The Big Box Church

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 11, 2003

As I write this, the current controversy in Gainesville FL is that the local community college downtown is trying to demolish two historic homes in a walkable, historic neighborhood abutting them. I’ve not heard this, but will be surprised if the college doesn’t end up putting in surface parking once they obliterate the houses. It is causing quite an outcry from the neighborhood and from the historic folks.

The University of Florida (and the Shands/Alachua General Hospital complex east of the university) has done their part to undermine nearby neighborhoods. Much of Shands/AGH is now surface parking. Quite a large number of historic homes were leveled to put in those seas of asphalt.

These days, one of the most common issue we city planners see raised in our planning newsletters and magazines is the emergence of the “Big Box Church” (the godly version of Big Box retailers such as Wal-Mart). There have been a lot of articles published in the church-campus4professional planning literature about churches growing enormously in size. To be healthy is to have lots of parishioners, which means that many churches now strive to serve a huge region. That, of course, means huge parking lots are imperative. Combined with recent US Supreme Court rulings and congressional action which severely restricts local governments from regulating churches (due to alleged “freedom of religion” intrusions), most communities (including Gainesville) are terrified of imposing even the most trivial land development regulations on churches. There is now much less planners can do anything to protect neighborhoods by restricting how much parking a church can have, or imposing noise limits on them, or even imposing special landscaping or building location or zoning rules. Homes near these new mega-churches now have little or no protection against loud churches or parishioners speeding through the neighborhoods or parking in people’s front yards.

There has been much talk about the downtown Episcopal Church here in Gainesville having problems and thinking about re-locating to Sprawlsville.

Why?

Not enough parking for the parishioners.

I’m sure they pray about leveling City Hall to install a new parking lot…

In the past (decades ago?), churches and hospitals and small schools were healthy and walkable for neighborhoods. In fact, like public grade schools, I’d argue that human-scaled, walkable, neighborhood-based colleges, hospitals and churches are essential ingredients in a healthy neighborhood. But the fact that we now must assume that everyone will drive everywhere means that such places MUST level buildings in order to install more and more surface parking.

Tragic.

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How Road & Intersection Size Influences Development

 

By Dom Nozzi

February 3, 2004

In 2004, I came across the following comments on an email list I subscribed to regarding urban design. The comment were written by Seth Harry:

“No, we can’t expect commercial to stay off them [big roads], and that is all the more reason to be mindful of how we design our arterial networks, both in terms of specific design of the actual street, and the network itself, such that we don’t automatically load all of our trips onto a few, overscaled arterials that represent an irresistible invitation to the huge box retailers.”

“The other part of the equation, however, is that fact that all of our housing developments also now typically empty out directly onto those same large scale arterials, with no intermediate street networks to diffuse and disseminate that traffic (and thereby creating more viable opportunities for smaller, more locally-focused retail to occur).  By putting all of those cars directly out there on the highway, we are inadvertently sending them out there at the mercy of those same mega-boxes.  As I referred to the occupants of those cars during a recent regional planning initiative —  Those aren’t just cars, those things represent self propelled “free-ranging consumers…” just looking for place to land and spend their money.  And there are all too many mega-retailers just waiting to accommodate them…”

Here are my thoughts about Seth’s comments, including my concerns about 4-lane vs 2-lane streets and the influence they have on future development:

Over the years, I have seen countless studies and books that touch on this crucial question of whether the size and character of roads (and intersections) determines the land uses that develop along it. Indeed, I find the question so crucial that I put a great deal of effort into trying to clearly show how road design DOES drive land uses adjacent to it, and start off with this point in my speeches.

Nearly all transportation engineers, chambers of commerce, citizen activists, and elected officials DENY that roads determine land use. Instead, most people naively believe that land use plans or development regulations or elected officials or enlightened staff can save us from ruin even if we build a monster road.

Here is what Walter Kulash, one of my heroes, has to say on this question:

Containing this type of use of 50/50 [50 mph and 50,000 cars per day] streets is far beyond the will and ability of the typical local government. The 50/50 arterial is a gift-wrapped, gold-plated, gift to strip development. Once in place, almost no power on earth will stop its march toward strip commercial. Time spent berating local governments (counties and admin-ajax (7)cities) for not doing better with these monstrosities (and I’ve done my share of this) is satisfying to the critic, but is unproductive. Once in place, it is too late to do much about the 50/50 arterial. – Walter Kulash

Walter Kulash was formerly a principal and Senior Traffic Engineer with the Orlando-based community-planning firm of Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin Lopez Rinehart, Inc. A licensed professional engineer with an academic background in engineering at North Carolina State University and Northwestern University, Mr. Kulash has worked on traffic and transit planning projects throughout the U.S. and Canada. Clients include private developers, local and state governments and non-governmental agencies.

