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Thursday, February 4, 2016

Counter Proposal: The Johnny Harris Site

The Johnny Harris Site
a counter proposal 
Eric S. Brown, author

A New Urban Proposal  

The current site of the Johnny Harris restaurant and surrounding properties have been proposed for a new development.  That proposed development isn't totally clear, but the general use is large format or “big box” retail along with tearing down the 1936 Johnny Harris building.  Brown Design Studio, an architectural and urban design firm, has prepared a counter proposal for this site.  

The purpose of the counter proposal is to show a better method of urban planning that is more in keeping with the nature and character of Savannah.  The hope is that this counter proposal raises the bar of discussion about how, why and where Savannah grows and what those development patterns are.  The methods used show the possibility of development patterns that are healthier, more sustainable, more walkable, more beautiful and make much better financial sense for all parties involved.  

The Typical Conventional Suburban Design Pattern: 

The current site is composed of assembled properties that included the loved 1936 Johnny Harris restaurant.  A conventional suburban style auto oriented strip mall approach to the site will yield some where around 100,000 sq.ft. of big box retail along with a conventional out parcel on Victory Drive that is typically a fast food chain.  The formula here is really just a function of how much parking can be accommodated in the most efficient format with the large “sea of parking” being the standard result.   

This type of development is out of character with this portion of the City of Savannah and belongs else where in the City or County.  While the current site is not being used to its highest and best use, the suburban approach is short sighed and destructive to the patterns of the adjacent neighborhoods.  Things like this contribute nothing to the character of a City, neighborhood or place, in fact, they often remove those things.  

The Mixed Use Urban Design Pattern:

The counter proposal response is based on three main principals that create great places; 1) Creating a Civic Public Realm, 2) Mixed Use walkability 3) Beauty.  These three things are part of what makes the City of Savannah such a special place and the premise of this proposal is that all development in the City should have the same qualities.  Communities, neighborhoods or even infill areas that have these qualities are the largest trend in real estate right now.  Cities like Atlanta are building these neighborhoods inside the City because the people or market prefer that over conventional suburban development.   

The Civic realm starts with making great streets.  Savannah has great streets so this is easy, just copy what works.  Great streets support people, bikes and cars and they do it through good design that accomplishes those three things while also allowing for Beauty, such as street trees.  Street parking is natural and is used to soak up cars that would other wise be clustered in the big sea of parking.  Typically the street pattern, a grid in this case, allows multiple ways in and out as well as easy access for emergency vehicles.  Another part of the Civic nature of streets is the activity that happens on them.  The proposed commercial buildings are close to the street, like much of downtown, that allows for window shopping and outdoor seating areas.  Lastly, the Civic realm here is shown with a small square that is in the center of the property.  This square serves as the anchor for the new neighborhood.  It is both a visual break from buildings and a place to gather and have functions.  

Mixed Use walkable neighborhoods are the hottest trend in real estate today.  The walkable aspect is important to people for living as well as working and playing.  This particular site is a great site as it actually has easy walking distance to Daffin Park, a trail system linkage and the retail area adjacent, including a Whole Foods.  People tend to not walk if the environment isn't conducive to walking so again, you have to get the design right for that to work.  One of the advantages of building walkable communities vs. conventional development is that the need for vehicular trips per day drops, thus taking away some of the additional auto traffic pressure and also lessening the needed parking requirements.  

The Mixed use portion is simply just trying to use the site to its highest and best use.  The proposal shows a wide mix of uses and building types.  First, the Johnny Harris Building itself is shown saved in it current location.  Smaller scale commercial buildings are shown in the front half of the site nearest Victory Drive.  These could be one to three story buildings, very much in keeping with the scale of most of Savannah, that have retail or commercial on the ground level and residential or office space above.  The southern portion of the site is divided into two portions.  The first shows a series of Savannah style row houses, each with a garage and private courtyard.  Garage apartments could add to new affordable housing.  The other portion of the site shows a small scale apartment complex.  The complex uses small three story buildings that engage the street with some shared parking in the rear.  

The proposal seeks to show diversity in building types but this mix can always be changed as needed.  For instance, you could replace the apartments and townhouse with large format retail of 40-50,000 sqft. and still retain most of the character shown here. My office has worked on these type of developments bringing national retailers into walkable urban places.  We have worked with Publix, Walmart and others.  There are many examples of this in Atlanta, Charleston and Charolette to name a few.  Many national retailers actually are actually seeking these types of developments and have developed prototypes that are smaller and plug in to this urban grid format.  

