This article was originally written by Lee Stephens and published in the April 14-27 edition of the Cutler Bay News
During the past 10 years or so, the so called “new urbanist” planning movement has garnered a great deal of national and even international attention. In Florida, many new urbanist communities, such as Seaside, Rosemary Beach and Alys Beach, have become synonymous with sound urban planning.
Victor Dover was one of the early and most fervent proponents of the new urbanism design principles. Today, he remains quite active on the national and international stages.
Despite the best efforts of the county and several municipalities to promote and implement the new urbanist design principles in their land development regulations, local examples of new urban design communities are quite rare. We sat down with him recently to discuss his work and Dover-Kohl’s latest project, Old Cutler Village, 18551 Old Cutler Road in Cutler Bay.
Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?
Dover: I grew up in North Carolina, studied architecture at Virginia Tech, and then first started my career as an exhibition designer at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Soon, I moved to Miami with my schoolmate and future business partner, Joe Kohl, and we both ended up studying urban design at the University of Miami.
What attracted you to town planning and urban design?
Dover: Going from living in walkable, comfortable Old Town Alexandria, VA to living near Dadeland, where in the 1980s it seemed you were expected to drive everywhere and it was all unsightly, was a blunt reminder of just how much difference the built environment makes in our everyday lives. We could tell right away South Floridians deserved something better, something more practical, more beautiful. Design matters.
How long has the firm been in business?
Dover: Dover, Kohl and Partners Town Planning evolved from our first business venture in 1987, and we’re still at it. We were motivated to establish the practice by the idea that if people could better visualize change before it occurs — the essence of planning — they’d make better decisions and build better communities. For about 20 years we’ve also been lucky to work alongside James Dougherty, director of design at Dover-Kohl, and his touch is evident on the new micro-village proposed for Cutler Bay.
What is the typical project your firm works on?
Dover: We get to work on a big range of assignments, from citywide and regional plans, to revitalization strategies for historic places, to retrofitting suburbia, to new towns, to close-up urban design on small infill developments. These assignments take us all over the country and abroad. Every week, the job’s different.
What are a couple of the projects you are currently working on?
Dover: Right now we’re planning a big section of Oklahoma City, designing an eco-village for Antioch College in Ohio, writing rules for the reuse of a closed military base on Monterey Bay in California, and designing the Jupiter Inlet Village here in Florida.
What are the central tenets of “new urbanism?”
Dover: That’s a big subject, but the gist of it is this: How and where we build and rebuild determines whether the resulting town is walkable and connected and inspiring and sustainable, or not. Urbanists advocate for compact, complete, connected communities where people can get to know their neighbors, places where people love to be. The emphasis starts on creating great addresses by design, and that ends up extending into subjects like street layouts, zoning, architecture, real estate, engineering, economics and ecology.
What are some of the benefits of a mixed use community?
Dover: To start with, when a few more of life’s basic daily needs are close at hand, we don’t have to drive so much. Just a small amount of modest neighborhood-scaled commercial space and some workplaces among the residential development can dramatically shorten some car trips and even eliminate others, replacing them with walking or biking. That cuts traffic congestion, saves time, saves energy, reduces emissions, and makes life more fun.
What are you working on locally?
Dover: Over the last couple of years, we led the effort to create the “Seven50” plan for Southeast Florida. It’s both big-picture and long-term; it lays out prospects for our seven county region for the next 50 years. Lately we’ve been busy writing regulations to control the Mediterranean Village on behalf of the City of Coral Gables, and refining the Old Cutler Village plans.
Tell us about the Old Cutler Village. What is the vision for the project?
Dover: It’s a micro-village, really, on a very special site well suited for that. It will add a small dose of variety to its surroundings, and it will become a favorite stop along the Old Cutler bike trail. It is designed to have a laidback bed-and-breakfast inn, a café, some townhouses and condominiums, and a little office building, all grouped around public green squares and a nice expansion of the bike trail into a proper linear park. The architecture is inspired by the nearby Deering Estate and it will have an Old Cutler vibe.
Who is the owner/builder?
Dover: The company is called Fortune International, founded by local investor Edgardo deFortuna. He and his partners are known for very prestigious, high-quality residential developments and careful design. This time they get to show their skills with lowrise, low-key, street-oriented development.
