Culdesac Tempe’s first residents have moved in, and the company is eyeing expansion in other cities.

Photographer: Rebecca Noble/Bloomberg

Can This Car-Free Neighborhood Clone Itself?

The developers of Culdesac Tempe, a $200 million mixed-use community without cars or parking, are looking to export their design model to other cities.

By Patrick Sisson
December 15, 2023 at 12:19 PM GMT-3

In downtown Mesa, Arizona, the 27-acre patch of land known as Site 17 has sat empty for decades, a redevelopment mystery that has yet to be unraveled. The local Mesa Tribune compared it to Nevada’s Area 51, noting that "developers have hovered, coming close to landing — then, as mysteriously as UFOs, vanished." Past plans have included turning the city-owned dirt lot, once home to 63 single-family homes, into a health-care facility and resort/water park.

But in October, the city took a big step towards solving this real estate riddle, by selecting a proposal to build a housing project from the startup Culdesac, famous for its car-free neighborhood taking shape in nearby Tempe. Over the coming weeks, the city and Culdesac will negotiate a memorandum of understanding, which is expected to be presented to the council for a final vote early in 2024. Mesa officials are banking on the Site 17 project to help catalyze a downtown revival.

This long-vacant lot in Mesa, Arizona, could soon be transformed into a car-light neighborhood.Source: City of Mesa

Culdesac became an urbanist darling in the US for its project in Tempe, a built-from-scratch zero-driving development that is transforming a vacant lot near a light rail stop into the kind of dense and walkable neighborhood that advocates say could be a model for other places trying to shun American-style car-centricity. The $200 million project’s high profile, stark minimalist look, and green bona fides definitely helped Culdesac’s bid, says Jeff McVay, Mesa’s manager of downtown transformation.

"They’ve always given us the impression that while there’s a profit motive involved in this, it’s a socially conscious profit motive to help better the community that they live in," said McVay. "That’s the kind of partnership that makes me excited."

But Culdesac’s Mesa proposal isn’t a carbon-copy of the Tempe project. For one thing, it looks like it’s going to have some cars: Currently, the project is slated to have 800 parking spaces with its 1,000 residential units, because the site lacks the kind of transit access that its predecessor has.

The attention that the car-free neighborhood has drawn since opening up the first block of apartments underscores the potential of this style of development, where residents get around predominantly via transit or other mobility services. There are several other residential projects underway from other developers in various US cities that follow parts of this car-free or -light approach. But looking at where Culdesac seeks to go next, and the status of these projects, raises questions about just how replicable the company’s approach is, due to the very local nature of planning and zoning decisions.

Culdesac declined an opportunity to respond to questions about its future plans, or any questions related to this article. "We’re not commenting on any expansion plans for the time being," Ryan Johnson, the company’s chief executive officer, said in an email. Mesa is just one of a handful of future sites Culdesac, a Silicon Valley startup that has raised $47 million in venture capital, is currently working on.

Read more: Car-Free Living Takes Off in Car-Centric Cities

In Atlanta, for example, Culdesac has plans to develop a 20-acre site called Murphy Crossing, adjacent to the BeltLine, the city’s rails-to-trails project. Culdesac has been named a developer finalist, though the project to redevelop the warehouse district technically remains an open procurement, with public updates expected in the coming months.

Culdesac Tempe’s minimalist style has been called "Mykonos desert modern."Photographer: Rebecca Noble/Bloomberg

Just what these future projects will look like could depend less on the vision of the company’s designers and planners and more on what municipalities will allow, according to Ryan Wozniak, a Phoenix-area transportation planner who has closely watched the progress of Culdesac Tempe, and credits that city’s leaders with prioritizing walkability and transit access as goals for that project. It’s not surprising that’s where Culdesac’s concept found fertile ground.

"They are the municipality that’s gung-ho for infill development along the light rail, and can see the benefits of a car-free community," said Wozniak. "​​It’s a beautiful thing, when you actually marry up visionary community development with a real commitment to sustainable transportation options. But it’s a little chicken-and-egg-ish."

Roads Not Taken

In 2018, when Culdesac co-founders Johnson and Jeff Berens approached architect Dan Parolek to design a new high-density mixed-use development, he and his Berkeley-based firm Opticos Design were given the freedom to reimagine the layout, landscaping and traffic flow of the site, rather than just stack a bunch of traditional apartment buildings close together.

This was right in his wheelhouse: Parolek has long been a leader of the movement to restore "missing middle" housing, a term that refers to mid-size, often vernacular, multifamily developments that don’t get made as much today for financial and zoning reasons. (Parolek, in fact, is credited with coining the term.) So he flew out to Phoenix to take an e-bike tour of older parts of Tempe, including the Roosevelt neighborhood, which included closely set courtyard buildings built in the late 1940s. That’s the kind of layout he wanted Culdesac to capture.

"There hasn’t been a development like this built in the United States in at least 100 years," he said.

Designing on a site adjacent to a light rail station allowed Parolek and his team to sketch a space that wasn’t defined by streets. In a typical US residential project, roads take up about 30% of the built environment; removing them from Culdesac helped the designers achieve more dense housing while still setting aside 60% of the development for public space.

