Michael Dieden: Building With Transit

Michael Dieden: Building With Transit

Thanks to his far-reaching reassessment of California’s real estate industry, Michael Dieden is one of the state’s more progressive developers. Dieden started his career as an aide on Jerry Brown’s first successful gubernatorial campaign in 1974, and almost forty years later his work remains very much connected to the public realm. Dieden and his company, Creative Housing Associates (CHA), aim to improve neighborhoods through transit-oriented developments (TODs). The firm’s Mission Meridian Village in South Pasadena – designed by Moule & Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists – is considered a model for revitalizing communities and integrating mass transit with architecture, and Dieden is currently pursuing a TOD in Santa Rosa, California. This fall Dieden chaired a panel at the Railvolution conference in Portland called “From Freeways to Boulevards,” which focused on removing downtown freeways and replacing them with welcoming boulevards.


The Architect’s Newspaper: You describe Creative Housing Associates as a “town builder” and not a developer.

Prior to World War II, most communities had a “town builder.” That person didn’t create the demand, he satisfied it, and building was financed by a local bank. Now with Wall Street financing, real estate is a commodity. You can see how that helped cause the economic collapse we’re all suffering. The key is to “reset,” as Richard Florida says in his recent book. The Millenial generation has no interest in the traditional notion of the single-family home. Their domicile is a shelter conceived in multi-family configurations, next to transit, not tied to autos, with social time spent out in cafés rather than inside large homes. We can’t afford the Joel Kotkin model of living, as he describes the San Fernando Valley. Ironically, he lives in Studio City and The Valley has become quite densified and urbanized. It is much-improved by the Orange Line and Metro Rail. Now we just need to tear down the 101 freeway and allow the Valley to return to its bucolic history. I’m not being cavalier about transportation needs. I know we can’t do things overnight: Trucks still have to move from city to city, for example. But they’ll have to go around the more human-scaled neighborhoods.

Financing for these catalytic developments is very difficult. We can’t borrow money from the banks, which are shell-shocked and require very onerous underwriting requirements. Our project in Santa Rosa received about $4 million in federal stimulus funds and $11 million in Proposition 1C state funds. Thank goodness for public financing and the Obama administration or this TOD would be dead.

How does this situation relate to the political and social environment?

The population is very frightened; you see that in polling data. People have lost faith in their government’s ability to protect them. This comes up when you propose a TOD: People are very skeptical, in part because of all the problems the older generation foisted on them. At CHA, we establish trust first and then introduce what might be possible in terms of new buildings. For Mission Meridian Village, I spent the first two months walking door to door, asking neighbors what they wanted, and not telling them how great my ideas were. When it comes to issues of NIMBYism, there are good and bad approaches. The bad comes from developers who hire slick community-relations teams to game the system to jam the development approvals through. The better approach is the charette, inviting the community to have a seat at the table, so they are empowered. It’s a much more healthy process and outcome.

To what degree was the collapse of the sprawl housing market responsible for this recession?

China, because it is such a large depositor in America’s banks, decided it needed to hedge its investments. It pushed Wall Street to invent instruments to invest hundreds of billions more dollars. Wall Street came up with the subprime mortgages and other risky financial instruments. In order to satisfy the demand for the huge increase in mortgages, Wall Street then had to fund sprawl developers. That’s largely why you saw such growth in places like Riverside, Vegas, and Phoenix. They had the money, sold the houses, packaged and sold the mortgages as securities. And this house of cards collapsed upon everyone including the homebuilding industry. Now look at the devastation to our culture and society. It’s a vicious cycle of the merchant builders, Wall Street and freeway construction: They are all complicit in perpetuating the 1950s suburban American dream. One can only hope that the BP oil fiasco in the Gulf will be the final nail in the coffin.

You’ve long proposed turning freeways into boulevards, as was done with the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Why exactly do you advocate tearing down the arteries in America’s downtowns?

Look at the positive impact that could come from demolishing the 10 Freeway in Los Angeles. It’s important in a whole host of both symbolic and real socio/environmental ways. For one, the 10 has segregated LA for half a century, to the point where people say, “Oh, my God, you go south of the 10?” Two, this freeway saps street vitality from the major arterials – Venice, Washington, Pico and Olympic Boulevards. Let’s reverse that by removing cars and starting from scratch with pedestrian-friendly principles, maybe even running a trolley down it. The arterials could become what Wilshire Boulevard was supposed to be: the grand boulevards of Los Angeles.

Architect Stefanos Polyzoides has described you as a “guerilla developer.”

I don’t necessarily endorse that term, but the idea is that the ideal developer, when engaging a new opportunity, blends in with the indigenous population like a guerilla fighter. You take the time to understand them, to learn their neighborhood history, and to think about where you might take it in a modern application. Most real estate is product-driven, with one of handful of uses: condos, strip centers, or housing tracts. This is why almost all new development resembles pasteurized cheese. Instead, we need to return to the concept of building beauty. When you visit a historic community such as San Juan Capistrano, where I recently participated in an urban-design charrette, the setting can be absolutely magical. But usually, when you are in a mall today, there is discomfort. The difference that comes from building to the human scale is felt on a primal level. Buildings should be designed for the human, not the ego, and not simply for the use.

Describe your opposition to single-use, one-off projects, and your desire for transit-oriented districts.

When we’re invited into a city, we look at it through a broader vision, where it’s not just the site itself but what’s surrounding it and what makes it cohesive. In a well-designed transit-oriented district, all the components are integrated, from street lighting to building heights with varied density. In a transformative process, the district assumes a sense of arrival. The train station is like the foyer to the community. It should offer a sense of excitement. From there you can go out a half-mile radius into a neighborhood where people can give up a car, where schools and open space are nearby. People will see we really don’t need these freeways anymore, and they can live without having to own a car.

Sustainability has become a prime design consideration. Most architects now believe it’s not good design if it’s not sustainable design. But how real is the sustainability movement? If it’s really about protecting people and the planet, shouldn’t there be corrallary for social justice? That is: It’s not good design if it’s not socially responsible design?

Much of the “green” fad really has nothing to do with significant sustainability. Sustainably has become a demand from the Millennials as well, but with a deeper dimension: To take the ego out of architecture and build practical, well-designed, human-scaled buildings. Their lifestyle is completely different from what sprawl product delivers. You will now see a socially responsible sustainability; one driven by real demand. People are living in smaller and more intimate spaces. My own family of three, plus dog, live in a 1,600-square-foot house.

Many developers are answering the call – especially in this down market –with affordable housing, some of which is quite good. You’ll see more and more compact development, especially with new transit coming in. That’s happening all over: It is the marriage of builders recognizing the demands of the millennials with their own sense of social responsibility.