How long have you been associated with Old Cutler Village?
Dover: We’ve studied this site off and on for nearly a decade. It’s been a worthwhile journey, and I’m glad the owners have been patient, because this last small development could make a lot of difference to the surrounding neighborhood. It will add benefits for everybody through placemaking.
Is it a good example of urban planning?
Dover: It’s very site-specific; the design grew out of a really long look at the context and from studying the town’s Old Cutler Charrette documents. It is all about adding a handful of things that will really be good neighbors. The Town of Cutler Bay will get a proud architectural entrance, and the existing sewer pump station will finally be screened from view. The development will add a gentle kind of polish to that part of the Old Cutler Road corridor and boost the surrounding property value, but without undoing the tranquility we all love about the area. We think it will be very popular with cyclists and birdwatchers, too.
Isn’t the land too small for it to work as a mixed use community?
Dover: Don’t think of it as a standalone community unto itself. It’s going to be a seamless part of the surrounding neighborhood, and will spatially tie the separated subdivisions and parks together. This part of the neighborhood will add some missing ingredients to the mix, give the existing neighbors a new place to walk. I think someday it will show up in the postcard pictures that tell what Cutler Bay is all about, not something isolated and separate.
Will the project be green certified?
Dover: Yes. Thankfully, Cutler Bay and the developers share a strong greenbuilding ethic, and that is going to be very evident in the village layout and in the architecture.
There has been a lot of discussion about the impact of the proposal on the wetlands restoration project to the east. How are you as the planner handling the interaction with the restoration project? Does the proposal affect any of the wetlands?
Dover: The whole thing is designed to protect it. It will frame the beautiful views and make those views accessible to the public, to complement the adjacent restoration area and the national park beyond. The little “birding belvedere” tower is to be made open to the public, so people can go up and look at the restoration area at treetop level, without intruding on it. Meanwhile, the development itself is tucked away from the wetlands, and its footprint is kept small, to avoid impacts on the ecosystem restoration. The engineers are carefully controlling every drop of stormwater, too, to insure the restoration area remains healthy.
As part of the design and planning process, did you meet/consult with the area’s residents? Does the proposal reflect their input?
Dover: Yes. Before we ever put pen to paper on the latest draft, we had really productive, interactive meetings with neighbors. A couple of us spent some weekends going door to door, too, interviewing neighbors one on one. We learned a lot and their ideas are in the drawings. They suggested the small restaurant, for example. Some neighbors seemed to sense immediately that one more gated enclave of cookie- cutter houses would be aiming too low, and they urged a very open, civic-minded design instead. They’re right.
What can be developed on the property today?
Dover: Current zoning would allow for about 30 or 40 single-family detached homes in a 1970s-style, suburban, cul-de-sac format, with backs of buildings up against Old Cutler Road, and no public spaces. That would be a colossal missed opportunity, in my opinion.
Why is the proposal superior to the plan that could be developed under the current zoning?
Dover: The micro-village proposal will indeed allow for a few more dwellings — about 79 total — and add in things like the 12-room bed-and-breakfast inn. But in the process, the neighborhood also will get more housing variety, deep setbacks from Old Cutler Road, and with the fronts of buildings facing the public instead of the backs. But that’s just the start. The public also will gain open parkland, places to walk along the restoration area and view it, a much better bikeway, the screening of the pump station, some trip-capturing mixed use, and many other benefits.
Do you plan to have additional meetings with the community?
Dover: Certainly, yes. The next one is Apr. 21 in the meeting room at Palmetto Bay Village Center (the former Burger King Headquarters) at 7 p.m. We’re looking forward to showing the latest drafts and answering questions.
What are the next steps in the approval process?
Dover: The crucial steps are for the Town of Cutler Bay to confirm that this vision fits within the town’s goals, expressed in their official Comprehensive Plan, and make the necessary adjustments to policies and regulations that will make it possible within strict quality controls and limits. That all will be done with ample opportunity for public comment and input, and the town’s elected leaders will be the decision-makers. Call me wonky, but it’s exciting, and historic; this kind of local control was one reason Cutler Bay citizens incorporated the town to begin with, and this project will be a symbol of the good things that came from that.