Housing developers need to build real places, not useless gimmicks

Photo: Scott Berson

Here’s the thing about apartment complexes. They’re terrible.

Every night, millions of people make their beds in vaguely-identical apartment developments. Most of them have names like “The Oaks” or “River Chase” or “Cozy Woods.” Maybe those developments are even near actual trees or rivers, if the residents are lucky.

Some apartments take the form of those familiar two-story brick slabs. That was the old model. The new model is to pretend at “luxury” by locking the actual housing behind an automated gate and keycode. Inside, islands of housing float in oceans of parking.

Get closer to a major city, and you’ll see even newer modelsforests of nearly identical “one-plus-fives” shooting from every intersection.

You’ve probably seen them already a clean look, some token retail and lobby space at the street level, then five floors of shoddily-constructed housing. Bonus points if the facade uses pastel veneer or fake brick, or both.

Please make it stop. Photo: Google Map Data

Make no mistake — these are all awful places. They rarely connect to the outside community, and are not places to feel proud of. They have few elements that give them the right to be called “places” at all.

Does this spark joy? Photo: Google Map Data

There are a few reasons things are this way.

One is that people desperately need housing, and they need housing to be affordable. That means developers’ minds are laser-focused on efficiency: maximum profit, minimum input. Frivolities like architectural ingenuity, community planning, and sometimes even basic building quality all get thrown to the bottom of the list.

That also means renters have little incentive to make an apartment complex someplace worth living. A renter has no stake in an apartment complex. She won’t plant a tree, paint the awning, grow a vegetable garden or landscape a path.

Apartment complexes are often transient spaces. They are places almost all renters expect someday to leave.

That brings us to the Garden District, an apartment complex in Auburn, Alabama, down the road from one of the state’s flagship public universities.

Photo: Google Map Data

This is, at its core, just another apartment complex. But it sure doesn’t look like one when you first drive in.

The complex unfolds in a block pattern, and includes buildings of different sizes and designs. Iron balconies teeter on the fronts of buildings, with columns that reach down to the sidewalks. Ivy crawls up the walls and windows, wrapping the balconies in a lovely green garland. Most visible parking is on-street, with giant surface lots hidden out-of-sight in back areas.

The Garden District looks a lot more like an urbanist, walkable downtown than a traditional apartment complex. Here’s how the developmemt company describes it:

“Styled after the lavish villas of New Orleans’ historic French Quarter, the Garden District is an oasis of comfort and sophistication in a hectic, busy world.”

I hate it so much.

A home in the New Orleans Garden District. Photo: Google Map Data
Something? In the Auburn Garden District. Photo: Scott Berson

Where to begin? First of all, let’s start with the fact that this is not New Orleans, and building a “New Orleans lite” aesthetic in the middle of east Alabama makes no sense, especially in a place that already has a relatively consistent architectural style

So yes, it’s “fake,” and that feels a little gross and a little insulting, in the same vein as when strip malls stick useless little windows on their facades to feel “downtowny.”

But it’s more than that.

Being in Auburn’s Garden District makes me feel uneasy. Because even in the worst apartment complexes, at least know I know where I am. I’m oriented. I’m grounded.

Where am I in the Garden District?

Photo: Scott Berson

Is this a downtown? An actual “district?” It sure looks like one. There are decent sidewalks, little balconies that look like they should hang over shop entrances. Cars are parallel-parked on the street, as if their owners have just popped into the cafe for some lunch.

But they haven’t. There’s no cafe. There are no businesses, no schools, no churches, no anything.

There actually is a “cafe.” It has a basic coffee maker and a popcorn machine. And it’s open until the very-relevant-for-college-living time of 2 p.m. Photo: Scott Berson

Here’s an experiment to illustrate how distressed this place makes me feel: Imagine your favorite downtown. It could be New York City, it could be downtown Atlanta or Minneapolis, or Paris, or anywhere.

Now imagine it with zero people. Next, imagine all the storefronts removed, and replaced with rows of blank walls, blank doors and blank windows.

That’s the Garden District.

To understand why this is so grotesque, take a drive through most suburban (or even urban) areas of the United States. Realize how few genuinely enjoyable, walkable, livable spaces we have left.

The Garden District tells a cruel lie: that here is a place, a “district” even (!) that offers refuge from strip malls and highways. It’s a place to live, and work, and walk, and enjoy.

But it isn’t! It’s a cheat, and it’s taking us for suckers.

In some way, it’s worse than a traditional apartment complex, because in this case, the developers took the model for a walkable, mixed-use core and deliberately neutered it. It’s agonizing.

Also: Who would ever use this? Why is this here? Photo: Scott Berson

Developers need to build housing that connects people to their community, and gives them a genuine space in it. Apartment housing should be integrated into the street grid, give people some sense of place within their wider city, and encourage them to truly interact with community in some way. They should serve different incomes, link to other areas, and give tenants some opportunity for pride of place.

Is this asking too much for an apartment complex in a college town? Most of the people living here will be students, destined to flit in and out of town within a few years. Would making this a real place be worth anything?

Absolutely. For two reasons.

  1. College kids deserve to live in a vibrant, livable environment. It’s especially important for a place like Auburn, which offers very, very little on-campus housing. If college students become acclimated to a walkable, strong, integrated living space, they will demand it in the future. We need that energy to improve our country’s built environment.
  2. It’s an  economic boon. Having a mixed-use space connected to the rest of the city opens up space for entrepreneurs and businesses, circulates more money around the local area, draws people from other parts of the city, and generally increases the value of both that space and the spaces surrounding it.

The Garden District does not do that, and neither do any other gimmicky places like it. Cities should demand better in the future.