How to make this Beautiful too?  Building Beauty comes from design and proportion which doesn't have to always cost more, in fact, many times it actually is cheaper if done right.  This proposal shows timeless Beauty in the form of great streets that are proportioned in the proper scale with the buildings that frame them.  The landscape is Beauty as it saves the larger oaks on the property and then adds new urban landscape that will get better over time, just like downtown has done.  The buildings are Beautiful not because they use expensive materials but because they are well proportioned, relate to human scale and use authentic Savannah materials.  The roof lines and scale are the composition tools taken from 300 years of Savannah building fabric. 


The Johnny Harris site is part of the core portion of the City of Savannah, just inside the Truman Parkway.  It is along one of the City’s main streets, beautiful Victory Drive.  It is adjacent to an established neighborhood with a clear urban grid and pattern of development.  The site should be designed just as the rest of the City of Savannah was designed pre-1940.  Building additional suburban sprawl with in the fabric of the City just doesn't make any sense.  Build suburban in the suburbs but build for people in the City.  

This counter proposal shows how to accommodate a better mix of uses, people and places than a singular auto oriented use.  It shows how to incorporate the urban patterns of Savannah into new development and it shows how to grow the City of Savannah with out letting it become suburban Atlanta as it does so.  All of the things show have been accomplished in many many places across the county so nothing presented here is groundbreaking on a national level. 

The financial impart of this is interesting.  A conventional approach yields investment around $10M for this property.  That approach brings a few dozen low paying jobs, high traffic and sales tax on the retail.  The counter proposal brings about $16-18M of investment for the property.  That yields higher property tax base, a similar amount of low paying jobs, less amount of traffic and adds new housing units of all price ranges.  Those new residences pay income taxes as well. Letting this prime site, in a core part of the City, be used for single use suburban retail is short sighted financially, the mixed use complex is a higher an better use by any measure of financials. 

Saving the Johnny Harris Building would be a great thing for Savannah.  The cultural impact of the building and the restaurant over the last 75+ years has been remarkable to learn about.  This proposal does save that building and lets it connect to the rest of the development in a meaningful way.  The building could continue as a restaurant or it could be part of something else like a park pavilion or another private use.  Whether the building stays or not, however, the key point to take away from this counter proposal would be that the building could easily be accommodated because of the finer grain approach to design, the street network and the scale of the new buildings.  

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Over-Under Duplex

The Over Under Duplex
a unit typology review
Eric S. Brown, author

Kielbasa, a Cleveland favorite
What is a Cleveland Double? 

What is a Cleveland Double?  No, it’s not a double kielbasa sandwich, it is the Cleveland Double House.  This is a unique housing type that is prevalent in industrial era cities especially those along the Great Lakes and is also know as an Over-Under duplex or a two flat house.  

These over under duplexes were typically built in the heart of the industrial expansion era 1890-1920. Many were built as speculative houses in the expanding 1st tier street car suburbs.  In many cases, a family bought the unit and then rented the lower floor to either family members or to renters to help with the mortgage cost.  Most were wood frame with possibly some brick veneer and could be found in alley conditions or park behind front load streets.  

In other cities, especially the south, this type became the single family house that was converted to a double (or more) later.  The Charleston Side house makes a great Over Under duplex as do the more formal Mansion house form.  

This type is still a very valid part of the “missing middle” class of non-single family housing types.  It can be used along side the more common side by side duplex as both types live differently and have different architectural characters. 

A Cleveland Double, Cleveland Heights, OH.

Advantages of the Over Under: 
  • Flat living arrangement all on a single level.  This is what many people prefer as a lifestyle choice.  This arrangement also provides for typically a more modern open efficient floor plan. 
  • Efficient: This type is a little more efficient than the side-side duplex as the building has one stair vs. two and also that the unit plans stack over each other in what is typically a basic box form. 
  • Privacy: The over-under split allows each unit to have a private porch space front and/or rear with the only crossing occurring at the front door zone. A side-side has trouble with adjacent porches being next to each other along with being much more narrow in width. 
  • Building Code: These fall under the International Residential Code for 1 and 2 family dwelling units, avoiding the more complex (and expensive) Commercial code that the small apartments fall into.  Also avoids the FHA for rental units.
  • Rental Property:  These are great starter houses for young people getting started who have rental income if they buy the whole unit and live upstairs or this can be packaged off to a small investor as a rental unit. 
  • Multi-Generational:  A family can take the entire property and put an aging parent or sibling downstairs or any combination of family patterns that are so common now.  The unit is flexible and can also be rented. 
  • Ownership Flexibility:  These units can be sold fee simple or can be done with a condominium arrangement. 
  • Elevators:  It is easy to put in a residential elevator or at least reserve the space for one which allows the older market to feel comfortable buying the units. 
  • HVAC:  Simple single zone system with a single return. 
Mansion Form Duplex, Brown Design Studio

Challenges of the Over Under: 
  • Sound Control:  Always a problem in any type of multi-family, sound control is important.  Care must be taken to design the proper floor system which is the sound control barrier (and fire barrier as well).  Well designed units will be able to have hardwood floors if desired even.  Care must also be taken during construction for sound control of all areas that penetrate the system, such as plumbing and vent stacks.  This is the main source of sound control issues. 

