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Superblocks could revitalize districts

The June 6 City Times article, "Millions for makeovers," itemized the cost of upgrading six neighborhoods totaling $25.9-million. Four of these districts are to receive street, alley and sidewalk improvements, and the two remaining ones _ Bartlett Park and Roser Park _ are to replace old buildings with new ones. I should like to focus on the $7.9-million slated for Bartlett Park because this large area offers a unique opportunity to pioneer a new urban pattern that could place this city in the national spotlight.

The Bartlett Park area extends between Fourth and Dr. M.L. King (Ninth) streets and 11th and 22nd avenues S and, according to the accompanying article by Times staff writer Monica Davey, it has "nearly 170 buildings that are either empty or boarded up."

The area certainly needs the funding assigned for its revitalization but the question is, what kind of revitalization? In my view, this 200-acre parcel calls for a revised street pattern that would allow a number of 10- to 20-acre superblocks (SBs) providing higher density of population living in apartment buildings. Why apartments? Because the cost and maintenance of single homes has turned millions into renters (if not homeless) and the prospects for affordable housing for low- and moderate-income families are discouraging. Therefore, SBs are not an option but an urban necessity.

Every American city, including this one, would benefit by SBs. The greatest benefits would be the reduction of the number of streets. Depending on the size of the SBs, that reduction could be as much as 50 percent. Fewer streets mean less pavement and sidewalks, less maintenance and lighting, and fewer street signs, hydrants and storm sewers. Fewer streets would mean quicker garbage collection and fewer trucks. Also, since SBs allow increased density of population per square mile, it would mean that residential districts would be far more compact than they are today. In fact, they would be "walkable" with less dependence on cars, especially for daily commuting.

The result would be greater public interest in mass transit so that cities could afford to provide efficient and low-cost bus or streetcar systems (with rain-protected stops). Ecologically, reduction of car dependence would mean the lessening of air pollution and smaller "heat domes" over our major cities (not to mention the beneficial impact on sufferers of respiratory afflictions).

However, the greatest beneficiaries of SBs would be the urbanites themselves. Since modern America is predominantly an urban society, SBs need to be considered by city governments, the media and the public. In a typical SB each apartment overlooks an "urban forest" located in its core. In addition to the one- or two-acre wooded area, each core has lawns, walks, playgrounds for various age groups and smaller buildings housing a social hall, a child care center, a first aid station, and a few small stores to meet immediate needs of the residents. For the gardeners there are rental plots. AN SB might be a source of income for the unemployed, especially those willing to trade construction work for future apartments. This option may be popular in SBs run as self-governing, non-profit cooperatives with the residents sharing financial interests (including sweat equity).

A co-op SB would create its own "cottage industries" such as food co-op, bakery store, thrift shop, furniture and bike repairing, arts and crafts sales. And it could create its cultural and social activities including book discussion groups, musicals, group therapy, educational movies and speakers.

Eventually, most residents would know each other and often act as an extended family proud of its SB. Step by step, an SB would become an informal school or participatory democracy and informed citizenship. There would be no boarded houses there!

However, there will be problems and none greater than land assembly; i.e., conversion of city blocks into superblocks. To better understand the problem, let us imagine two different scenarios: one ideal, the other negative. Here is the ideal one: Assume that (a) a typical SB consists of four adjoining city blocks and (b) that each city block has 10 owners, which makes for 40 owners per SB, and that all owners are prepared to trade their old homes and lots for fireproof, air-conditioned apartments. There are no problems and everybody is a winner!

The negative scenario assumes that (a) and (b) remain the same but that (c) represents shrewd investors who scare the homeowners with "confidential" information that their homes are about to be confiscated so they had better sell them while they can.

If the speculators succeed, the cost of the land will make affordable housing nearly impossible and the results (after years of negotiating) will be "business as usual."

But it need not be that way. I believe that people (probably mostly women) may come forth who understand the better quality of life offered by SBs. They will ring doorbells in their neighborhoods to bring hesitant home owners to their point of view. Once enough people understand that SBs mean better housing for many, they will demand it and City Hall will respond.

Ms. Davey's article, June 6, refers to the vice mayor's words, "After a decade of focus on downtown projects, St. Petersburg leaders got a message from their constituents. They wanted more attention _ and cash _ out in the city's neighborhoods."

And, as to the mayor, Davey reports that he considers revitalizing St. Petersburg's neighborhoods "a top priority." But my original question remains: What kind of revitalization? Fixing potholes, installing historic lighting, posting neighborhood logo signs, or turning city blocks into superblocks?

Jan Reiner is an architect in St. Petersburg. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, which are not necessarily the opinions of this newspaper.