Last month when I wrote about the City of Portland planning department's Courtyard Housing competition, it was mainly to announce that winners were about to be announced, as well as to look at the role such a housing type could play in the city's ongoing densification.
Today I decided to have a closer look at the competition winners and to go back and look at the comments to my own post after the winners were announced.
The biggest question mark, both for the competition and for the city itself as courtyard housing potentially goes forward, is what the shared open space is really for. Is it a place for people to park their cars, and then for kids to play on as an afterthought? Or is the courtyard meant to be a green space without autos or a concrete/asphalt surface?
The city has a difficult balancing act to pull off in a situation like this. They have to be pragmatic about what the market wants (or its perception) and what developers are likely to build. Indications from the buying public is that they usually strongly prefer having off-street parking, so developers naturally respond to that and the city in turn. But when you have a design competition involving courtyards, as many people have pointed out, that traditionally refers more to a green open space.
A large motivating factor for the city in holding the courtyard housing competition is to provide affordable housing options for families. That means more bedrooms and open space outside. So the better family option, you could argue, is courtyards with greenery, not asphalt. And for those of us who are looking at these designs not as possible future dwellings of our own, but merely as additions to the city we judge aesthetically, a true courtyard without the parking-first mentality is a much more attractive looking space. But if you're a developer looking to bet your business on a multi-unit project like this, removing on-site parking could be a major gamble.
Looking at the entries, I quicly felt torn about what my criteria should be. My natural inclination was to search for images of good-looking architecture. It's more fun to look at nice sculptural aspects of architecture than to ponder site plans and stormwater treatment strategies. Yet that's of course a much different means of valuation than it would be for someone expecting to live or build there.
For example, looking at the Inner Portland category (there was also an outer category), I liked the second and third place (the Merit and Citation) award winners pictured above better aesthetically than the top prize winner, the honor award (pictured below). The Merit and Citation winners had more clean-lined, handsome architecture to them, although the top Honor award winner was arguably at a more appropriate scale for a starter family home and seemingly of rougher, cheaper materials. So it's hard for me to say I disagree for the jury, even as I feel pretty sure I know I would prefer at least a couple of the runners up as better looking additions to the city.
Having said all this, the real issue may not be aesthetics or even planning, but the process of getting developers to build these designs. On its website FAQ, the competition text says, "The City of Portland intends to facilitate built projects based on the winning designs, potentially through means such as providing funding to aid in adapting designs to actual building sites and through encouraging developers to partner with winning designers in an anticipated design-build competition." Will this fulfill the promise of better designed high-density architecture? After all, that's the whole point.