The Once and Future Neighborhood

Author: John Nagy ’00M.A.


I’ve walked the streets of Cooperstown, New York, half a dozen times since the summer I turned 12, and I thought I knew the place. Actually I knew only what most visitors know, and that was the tingle on my back when I entered baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Cooperstown is the Rockwell-perfect backdrop to a pilgrimage made each year by 350,000 epic sentimentalists who pound up and down Main Street between the hall and the restaurants and souvenir shops with heads full of baseball trivia and bellies full of $8 hot dogs. Judging from picture books in the public library, Main hasn’t changed much since 1945 except for the look of the vehicles that fill its herringbone parking spaces and the SUV windows that are soaped with cartoonish bats and balls and slogans like “Cooperstown or Bust.”

But decades have passed since my first trip, and I’ve learned to take a closer look. The storefronts are full; what’s changed is what’s in them. Once there were grocery and hardware stores, a movie theater, furniture dealers, craft and clothing shops—places my mother could escape to when she got sick of Ebbets Field and Wee Willie Keeler. Now it’s almost entirely baseball memorabilia: high-end history and low-end crap.

“The actuality is we’re not a baseball theme park. We’re a working village,” says village trustee Jeff Katz. Years ago, Katz quit his job and moved his young family from the Chicago suburbs to Cooperstown, where he used the hall’s library and archives to write a book about one of the shadier episodes in the game’s business history. Today he and his fellow trustees, many of them young and new to elected office, find themselves fighting to keep baseball-induced growth pressures—traffic congestion, limited parking and a lack of affordable housing—from fundamentally changing their village.

“Don’t get us wrong,” says Mayor Carol Waller, a local florist. Cooperstown loves the hall. “There are mayors and boards of trustees who would die to have the problems we do.” The question is how to solve them.

It’s a familiar dilemma in an age when zoning regulations, traffic engineering standards, real estate finance and construction industry practices exclusively favor suburban sprawl. People sense their communities need to change, but they fear the results such changes have wrought. Far from any major urban center, Cooperstown has advantages over other U.S. communities, starting with the beautiful public buildings and orderly residential streets that have attracted Notre Dame architecture Professor Philip Bess and his urban design students for years.

Bess is a baseball fan, an authority on urban ballpark design, and last summer he and his students made the pilgrimage not once but twice. The assignment was to look beyond baseball and Cooperstown’s surface charm to examine pressures threatening the village, and to craft architectural and urban design proposals that might make growth as appealing as it was when Cooperstown was founded, protecting its character while sparing the surrounding landscape. It began with a conversation and continued with the drawing of pictures. Lots of pictures.

Decline and sprawl

Bess is a traditional urbanist who trains traditional urbanists. If you aren’t sure what traditional urbanism is, visit any remnant of a small town or city neighborhood built before World War II. Neighborhoods in Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Santa Fe and Savannah offer favorite models, but so do countless smaller cities and villages like Cooperstown. It’s not about a particular architectural style or region of the country. As Bess once wrote, it’s about “the ideal of mixed-use, walkable and above all economically and generationally diverse human settlements.”

Bess is the director of graduate studies for Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, which, he says every time he introduces his students, “is unique worldwide in having classical and traditional architecture and urban design embedded in its curriculum.” The idea is to reinvigorate a tradition of civic building based on the human being, one that privileges beauty, durability and convenience in a public realm accessible to all—the young and the old, the poor and the wealthy—even if they don’t have a car. It’s an idea for which Notre Dame sometimes gets kicked around in architecture’s flashier inner circles, but the students are content to leave popularity to the contemporary profession’s so-called rock stars.

“We had a great teacher our fifth year who made a sign for us that said, ‘Write and design so that your mother could understand.’ It wasn’t a knock on anybody’s mother,” says Samantha Salden ‘02, one of Bess’ current students. “It’s about making things relatable. Giving communities the ability to clearly state what they want is important.”

