Are Master Plans Useful?

By Dom Nozzi

I was told that “a lot of the smaller towns need to go vertical now or, at the very least plan for it. As increased density is the easiest way to stave off the ‘crowding’ from lack of infrastructure development that seems to go along with suburban sprawl around here.” This person asked if I “had a chance to review the master plans for the county and local municipalities?”

I responded by pointing out that I agreed about our needing more height and density to reduce the perception of “crowding.” However, I think it is best, like much of Paris, to avoid going higher than five stories with building heights.

I have mostly not looked at any Greenville County (South Carolina) or City of Greenville master plans.

Having spent 20 years writing such plans professionally, I learned that 99 percent of master plan content is little more than lip service and vague platitudes.

Little known fact: Nearly all cities and counties adopt plans that people assume are tailored for the local community, yet nearly all of these plans end up saying nearly the same “feel good” things that every other city and county say in their plans. In communities that are utterly lacking in leadership — such as my former city of Gainesville FL — the master “plans” are not plans at all. They simply document what the city had agreed to do or was in the process of doing already. So the “plans” are perhaps more accurately called history books that used “happy” words.

If someone was to ask me to state the top two or three things that Greenville and Greenville County should do to improve quality of life, safety, economic health, public health, happiness, and pride (ie, the two or three things that a master plan must call for above and beyond anything else), those items would be to adopt the following Master Plan.

Dom’s Master Plan for Greenville SC (and nearly every other American city)

American cities – after a century of single-mindedly allocating vast sums of public dollars to promoting motor vehicle travel – have created a world designed primarily for motor vehicles rather than people. The following are the three primary ways this must be corrected.

(1)  Because motor vehicles consume so much space, a century of efforts to promote motor vehicle mobility means that American cities are dying from the disease known as “Gigantism.” It is a self-perpetuating downward spiral.

To escape, we must — in our town center — shrink the size of roads, including converting one-ways back to two-way, and removing continuous left-turn lanes. Also, we need to shrink highways, intersections, parking lots, building setbacks, and minimum lot and house sizes. We need to reduce the height of signs, lights, and skyscraper buildings. And couple this with bringing an end to the extremely dangerous practice of employing forgiving roadway design in local traffic engineering manuals, and to instead adopt manuals that promote slower, safer, more attentive driving;

(2) Adopt a form-based rather than a use-based development code, a code which would obligate much more compact development, a vast increase in walkable neighborhoods, require traditional/historical rather than modernist architecture, and adopting geographically calibrated development regulations that provide for all lifestyle choices.

We need to further promote compact development by inverting property taxes. Conventional tax rate structure used by nearly all cities taxes buildings instead of land. The higher the value of a building on a piece of downtown land, the higher the tax. Instead, tax land itself, not the building on it, so that there is a tax disincentive for keeping land vacant or underused in the town center; and

(3) Significantly increase the amount of (paid) on-street parking in the town center, coupled with a conversion of required minimum parking to a maximum allowable amount of parking for new development, as well as unbundling the price of housing from the cost of any parking provided for that housing. Adopt other motorist user fees such as electronic road tolling.

My guess is that none of the above is called for by local master plans. And whereas those master plans are surely hundreds of pages long, my master plan (above) is about one page long.

I can even write a master plan that consists of one sentence: “The City shall re-establish the timeless principle of designing to make people happy rather than cars.”

That captures nearly everything important that needs to be done in American cities.

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