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Crescent Communities embraces the gospel of ‘placemaking’

Four years after the slumping real estate market sent Crescent Resources sliding into bankruptcy, the real estate developer – rebranded as Crescent Communities – is making an aggressive comeback, armed with a new approach to building.

The approach? It’s called placemaking. It’s an urban design ethic that focuses not on producing the next iconic piece of look-but-don’t-touch architecture, but rather on creating inviting public spaces for people to gather.

When I met Crescent officials last month to talk about Tryon Place, the 27-story mixed-use development they’re planning at Stonewall and South Tryon streets, they rolled out the artist’s renderings.

But instead of telling me about the design of the tower, they buzzed about the activities planned for the “front porch” entry plaza beneath it. They’re hoping to create a space that draws not only the office workers from the tower, but the general public as well, with food vendors, artists and musical performances.

“We’re talking about basketball hoops that are moveable that you can put there on the weekends,” said Whit Duncan, president of Crescent’s commercial division. “We’re talking about cornhole tournaments, bringing a sense of community to the place.”

Added Chief Marketing Officer Tyler Niess: “We can design a gorgeous building that people will come and look at, but at the end of the day, what do they come back to again and again? It’s the stuff that happens there.”

Experts say Crescent isn’t the only real estate developer preaching the gospel of placemaking. The concept’s been around for decades, rooted in research the late urban studies expert William “Holly” Whyte began shaping in New York City in the 1960s.

But as real estate investors scrutinize the likes and dislikes of the economically ascendant millennials, they’re finding that these young office workers, apartment-renters and homebuyers prefer walkable urban environments close to jobs, parks and nightlife.

Placemaking, with its focus on producing parks and plazas that buzz with crowds and activity, looks to be just what today’s consumer-conscious real estate developer is after.

It all draws an amused chuckle from urban designers. In generations past, they say, developers typically resisted their call for the kind of diverse, high-density urban spaces the placemaking ethic encourages.

But today, developers are jumping aboard.

“For designers, this is akin to arriving in nirvana!” David Walters, director of UNC Charlotte’s master’s in urban design program, told me via email. “The concepts we have been advocating and struggling for for several decades are increasingly being embraced by financial interests. It’s a wonderful and timely conjunction.”

Crescent Communities CEO Todd Mansfield said it makes good business sense, but the community profits, too. In order to create spaces that draw crowds, developers have to ask people what they want.

Crescent has held a number of “visioning” sessions over the past 12 to 18 months, asking people to specify what would make a particular place or space magical to them.

“We had artists there,” Duncan said of a Tryon Place session. “We had historians, we had young tech guys who started a company who knew exactly what the millennials need, want and demand.”

Mansfield said the company is holding such sessions on all its projects nowadays. It makes the development process take longer, he said, but helps keep builders from creating sterile, unused spaces.

He offered as an example uptown’s Marshall Park, which draws more geese than people.

“A lot of money was spent on Marshall Park,” he said. “Except for an occasional protest, it’s a completely useless space.”

To infuse the placemaking ethic throughout its corporate culture, Crescent has sought insight from Fred Kent, a Whyte protege who heads the New York-based firm Projects for Public Spaces. Kent has worked in New York City on improving Times Square and Rockefeller Center, and has led training sessions for audiences from Hong Kong to Scotland.

Crescent brought him to Charlotte last month to talk to more than 175 of its employees. When I spoke to him by phone weeks later, he recalled the experience like a happy preacher fresh off a well-received sermon.

“You know what it is?” he asked. “It’s common sense. It’s not rocket science. We’re just getting back to what’s important.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what he thought of Charlotte’s public spaces. He told me the city’s urban core has a ways to go before it reaches the kind of vibrancy that makes someplace like Brooklyn special.

The new museum district on South Tryon is nice, he said, but much of the activity seems to be inside the buildings instead of integrated into the streetscape.

Tryon Street has to become “one of the great streets of North America” for Charlotte to fulfill its potential, he added. It needs street-level retail – a deficiency Charlotte Center City Partners underscored in a recent report on the subject.

Tryon Place could be a good start for Charlotte’s uptown, he said. But first, the Overstreet Mall, the enclosed 1970s-era walkway of shops threading between skyscrapers, must go away.

“The sooner the better,” he said. “That’s the old way of doing things.”

Eric Frazier writes about development, jobs and the economy. Got a story tip? Contact him at 704-358-5145, or @Ericfraz on Twitter