30' Small Form Duplex, Brown Design Studio

Where to use the Over Under: 
  • These work best in the T-3 to T-4 transect zone and blend in well with the typical single family street scape in scale, form and mass. 
  • Great infill units in most  cities. 
  • In greenfield development, typical units make great transitional streets from a single family neighbor hood to the the town center or multifamily blocks. 
  • Lots sizes generally run 40‘x100’ to 65‘x100’ for larger Mansion form units. 

We have designed and built these units for last ten plus years and have found them to be accepted well in the market with a modern update to the design of course.  These can be smaller units that function as great starter homes for a young person or family that helps cover the mortgage or we have also built larger high end market homes that are popular with the older retired crowd or retired singles.  

While the top image is a Cleveland Double in Cleveland Heights, the other images are some of our built units and a new design for a small lot infill project (in Cleveland of course).  Brown Design Studio offers 17 years of experience building great places and the buildings that are the fabric of those places.  Duplex and other unit types plans can be found at our website or contacting us directly.

A Mansion Form Duplex Street, Brown Design Studio

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Coastal Living Inspired Tour Home opens:

Our Coastal Living Inspired home tour kicks off this weekend, May 15 in the award winning Habersham Village in Beaufort, South Carolina.  The Tour is open on weekends, from May 15 to June 7th.  Directions and additional information can be found at  

The cottage is located in the walkable town center of Habersham, close to parks, restaurants and great events.  The lot shown here 36' wide and is alley parked.  The cottage itself is 1828 sq.ft. with a master suite on the 1st level, a great entry hall, high 12' ceilings and of course, a great front porch.  Up stairs, there are a pair of bedrooms, each with a large private bath.  The home also includes a great out door courtyard and optional garage or garden shed.  

The plan shown is 15 Abbey Row and additional lots are available in Habersham for building the plan along with a similar sized master up plan under construction next door.  Additional information on the Habersham home can be found at and plan details can also be viewed at

Project Team: 
Brown Design Studio: architecture, millwork
Jbanks Design:  Interior hard selections. 
Anne Hagerty Interiors: Furnishings.  

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Award Recognition for Brown Design Studio

CNU Charter and Driehaus Awards

Brown Design has received recognition for two awards at the recent Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in Dallas, Texas.  Both awards stem from the same project, the Beaufort County Community Development Code. The project received the CNU Charter merit award and the Driehaus Form Based Code Award from the Form Based Code Institute (FBCI).

Congratulations go out to the lead planning firm of Opticos from Berkley, California.  Opticos Principal  Stefan Pellegrini lead the planning/design team and process along with staff from Beaufort County Planning and the Town of Port Royal.  Brown Design was able to assist Opticos in architectural design and local calibration of the code.  

The code is notable for being in a large county with a full rural to urban transect and also unique local conditions.  Additionally, the code was an inter-governmental coordinated effort between Beaufort County and the Town of Port Royal.  The planning design team participated with the local community over the course of many charrettes, workshops and meetings and the code responded with a  set of place-types and transect zones that capture the uniqueness of the Carolina Lowcountry.  

Copyright all images @ Opticos. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Book Review: Why I Walk: Taking a Step in the Right Direction by Kevin Klinkenberg 2014.

Book Review:  Why I Walk; Taking a Step in the Right Direction by Kevin Klinkenberg 2014.  

Why I Walk is a recent book by Kevin Klinkenberg.  Kevin is an urbanist, architect and planner who has been helping to create vibrant walkable places.  In his book, Kevin compares walking as a primary lifestyle to choosing to live a more automobile oriented lifestyle.  This is a great approach as the idea of choosing to live in a walkable environment is still foreign to some people.  

Kevin thoughtfully explains the many reasons for choosing a walkable lifestyle: Financial, Freedom, Health and Social. These show how freeing yourself from the daily need of a car can improve your lifestyle in ways you may not have expected.  People are so used to sitting in heavy traffic for 60 minutes each day that they forget that they have a choice and that there are alternatives.  What if you walked 7500 steps a day just going to work?  Your body would be in much better shape even before you hit the gym after work.  What if you put a car payment into a great house in a great neighborhood and rode a bike to work?  

