Maybe It's Time to Start Listening to Tom Low
Charlotte has been called a “foreclosure hot spot” and one of the nation’s worst gas-guzzling cities. Meanwhile, fuel prices continue to climb, single-family home sales continue to dip, and developers still exert undue influence over the planning process
In the mid 1990s, Low and the company he works for, DPZ, were hired to remake Belmont’s downtown. Partly by restructuring the town’s zoning ordinance, Main Street gradually became a more inviting place and began to thrive. Belmont then became a model for other nearby small towns suffering from the effects of sprawl.
It’s just after noon on a sunny, temperate Monday in May in downtown Belmont, a former textile hub that blends vestiges of its twentieth-century industrial heyday with cheerful new shops and restaurants. On Main Street, the general store (where mill workers used to pick up paychecks and provisions) sells bolts and measuring tape, toy trains and garden flags. Awnings shade the entrances of antique stores and pubs, and brightly painted old streetcars sit on the retired railroad tracks overlooking Stowe Park, where a hedged-in fountain pond sprays all summer.
It’s hard to imagine that, just fifteen years ago, Belmont’s now quaint and lively main strip was a high-speed road, framed by faux aluminum façades and a boarded-up building. The park was unused land—the backyard to a gas station.
One of the people responsible for the town’s turnaround is Tom Low, the director of town planning at Duany Plater-Zyberk’s Charlotte office. Today, he walks slowly down Main Street, the “historic strolling district,” as he calls it. His hands jammed into his pockets and his baseball cap tugged low over probing blue eyes, he stops and lifts his gaze from the sidewalk. He puts his hands, palms out, in front of him.
“What would you say,” Low, fifty-four, skinny, and almost entirely bald, begins in his gentle drawl, “is the ratio of the distance between those two buildings”—he spreads his hands to point to two storefronts facing each other across Main Street—“and that one building’s height?” He shifts his body toward the right-hand storefront, pointing to its roof. “If the building were to fall forward, where would the roof land?”
Turns out, it’s about a three-to-one or two-to-one ratio. Low explains how Michelangelo and Leonardo applied human body scale and proportion to architecture and streets during the Renaissance. Spatial relationships, he continues in a fascinated, reverent tone, are key to creating great neighborhoods. They determine how comfortable people are in their public spaces.
Everywhere he goes, Low is hyperconscious of physical spaces—how he feels in them, how walls, walkways, and landmarks are laid out in relation to one another.
He darts into the local hardware store. “This is the coolest hardware store in the world,” he says, giddy. In 1993, when Low and other DPZ architects and planners were invited by Belmont’s city planning department to restructure its zoning ordinance, the storefront was empty. This is where the team held its charrettes, or mini-planning sessions.
Low zips and loops through the store, noting out loud how the merchandise layout affects customers and maximizes their spending. He points at the children’s toy section to the left of the entrance. “Kids can go there while grown-ups roam the rest of the store.” He circles a rack of garden flags, pawing at the pastel fabric (“for the ladies!”). He beelines toward the hardware section, digging his fingers into the display of assorted nuts and bolts (“I love this stuff!”). From one corner to another, up the stairs, down the stairs. Outside, he grabs a push-reel lawn mower and wheels it for a few strides. “The most sustainable kind of lawn mower you can buy,” he says.
At the 1993 charrette, restoring Belmont’s main street was one of DPZ’s primary concerns. The firm also specified that no awning should be no less than six feet across over a sidewalk, that some of the old textile mansions be converted into conference centers, and that new, mixed-income houses and apartments be built alongside old neighborhoods rather than sectioned off.
“They didn’t want a series of McMansion subdivisions coming into town,” Low says.
Low is, as he says, “averse” to such suburban sprawl. He is a scholar, advocate, practitioner, and proselytizer of new urbanism, a brand of urban planning that values cohesive neighborhoods, downtowns with intimate, walkable streets, mixed-income housing, and development that orients toward neighborhood centers, not away from them. “Smart growth” is the trendier term nowadays, but some just call it good planning.
Whatever its descriptor, Low is one of Charlotte’s most vocal advocates for applying new urbanist principles to the city—for transforming traffic-dense spots like Fairview Road or Trade and Tryon into pedestrian-friendly town centers, stopping the construction of walled-off neighborhoods like those in Ballantyne or SouthPark, and retrofitting suburbia to be more connected to its own town center.
Our need for this kind of planning in Charlotte is urgent, he says. The evidence supports him.