Bess makes urbanism relatable by talking about pizza, an analogy he borrows from the influential European architect and urban designer Leon Krier. A traditional neighborhood, Bess explains, is to a traditional city what a slice of pizza is to the whole pie, “because a slice of pizza has on it all the ingredients of the entire city.” Residents can walk to schools, parks, the family doctor and the grocery store, their church and, ideally, their work: in short, the places that supply their lives with health and meaning.

Suburban development leaves us with separate piles of ingredients. Homes for the poor are in one pile; homes for the well-off somewhere else. Clusters of office buildings, public services and retail stores surrounded by oceanic parking lots crop up along congested connector roads paved at taxpayers’ expense. We drive everywhere because we have no choice. As Bess says, “you can’t just have a pizza; you’ve got to go get each little ingredient by itself.”

We tagged this form of suburbia “sprawl” in the 1960s while our cities and towns hemorrhaged into never-ending subdivisions. In 1982, developed land in the United States covered 72.9 million acres. by 2003, federal data show, new construction left an Iowa-sized footprint of 35.2 million more acres—a rate nearly double that of the growth of the population.

The problem at its deepest level is one of human nature. But it’s also a byproduct of the postwar economic boom and faulty public policy. You may know the story: Public health concerns about industry set a precedent for single-use zoning codes that extend to everything, including housing by income level. Cheap, government-backed mortgages, nothing short of miraculous to a generation that had grown up in depression and war, favored new construction over renovation. Interstate highways promised swift commutes and an escape from polluted, crime-ridden cities and their failing schools. Developers, their crews and their corporate financiers benefitted from building plentifully and at low cost. They still do.

The impact on Americans and our communities, even idyllic and isolated ones like Cooperstown, has been palpable. We’ve lost apartments above stores and backyard coach houses—the kind of affordable housing that doesn’t come in menacing, publicly funded, cinder-block rectangles. Our streets have emptied of pedestrians as cars have become appendages rather than conveniences. In some areas, teachers, nurses and police officers can’t afford to live in the communities they serve. Property taxes spike to cover the rising costs of infrastructure and basic services in far-flung areas. Children and the elderly who can’t drive themselves to parks and shops have lost independence. Obesity has become a public health crisis.

To be sure, the suburbs have their defenders, especially among those who happen to love their backyard. No one wants sprawl per se, yet for the past 60 years in the United States, that’s what we got. And we’ve got to ask ourselves a question: Do we feel lucky?

Relearning old habits

If urbanists have their way, our future may look more like our pre-1945 past. Cooperstown could again build in the way intended by founder William Cooper, a Revolutionary War-era opportunist who earned what the historian Alan Taylor calls “a national reputation as a consummate developer.” Or the way the Clark family did when they filled the patronage void after Cooper’s fortunes failed. In 1909, the Clarks built the Otesaga Inn, a glorious, Georgian structure with majestic views of the glacier-cut Otsego Lake. Over the years they added such community cornerstones as the Mary Imogene Bassett Hospital and the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

“They’re truly visionaries,” says Ed Landers, proprietor of the White House Inn B&B on Chestnut Street. “They do stuff for the ages.”

The Clarks set a high standard for the kind of civic-minded, long-term patronage Bess argues is essential in the cure of sprawl’s corrosive effects on community. Patrons like Cooper and the Clarks were once the norm, but regulations and the marketplace transformed developers into bottom-line businessmen who based their decisions purely on short-term profitability. Why build beautifully and durably when it costs more and the long-term profits are lost to buyers?

Cooperstown illustrates the contrast. While Jane Clark keeps flower baskets on the lampposts and employs a staff of public gardeners, profits from the baseball memorabilia shops leave town with absentee owners who won’t join the Chamber of Commerce and see no connection between their lackluster window displays, the village’s crumbling sidewalks and their bottom lines. Deputy Mayor Paul Kuhn, who runs a small historical tour business, expects their laissez-faire attitude will catch up with them. “We are starting to look a little shabby,” he warns.

