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Mission Meridian Village shows suburban density done right

It's commonly accepted that we should build up around public transit, but how can you do it in a way that respects existing neighborhoods? Yesterday, I visited Mission Meridian Village in South Pasadena, California, a project that shows how to do just that.

Mission Meridian Village. All photos by the author.

Designed by New Urbanist architects Moule & Polyzoides and developed in a public-private partnership between the city and Creative Housing Associates, Mission Meridian Village opened in 2003 across from the then-new South Pasadena Gold Line station, which connects to downtown Los Angeles.

The project is located next just off of Mission Street, a quaint shopping district like Old Town Takoma Park where light-rail trains glide past coffeehouses and bakeries. Closer to Mission Street is a larger commercial building with shops and loft apartments, while behind it are a mix of apartments, townhomes, and single-family homes that seem to blend into the surrounding neighborhood of humble Craftsman bungalows. An underground parking garage, with spaces for residents and commuters, runs under the entire site.

Duplex + Crosswalk
A duplex at Mission Meridian Village.

From the street, you see a row of duplexes, each of which has a similar scale and uses the same materials as existing homes. The only hint that these aren't ordinary houses are the little paths that lead into 3 lush courtyards, where you'll find entrances to the other homes.

Inside the Courtyard
Inside one of the courtyards.

All of this happens on 1.65 acres, about a fourth bigger than a football field. With about 67 homes, Mission Meridian Village has a density of 40 homes per acre, but it doesn't feel crowded. Each house has its own private outdoor space, be it a porch, a patio or a balcony. Meanwhile, residents have eagerly embraced the shared courtyards. Chairs and tables spill out from patios into the space, while kids' toys lie on the ground, waiting for the next game.

Mission Meridian Village is a great example of how to provide much-needed housing in a way that gives residents open space and a feeling of community. It's also an example for how to build better suburban neighborhoods where a car isn't mandatory. Most importantly, however, it's an example of how to add to a community while respecting what's already there.

Check out this slideshow of Mission Meridian Village.

Dan Reed is an urban planner at Nelson\Nygaard. He writes his own blog, Just Up the Pike, and serves as the Land Use Chair for the Action Committee for Transit. He lives in downtown Silver Spring. All opinions are his own. 


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Not only is it respectful and efficient, it's also beautiful. I can see why it won the CNU Charter Award.

by Phil LaCombe on Oct 15, 2012 4:21 pm • linkreport

" An underground parking garage, with spaces for residents and commuters, runs under the entire site."

Gosh, I don't understand. Don't we have to take away parking space from people?

by charlie on Oct 15, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

Southern California is a difficult place to live completely car-free. I assume most residents of this development will still want to have a car for some tasks. The advantage of this development is, people may be able to ride the light rail to work in downtown LA, and take care of other daily activities within walking distance of their homes, using the car only on the weekends for things like visiting friends and family in other parts of the city, which you can't get to very easily on public transportation.

by Mike on Oct 15, 2012 5:52 pm • linkreport

South Pasadena is a relatively affluent inner ring suburb and I would imagine that these places aren't cheap, even at 40 units/acre.

@MIke: LA and its inner suburbs are built on an old street car grid that extended a good dal further East than Pasadena and provides part of the template for the LA-area Metro. Particularly a long the ocean and in areas directly East, towns grew-up on railroad lines used by CalTran and Amtrak. The idea that one can't live carfree in LA is given lie by a lot of people who live in these old grid areas. Pasadena itself is very livable and I've known people w/o cars there and in various parts of West LA. I've even known people who lived in seemingly God forsaken places like Riverside who managed this.

by Rich on Oct 15, 2012 6:09 pm • linkreport

@ Rich

I have a question do the people you know live 100% car free meaning they don't own nor rent cars.

I asked this because many people who speak of being car free still rent cars from time to time and the such. I know many people that are truly car free they no drivers license, can not drive, have never owned a vehicle or any type and rely 100% on public transit.

by kk` on Oct 15, 2012 6:48 pm • linkreport

kk, I, too, know people who do "better" than me at living "car-free." The same type of people you know, who do not even have a driver's license. And that's all well and good, but I do feel like there's a little bit of judgement in your statement, like I don't get to call myself "car-free" because I drive occasionally (I'm on track to use Zipcar for about 60 hours this year - though that does include some long "emergencies" like the 5 hours I spent last month taking my dog to the far-flung emergency vet because he decided to EAT A SOCK WHOLE (at 8 PM, so my regular vet that I could have taken him to on the bus was already gone) - plus use a car when I visit my family since there's no other reasonable way to get around and occasionally rent cars when I take vacations that require such). The idea is not to completely eliminate automobiles. Particularly in the US, there are many places and circumstances where using a car is the most rational choice. But we can do a lot to reduce people's DEPENDENCE on cars for every little thing. Simple things like what is going on in this community, like adding density to transit-accessible neighborhoods (in quite the attractive way in this case), providing neighborhood-serving retail and services nearby or right in residential communities, improving pedestrian amenities, and providing even small-scale public transit so that basic needs can be met without ALWAYS using a car. Plus, those things benefit people who CANNOT drive. Like my grandmother, who developed sight problems late in life that precluded driving, and told me she really wished she could still walk to the corner store or take the bus somewhere so that she could get out and do SOMETHING (the corner store and buses were long gone by this point)...or my friend's mom who has a disability that means she has NEVER been able to drive, and since she lost her husband has experienced extreme difficulty in doing even basic tasks like grocery shopping or getting to doctor's appointments. The US is a big place, and we *do* like our space, but it's possible to make driving *less* important in every day life without having the density and transit of Manhattan *everywhere.*

by Ms. D on Oct 15, 2012 9:10 pm • linkreport

Very well said, Ms. D.