Our sprawl is drawing national attention. In February, CNN Money named Charlotte one of the country’s top ten “foreclosure hot spots” (the foreclosure rate increased by 37 percent in 2010, with one in fifty homes being repossessed). Forbes named it the second-most gas-guzzling city in the United States, with the average household driving 21,500 miles per year, a figure made all the more daunting when you take into account the nearly $4 we’re spending on each gallon of gas.
Danny Pleasant, the city’s transportation director, has known Low for almost a decade. “He’s absolutely brilliant, great at stimulating thinking, willing to explore abstractions. … I don’t know that I’ve seen that quality of work in an urban design firm in a generation. He’s that important to the national and global practice. He is not to be underestimated in his influence.”
“Our fundamental system of suburbia is not sustainable,” Low says, cold focus erasing his usual boyish enthusiasm. “Surveys say we’ve overbuilt suburbia across the country. We’re going to have such a surplus of suburban dwelling in the next ten to twenty years that we’ll have around 40 million single-family homes that no one wants.”
Charlotte, he says, is at a huge disadvantage because of its dependence on this suburban model. “A lot of [Charlotte] is not built on good bones. We have estimated that 93 percent of our city is built out in conventional suburban sprawl. In the future, that’s not sustainable … the model depends so much on cars.”
It’s a point he’s been making from his new urbanist soapbox for close to two decades, to criticism, applause, and indifference. The American Dream of a quiet, single-family home with a big lawn, he says, has outgrown itself, spilling into distant, inaccessible sprawl. The time to clean up, rebuild, and rethink, he says, is long overdue.
Low grew up in Roanoke, Virginia, one of three children. He comes from eight generations of engineers. He lived in a planned neighborhood, designed in the early twentieth century by John Nolen.
Nolen also designed Myers Park, among 400 other projects, many of which Low recently wrote about in his book Civic By Design: John Nolen’s Lessons for New Urbanism, which looks at the work of Nolen and other early-twentieth-century planners, including Earle Sumner Draper and the Olmsteds.
“They were all part of that era of great civic planners and architects. Really great role models,” he says admiringly, flipping through his book’s colorful pages in DPZ’s bright conference room, on the second floor of a two-story colonial mansion with white columns in Myers Park. He lives nearby with his wife and son, a junior at Myers Park High School.
Low came to Charlotte in 1979, right after he graduated from Virginia Tech with a degree in architecture.
“I drove down to Charlotte in a beat-up Mustang and started knocking on doors,” he says. “I found a job with a small firm, and over ten years I worked for about four different firms, doing architecture.”
Most of his projects, Low remembers, included strip shopping centers, commercial offices, affordable housing complexes, and shopping mall plans. Today, Low calls himself a “recovering architect.”
In 1988, he was handed a 1,000-acre development project near what is now Concord Mills and was told to develop a master plan for it.
“I laid it out perfectly according to the rules,” he says. “And I looked at it and realized I would hate to live there. It was totally autocentric. During that era, in the late 1970s and eighties, no one thought about architectural design as it related to urbanism. It was all conventional suburban shopping malls and developments. No matter how wonderful the designs that I was creating were, they all ended up sitting up in parking lots. There was no legacy of any value.”
It was a turning point for Low. He couldn’t stomach the sprawl anymore. He wanted to put his energy into planning that would create lasting neighborhoods.
In 1989, Low moved to Florida with his wife to attend the University of Miami, where he earned a master’s in architecture with a concentration in suburb and town design.
The dean of U of M’s School of Architecture is Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who cofounded the notoriously progressive planning firm Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company and the Congress for the New Urbanism with her husband, Andres Duany. A former condominium developer, Duany is considered the father of new urbanism, and is an often inflammatory international spokesperson for its ideals. In 2007, he told Time magazine that “what is causing global warming is the lifestyle of the American middle class.”
“[Duany] is so brilliant, but so vocal in his criticism of conventional suburban design,” says Pleasant. “He’s probably offended every possible design professional, from architects to traffic engineers. But he’s been very effective because he’s woken up an industry.”
Low spent a few years under DPZ’s tutelage in Miami, and, after the success of the Belmont project, eventually opened the firm’s Charlotte office in 1995.
“I had wanted to become more of an urban-based designer,” he says, “and move back to Charlotte and introduce this way of thinking. … Charlotte was a New South boomtown that was rapidly expanding. The small towns around it were concerned about their quality of life being compromised. So I came back and started stirring the pot.”