Since the early 1990’s, Mr. Kulash has specialized in the rapidly emerging field of “livable traffic” design. This view of traffic engineering recognizes that the narrow traffic planning goals of the past few decades—moving the most traffic at the greatest possible speed—are giving way to a far more inclusive view. In the new view of traffic engineering, traffic performance is balanced against other desired qualities of the street, such as its value as an “address”, its retail friendliness, and its role as a premiere public space of the community.

Some recent projects for private developments that incorporate principles of livable traffic include neotraditional communities throughout the U.S. and Canada, community shopping centers that serve as centers of walk-in communities, resort villages, outdoor shopping villages and “park once” districts. Some recent projects for public agencies include city-wide mobility plans and reintroducing walking to formerly automobile-blighted areas.

Recent projects for non-governmental agencies include downsizing of road plans, re-introduction of on-street parking in shopping environments, substituting the improvement of existing streets for new freeways, and university campus mobility plans.

My observation as a planner (and that of Kulash and many others) is that big, multi-lane, high-speed roads make it CERTAIN that the road will be forever hostile to residences and transportation choices. The only things that can emerge and thrive along such “car sewers” is single-occupant vehicle travel and strip commercial development (with accompanying billboards, glaring lights, etc.).

By stark contrast, roads that are 2 or 3 lanes and designed for slower car travel will inevitably deliver residential development, higher densities, more locally-owned retail, less Big Box retail, and transportation choice. Big Box is only possible when big roads are built. Big roads ENABLE Big Box.

Indeed, Big Box can only survive if it has the 4- and 6- and 8-lane roads that allow them to take advantage of a HUGE regional “consumer-shed.”

 

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Placing Blame

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 30, 2004

An important point I make in my speeches is that most of the ruinous transportation decisions we arrive at (regularly) are decisions that we are compelled to make by our unfortunate circumstances. I don’t, for example, blame folks for their desperate desire to make their cars happy (with, for example, big roads). What choice do they have when they live in a remote, low-density, single-use area filled with disconnected roads?

The approach I try to take is that we must work with the hand we’ve been dealt. Design our transport system in such a way as to not “get rid of cars,” but to make our cars behave themselves. (to be our slaves, not our masters).

Traffic calming. Connected streets. Mixed uses. Modest setbacks. Unobtrusive off-street parking.

It is important to point out that the conventional transportation design strategy WORSENS conditions for the motorist.

In our increasingly cocooning, isolationist, gated community culture, it is EXTREMELY difficult, politically, to push the connected streets agenda — crucial as that agenda is. Given that, can we really blame the traffic engineer for recommending a monster intersection on our sparse, cul-de-sac’d road network?

In the end, I recommend that the community establish and protect lifestyle choices within the community: Walkable urban areas and rural areas — not just car-dependent suburban areas. Each has clear design imperatives that we must abide by. One size does not fit all. Freedom of choice is difficult to argue against.

I am dedicated to doing all I can to see that high-quality models of the walkable, traditional lifestyle (a lifestyle that is rapidly vanishing) are established in my community so that people can see with their own eyes that it works quite well (envy can be our friend.) Models help us avoid the “abstractions” problem. Or the common wet blanket that it “won’t work here because ‘they’ are different than us.”

I live for the day when we have reached that much-sought-after “tipping point.” In other words, when smart growth is self-reinforcing, and does not need ZEALOTS like me to keep making what many find to be embarrassing, awkward observations about needed transportation and urban design reforms.

 

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Lessons From Europe

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 16, 2004

Is Europe on the road to ruin, due to increased auto ownership?  To what extent?

As traditional neighborhood architects would say, Europe has “good bones.” That is, many European communities are extremely fortunate in comparison to most American communities in the sense that they were largely built BEFORE the emergence of the ruinous shift to “car cparis narrow sidewalkraze” travel patterns. As a result, these European communities were built for transit, walking and bicycling. That is, their traditional, in-town areas are compact, mixed-use (residential mixed with shops and offices), multi-story, and modest in the provision of surface parking and street size.

This explains why these European communities remain such fantastic places (that millions of non-Europeans love to visit as tourists). They were built using timeless principles – principles that will never go out of style. The design was intended to make people happy, instead of cars.

