By Dan Bertolet June 15, 2010

That derogatory headline may not be a completely fair characterization of the building in the photo above, but I love the term McNeighborhood so much I had to find an excuse to use it (plus, if you scroll to the bottom you'll understand why it was meant to be).

McNeighborhood is commonly used to describe beige, cookie-cutter, cul-de-sac ridden subdivisions. But there is also a more urban variant that applies to large-scale mixed-use projects. And while the building shown above---the Corydon Apartments/Merrill Gardens mixed-use complex on 24th Ave just north of U-Village---has many positive aspects, one could argue that it deserves that label.

Economies of scale in building construction---and in concrete parking decks in particular---drive developers to pursue large projects, often covering full city blocks. But as I've noted before, one common downside to such projects is a loss of diversity in the built environment that leads to a corresponding loss of economic, cultural, and visual diversity. The result tends to be a generic, homogeneous caricature of a real city block, analogous to the caricatures of food produced by a certain highly successful multinational food service corporation.

The Corydon/Merill project stretches a whopping 600 feet from north to south---that's about two traditional city blocks, and is comparable to downtown Bellevue's superblocks. To the best of my knowledge, that building length must be a Seattle record. So let's take a look-see at how the architect, Runberg Architecture, handled the design challenge of such a long facade (click images to enlarge):

What the designers came up with would appear to be a hybrid between trying to make it look like multiple, distinct buildings, and maintaining a sense of commonality throughout. Variation with repetition, as one of my urban design professors liked to preach.

The overall effect is, well, just fine, I guess. Pleasant, though not inspiring. Sort of like the Pottery Barn aesthetic writ large---it looks good on a superficial level, but the soul is missing.

Regarding function, the project provides 122 assisted living units, 103 apartments, 23,600 square feet of retail, and 255 underground parking stalls. It's the standard Seattle mixed-use formula, and a good building block for a walkable urban village---except for the excessive parking.

The big missed opportunity is the zoning of the site, which limited much of the building to a mere three stories. Given the context, four to six stories would have been totally appropriate, especially along 24th Ave. Greater height allowance would not only have enabled higher housing unit density and the sustainability benefits that come with that, but also would have given designers the option to create more architectural interest by modulating  the height across that monotonously long facade.

Indeed, it's curious that the project penciled out at just three stories, given that developers frequently claim that they need to go to six stories to offset the cost of structured parking. I suspect that the relatively lucrative assisted living units helped the balance sheet.

Getting back to McNeighborhoods, there is no simple way to prevent mega-development from smothering the richly diverse but fragile built-over-time urban fabric that makes cities into places that people love. But one way to start is by recognizing what we have, i.e., measuring it.

To that end, the Preservation Green Lab's Liz Dunn and Walkscore's Matt Lerner have recently been tossing around a cool idea: the JaneScore. It would be a metric that counts all the subtle features that make for a healthy urban neighborhood, as famously articulated by the late Jane Jacobs.

The key attribute is diversity. In my interpretation, the JaneScore would focus on measuring diversity in a wide range of elements, such as building width, height, condition, style, and age; commercial space use, size, and rent; housing unit type, cost, and tenant demographics. Metrics to rate the vitality of street life would help round out the score.

These features are not straightforward to measure using an automated methodology, as is done by Walkscore. But doing the right thing never easy.

Special bonus:

Right across the street from Corydon, the timeless cultural institution that started McEverything. On a sunny Sunday at 9am the drive-thru was hopping, the bright and calm morning air periodically split by a distorted voice asking to take the next order. Also note that in case you're having trouble making your way out of the parking lot, there's not one, but three big white arrows to show you the way. Ah, but I suppose we all need ongoing reinforcement to find the right path.
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