Bess believes patrons could come in many forms: an ennobled group of wealthy community leaders, a well-endowed institution or a resourceful local government. As a village, Cooperstown cannot yet play the part. Inequities in the distribution of state sales tax revenues have flared an already acrimonious relationship between it and Otsego County, prompting village officials to consider applying for designation as a city so Cooperstown can capture a larger share.

What the village can control is whether it scraps its restrictive and text-heavy building and zoning codes in favor of visual, form-based codes that are intelligible to an educated layman. One prominent model, developed by Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) is the SmartCode, which “keeps towns compact and rural lands open.” In its current version, the code is a 68-page booklet full of illustrations of building types and plans for streets, sidewalks, curbs, lighting and other civic components. It’s based on the concept of the urban transect—that range of building and population densities at which human beings may flourish as part of a sustainable ecosystem.

Fostering the good life

Leaders of the “New Urbanist” movement of architects, activists, developers and public officials, who champion walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods as an alternative to sprawl, DPZ has completed dozens of well-publicized projects at such places as Seaside, Florida, and Mashpee Commons in Massachusetts, a new town on the site of a failed strip mall. In all, says Daniel Parolek ’95, co-author of a forthcoming book on the subject, more than 100 U.S. communities have adopted form-based codes.

The goal, “against long odds,” Bess claims, “is to make human settlements more beautiful and more just.” Yet codes are but one part of what he means. For Bess and a handful of his colleagues, it’s about making places that foster the good life as Aristotle conceived it: the individual’s pursuit of moral and intellectual excellence in community.

We’re all members of communities of one shared purpose or another, Bess argues. Think of your congregation and its worship, your garage band and its music, your aerobics class and its fitness, your fantasy baseball league and its fun. The city, in Aristotle’s view and in centuries of human experience, was the community of these communities that had as its shared purpose the promotion of the good life. Today, Bess says, even with perfect codes, our communities will fall short of this mark unless we all account for the common good in our profit calculations.

Not surprisingly, his perspective creates some tensions between Bess and fellow urbanists who don’t share his Aristotelian world view or who, like some of his students, are itching to get on with more practical matters. Still, urbanists agree about many things, like the fact that human legs tend to end in feet rather than wheels. “Good urban form” starts with the rough quarter-mile a healthy adult can walk in about five minutes: the ideal distance between a neighborhood’s center and its edge. If you reach that edge and can’t meet your daily needs for goods, services, an income, recreation and reflection, you need to make a new center.

Starting in Aristotle’s day, the half-mile diameter was about the size of historic city centers and neighborhoods, home to anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 people, large enough to divvy up labor and small enough for citizens to know each other at least by reputation. by those standards, downtown Cooperstown is the right physical size and its edges are ripe for healthy new centers; it’s just short on people. Before the hall opened in 1939, it was an agricultural community of 2,900 supporting a few related industries. Then, tourism trotted in and residents began trickling away. by the 1990s, the trickle became what Mayor Waller calls a “mass exodus.” Giles Russell, a former trustee, says the proportion of people living in the village to those nearby at that time was 60-40. Now he figures it’s 30-70. Still, traffic chokes the village in summer worse than ever before. A retired engineer, Russell calculated an annual load of two million vehicles. That was 10 years ago.

A new generation

If there’s one skill paramount to good urbanism, it’s listening. “At Notre Dame, the focus is on architects as being involved in a community,” Samantha Salden says.

Salden and her ND classmates have strong opinions about buildings and neighborhoods. This is not to say they’re card-carrying New Urbanists. At the moment, they see themselves first as architects who care about beauty and craft and creating a formal order in which the moral, economic and environmental orders of a city can prosper.

I met the Notre Dame group on campus at 5 a.m. on a muggy August morning and discovered that their semester in Rome had already bonded them as a community. Bess had invited me to join their nine-day “American Urbanism” field trip, a chance to study U.S. neighborhoods as they had studied European ones and document them in a way that will have value as they pursue their careers.

