Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Creative Freedom Could Encourage Development

Sometimes we can find big ideas already at work in other cities. 

Right now, in New Orleans, in areas laid waste to by Hurricane Katrina, people are building modern, creative, architecturally innovative houses. Some are being built in places that have been completely leveled.  Others are being built alongside the surviving historic "shotgun" style houses that are icons of New Orleans. 

I don't know if New Orleans had restrictive design guidelines like Oakland's before the storm, but if they did, they're gone now. Necessity won out. The result is that talented architects have descended upon the city with dreams and determination to build, to build new designs, to be bold, to show off.

It helps that people like Brad Pitt have been donating large sums to the reconstruction effort. Defiance in the face of calamity is also a hell of a motivator. These are factors that Oakland cannot imitate.  But there is also tremendous motivation to build that comes from the creative freedom that is afforded to the architects that are redefining the look of New Orleans. That creative freedom is something that we can allow in Oakland, and if we do, I believe we can attract more neighborhood redevelopment.

Oakland’s design review guidelines for small residential projects are incredibly finicky.  There are rules for roof pitch, site alignment, breaking up massing, level of architectural detail, landscaping context, and a whole host of other factors.  It’s all laid out in an 80-page booklet, full of drawings of houses the City likes and houses the City dislikes. Guess what? There is not a single quality contemporary design in the entire booklet.

So here is my proposal: for new construction on small residential lots in redevelopment areas, we should throw the guidelines away entirely. It will only work in redevelopment areas, because the NIMBYs will go absolutely nuts if we try it up in the hills and in Rockridge. Historic Areas of Primary Importance will have to be excluded too, or the Heritage Alliance will have me drawn and quartered.

Other than that, in redevelopment areas, let’s simplify the rules. Setbacks and height limits can remain, but other than that, make it a near free-for-all. Create a committee of modern-leaning architects and professors to vet the proposed designs with a mandate to weed out any opportunists who just want to build ultra-profitable stucco cubes. 

Then, set up a Kickstarter fund to award the best built design of the year a ten-thousand dollar prize. Promote the newly relaxed rules as an opportunity for young architects and small contractors to be creative.  

Architects are ambitious zealots when they’re young. Given a chance to be free to do as they please, they’ll find capital and risk their shirts for a shot at glory.  Some of Oakland’s many small vacant lots will start to fill up. The creative spirit this city likes to brag about can be made visible in funky new homes dotting the flatlands.   

The Bigger Idea

The bigger idea is to be loud and concise about big ideas. To share them here. To share them often.  

I’ve spent the past few years shooting my mouth off in reaction to events in this city and in reaction to other people’s reactions to those events.  An important part of the bigger idea behind Big Ideas for Oakland is to give myself a platform where I can step away from presenting reactive thoughts, and begin to be more proactive.  

What you read here will rarely address the biggest story of the week. Instead, I’m cataloguing Big Ideas and I will be sharing them as soon as they’re fully formed enough to be worth your attention. 
I’ve been reminded by mentors more than once: Big Ideas are best if they aren’t too big. If you don’t have an elevator pitch, you don’t have a big idea. You may want to have a big idea. You may have a flurry of thought that could one day be distilled into several big ideas. But if you can’t spell it out clearly and quickly, it just ain’t a Big Idea yet.  

So, out of respect for the value of your time and mine, what you read here is going to be short. If there’s video here, it will be short too.

Some days the Big Idea will be wildly ambitious. Some days they will be simple proposals to solve small but persistent problems. Almost always, the Big Ideas will be about things that can be done to make this city a better place. In a city where there is so much to be done, I’ll leave philosophy and theory to others, and focus on the path to the possible. 

That means that if you see an idea on this site that you like, the biggest compliment you could possibly pay me is to make that idea happen. So please, read, enjoy, and if the spirit moves you, take a big idea and run with it.