exceptional!
A healthy neighborhood is like a healthy ecosystem: there is a lot of different stuff going on.
What is the most sterile, unhealthy environment imaginable? My candidate is the industrially farmed mono-crop mega field, coated with pesticide to remove everything except a single genetically engineered crop.
Productive? Absolutely, those yields are off the chart! You’ve never seen so much corn in a field. Absolutely uninhabitable, however, for any species other than that single crop.
Most contemporary development is this way. In fact, they even build it in the same location! The recipe is simple:
Buy a bunch of farm land
Build the same house 50-200 times
Make the municipality (taxpayer) pay to run sewer, utilities, and road to your otherwise uneconomical location, then…
Take your money and do it all again somewhere else!
Here it is in action over about 15 years:
Ironically, a single use neighborhood like this is the equivalent of the huge fields of pesticide-laden, genetically modified corn, wheat or soybeans that it replaces. Instead of endless rows of a single crop the homebuilder “plants” endless rows of a single housing type. A neighborhood that does not have diversity in its land uses and houses is unhealthy, full stop.
Many people are attracted to these houses because they are inexpensive. They do seem cheap because the land they’re built on is cheap. But guess what? When you build on cheap land, you are really, really far from anything useful. So although the house is cheap, household transportation costs are much higher, meaning the people who live there end up financially worse off than those who live in walkable areas when considering the two costs together.
I apologize for my digression. Point is: I don’t think it’s a mystery to anyone that this isn’t a very healthy approach. But how do we replace it with something better? Forgive me for sounding a little bit like a hippie, but I think something a little more… natural?
This is where diversity is so important. Diversity in the neighborhood takes several forms:
A diversity in land uses so that there is activity at all times of day
A diversity in housing types for different family sizes and lifestyles
A diversity in housing ownership options - from renting to purchasing and from expensive to starter-home
These diversities in the built environment lead naturally to a diversity in the neighborhood residents which - you guessed it - leads to a healthier neighborhood in the long run.
So that’s why we have poured enormous energy into ensuring the site has a range of housing types to suit any lifestyle, and I’m quite proud of the result. Here is my favorite housing type, a courtyard-style home that is efficient, sociable, and maintenance-free:
Diversity doesn’t stop with housing, either. In a mixed-use project like this it’s important to also have a diversity of small, neighborhood-serving businesses. And that leads me to the final point….
3. We Worship the Small Business Owner
Almost every real estate project treats commercial tenants as a line item in a spreadsheet; a means to achieve a particular return profile. This is flat out wrong.
Residents are critical, of course, but it is the business operators who give a place its distinct feel. Commercial tenants - in particular the small, neighborhood businesses - are an end in themselves. They are what make a place a place. Developers and municipalities alike don’t treat them with the respect that they deserve. To right this wrong and attract the absolute best operators to West Village, we have created a unique program that provides a path for small business owners to purchase the real estate they operate from.
There are wonderful SBA-backed programs that make the financing of real estate straightforward for business owners, but it’s the availability of good, neighborhood-centered commercial space that is scarce. There are occasionally options for purchase, but they usually move businesses out of the neighborhoods that made them successful in the first place and into the suburbs somewhere: a disastrous decision.
Further, many business owners reinvest earnings from their businesses into real estate because they lack some of the retirement options available to more traditional salaried employees. Owning their own real estate provides a tax-advantaged means for them to build wealth for them and their families. Further, as their business operations contribute to the neighborhood, their property value increases too. It’s a virtuous cycle that fuels itself!
This is critical to the long term health of the neighborhood. If business owners do well by controlling their own real estate and therefore their own destiny, then the neighborhood will do well.
This is a decision that is glaringly obvious when your main focus is the long term resident experience (more on that in a future post), but I know of no other developer who makes a concerted effort to offer this. Hopefully I’m wrong, or maybe other developers will see this and do the same!
Welcome to West Village
Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least offer you, wonderful Joel’s Jambalaya reader, the opportunity to learn more about the project. I think this neighborhood is compelling to two general groups of people: (1) Existing residents of the Shoals who would like to live in a walkable place and (2) People who can work remotely and want to be free of oppressively high housing costs and the lack of walkability/charm in many large American cities.
If you fall into either camp and are intrigued by the idea of living here either temporarily or permanently, let me know either through replying to this email or signing up on the website. You can stay for a month or buy a home and live full time! It’s up to you, and if you’re coming from a big coastal city you will be shocked by (1) The low housing prices and (2) The friendly people here!
If you’ve read this far, you can tell that I feel strongly about creating more places like this. Places that make their residents happier, healthier, and wealthier all a byproduct of living there. Most exciting of all, this is just the beginning. I thank you for joining me on the journey!
Until next time,
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Sophie and I have lived with one car for nearly a year now. Total number of times it presented a challenge to our daily functioning: 0.
A project must be financially viable, of course, but it’s the approach that is backwards. Instead, it is best approached like Henry Ford: start with the product that creates the best experience for the customer, and then work backwards into a financing and business structure that can deliver that product, never the other way around. If this seems obvious to you then you will be shocked to learn that nearly all other development begins with the financial model and then designs a building or site to deliver those numbers.
Super excited for this. Keep us updated as you further refine the business model on commercial tenants. You are right that projects these days are just about how many $$ per sf they can get out of the retail space, and how it affects the bottom line. I like your approach better- and I'm even ok if that means some sort of community subsidy for that.
Good article! Exciting project!