Council Report III, Members of the Congress for the New Urbanism
Peer Review - Dan Camp's Cotton District
by Victor Dover, 2003
Like it's maker, Dan Camp's Cotton District is folksy, amiably rebellious, and practical. It teaches. It's humble and gregarious and full of stories. It works hard and has a sense of humor.
The Cotton District disproves many myths and proves new truths, in its business model, in the evolving design of the neighborhood, and in the architecture. A tour of this little, six-block area would be useful for every American town official, planner and developer.
Dan Camp was practicing new urbanism for at least 20 years before new urbanism had a name, and he is an idealistic fellow. But he is also a bottom-line businessman. He is self-trained and self made, having grown wealthy (anyone who gets to live in a house that nice should consider himself wealthy) by building well. And what did he build? Affordable housing without a government subsidy. Many people think it can't be done in modern times, but there it sits, beautifully.
He reinvented the rental housing biz in Starkville, dropping the distinction between developer, property manager, architect and contractor, preferring to do it all himself. In the process he confirmed an alternative model for delivering a traditional neighborhood development. Camp says his real estate business is "not about location, location, location - it's about cash-flow, cash-flow, cash-flow." Fulfilling the new urbanists' emphasis on infill and redevelopment, he went to work on a part of town other investors had neglected or abandoned, and he made money doing it.
The Cotton District story ought to be looked upon as an economic overhaul, not just a physical one. Camp saw the match between his market and his vision - drawing in many college students, the "last great pedestrian population" as tenants - and prove that design matters more than size. His cottages and apartments are reasonably priced at least in part because they are petite; the tenants pay for dignity and charm, not square footage.
He's built out the Cotton District in small increments over a long period of time, sustainably adding more investment each year to what had been started in 1968. Much of the construction has been done by residents of the old community, recruited by Camp himself for training in building trades. Gradually the District grew more diverse and more mixed-use; his recent District Exchange building integrates more business into the mix. (An homage website points out that the District Exchange "ad campaign" consists of the Common Ground coffee shop's $2 open/closed sign.)
Experience has taught the new urbanist to be suspicious of any situation in which one landlord owns and designs and controls everything. Walter Kulash has warned us about what he calls "the cold, dead hand of common management." But the Cotton District proves a shiny exception to that rule. It's not boring or homogenized or static or corporate at all. I think this is partly because Camp has built out the quarter slowly, pondering each piece, even changing his mind now and then and rebuilding. He's also combined new construction and adaptive reuse (sometimes gently, sometimes thankfully not) within the same blocks, in the way traditional cities always have. He approached the larger project as a collection of smaller buildings, each whole in its design. The Cotton District is the opposite of a megacomplex broken down into little facades to simulate incremental construction; it's real.
Renters and owners are close neighbors here. Overall there is a remarkably high density (one acre has 28 units) but you'd never know it, largely because the parking is cleverly dispersed and screened. The street scene is quiet and green.
During one of my visits, I watched a workman who was very meticulously building a staircase on one of the "Four Apostles" cottages. After a while he explained that he was being extra careful because he "was going to have to look at it when it's done." He wasn't kidding: He lived in the row house across the street. Carpenters share the neighborhood with well-scrubbed college kids and people of independent means. This livable density and economic mix has been accomplished in a way that can easily confound purists. Camp refuses to be restricted to the conventional relationship of one-building-on-a-lot; blocks in the District are more like compounds, organized collections of buildings. One is reminded of the blocks of colonial Philadelphia or Charleston, where the grand mansions hugged the block edges while servants' quarters, kitchens, workshops and stables formed midblock compounds of cottages and outbuildings. The Cotton District has a similar juxtaposition of building sizes and character. Small but dignified dwellings are integrated among large ones and yet there is a surprising sense of privacy. In this respect the Cotton District can be compared to George Holt's eccentric Tulley Alley in Charleston - another case of maverick builder adding pieces incrementally and holding the property for its long-term value. Camp persuaded the city of Starkville to assign PUD status for just 1 acre, which allowed him to outflank the usual setbacks and other zoning complications.
The Cotton District has homespun street spaces, not just homespun buildings. There is no single universal pavement or curb detail or dimension applied throughout, but rather a big quilt of changing brick patterns, street widths, terraced sidewalks, garden walls and fences. Along the streets, most of the buildings align not to a single build-to-line, but in site-to-site customized positions, dodging trees. The adjustments are slight but deliberate. The combined result feels personal and authentic.
The architecture of the Cotton District is traditional folk art and has always irked the architecture school people who consider it subversive. The language is comfortable and familiar, but not corny. Camp bends tradition as it suits him, cheerfully filtering his experiences in New Orleans and Europe into new buildings. Duany compares his napkin sketches of elevations to naïve American drawings by 18th century planters. The outcomes tend to prove how robust the language of traditional architecture actually is. Despite the fact that so many parts are a little bit off - headers above windows seem short, proportions stretched and squashed, ornaments oversized or undersized, porches so shallow, and so on - the whole is still charming. The Starkville tourism folks say the Cotton District is the most photographed historic area in town, which is astonishing only when you realize that the buildings being photographed are almost all less than 20 years old.
To pull off the small-is-beautiful vision his way and on a budget, Camp is almost certainly doing things that conventional building codes in the big cities won't permit. A number of the cottages have wood post foundations - copied from a long-lasting kind he found in historical Mississippi examples. Camp tells of how his traffic details were determined by whether his elderly mother could navigate them in her big car. Stairs and doorways are narrow, clearances are tight, but it's all seemingly workable.
Above all else, craftsmanship flourishes in the Cotton District. Operating out of a workshop shed behind his house, Camp has alternated between building his own windows, from scratch, and modifying store-bought ones. If he can't buy what he needs, he builds it or reconstructs it, and reuses everything. Naturally he maintains that he does it all for practical reasons, having been landlord over much of the property for long enough to see cheaper fixtures wear out. The craftsmanship extends to finishes too. His crew works tint into the stucco, to get the watercolor tones. He disdains putting control joints in the stucco. Instead he deliberately lets it crack, and then the patching and retouching gives his walls their hand-worked character. He mixes marble dust into the cast concrete steps to make them shine like stone.
The humbler early buildings in the District contrast with the newer ones, which, while still tiny, are fitted with more decoration. Camp has begun experimenting with increasingly elaborate ornament, including more sculpture, more mouldings and tassles, and one wonders if he's trying to provoke the architecture people anew or just trying to prove he can figure out ways to build stuff. Good for him either way.
America Needs More of This
The struggling neighborhood flanking the old Sanders Mill in Starkville was once called "Needmore." Dan Camp was exactly what it needed more of. Now is there a way America can get 10,000 more Cotton Districts, 10,000 more Dan Camps?