What this all means is that increased auto ownership in Europe is troublesome but not necessarily fatal to what they have. In their urban areas, car ownership will be obligated to struggle to fit in. For the foreseeable future, it will remain inconvenient and costly to own and use a car in these European places. The danger is that European leaders may incrementally allow suburbanizing, car-friendly changes to the design of their communities — if they do not have sufficient pride in what they have, or leadership.

An enormous obstacle to undesirable suburbanization Europe is that it may be cost-prohibitive to retrofit the space-intensive needs of cars in communities that are now modest in size.

Can the US learn any lessons from European cities, which have within walking distance everything Americans in most cities must drive to reach?

The lessons that can be learned in the US are that traditional community design patterns that we have largely abandoned and forgotten about since approximately WWII are timeless. They remain wonderful, envied places centuries after they were first built. Those traditional principles — mixed use, higher density, walkable compactness, multiple stories, modest parking and street sizes — are an essential component for all communities. They must remain a lifestyle choice in all communities — a choice that is rapidly vanishing in the US. There will always be citizens who wish to enjoy the merits of the traditional, sociable lifestyle. And in the future, the number of citizens who seek such a lifestyle will grow as the auto-dependent lifestyle becomes increasingly unsustainable, unaffordable, and unrewarding.

Why is it that many in the US are stunned when they learn that a large number of European citizens live quite comfortably in cities such as Barcelona without a personal car?

Roughly since WWII, Americans have built their communities to make cars happy. Among other things, this has led to a substantial number of citizens fleeing the downwardly spiraling quality of life in town centers. This flight from the center is in large part due to the fact that car-friendly design in centers almost inevitably worsens the quality of life for people. They flee due to the decline in quality of life AND the fact that they were now able to do so because travel by car means that jobs and other daily needs no longer need to be close to each other. The result of the growing irrelevancy of distance is that we have low-density land use dispersal. Most homes are now quite remote from all daily destinations: work, retail, culture, entertainment, civic, etc. It should therefore not at all surprise us that we find ourselves forced to make nearly all trips by car. The dispersal locks us into extreme car dependency. It naturally seems impossible to nearly all of us that life could be at all possible without continuous access to a car (or someone who can give us a ride). Most of the Baby Boom and more recent generations have never experienced life in a place that is not designed for car dependency. We have lost the cultural memory of the tradition we have left — a tradition rich in travel choices.

Sadly, it is now nearly impossible to a fulfilling live life in America without a car. Too many sacrifices need to be made. Loss of independence. Loss of time. Loss of ability to go to certain places, buy certain things, or work in certain places. Without a car in America today, one is looked upon as a weirdo. A bizarre anachronism.

But as Paul Bedford, the Toronto planning director has pointed out, the sign of a quality city is that it is possible to live an enjoyable life without owning a car.

 

 

 

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Advice to a Friend About Finding a New Dance Venue

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 10, 2004

I have enjoyed “contra” dancing for over 25 years. Contra is an “old-tyme” form of dancing. It is a folk dance made up of long lines of couples. It has mixed origins from English country dance, Scottish, French dance styles in the 17th century, with strong African influence from Appalachia. Sometimes described as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world and have much

Contra dance, Gainesville FL April 2007

popularity in North America and the United Kingdom where weekly or monthly dances and annual dance weekends are common. The dance is guided by a “caller” and tends to get its music from a live fiddle band.

A contra dance friend of mine in Florida – Tara – contacted me in 2004 to ask for advice about the local contra community seeking to buy a new venue building for contra dancing. Here is what I offered.

Hi Tara,

I’m flattered that you have contacted me to ask me about this. I have been seeing the email postings about this exciting proposal for a few days now and, coincidentally, was going to email you about it today.

First, I think it would be a very good idea for the dance community to own and have control over its own facility. Having full control over the scheduling of the building would be an enormous advantage over the current venue.

I don’t mean to rain on this encouraging parade, Tara, but I have very serious concerns about the Moose Lodge location on 23rd Ave. As a long-range city planner, it is my opinion that community-serving “social condensers” (of which the local dance community is one) should not be located away from a downtown location — a location that is essentially inaccessible by foot, transit or bicycle. In particular, inaccessible to the downtown residences.

