Towers in the Village

A couple of skyscrapers behind several 3-story buildings

Since tall buildings have been around, there have been many ways they’ve fit into cities: towers in downtown, towers in the park, and most recently, towers on a whole-block development. Let’s look at a 4th way, the Tower in the Village.

Unlike the others, the Tower in the Village does not aim to be the center of attention. Instead, the upper floors are hidden behind a low front that fits in with the rest of the block. It faces a village green instead of a busy road.

Why highrise infill? Growing cities have two choices: 1) Redevelop a lot of sites to medium density, or 2) Redevelop a small number of sites to very high density. Highrise infill requires less demolition and can get more homes built faster.

a block with different buildings shaded different colors. Two tall ones are in the middle.

Let’s look at some examples of Towers in the Village. Here’s one from Germany, where office towers in Frankfurt sit behind a row of older 6-story buildings.

Frankfurt Commerzbank Tower
Kasa Fue, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Big buildings require lots of space on the ground floor for lobbies, loading docks, garages, etc. Setting them back from the main shopping street helps avoid big blank walls.

Night Market, New Taipei
Tbatb, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Let’s look at a history of high-rise buildings and city planning. The first towers were built downtown. It makes for an efficient and exciting place to work, but the noisy dark streets feel more like an outdoor hallway than a place to hang out.

Towers in the Downtown

New York City dealt with this issue by creating the famous 1916 zoning code, requiring buildings step back at the upper floors, creating the famous wedding cake look of the Art Deco era.

New York City 1916 Zoning Code
Cmglee, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

While 1916 NYC zoning created a nice skyline, the street was still an unpleasant concrete canyon, as most of the street was for traffic, & large buildings + no alleys = lots of blank walls.

Hudson Street in Manhattan
MusikAnimal, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

The pursuit of light and air led to the Tower in the Park (or parking lot) of the mid-20th century. While impressive to look at, the “park” was in practice a private yard, and these developments weren’t even that dense and lacked the shopping streets of the neighborhoods they replaced.

Towers in the Park

More recently, we’ve seen the Tower in the Block — highrises plopped onto the big New Urbanism developments that take up a whole block. While better than Towers in the Park, it is still far from perfect.

Towers in the Block

These mega-developments are usually built in former industrial areas, away from existing businesses. The retail takes a long time to fill up, and even when the first floor is townhouses, the “big blank wall” effect is still common.

Rincon Hill in San Francisco. Photo CC-BY Alfred Twu

While there often is green space in the rear yard, it’s private space cut off from the rest of the city. The streets are typically wide roads with fast traffic.

Towers in the Block — Cross Section

Which brings us to Towers in the Village. A echoes of the 1916 NYC zoning code, it pulls the highrises back from the street. More importantly, the street itself is no longer just for traffic, but has businesses, parks, and homes on it.

Towers in the Village

By moving the towers into the backyard, the public space is improved, and feels more like a valley instead of a concrete canyon.

Another advantage of the mid-block tower is that it doesn’t require the whole block to be under a single owner. This makes development less disruptive, and also makes for a more diverse and democratic economy.

Currently, mid-block towers can often be found in rapidly growing cities. Towers would get built on side streets and mid-block as the the main street and corners had already been built up in the previous round of development.

Mexico City
Ralf Roletschek, GFDL 1.2 <http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html>, via Wikimedia Commons
Ho Chi Minh City
Андрей Бобровский, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

What would it look like in California? Key to making this work is the situation at the first floor. The street is narrowed to a driveway, providing space for homes and businesses and trees. Trash, loading, and other services are handled from a back alley.

A zoning change from current practice needed is replacing rules that require towers be separated from each other, to one that allows them to be close to each other but set back from the street.

Towers in the Block vs. Towers in the Park — site plan diagram

Here’s how a Tower in the Village would fit on a pair of 50'x150' lots (a common size in Los Angeles and other suburban areas)

Tower in the Village on a pair of 50'x150' lots (typical Los Angeles lot size)

Where lots are only 100' deep, such as in older parts of the Bay Area, a Tower in the Village would require combining four back-to-back 50'x100' lots.

Tower in the Village on a four 50'x100' lots

Artist and Designer in Berkeley, California