FRUITVALE: THE DIFFICULT BIRTH OF THE TRANSIT VILLAGE One of the ongoing issues of modern architecture � and one of the story lines that keeps modern architecture interesting after so many false starts and blind alleys � has been the struggle to arrive at a consensus on what exactly is the "right" form for new types of buildings. Imagine the situation of architect and urban planner a century ago. They had never dreamed of a gas station, a drive-in restaurant or a multiplex theater. Here is Henry van Brunt, writing in 1886 (as quoted in A History of Building Types by Nikolaus Pevsner): "The architect, in the course of his career, is called upon to erect buildings for every conceivable purpose, most of them adapted to requirements which have never before arisen in history." He goes on to list some of the then-still-formative building types facing architects during the late 19th Century: "skating-rinks, theatres, exhibition buildings of vast extent, casinos, jails, prisons, municipal buildings, music halls, apartment houses � ." His conclusion is that the design of these newfangled building types, "if they are honestly composed, can have no precedent in architectural history." The difficult process of creating an unprecedented type of building can be witnessed in present-day California in the form of "transit-oriented developments." To make profitable use of land surrounding rail stations, and to bolster transit ridership, transit districts are pushing to develop areas immediately surrounding stations. The design of these places should encourage use of the train. The urban design, therefore, is to be pedestrian-oriented, and this goal dovetails neatly with a primary agenda of the New Urbanism. In the Bay Area, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission calls these projects "transit villages," a name which resonates with both nostalgia and utopia � a wedding of community and technology. The Fruitvale BART Transit Village in Oakland is perhaps the most ambitious such project yet. The plan fairly bristles with progressive thinking. In June, construction will start on a 10.5-acre site where the developers plan 200 apartments, 35,000 square feet of neighborhood-serving retail, a senior center, a new Oakland Public Library branch, a child-care facility with a Headstart program, a day-care facility and an adult health care facility that provides day care for the elderly. The developer is a community-based nonprofit group, the Spanish-Speaking Unity Council, while the MTC provides some funding. As it turns out, it is difficult to design residential communities around train stations. The stations do not want villages built near them, at least not at first. Stations are generally very large pieces of infrastructure that disrupt the regular pattern of streets. Often treated as necessary evils, the stations are located in out-of-the-way places, or in poor neighborhoods. More to the point, train stations are essentially thoroughfares that usher people on and off of trains as efficiently as possible. If stations could talk, they would bellow, undoubtedly in basso profundo voices, things like, "Minimize wasted space! Keep traffic flowing! No soliciting! Step lively!" In other words, talking train stations would sound very much like, well, transportation planners. Residential communities, on the other hand, are destinations. So a tension necessarily arises when building a project that is both a gateway into regional transit, and a quiet, pedestrian-oriented neighborhood built along (some) New Urbanist lines. The need to separate transit-related uses from residential areas informs the Fruitvale site plan, designed by the Orange County architectural firm of McLarand, Vasquez & Partners. Essentially, all the transit and retail is relegated to the west of 35th Avenue, while the residential and retail mixed-use, together with a day-care center and a tot lot, are on the east. South of the residential complex, a shallow sward of green provides a buffer between the apartment buildings and surface parking for BART. This little park is probably a welcome amenity for local residents, even though I am always suspicious of landscaping used as a buffer, rather than a positive space or "outdoor room" unto itself. The most questionable part of the plan, functionally, is the location of the senior center on the far west side, separated from the transit area by another surface parking lot. No doubt, space considerations forced planners to locate the center far from the senior housing area where it would ideally stand. As a composition, the site plan does not seem to jell. Perhaps the master planners have done too good a job of separating housing from commuting. The station area and the apartment buildings seem like a pair of angry spouses, lying in bed, facing away from each other. Somehow, unity and elegance are missing. The major organizing device is a giant, circular plaza that reconciles the skewed angles of surrounding streets. Again, perhaps the job has been done too thoroughly � at least the energy of all those different angles may have contributed to a more exciting plaza. Instead, the giant circle has neutralized all the energy of odd-shaped spaces resulting from non-parallel streets. The retail development that frames the plaza is a letdown as well. The anodyne scheme by this Orange County-based architect wants to bring a bit of Irvine into Oakland, and no doubt the city and the transit agency are happy to have these images of upscale shopping in a working-class neighborhood. The image of a slightly over-designed suburban shopping mall, however, does not accord with my utopian fantasies for Fruitvale. Rather than a large plaza, I would suggest a more urbane design with storefront-lined sidewalks. A row of vertical storefronts would be more in keeping with Oakland than the planned horizontal, slab-like buildings. Still, we must give points to the master planners for solving as many problems as they did in a still-undetermined building type. Like a number of the projects we have discussed in these pages, the Fruitvale Transit Village is interesting or admirable not because it is a masterpiece of architecture or urban planning � it is not � but rather because it wrestles with a difficult problem. We are watching the invention of a new type of urban development, and the birth may not be smooth or forthcoming. For the time being, the transit village is a building type that has not yet fully arrived. Fruitvale is a whistle stop along the way.