Sunday, October 05, 2008

A New Level of New Urbanism in the Metroplex [UPDATED WITH PHOTOS]

It was totally on a lark that I even visited this place today. I was on my way home from the Mid-Cities and decided to drive the new 121 Tollway in its entirety just to check on the progress of the part that's still being built. While doing so, I remembered driving by the recently-built New Urbanist center in Allen the other night and wondering what it was like. I had heard that there were a bunch of upscale restaurants in there, but otherwise, I was fairly unfamiliar with it. With a little time to kill in the afternoon, I decided to check it out.

The new development is called Watters Creek at Montgomery Farm, and I have to say that I was extremely impressed; it's the most "urban" of the New Urbanist developments I've seen so far. It may not look like much from the freeway, where most of what can be seen is a pair of parking garages, but the streetscape portion is a delight to behold.

The one thing that stands out about Watters Creek is its design; the best way I could describe it is a "curvy sideways letter A." There is a main street running through the development, but the street that bisects it starts out parallel to it and then curves around to meet it, forming the curved part of the A, while another street connects the two in the middle. But even more unique is the topography of the land and the use of water. A creek runs through the middle, running parallel to the inner connector street, with lots of open space, and the whole thing rides a gentle hill up to where the two main streets intersect. The only anchor store is a Market Street grocery, but it faces Bethany Road and is elevated and somewhat separated from the streetscape, which is accessible from a descending staircase between the grocery and a Borders bookstore. The hills and the water remind me a bit of a small European town, although the image that kept running through my head was that of Middlebury, Vermont (pictures here). With the exception of the Brownstone area of Southlake Town Square, this is the only time I've seen a New Urbanist development pay this much attention to the lay of the land; it's very effective. It may have been built only a few months ago, but it looks like it belongs there.

Parts of Watters Creek are still being built; the now-obligatory loft apartments are nearly done, and a few more stores are being added to the south of the main intersection. One of the more interesting aspects of the place is that many of the close-in street spaces have parking meters; while some people might gripe about this practice--unheard of in the suburbs, for the most part--two things stand out: 1) Many of the meters are free for hybrids, and 2) The idea is to get as many people as possible to park in the remote garages and walk the entire streetscape during their visit. These two things dovetail nicely with the fact that Watters Creek is the first retail development in Texas to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified. And all the revenue from the parking meters goes to selected local charities throughout the year.

The center has quite a busy events calendar, and I'm definitely going to see what it would take to get a band (be it my own, a school group, or both) to play there, since it's so close to the college (and only twenty minutes from home).

As I've said many times before, I'm an unabashed fan of New Urbanism. Sure, there are people who have said that the suburbs will suffer as gas gets more and more expensive, but that idea is based on the flawed assumption that everyone works downtown. If anything, the suburbs need more places like this, where people can live and shop and gather and eat (and sometimes even work), leaving the car on the periphery while doing so.

One other thing that's cool: Watters Creek seems to operate like a town and less like a mall with regard to photography. Not only do security people not freak out when you take pictures, the management actually encourages people to do so and upload their best shots to the website.

I think I just found my new place to take chill breaks and walk breaks on college teaching days...

UPDATE: I returned later in the week and took a few pictures:

A typical block of stores, with soon-to-be-completed lofts above

Trees line a portion of the creek that bisects the area

True to its name, there's a lot of "watter" in this development

I want to eventually do a "night and day" contrasting set of photos, but I'll have to use the real camera for the night shots, as the phone-cam doesn't do them justice...

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