by dcseain on Oct 16, 2012 12:40 am • linkreport

Yep, Ms. D hit it. Car-lite, not car free.

by charlie on Oct 16, 2012 8:07 am • linkreport

"Car-free" means you don't own a car. It doesn't mean you never use a car for anything ever. To redefine those who don't own a car but rent/use carsharing as "car-lite" is to redefine the entire car-free movement.

The point of "car-free" is to give up YOUR car in favor of shared cars because it can save you a ton of money if you use your car infrequently.

What's the difference between renting a zipcar and getting a ride from a friend, or taking a taxi?

by MLD on Oct 16, 2012 8:35 am • linkreport

it also redefines the entire Car Lite movement.

We live in FFX county and my wife and I have one car, which means reliance on metrorail and express metrobus and walking, and even occassional use of local buses and of bikes for transportation (or at least when using a bike for recreation, passing on the "put the bike on the car's bike rack" thing) and quite frankly we stand out from our friends and neighbors - who typically not only have a car for each licensed driver in the household, but often have a backup car "in case one is in the shop".

Car lite - IE less than one car per licensed driver/adult i the household, is a very good goal (individually, and societally) in suburbs and some other places where car free is not possible. To define car lite as owning no car would be to miss the point of much suburban change.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Oct 16, 2012 9:19 am • linkreport

The point of smart growth was to show that not every trip needs to be made in a car and that neighborhoods should encourage walking over biking. I have a car (between my wife and I) and I still choose to walk or bike more places because the environment I live in encourages it, through both punitive (hard to park someplaces) and beneficial (wider sidewalks and bike lanes) means. To wit, the built environment matters, whether you're downtown or in the burbs.

/I don't think a lack of parking is innately punitive but I don't know a better word for it at the moment.

by drumz on Oct 16, 2012 9:56 am • linkreport

It would be useful to know how many parking spaces are actually provided underground, including how many per unit.

by beegirl on Oct 16, 2012 10:01 am • linkreport

Can I live there? That's a beautiful neighborhood.

by William Furr on Oct 16, 2012 10:16 am • linkreport

Every time someone in the 'burbs paints 40 units per acre as "stack and pack" housing, I'm going to show them this. (I use Swan Lane, NW, for 45 units per acre.)

Thanks for profiling such a wonderful neighborhood.

by OctaviusIII on Oct 16, 2012 10:36 am • linkreport

Where can I buy a book on this firms work? I know they did write THE book on courtyard housing but their architectual and urban design work is impressive.

by jon on Oct 16, 2012 10:51 am • linkreport

@beegirl, some of the plans say the underground parking garage holds 324 vehicles.

I wish we could define "suburban" especially when talking about "right" and "wrong." As has been noted here several times, there are different takes on what suburbs are and what they should look like. South Pasadena gets lumped in with LA, but the take on suburbs there is often different than what is in the DC area. The area in this article has a relatively urban form with a street grid that has probably been around for 200 years. The development is a single, 1.66 acre block with 67 units. The condos vary in size and look, but I'm not sure I would consider a door "private outdoor space."

by selxic on Oct 16, 2012 3:16 pm • linkreport

I was a bit overzealous in my last post and probably should have stuck with well over 100 years instead of 200 years.

by selxic on Oct 16, 2012 3:19 pm • linkreport

324 vehicles? A parking lot for 324 vehicles would require 2.4 acres, so if that's true the underground garage would be at least two stories. Not to mention that it's almost five cars per unit. That can't be right.

by Alai on Oct 16, 2012 5:24 pm • linkreport

Respectful and beautiful. That's the highest compliment you can get as an architect.

by Thayer-D on Oct 16, 2012 8:45 pm • linkreport

Alai, the real estate link that Dan Reed includes in the article says "about 325" and that it's a 2-level underground garage. Other sites say 324, but I suppose that's "about 325." As was mentioned in the post, there is parking for residents, commuters and retail. At least one entrance appears to be gated.

by selxic on Oct 17, 2012 12:57 pm • linkreport

Interestingly, when the actual Congress for the New Urbanism visited the site for a reception, we were greeted with some unusual signs -- "New Urbanism is Urban Terrorism!!!" was my favorite.

If you get a chance to (many are closed to the public), look up some of the courtyard apartment houses that Polyzoides has designed and/or referenced in his lovingly photographed book. He has a masterful attention to detail and proportion, which is unfortunately missing in 99% of market architecture today.

Oh, fun fact: his own house includes George Hale's personal solar observatory. Hale also, as foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, led the effort to build NAS's beautiful Constitution Avenue headquarters.

by Payton on Oct 17, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

Regarding the parking, yes, there are layers of underground parking underneath much of the site. Excavation is comparatively easier/cheaper to do in the West, where land prices are high and the soil is dry.

by Payton on Oct 17, 2012 4:00 pm • linkreport

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