We started in Skaneateles, another tourist favorite in upstate New York, drove on to Boston, ferried to Nantucket and stopped in Cooperstown for a two-day preview before their work began in September. The students pored over neighborhoods, soaking in every detail about buildings, setbacks, sidewalks, planter strips, street widths and a host of other things that people like me whistle past without noticing. They took pictures, examined old maps, talked to locals and whipped up marvelous sketches in what seemed like a few effortless seconds.

In Skaneateles, students Will Dowdy and Lesley Annis analyzed a living illustration of the urban transect from the edges to the center of a walkable, vibrant Finger Lakes town that straddles U.S. 20. Crisscrossing Boston’s Back Bay, Jennifer Stenhouse noted how cars and people can inhabit the same nurturing spaces. Nantucket’s gray, cedar-shingled buildings offered Professor Bess and Lenka Schulzova lessons about aesthetic consistency. Can there be such a thing as a beautiful parking garage? Dowdy recalled one rimmed with retail in Oregon. What about historic preservation and land trusts? Both have value but aren’t necessary in a confident culture that builds well. If you’re going to tear something down, Salden said, you have to build at least as well as what was there. Green building standards? Paul Monson argued that much depends on the materials used, the energy required to manufacture them and whether the building was necessary in the first place.

The give-and-take was good practice for the students’ core fall class. The Urban Design Studio began in Cooperstown in September with an eight-day “charrette,” a conversation among architects and residents that produces a visual plan for growth consistent with a community’s history and identity. Those interested are told to bring their agendas with them. “The assumption,” Bess explained to Cooperstown’s trustees, “isn’t that all points of view can be reconciled, but that traditional urbanism can find common solutions that are better than the solutions offered by sprawl development.”

Bess has supervised student charrettes in such places as Traverse City and Suttons Bay, Michigan, and led professional charrettes, including one that, when its essential proposals were adopted by new Red Sox ownership, saved Boston’s Fenway Park and adjacent neighborhoods from demolition. “The charrette designs, it educates and it builds consensus,” he told me. “It’s critical to the whole New Urbanist enterprise.”

Cooperstown or bust

Many who live in Cooperstown year-round have roots in the area that go back generations. For some, the first question is whether their village should grow at all.

Most visitors enter Cooperstown from the south on Route 28. Once you clear the chain motels, the strip mall and the Cooperstown Dreams Park that hosts 96-team baseball tournaments each week of the summer, the rolling landscape clears for what seems like a few miles. These are Jane Clark’s lands, a greenbelt she’s patched around the village like a protective quilt.

Your hint that you’ve arrived is the Great American supermarket and its half-empty parking lot just north of Walnut Street. Straight on, 28 becomes Chestnut, a tree-lined avenue with grand, older houses on generous lots that get closer to each other and the sidewalk as you proceed north. Traffic slows naturally, and on a summer morning it stops you dead around Elm Street.

As you inch toward Main, a parking lot opens on your right to a view of Doubleday Field, where Paul Kuhn claims you can see 350 baseball games a year for free. Turn right at Schneider’s Bakery, and you’re there: Two blocks of the kind of two- and three-story buildings that architects call “background” buildings because they were designed not to draw attention to themselves—only now they catch our eye because no one builds them like these anymore. The Hall of Fame is up there on the right, assuming that’s where you want to go. The fact is that more people come to town as patients at Bassett Hospital, or as employees who search in vain most days to find convenient parking.

In Cooperstown, the students used their expertise to transform what they heard and perceived into sketches of places residents could recognize. With modified “figure-ground” maps, they shaded outlines of existing and proposed structures on the street grid. They challenged themselves to imagine Cooperstown without the hall in order to think past the “baseball problem”: how Cooperstown’s greatest single asset obscures its even richer past and present. Baseball fans crowd out visitors interested in other attractions like the Glimmerglass Opera House and the Fenimore Art Museum. Few stroll down to the lake, headwaters of the Susquehanna River, and even fewer link the town’s name with James Fenimore Cooper, son of William and author of The Last of the Mohicans. Many residents moved away so they could rent their homes to short-stay summer visitors.

