By Robert Nieminen BR>The city of North Charleston is undergoing a sustainable urban redevelopment on a scale never attempted before. Guided by a meticulous and ambitious mater plan, John L. Knott Jr. has a vision to turn the Noisette Project into a model for the "New American City.""Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing consistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty."
-Daniel H. Burnham, legendary Chicago city planner
Take one look at the 10-chapter, 135-page Noisette Community Master Plan, and you get the distinct impression that its authors took Burnham's words quite literally. Indeed, the firms comprising the master planning team are some of the building industry's heaviest hitters—Burt Hill Kosar Rittleman of Washington, DC; BNIM Architects, Kansas City, MO; Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, PA; Rolf Sauer Associates, Philadelphia, PA; and Applied Ecological Concepts of Wisconsin. But what's more impressive than the plan's scope or its authors, however, is the fact that the 3,000-acre redevelopment effort under way with the city of North Charleston, SC, is a community partnership guided by sustainable principles to develop an environmentally conscious, socially just city for the 21st century. In order to fully appreciate the breadth of the Noisette Project, consider some of the statistics: Within the redevelopment of 3,000 acres of the city of North Charleston and 380 acres of the former Charleston Naval Complex, the plan calls for the creation of an urban center with a three-quarter-mile Cooper Riverfront Park, along with a 200-plus-acre tidal creek preserve surrounding a restored Noisette Creek on the former base, now home to The Noisette Company, LLC headquarters; and the construction of 4,000-plus housing units, about 5,000-plus rehabilitated housing units, and up to five million square feet of retail, industrial and commercial space. A number of non-profit educational initiatives also are planned, along with two major museums, a performing arts complex and a visual arts center.Behind it all is John L. Knott Jr., a third-generation developer from Baltimore with a passion for sustainable development that is not just obvious—it's contagious. As president and CEO of The Noisette Company, Knott is well-known as one of the nation's leading sustainable developers—a fact that seemed to have eluded him until about a decade ago."I was told by Rocky Mountain Institute that I was one of the three leading sustainable developers in the country—and I asked them what that meant. I did not know the term," Knott admits rather matter-of-factly. He attributes his almost inherent approach to sustainable development as a result of the culture of responsible building his father and grandfather taught him through the family business that was founded in 1908, a time Knott says was more conducive to healthy building."This was an era when design and building were one, where you didn't have mass marketing systems; the materials used were indigenous to the climate itself, which meant they were durable. You designed buildings that were responsive to the climate because that's the only way you could build them. Otherwise, your buildings wouldn't last and they wouldn't be very comfortable for people. Because we didn't have the technology to condition buildings and build them without regard to climate."With this sort of preconditioning, it's no wonder Knott has such a practical view of sustainable design and development. "A lot of what sustainable design is about is pretty common-sense," he explains. "It's solar orientation; it's knowing that shutters on an architectural ornamentation have a function—we call it stack effect today. We were embedded with a kind of intuitive way to build that was not caught up in what we started doing in, say, the 40s or 50s. I think we have a pretty good grounding in that."Clearly, it is this grounding—and a reputation for being a socially and environmentally responsible developer—that brought him to North Charleston. So when Kurt Taylor, a city councilman who owns a home in the Olde North Charleston district, spoke with his brother-in-law, Andy Gowder, a lawyer who told him about one of his clients (Knott), Taylor suggested that Knott visit his neighborhood and consider its redevelopment. According to Knott, being invited into a community isn't out of the ordinary—in fact, it's standard procedure for The Noisette Company."Probably for the last 10 or 20 years, we have been sought out," he explains. "We're invited to places. We pretty much have a policy that we don't go places unless we're asked; we're not really interested in being a developer fighting our way into the community. We'd rather be asked into the community."Appropriately, Knott was recently invited by Interiors & Sources to talk about his efforts to revitalize North Charleston, and his vision for the New American City.
I&S: When did the concept of sustainability really take hold for you?John l. Knott Jr: I think the biggest changes for me were looking at what new development was doing to land, and what I discovered when I personally started getting into it—I realized it wasn't just a builder problem, but a huge regulatory problem. Just to try and maintain topography, to maintain your tree stands, it was like you were climbing Mount Everest, because every regulation you ran into basically required you to tear the land apart.The big new thing for me was the sole issue of toxicity, whether it was toxicity to human health or toxicity to natural system health. Our family has always taught us you're not in the building business; you're in the human habitat business. You're building shelter for people to serve their needs. We were always taught in that way, so it kind of drives our thinking. Once you start to discover the materials you're using and the way your buildings are being required to be put together by your codes—and as we responded to the energy crisis, we started tightening up buildings, and we started getting indoor air quality problems and sick building syndrome—you start realizing that you're having a huge impact on people's health, particularly children's health. So if you know you're in the human habitat business and you're in the environment business, and you find out that what you do has the potential to recall some really serious physical problems for those you serve, then you don't have a whole lot of choice but to figure out how to change.I&S: What factors do you consider when examining a development or redevelopment site? Why did you choose North Charleston for the Noisette Project? THE NOISETTE PROJECT MASTER PLAN: A SnapshotThe Noisette Community Master Plan
begins with a vision for the New American City; a vibrant, healthy city that embraces its heritage and celebrates its role as a community, ecosystem and marketplace.To achieve this vision, the Master Plan makes specific recommendations and establishes guidelines to create elements of this New American City:A Regenerative Land Use plan to create a mixed-use development pattern, promoting a live/work/play environment, revitalizing key portions of the city and selectively increasing urban density throughout the United States.Plans for Restoring Natural Systems at Noisette so that they remain integral to the functions and aesthetics of the Noisette community, while linking the roles of individual citizens, neighborhoods and community as a whole in assuming the role of steward of the environment.
Plans for Restoring Connections of the community through sustainable infrastructure improvements, including, but not limited to, transportation systems, open urban spaces and utility systems.
Implementation of the Master Plan based on the concepts of Neighborhoods as Catalysts for Change—each neighborhood should have a vital center, support a mixture of uses, encourage pedestrian-and-bicycle- oriented transportation, and have its own character and beauty.
Creation of a new community, the River Center at Noisette, by utilizing a major portion of the former Charleston Navy Base as a new, vibrant, mixed-use urban center.
Recommendations for Project Phasing over the next 15 years and beyond.
The development of Initiatives and Strategies that are essential for sustainable change.
Benchmarks for Success, which include standards for measuring, reporting and learning from the results of implementing the Master Plan redevelopment.
A copy of the full Master Plan is available at the company's Web site, www.noisettesc.com.
Source: A Noisette Primer, courtesy of The Noisette Company, LLC.
I&S: How do you overcome challenges to designing with a sustainable approach?Knott: Good habits come from restriction. Limitation is many times a catalytic force for great new ideas. When you have no limitation—and it's just kind of wide open—you're not in conflict. There's no conflict, so therefore the creativity can't generate itself. You have to respect the people. And if you're doing any historic preservation at all, the first thing you learn is there are all kinds of groups—neighborhood groups, historic groups, conservation groups, political groups—and if you want to do business, you don't fight them; you want to understand what their issues are. What are they trying to accomplish? Where can you find common ground? It isn't about us against them. They must be there because they have some importance and value. Let's find out what it is. And maybe if we respect them and find that out, they'll take time and figure us out. It's a relationship thing.I really think the culture of the existing building industry and development industry and the existing environment is where the real future of the great sustainable developers will come from.