Kevin helps the reader to imagine things differently from the old school, post World War 2 suburban dream, which has grown into something more resembling a nightmare in many places.  The millennial generation is the first to see a decline in automobile ownership. They are choosing instead to live in walkable urban places. And it's not just the young who prefer this approach. One of the hottest trends in senior care is creating or integrating with walkable urban neighborhoods for new projects.  Seniors generally cite freedom and social engagement as the leading characteristics that appeal to them in urban projects, just as Kevin describes.

The overall tone of the book is one of a humanistic explanation of why you would want to walk and how that will affect your life.  Kevin relies on both facts and figures and creative anecdotes from his own life and fairly addresses the challenges of walking (like rain!).  

Having just made the choice last year to relocate our office and myself into the core of historic Savannah, I can relate on a personal level to Kevin’s book.  Why I Walk is spot on in showing how a predominantly walking lifestyle can change the very nature of your life for the better.  I highly recommend this book to everyone, but especially to people who are designing or planning walkable communities, but who do not adopt that lifestyle and experience the benefits themselves.  Why I Walk is a great addition to everyone’s library. Also, check out Kevin’s website and blog, which is full of good stuff, at 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Announcing our Residential Plan Collection

Announcing the release of our Residential Plan Collection: 

Brown Design Studio has put together a collection of single family house plans that our Studio has produced over the last 16 years.  These plans are the result of our Studio working to create great traditional neighborhoods, communities and places across the country.  We are pleased to announce that we are making this collection of homes available for purchase as pre-designed home plan sets for the first time.  They may be viewed at or via our main website at 

Our plans are focused on fitting into a traditional neighborhood context, whether a New Urbanist development or historic / urban infill.  The exteriors are based on traditional proportions and detailing.  Most of the plans are designed to fit on more narrow alley fed lots with parking in the rear.  These can be used on larger lots and they often will rotate on a larger lot or form more of a compound arrangement.  

The core design intent of these plans are to bring great timeless proportion and scale to the home.   This proportion is evident in the pleasing exterior elevations but also in the scale of the interior rooms, something most plans miss.  While each plan is unique, most do focus on a more modern open floor plan that is flexible.  We also strive for flexibility in offering spaces that can be converted or used in different ways.   A flex room that might be used as guest room or study or even a dining room as a great example.  Many of these plans do either offer floor plan options or can be easily modified.  

The traditional nature of our practice of architecture means that these plans, and particularly the exterior design, will reflect the climate and location that they were originally designed for.  Most of the elevation reflect a more southern or south-east vernacular style.  Many of the plans have alternate elevations available, brick versus a lap siding for example.  If you like a floor plan but the elevations seems off for your area, please check with us about design options for that plan.  We’ve built these all over the US and can adapt many of the plans to many areas of the country.

The interiors are such a large part of the enjoyment and experience of a home.  We have also designed a specific interior package for each of these plans that may be added to the base set of plans.  This allows us to fully integrate the traditional design them in the home and helps us to take the interior rooms to a next level.  The typical set of interior plans add all the interior trim and millwork details, ceiling details and helps to set up for an easy set of selections to finish off the home.  

Our Studio enjoys producing great traditional design work and we are pleased to offer this collection of plans. We also offer limited custom design residential work in most areas of the country.  Additionally, these set of plans do also serve as a great starting point for a semi-custom or modified home.    Lastly, we do consulting and product development work with a wide range of builders/developers, from small single home builders to full production builders.  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Book Review: "City Planning According to Artistic Principles"

This is another book review for a must-have classic.  City Planning According to Artistic Principles is an amazing read and is one of our office’s core design books.  If you have any interest in urban design or city planning, then you not only need this book, but, more importantly, you need to know Camillo Sitte.  

Sitte was a nineteenth century Austrian city planner who struggled with modern planning methods in his own city of Vienna, most of which were more utilitarian-based approaches (sound familiar?)  In response, Sitte turned to ancient and medieval urbanism for inspiration in planning.  The book is full of his sketches on observations illustrating his points and theories.  They alone offer enough reason enough to purchase this book.

One of the major points of design theory is that the urban space is much more important than the urban form.  Modern architects are especially guilty about this point. Sitte asserts that the urban space should be designed as an urban “room” and that this includes the importance of height & spatial closure. 

The other major point is to design urban spaces as “picturesque” experiences.  That is, to design the space or street as a series of experiences for the person using the space or street.  This was a much different approach than that of Sitte’s peers, and still quite different from typical planning methods employed today.

Sitte’s book advocates for the consideration of design and beauty in the city planning process.  He also urges the designer to consider how people will experience and view the spaces they are working on.  This work has given us great insight into how to design urban spaces and we recommend everyone own this book if it is not already a part of your library.