'Vertical Villages' May Be the Future of Urban Living. That's Scary.

They take mixed-use development to an extreme with buildings that residents may never need to leave.
April 2019
Crosstown Concourse in Memphis
Crosstown Concourse in Memphis (Shutterstock)
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

There are mixed-use projects sprouting up all over the country, but so far at least, there is nothing quite like Crosstown Concourse in Memphis, Tenn. It is designed to be a self-contained community -- “a vertical urban village” -- in a single high-rise building a few blocks north of downtown.

Within the 14 stories of an old Sears warehouse, it is possible -- or soon will be possible -- for a resident to see a doctor, fill a prescription, buy groceries, go to the bank, obtain child care, visit an art exhibition, go to the theater, sample a craft beer, practice woodworking or exercise at a YMCA. If you have children, they can attend a charter school without going outside. All of this in a project that, in addition to private money, has received substantial funding from both the city of Memphis and surrounding Shelby County.

The developers of Crosstown Concourse love to talk about its self-sufficiency. “You don’t have to leave the building if you don’t want to,” one of them said recently. It sounds like hyperbole, but some of the residents say the same thing. “I have to make myself go out sometimes,” one of them told my Governing colleague Scott Beyer, whose excellent blog post on Crosstown Concourse led me to look into the subject.

There’s no doubt that the place is interesting. But it does raise the question of whether this is what we would wish the next wave of urbanism to be like.

It seems pretty clear that there is such a thing as a high-rise community. Think about the Upper West Side of Manhattan, for example. Apartment and condo dwellers there live in the same buildings for decades, managing to befriend each other and share a common bond with the support staff they see every day. The community they achieve also seems bound up with the retail commerce that clusters densely on the streets below. On those Manhattan streets, it’s possible to satisfy virtually all of one’s daily needs without walking more than a block or two. In a sense, it’s an indoor/outdoor relative of Crosstown Concourse. But if these Manhattan villagers were confined to the corridors of their apartment buildings, would life have the same pleasant coziness? I’m not so sure.

Still, we may be moving in that direction, a little bit at a time. As mixed-use projects take shape in and around every big city in the country, they seem to be concentrating more and more functions in more and more compact spaces.

Any number of cities can serve as examples. The Gateway project in Minneapolis is going to have 530,000 feet of office space on 16 floors, plentiful retail opportunities, 280 luxury hotel rooms and 22 condominiums. Developers in Denver are working on a 1,000-foot skyscraper in the middle of downtown with condos, restaurants, a hotel and shops. CalPERS, the huge California public pension fund, wants to put up a 30-story tower in Sacramento with -- sorry to repeat myself -- a full range of apartments, shops and offices.

Will you be able to get a haircut or buy a Phillips-head screwdriver in these buildings? I don’t know; probably not. But I think they all signify a trend in which mixed use is coming to mean not just a couple of uses but many under a single giant roof.

As fanciful as it might seem, the vertical village has some attractive selling points. It’s another step away from the rigid single-use zoning that characterized virtually all American cities for the last hundred years. It imposes the density that New Urbanist thinkers have been dreaming about for a generation, if perhaps in exaggerated form. It certainly promises to take cars off the street.

It’s also a little bit scary.

Urban thinkers have been pondering the relationship between tall buildings and community since the invention of elevators made skyscraper life a reality more than a century ago. The legendary architect and urban planner Le Corbusier thought the ideal city -- the Radiant City, as he called it -- would be composed of huge skyscrapers with living and working units, surrounded by parkland and accessible only by automobiles. He thought the high-rises of Manhattan were too small and too close together, and proposed tearing many of them down to create more parks. He thought this was a way to foster civic well-being. I don’t know why.

What I do know is that the high-rise projects that took their inspiration from Le Corbusier were destroyers of community, not creators of it. Brasilia, the Brazilian capital built in the 1950s on the basis of Corbusian ideas, turned out to be a flop when it came to human sociability. It consisted of elegant skyscrapers with no place for people to congregate or even converse. For the most part, it still doesn’t have them. Much more tragic were the high-rise public housing clusters that became a fixture of mid-century urban life in America. Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis, Cabrini-Green in Chicago and their counterparts all over America were the antithesis of community.

One can object that mid-20th-century skyscraper urbanism was only tangentially related to the vertical village because it didn’t have much appreciation for mixed uses. Le Corbusier paid lip service to the idea, but the architects and planners who took after him essentially designed modernist residential boxes, physically separated from any form of traditional neighborhood. Not only was there no commercial life inside a place like Cabrini-Green, there was none anywhere near it.

But a few experiments in high-rise urbanism did make some effort at mixed-use principles. The best-known was Detroit’s Renaissance Center, built around a 73-story hotel on a podium with a shopping mall, cafés, banks and brokerage offices. When it opened in 1977, it was described proudly by its promoters as a “city within a city.” What it turned out to be was a fortress within a city. Tenants could conduct their daily lives inside the center, but they were also cut off from the larger community and even from the streets and sidewalks around them. The Renaissance Center has since been modified to create more contact with the outside world, but few would defend it today as an icon of urban community. It is vertical, but it’s no village.

But what if there really were a skyscraper that residents never needed to leave? We don’t have any specimens of that in real life. We have a good one in fiction, though: It happens to be a dystopia.

Steven Millhauser won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler, about an entrepreneur who builds a 30-story hotel that is meant to exceed the variety of ordinary existence. It was “more than a hotel,” Millhauser wrote. “It was a complete and self-sufficient world. The actual city was not merely inferior, but superfluous.”

Visitors and tenants emerged from their elevators on one floor to find themselves in a wooded pseudo-countryside. Another floor evoked a mountainside, with caves as lodging units. A temple featured young women in tunics reciting poetry 24 hours a day. A “pleasure park” was bathed in artificial moonlight.

I’m probably not revealing anything shocking when I tell you that the Hotel Cosmo was a spectacular failure; Dressler goes bankrupt in the end. It’s all a fantasy, of course. But I remember finishing the novel with a shudder and a sense of relief that nobody could possibly try anything like that in real life.

Certainly the developers of Crosstown Concourse wouldn’t imagine it in their wildest dreams. Still, there are legitimate questions about just what sensible limits of mixed-use development might be. Those questions don’t have much to do with dystopian visions, as compelling as those visions can be. They have to do with ferreting out the most important things that the emerging mixed-use constituency actually wants.

First on the list, I would argue, is walkability. The growing cohort of urban millennials seems to have a deep-seated desire to stroll from place to place as they go about their daily routines. A vertical village is walkable in a way -- you don’t need a car to get from the lobby to the third floor -- but it isn’t the walkability that Manhattan’s Upper West Side or Back Bay in Boston or Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia or even South Lake Union in Seattle are able to provide.

Beyond walkability, there’s the appeal of simply being outside. Among the present roster of mixed-use developments, it’s the ones with a prominent outdoor component that are doing best, even in places with uncomfortable summers, such as Houston, or frigid winters, like Milwaukee. The big downtown malls located entirely indoors, even the most carefully planned among them, are having trouble.

All of this tells us something about what the mixed-use future may be, or perhaps should be. I think we ought to experiment with vertical villages. We ought to develop more places like Crosstown Concourse and see what their potential is. Personally, I’ll be interested in checking them out. We just need to keep in mind that there are two sides to the coin.