There are a number of reasons why I believe community-serving “social condensers” should be downtown:

  1. They are an essential building block toward creating a “sense of community.” Like most cities, the town center is about the only place where a sense of community can be experienced, because the center is where residents gather for cultural, civic, political and entertainment purposes. When community-serving activities leave the town center, the sense of community declines.
  1. In the town center, there are “spillover” benefits. At the current location of the dance hall, it is easy for folks to walk to the hall from other town center locations, or to walk from the hall to various town center destinations. Due to the flight of such activities from town centers throughout the nation, there is “no there there” in the town centers of much of America.
  1. In my opinion, an essential ingredient in the creation and maintenance of a quality city, as the Toronto Planning Director once said, is that there is at least one place where people can choose to live without being forced to use a car to get to important, regular activities in life. Despite the erosion of town centers due to flight from them, many centers continue to serve the purpose of providing a car-free lifestyle choice to some extent. Folks who choose to live in the town center (thereby being able to take advantage of a less car-dependent lifestyle) would not be able to walk or bicycle to NE 23rd Ave, and find it more difficult to use a bus to get there.

Given the above, while I am thrilled about the idea of the dance community owning its own dance venue, a location on NE 23rd Ave would mean that (a) Our town would, overall, offer a lower quality of life for those opting for a car-free lifetyle; and (b) Spillover benefits to the town center associated with dancing would decline.

Finally, as one of those “weirdoes” who strives to live a less car-dependent lifestyle, I would sadly need to end my roughly 15 years of attending contra dances in town if the venue was moved to a place that was largely inaccessible to a person wanting to walk, bicycle, or take transit to dances.

Again, thanks for contacting me about this.

 

 

 

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Traffic Congestion

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 10, 2004

We all despise traffic congestion. Yet traffic congestion is an inevitable sign of a healthy, thriving, alive city or community. It shows that the community is attractive enough that people want to be there. It also shows, in some instances, that the community has not degraded itself by excessively catering to the needs of the car.

Putting too much into car needs inevitably leads to a degradation of conditions that make PEOPLE happy, since people and cars have disparate needs. Cars like huge asphalt parking lots, high-speed roads, lots of lighting, and no other cars around (cars are anti-social). huge turn radius for roadPeople outside of cars feel unsafe, inconvenienced, unpleasant and exposed in large parking lots or near high-speed roads. As sociable animals, people also tend to enjoy having other people around.

Often, people confuse traffic congestion with a sign that the community is unhealthy. As Yogi Berra once said, “The place got so crowded that no one went there anymore.”

Traffic congestion is nearly always our friend, and should not be fought against by improving car travel conditions.

Congestion, for example, does the following beneficial things:

  1. Encourages infill development.
  2. Encourages higher residential and commercial densities.
  3. Encourages compact, mixed-use development.
  4. Slows down cars.
  5. Slows down suburban sprawl.
  6. Slows the decline of downtowns and in-town, locally-owned retail.
  7. Reduces regional air pollution and gasoline consumption.
  8. Discourages low-value car trips.
  9. Encourages residential development near or in downtown and employment concentrations.
  10. Reduces car dependency.
  11. Improves the quality of public transit.
  12. Improves conditions for walking and bicycling.

In sum, congestion is caused by a community being attractive and vibrant. It is a community that is wealthy enough for its residents to be able to afford to own cars. A community without congestion is an unhealthy, unattractive community. Or its residents are unable to afford to own cars.

The beneficial way to address car congestion is not to try, hopelessly, to reduce it. The best way to deal with congestion is to establish ways to avoid it.

Create multiple routes to destinations. Make it easier to walk, bicycle or use transit. Build compactly so distances are shortened. And so on.

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Transportation Comes Before Land Use

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 21, 2004

The condition of the street determines what happens alongside it. I agree with urbanist Robert Gibbs when he says it is unfair to require a business to abut a streetside sidewalk when the street does not have on-street parking. When street carrying a relatively large volume of cars lacks on-street parking, the street is too hostile to have buildings butt up to it. I don’t at all blame businesspeople for pulling away from the street when the street is a “car sewer.”street without on street parking

In sum, either a relatively large street without on-street parking is forever to be a strip commercial “lost land” because it is impractical to shrink its size, or it needs to be made livable (largely with on-street parking and removal of travel lanes – both of which create a more human-scaled, slower-speed environment) before you start requiring buildings to behave themselves by pulling up to the sidewalk and having an entrance face the street.

If we try to force buildings to be pedestrian-friendly BEFORE the street is rehabilitated, we risk giving urbanism a black eye. We understandably increase the likelihood of a political firestorm of businesspeople SCREAMING to elected officials not to force their buildings up on the sidewalk.

Sadly, we fail to heed the above warning, and instead we almost always keep our fingers crossed and hope — in desperation — that we can fix the land development regulations or redo the urban design along a street before we fix the street, because fixing the street is (usually rightly) seen as being a non-starter (at least in our lifetimes), and the former is WAY more do-able.

To put land use before transportation is an ineffective path of least resistance.

 

 

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