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Architect Behind Reynoldstown Church Redo Talks Design

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Local architecture firm Kronberg Wall made a splash this year when they opened their new studio space inside a former Reynoldstown church. Eric Kronberg, one of the two founding principals of the practice and a graduate of the Tulane University School of Architecture in New Orleans, had his first experience with Atlanta during the 1996 Olympics. Enamored, he returned to "spend some quality time in Virginia-Highland and Little Five Points in 1997," before making the jump to full-time Atlantan in 1998. He's worked here as an architect ever since. Kronberg joins us for this week's edition of Field Note Fridays to talk adaptive-reuse, planning and his experience as an architect in a rapidly changing landscape.

Curbed Atlanta: One of your ambitions is to "create better cities." Can you explain that concept a bit and how Atlanta is doing with that?

Eric Kronberg: Creating better cities sounds a bit ambitious. We start by really considering how a building relates to the street and sidewalk, and by extension, how it fits into the surrounding neighborhood. We look at how our project can engage the surrounding community to provide value to both its surroundings and our client. We prefer to work in transitioning and less "finished" neighborhoods where there can be more of a positive knock-on effect from our work.

Our mission is to help these neighborhoods become more enjoyable and livable, providing an option for more pleasurable and ecologically efficient environments than one typically finds in the suburbs. Kaid Benfield's book People Habitat provides a really accessible set of essays on these issues. One of Benfield's great statistics that resonated with me is that it is more ecologically beneficial to live in a crappy old house, drive a crappy old car, and live intown than to live in an LEED Platinum house in the burbs and drive in to work in a Prius. The overall energy consumption for the intown person is much lower. From a regional perspective, we need to find a way to get people living smarter and closer (to) town. Not everyone will make this choice, but we want to help make intown neighborhoods as attractive a choice as possible.

CURBED: What makes a complete community and how do you think architects can help bring them about in Atlanta?

EK: I'd suspect a complete community is one where all your needs are met within it, including employment. We always see the employment piece as one of the hardest though. Walkable communities tend to be in high demand, which drives up prices. The likelihood that you are going to be able to serve coffee and make enough to live in an intown, walkable community is low. This can be tackled by looking at wider housing options to provide more efficient, lower-cost living options besides single family houses or 300 unit apartment complexes. (Here's a site with a great explanation of this concept of missing middle housing.)

Finding employment within the community also requires looking at repurposing a range of older building stock for office space so that creative firms can choose to locate their headquarters closer to where their employees live. We see the east side of town as particularly lacking in creative office space. One of our many missions is to push our clients to consider doing projects in these areas to address this shortfall.

On the role of architects, the first step is to get them to understand it's not all about the buildings. So many components matter in an urban environment/ecosystem, and land use and transportation policy have an outsized effect on the system, which makes it hard for a single project to have a large effect. It's also critical to understand how transportation options (or lack thereof) directly tie to parking, which encourages automobile usage. Providing abundant parking significantly increases the cost of development and results in less walkability. Congregating uses together — like locating offices and shops directly adjacent or close to housing — is a critical component to walkability, reducing the need to get in a car every time you need some eggs or a gallon of milk.

All this comes back to neighborhood organization: locating elements in a way that provides mobility options that decrease the need for large amounts of off-street parking. This is one of my areas of big concern, and we've put up several blog posts here, here, here and here going into much further detail about the subject.

CURBED: How can the city improve the aspects of their realm of influence on design, both politically (zoning) and practically, in order to foster the creation of better neighborhoods?

EK: Top-down solutions that increase requirements are generally problematic, and often result in a disconnected series of megaprojects that rarely deliver on their lofty promises. Our zoning ordinance is the biggest top-down requirement driving things in our city right now, and it is a half-step away from being truly awful. It's a long, drawn-out collection of good intentions that typically produces really bad outcomes. At least we can take comfort in the fact that most major cities adopted equally bad zoning ordinances at about the same time, the early 1980s.

We see the world as highly competitive, with cities trying to become most attractive for talent and growth. We are grateful for all these millennial whippersnappers demanding great urbanism and walkability. The race for cities for the next few decades will be to create the best places to attract this talent. Cities that recalibrate their zoning ordinances to facilitate this will win this talent competition, and end up with amazing places to boot.

Zoning is complicated, and it's counter-intuitive. It's challenging to get people to understand that what they are asking for typically makes a perceived problem worse, not better. Getting concerned citizens involved in a meaningful conversation about solutions is critical. If you care about your community and are hoping to understand how to make it better, read Kaid's book. Read Charle Montgomery's Happy City. Read Jeff Speck's Walkable City. None of these are written for architects. They are written for concerned citizens that love their neighborhoods and cities.

And support Tim Keane. He gets it, and is working hard to build support to change permitting and zoning to facilitate better development and communities in our city. He also clearly understands that parking is politics, and most people react from a position of fear on these issues. Engaging and educating the public is critical to work past misperceptions. We also have to give a shout out to the Georgia Conservancy for all their efforts with their Good Urbanism 101 program. They have been in the trenches for years teaching folks the ins and outs of what makes healthy planning and better projects.

CURBED: You have been a big proponent of adaptive-reuse in practice and many of your projects in the city have given new life to old spaces. Do you see this trend continuing in Atlanta and if so, why is it so successful?

EK: We hope the trend continues, because this is what we specialize in. There is much lofty rhetoric about people gravitating towards more authentic experiences today as a reaction to a disconnected, virtual world. Places that display history, time, and wear speak to this perceived authenticity. Or you could take our approach and just say old buildings are freaking cool and worth saving.

You think old buildings are important, and that they should be saved because it is some moral obligation? Great. The way you save old buildings is to find economically viable uses for them. Period. Providing ways to reduce the cost of compliance to current new building codes and parking codes are the most effective way to reduce costs, greatly expanding the possibilities of putting these buildings back in service. Historic tax credits help a lot, too.

