Urbanist Stefanos Polyzoides reflects on Downtown revitalization
By Alta LeCompte Las Cruces Bulletin
Originally published in the Las Cruces Bulletin
“Sprawl and the state of impermanence that it has spawned are at the heart of the sustainability crisis we face today. Reversing sprawl depends on restoring the design of permanent, well-formed and socially desirable public space as the core purpose of architecture and urbanism.”
~ Stefano Polyzoides and Chris Wilson in “The Plazas of New Mexico” Following his keynote address to southern New Mexico architects Friday, Sept. 13, Stefanos Polyzoides slipped out of the spotlight in Las Cruces.
His influence, however, will be felt everywhere in the concepts of revitalization to be discussed during the Las Cruces Downtown Charrette Oct. 7-11 at the Community Enterprise Center, 125 N. Main St.
Architect and urbanist Polyzoides is on a mission to reverse urban sprawl, one community at a time. One of his current targets is Las Cruces, which is addressing the continuing revitalization of Downtown following the recent restoration of Main Street to twoway traffic.
Polyzoides has worked to rebuild a vital urban core in communities in Russia, China and Europe as well all over the U.S., including El Paso, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. He said there are success stories in thee areas that Las Crucens can turn to for inspiration.
“You have the advantage of being last,” he said. “Las Crucens can learn from 20 or 30 years of other cities’ efforts to revitalize their cities.”
One of the projects he described was Lancaster, Calif., in the outer suburbs of Los Angeles. He said he worked with the community, which conducted a design charrette similar to the one taking place in Las Cruces. The project that resulted created 600 new housing units and 80 new businesses.
“The power of urbanism gave these people their life back,” he said. “There were 20,000 people on the street for a Christmas party.”
A plaza for Las Cruces?
Las Cruces needs its own special place that will draw people into the heart of the city, Polyzoides said.
“I am an incredible admirer of what you did with Main Street,” he said. “This place is breathing now. It is a beautiful thing.
“Rebuilding St. Genevieve and the plaza is your highest priority now. You need a place.”
A plaza, he said, inspires pride and identity.
In a later interview, Polyzoides said he did not include Las Cruces in the book “The Plazas of New Mexico” because when he first came to the Land of Enchantment there was no plaza in Las Cruces and no evidence of the importance of the church and plaza in community life.
He said when he learned about St. Genevieve Church, he sought out images of the structure whose destruction “obliterated a significant part of the culture and identity with Downtown.”
“St. Genevieve and the plaza are image, confidence and pride builders,” he said. “We need to give young people a way to find themselves in the cities.”
The answer has a lot to do with civic pride, entertainment and a fashionable and unique place that will serve both urbanites and tourists.
In New Mexico’s plazas, which he first visited 20 years ago, Polyzoides found an historic precedent for urban living that to him continues to make sense in the current time. He linked New Mexico’s plazas to European roots, expressed throughout the Americas.
“We’re dealing with the greatest building culture, the greatest lifegiving culture in the history of the world,” he said.
In the Americas, Europeans created plazas for rituals in public spaces and built around them in “beautiful, organized repetition,” Polyzoides said.
Repetition is the essence of city building. A city is built in a grid of repeatable blocks that allows movement through space. The values it expresses include connectivity, compactness, diversity and frugality, Polyzoides said.
Creating synergy Downtown
“I think you start where there’s life and success, and that’s Main Street,” he said. “The two loop streets need to be rethought and building encouraged there. Two-way traffic needs to be restored.”
A church and plaza must be located in the heart of Downtown, he said, where it can be used as a tool of revitalization. It can be one of the elements, including retail and commercial activities, that are woven together to create synergy Downtown.
“You want people to come Downtown for a long time, to come with the idea of doing two things and end up doing five,” he said.
Lingering in town, people spend more money, which means more taxes and increase in the long-term value of property, he advocated.
“Human bodies become an advertisement for well-being,” Polyzoides said.
He encouraged Las Cruces to invest in a form that can be leveraged over time so that human beings will say, “I love this place.” In the next 10 years, he said, the focus should be on one-story buildings Downtown.
“You cannot afford to be extravagant or impractical,” he said.
But the world moves on, and first buildings will not be the same as the last, Polyzoides said, noting those first new Downtown buildings would be just the beginning.
In 1985 in Pasadena, the bulldozers were about to be called in, he said.
“If anyone had said then that Whole Foods would move in and build a 70,000-square-foot store with three floors of underground parking, they would have pulled him away in a special suit,” Polyzoides said.
The role of the public sector
City government plays an important role in executing a parking strategy that is an integral component of Downtown revitalization, Polyzoides said. Sidewalks, safe crossings and bicycle lanes are part of the planning.
“A beautiful, walkable, mixed-use environment exists because cars are incompatible,” he said. “If parking is not under control, you can never have beautiful, workable cities.”
Sprawl “denies the fact human beings are happiest in compaction,” Polyzoides said.
Following World War II, “an insane network of roads” was created and then single-use places were built that further alienated people, separating our homes, stores and offices along miles of corridors, he said.
“We literally paved paradise,” he told architects and the public when he spoke at the Rio Grande Theatre.
The urban renewal movement that sought to reverse the decline of cities only accelerated their slide into disuse.
Next steps for cities
The Athens-born Polyzoides said he would like to do a Nurembergstyle trial of urban renewal, which from 1959 to 1965 destroyed 100 U.S. cities.
Single-purpose zoning in two-thirds of the U.S. reinforces the damage by dispersing different uses so that cars are needed to reach them. Great craft, highly labor-intensive building and low technology are what’s going to get us out of the hole Las Cruces built itself into, he said.
Polyzoides carries his passion for thoughtful planning and design into urban infill projects as well as center city revitalization. In addition to inspiring a number of stakeholders who are committed to continued the rejuvenation of Downtown, Polyzoides is advising developers of the Park Ridge mixed-use community proposed for the former Las Cruces Country Club property.
Park Ridge is considered to be an urban infill project because it would recycle previously developed land for redevelopment rather than building on vacant land beyond the urban core.
It would incorporate many of the same principles Polyzoides advocates for center city revitalization, including a mix of residential and commercial structures, emphasis on public outdoor spaces designed for use by residents and visitors, walkability and sustainable design.’
Moule and Polyzoides Co-principal, 1990-present
University of Southern California associate professor of architecture, 1973-97
Bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture and planning, Princeton University
Wife and business partner Elizabeth Moule, architect
- Congress of New Urbanism, co-founder
- Form−Based Codes Institute
- National Charrette Institute
- Natural Resources Council
- U.S. Green Building Council