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Creating a Great Site Plan

Hannah Hanlon

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What Makes a Good Site Plan? Creativity, Thought, and Humanity.

A great site plan has the ability to create magic --  function married with artistry; smart use of space that makes the most of a site’s possibility coupled with creativity that works around what’s already there.  All in all, a little bit of art, a little bit of science, and as we’ve found over the years, a good dose of a third, vital element as well: humanity.

In the past 25 years, Corcoran Ota principal Michael Corcoran has drawn hundreds of residential site plans. His key piece of advice? Balance. “You always want the plan to be a brilliant design, but that doesn’t come free. There are always trade-offs,” he says. “It should be special, but above all, it has to work.”

And a site plan that works, from our perspective at COG, is one that thoughtfully balances the harder-to-quantify needs of the people who will eventually call each project home with the bottom-line needs of the developers who wish to build it.  

Here’s how we think about it every time we put pencil to paper:

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Balancing Act #1: Aesthetics vs. Yield

Yield is a hard number to argue with. Developers need what they need to make the math on a site work, and anything outside of that range isn’t viable. It’s up to the site plan creator to solve the puzzle. Unfortunately for some however, the easiest answer is to try to cram as many residential units into the available space without much thought to how that feels to the resident. The result isn’t pretty, or comfortable.

Alternately, good site plans go beyond the basics, putting more than average thought into arrangement and orientation of structures, ingress and egress, views and flow, far beyond the minimum requirement of number of units needed. It’s an exercise in thinking like a resident and a planner at the same time, with a mandate to create not just an economically viable or functional place, but a truly lovely place that enhances life there. The best part is, its success is self-fulfilling:  “It’s fundamental to a project’s success to create a place that residents will love,” says Corcoran. “Not just a place that the developer will.”

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Balancing Act #2: Topography Vs. Livability

Topography on a site can be both a blessing and a curse: pure potential in the form of a breathtaking feature or natural flow, or a frustrating barrier that keeps buildings from being built in an orientation that seems natural. In our experience, it’s about knowing how to balance both. A site plan that gives too much weight to topography will often place buildings in ways with little continuity or common sense (and result in places people don’t really like to live). On the other hand, a site plan that doesn’t consider topography enough could be unbuildable.

The third option is better: A plan that is reverent to topography, but doesn’t rely on it solely as an input. One that leverages the best of what a location has to offer (a view, a park, the potential for a center axial road), and on the other hand, works with or around the natural landscape in a way that makes sense to a human interacting on the ground. “Whatever makes the site sing,” adds Michael.

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One last note: Don’t Forget About Parking

One final thing that we find can be easy to omit when it comes to great site planning: cars. On a residential site, even if it’s served by great public transportation, if there aren’t enough parking spaces, people simply won’t live there. Some site plans will pack in more livable space at the expense of parking (again, forgetting the human element), but in our experience that’s never a good idea. No space for cars means not enough people willing to fill the units. Think site appropriateness instead: in a suburban setting, surface parking might not look the best, but it’s functional (and cheaper). In an urban area, buildings wrapped around precast decks can be the right choice. Either way, just make sure you’re adequately addressing residents’ car-related needs.

We’ve done hundreds of site plans over the years at COG, and know that while fresh ideas are hard to come by, looking for the potential of an empty plot of land gets easier when you seek to create balance: creativity and functionality, humanity and profitability. Do that, and you’ll plan a place that’s doesn’t just work on paper, but works for people as well.