Further, there are fundamental economic challenges when you focus on the shiny and new (most of Atlanta). Interesting businesses, restaurants, and startups need cheap rent to experiment, fail, re-experiment, and hopefully succeed. It is impossible to have cheap rent in a new mixed-use development (without significant subsidies). The same goes for housing. You can't build something new (and require a three-story parking deck) and expect to have rents under $1000 a month.

I'm not saying that all our projects at KW are naturally affordable, but we are a sucker for helping out a cool business that is going to give back to the community. Cool uses in cheap space, in cool old buildings. This is a formula that is hard to screw up. But there are several reasons why it doesn't happen nearly enough in Atlanta.

There are currently a significant amount of unnecessary hurdles to saving old buildings in Atlanta that most people aren't even aware of. Adopting the Existing Building Code is a simple first step. We wrote an entire blog post about how important we think this code is to the future of a place like Atlanta here.

Most things in redevelopment in Atlanta come back to parking. Old buildings don't have the land area to create the parking required in current zoning ordinances. Reducing or eliminating parking requirements for buildings older than a certain date, say 50 years, and/or within a certain distance of transit is a critical zoning tweak needed to make Atlanta a richer, more walkable, more authentic, more lovable place.

CURBED: Kronberg Wall transformed an old church into a studio space. What were some of the challenges with converting an old building to a new use, what did you learn in the process and how do you feel you can apply those lessons in practice down the road?

EK: It's important to have a high tolerance for brain damage and have a really good architect. Negotiate a really long due diligence period in your purchase contract so you can work through as many issues as possible before you close. Think long and hard if you think it's appropriate to pursue historic tax credits and LEED certification like we did. I'm really talking about setting expectations. If you prepare to climb a tall mountain and it turns out to be a moderate hill, then you are ecstatic. If you prepare for a small hill and find out it is a mountain, you tend to get screwed.

Have a support network. Some folks from CNU (Congress for the New Urbanism) have founded a Small/Builder Developer support group to help folks share experiences and reduce the individual brain damage. The Facebook page is the community location for discussion. In October we helped sponsor a bootcamp with this group, the local Atlanta CNU Chapter and the Georgia Conservancy that was about building capacity and sharing experiences.

CURBED: And now that you're settled in, how are you liking it?

EK: Loving it. It's a bit of a shock and transition shifting from a bootstrap mentality to showing up in a beautiful space every day. We are also a few blocks from Homegrown, Carroll Street, Krog Street Market and Spice to Table, to name a few of our favorite lunch spots. This necessitates bike-riding to work and to lunch in order to enjoy more than a salad.

I get to ride my bike the mile and a half to work most days. My commute is a truly pleasant experience, biking under the tree-lined streets through Reynoldstown. Charles Montgomery talks about the massive stress increasers and negative health effects of long auto commutes. My commute contributes directly to my health, well-being and lunch options. As a shameless plug, we also have a 2,000 SF office space for lease on the first floor.

CURBED: As the core of the city grows and densifies, and as development continues around the Beltline and other urban amenities, how do you think Atlanta will grow and change?

EK: I think we have the possibility to have a lot of great neighborhoods. The bigger question to me is if we can fill in the pieces of the broken gaps, and spread out places in between. Can we be more than Drive-To Urbanism. ARC has also been talking about the possibility of 400,000+ new residents coming to the City of Atlanta over the next 20 to 25 years. That's basically doubling the size of our population in the city limits. This is a very interesting prospect. My job is to look all over and visualize how to repurpose things. I see so many opportunities everywhere I look.

One of the big hurdles is getting over the parking hump. We have to rethink current requirements for significant resources dedicated to car storage. We don't see Uber, Lyft, and self-driving cars as flash-in-the-pan. We expect these services will allow transport to be a service that no longer requires the ownership of a car. Cities that decouple parking requirements from zoning will thrive and excel much faster than those that don't. We are still on the leading edge of this transition, but Fayetteville, Arkansas just eliminated their requirements. Buffalo, New York is considering it. North Miami Beach just made some interesting parking reductions as part of a zoning overhaul. Tim Keane gets these concepts. The huge question is, "Will there be enough grassroots support for progressive modifications to our zoning and building codes to encourage Atlanta's continued greatness?" I strongly believe that modifying our parking requirements will have a massively more beneficial impact on our city than establishing top-down review boards, say for the Beltline perhaps…

CURBED: Finally, what are some of your favorite architectural spaces in the city?

EK: From a pure design standpoint, the piazza at the High is a wonderful space to sit and let our daughters run around like crazy. Always the Fox Theater as a building. In terms of urban streetscape, Carroll Street in Cabbagetown should be held as a model for a great, walkable place. It breaks every code and zoning rule on the books, and is truly wonderful. Making streets like that legal would be a huge step forward for our city.

I would challenge you and readers to ask a modified version of this question: What places in the city do you most love? There are a lot of great places and things about Atlanta, but what places carve such a deep resonance in your memory that you will carry them for years and years? For me, there really aren't that many places in Atlanta that stand out to this depth. I think part of it is the shortage of interesting, old buildings and places. I'd love to see this upset some folks so they can write in some comments about truly great, lovable places in town. We do half our work in New Orleans, and I can rattle off a dozen places from there on a moments notice that meet this benchmark. I spend a significant amount of brain cells deconstructing the workings of New Orleans to inform how to approach opportunities here in Atlanta. We won't ever be New Orleans, but there is so much to learn and apply to make our city both great and lovable.

· Field Note Fridays coverage [Curbed Atlanta]
· Kronberg Wall coverage [Curbed Atlanta]