The doors to the village meeting hall, which the students used as a studio, were open during the day. Each night a solid crowd turned out to see what they had come up with. At the first meeting, residents rejected proposals for an inn at a trolley bus lot north of town. They explained their antipathy to chain retail, even if it inhabited historical buildings, and clarified the limitations set by topography, property lines and the terms of a federal transportation grant.

The conversation continues


When the students returned to Notre Dame, the team set up a blog-style charrette website so the conversation could continue at a distance. In October, they pinned up reworked maps and renderings once more for a jury of architects and Cooperstown trustees, this time in Bond Hall’s first-floor gallery. In the students’ introductory remarks, Paul Monson hit the big question head on: “There needs to be additional housing and growth in Cooperstown. Our proposal is for taking both a broad brush at the edges and finding places in the village where this growth might occur.”

The students presented seven “interventions” to be implemented in 10- and 50-year master plans. They led off with a reconfiguration of the public space fronting Doubleday Field that scraps the scrubby parking lot in favor of a garage built above retail and a net gain of 185 spaces. The garage building would provide vertical definition of a new plaza and shape pedestrian streets approaching the ballpark’s front gate. Two of the three walkways would facilitate a new connection between a refurbished county courthouse complex on the west side of Chestnut with the hallowed Cooper Grounds to the east of the Hall.

The team took a similarly monumental approach to the waterfront, trading out an old motel and relocating boat access for cleaner views of the lake and a clearer connection between the hall and an expanded public park along Fair Street. The Great American and its parking lot, a brisk, 10-minute walk from the hall, would be obscured by new commercial buildings better suited to Cooperstown’s 19th century feel.

For trustee Lynne Mebust, the best proposals were those for mixed-use neighborhoods of cottage courts, bungalows and carriage houses on Clark-owned lands, which would serve as a natural option within walking distance of work for many of the hospital’s 2,500 staffers and their families. She brushed aside layers of criticism from the jury’s professional architects, who pushed the student team to urbanize downtown—especially the four blocks adjacent to the hall. “While it may not look connected to other parts of the town,” she conceded, “it’s connected to the hospital, which is what drives a lot of that need.”

Trustee Jeff Katz supports the notion of infill projects and increased density but questioned the feasibility of any proposal that would require demolition of residents’ homes. He noted that the proposed housing was mostly sited outside village lines, raising questions of annexation. Bess said he had encouraged his students to respect existing property lines, particularly in the heart of the village. But his colleagues genially criticized a “missing overall coherence” among the interventions.

“It’s almost like you took the easy developer route, the available, flat land that you can subdivide for homes,” said juror Andrew von Maur ’03M.Arch.

“The jury was not convinced,” Bess acknowledged, noting that his students would rethink fundamentals even as they refined specific building designs in preparation for one final conversation in Cooperstown in December. Whether the people of Cooperstown will make the students’ vision their own or simply take their recommendation to adopt a form-based code, remains to be seen. Community leaders may have to persuade Jane Clark to allow the development of mixed-use neighborhoods on her open lands near the hospital her forebears built. It’s all up to them. But as the October session wrapped up, the trustees were pleased.

“I think you’ll find when you come back that it’s generated a lot of interest,” trustee Mebust said. “A lot of people are eager to hear what we’ve learned here.”

We’ve almost succeeded in allowing our cities and towns, places that once combined and defined our civic, commercial and domestic spaces, to dissolve into sprawl’s monocultures. In the 21st century, these urbanists will remind us that our communities can again be living settlements where commerce integrates with other human endeavors. If our hearts yearn for community and a shared sense of identity and purpose, renewing the habits of building well is just the beginning. Beyond that, it’s up to us.

John Nagy is an associate editor of this magazine.