The Valley Metro light rail passes right in front of Culdesac Tempe. Tenants also receive discounts for local bikeshare and other mobility services.Photographer: Rebecca Noble/Bloomberg

The closeness of the structures, separated by eight-foot-wide passages called paseos rather than wide vehicular roadways, let the designers create what Parolek calls "fabric buildings." Designers drew from the Greek islands and southern Italian villages, adobe structures from the Southwest, and the historic district of Barrio Viejo in Tucson, filled with boxy stucco structures that would inform the simple clusters of units spread across Culdesac.

The Culdesac buildings, just 18 feet wide, consist of no more than five units, each with its own private entrance. That meant no additional stairways taking up interior space, and generous daylighting and cross-ventilation from multiple sides. Stacking these simple structures and their balconies and stairways close and at oblique angles also creates visual interest; there’s no need for multiple gables or adornments, creating construction efficiencies. Buildings are clustered in mini-neighborhoods called pods and oriented to shade each other — a critical consideration in the torrid climate. Shared backyards are intended to create closeness and connection between residents while preserving private spaces.

Wozniak said the best part about the Culdesac project may be the way it connects to surrounding developments and streetscapes. Often, bigger developments in the region, consisting of "five-over-one" multifamily structures, become "fiefdoms" unto themselves, megablocks that lack links to other nearby buildings. Culdesac’s paseos and street-level retail are more permeable, and create connective tissue to other developments, what he calls "the best of both worlds" that "doesn’t give up on the public aspects of community development."

In addition to the human-scale design philosophy, one of the critical ingredients in Culdesac’s success has been its coordination with the Tempe planning department, which was willing to bend rules and requirements to accommodate the unusual project. In this case, everything from parking requirements and transit-oriented development overlays needed to be adjusted.

"We really had to negotiate almost every development standard for this one," Parolek said. "The city was super-collaborative, but we had to systematically go through everything."

Parolek wanted the development’s main thoroughfare to be tighter and more enveloping, but the city was adamant that it needed to be 26 feet awning to awning, to accommodate large firefighting equipment, setting it out of proportion to other passages on the site. (Typical suburban streets, for comparison, might span 80 feet.) Even the color palette was up for debate. The initial proposal called for all-white buildings; due to light reflection issues, the developers settled on something a little more gray.

Designers insisted on making the passages of Culdesac Tempe narrow, to encourage more social interaction.Photographer: Rebecca Noble/Bloomberg

When Parolek visited the site in November, the first few dozen residents had moved in and it had started to feel like a real community, he says. Diners packed the restaurant, Cocina Chiwas, which opened in February 2023. The large car-free roadway that bisects the site, bookended with a Cor-Ten steel pavilion, drew residents and visitors from the light rail stop through the spine of the community, past a series of small micro-retail flex spaces, including a barber shop and vintage clothing store.

"There’s some people that this isn’t going to be for — they don’t want to live this compactly," said Parolek. "But there’s a lot of people, a growing number of households, who want to live this way and have a strong sense of community."

A Place for Parking?

Parolek isn’t part of the other Culdesac projects currently in design. But it’s fair to question if other design teams, and more importantly, other planning departments, will be as all-in on human-scale design.

Both the BeltLine and Mesa projects are still in the midst of planning, and the site layout is still being figured out. So are details like parking and vehicle access. "From the city's perspective, we do not have an expectation on how much parking is provided," said Mesa’s McVay. "We are going to let the market determine what’s right. If Culdesac came back to us during this process and said we don’t think we need this many parking spots, we’re not going to say, ‘We don’t care, you still need to build that many spaces.’"

The Atlanta project, which is located directly on the bike trail and right between two stations on the MARTA light rail line, is shaping up to be a car-light development: A BeltLine representative said that residential units at the project won’t have any dedicated parking, but there will be a structured parking deck and on-street parking, and dedicated parking will be offered to commercial tenants.

Early renderings of both developments recall the Tempe layout. The BeltLine project, for instance, contains "the Ramble," a large pedestrian spine through much of the housing, and "the Hub," a gathering space that appears analogous to what was done in Tempe. The architecture firm working on the Atlanta site, Kronberg Urbanists + Architects, didn’t respond to requests for comment, but during a webinar about Culdesac organized by the Congress for a New Urbanism, principal Eric Kronberg said the project needs to be more dense to make financial sense, so Tempe-style courtyards will be joined by townhomes stacked up to six stories.

"Overall, the basic concepts would translate, just the design execution would be a little bit different based on the weather," Parolek said of future Culdesac locations.

As Culdesac moves into new markets and new sites, it’ll continue to face the challenge of spreading the car-light development gospel into areas with different regulations, transit resources and driving cultures.

Wozniak believes that the process of proposing such sites will become easier if the Tempe site continues to expand and the feasibility and financial payoff of the approach becomes clear; with comparables and retail success, the model will likely unlock more developer interest.

Parolek agrees that future developers who propose similar projects may find the discussion easier. During his November trip to Tempe, he led a small tour of the site; about a quarter of the attendees were city planners from around the US, asking how to get such a project to come to their city.

"It takes city leadership like council members, or city manager, or even mayors, who can step up and say, ‘Look, city staff: We need to make this happen, so let’s be collaborative, come to the table with an open mind, and get outside our comfort zone,’" he said.