Category Archives: Politics

Why Are Mom and Pop Stores So Scarce?

By Dom Nozzi

May 17, 2017

A friend of mine recently complained that the city we live in (Boulder CO) is “planning ANOTHER bank for the Pearl St. Mall! When is enough enough,” she asked?

She went on to claim that there are “15 empty store fronts but that is because of landlord greed.”

“When,” she wondered, “will the city decide that we need to encourage mom and pop stores over banks and large chains that have no vested interest in the city?”

The City of Boulder, I explained to her, is not planning to add another bank to the Mall. A bank president is planning to do that.

Banks, I said, are common in such low-density places (such as American pedestrian malls) that are unable to attract a large number of customers, as are jewelers. If you were a landlord along the Mall, I told my friend, I suspect that you would be aggressively seeking the rents sought by the existing landlords, as I believe you share the same values as those landlords: making money rather than losing money. And I suspect you would not consider yourself “greedy” for wanting to avoid losing money.

Throughout its history, and up to this very moment, Boulder (like a great many cities in America) has desired mom and pop stores along the Mall. But there is almost nothing a city can do to encourage such stores for two primary reasons: (1) The rent is very high along the Mall, which makes it financially impossible for a mom and pop store to afford to be there; and (2) The density of residential and commercial development in the vicinity of the Mall is far too low to attract enough customers to make it feasible for a mom and pop store to survive.

Mom and pop stores only occur when rents are relatively low, when there are a high number of customers living and working in the vicinity (such as in Brussels, Antwerp, Bern, Siena, and many other compact cities), or both.

The Law of Large Numbers, when applied to cities, shows that as a city grows its population, and does so relatively compactly, worker productivity increases, innovation increases, mom and pop stores grow in number, cultural diversity grows, and the range of restaurants and grocery store items grows. The Law partly is driven by synergy. UntitledSynergy occurs when larger numbers of people congregate and work together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Low densities, by isolating creatives, destroys diversity, innovation, smaller scales and the number of choices available.

Boulder is an interesting case because it shows both effects: a very low density, yet relatively high levels of innovation due to the large number of brilliant and creative people who have settled in Boulder — largely due to the high quality of life. If Boulder became much more compact and dense, I believe levels of innovation, diversity, productivity, mom and pop stores, and productivity would grow substantially (the city would also be far more walkable and bikeable).

Boulder’s decades of NIMBYS fighting tooth and nail to lower densities (and the very high quality of life) in the city are the primary reason why mom and pop stores are rare on the Mall and big chains/banks/jewelers are common.

When is enough NIMBYism enough?

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Filed under Economics, Politics, Urban Design

The Fruits of NIMBYism, Part II

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2017

I have a friend here in Boulder who complained about how Boulder, Colorado would heavy-handedly not allow accessory kitchens such as hers at her upstairs apartments.nimby-web-2

My response:

Anti-density NIMBYism strikes again. This sort of iron hand is the City acting on behalf of RAGING no-growthers. And FURIOUS motorists who believe they have a god-given, constitutional right to free/easy parking and uncongested roads.

Every single time that a Boulderite screams about building heights being too high or density being too much or buildings being too big or growth being out of control or the development blocking my view of the Flatirons or a project will take away my on-street parking or a site plan delivering houses that are cheek and jowl too close to each other or a development not having enough open space or buildings having setbacks that are too small (and each  of these screams go into Council ears nearly every single day), the less likely it is that Boulder will allow or promote accessory units, granny flats, accessory kitchens, tiny houses, affordable housing, more walking, more bicycling, and more transit.

Oops.

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Filed under Politics

Fighting Against What Is Wanted

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 26, 2017

Many in Boulder CO hold contradictory views.

On the one hand, one hears a lot of folks saying they hate sprawl and cars (at least those driven by others) and the high cost of housing in Boulder.NIMBY-protest-Toronto-Boston-SanFrancisco-neighbourhood-airport-housing-preservation-Condo.ca_-512x341

On the other hand, many of these same people hate the things that would most cost-effectively reduce those problems: compact development, accessory dwellings, increasing the number of adults who can live in a home, buildings over one or two stories, smaller setbacks, less private open space, traffic calming, restricted/priced/managed parking, and shrinking oversized roads.

Oops.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Effective Education Tactics for Sustainable Transportation

By Dom Nozzi

April 19, 2017

A Boulder transportation planner asked me if I knew of any effective education tactics Boulder could use.

Of course I do. I’m happy to offer my thoughts and suggestions.

I’m a cultural materialist, I told him, which means that I generally only see material conditions as effective levers in changing behavior or values. If we want to effectively educate people to change their behavior or values, the tools need to be exclusively or predominantly focused on price signals, changes in our transportation infrastructure, and changes in our land use patterns.

Conventional education campaigns such as media ads or signage tend to be utterly overwhelmed, subverted, and ignored in the face of the tidal wave of societal, infrastructure, and price signals. We can, for example, run ads or put up signs that urge people to bicycle or walk or use transit more, but that “education” is completely drowned out by counter messages in our world: Roads are too wide and too high speed, 2325691674_604babedc6destinations are too far apart, and huge subsidies are granted to you if you drive a car everywhere.

Throughout every day, we are pounded with these pro-car, pro-speeding, pro-distracted-driving “education” messages. Even if Boulder spent billions to run thousands of “ride a bike for your health and for the environment” ads every hour of every day, the counter messages (material conditions) are so vast and so powerful that nearly all people realize it is completely rational to drive everywhere (and to do so at high speeds while on a cell phone).

Using the media to “educate” people to behave in a more desirable way is so temptingly easy for local governments. It is so easy, politically, because there is little or no opposition. No one is inconvenienced or forced to pay more to continue to do what they are doing.

It is also very cheap, financially. It creates the (false) impression that government is “doing something” about a problem.

The ease of education campaigns explains why governments have been engaging in such campaigns over and over again for centuries. But one must wonder: given the appalling track record in achieving meaningful results with such campaigns, are such campaigns not a form of insanity? (a common definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results)

Indeed, I consider conventional education ads such as public service announcements and other media campaigns to be so utterly ineffective that when we opt to use them, we are essentially saying we are not going to do anything about the problem – except pay lip service.

In sum, I suggest the following education campaigns: priced parking, tolled roads, attentive instead of forgiving street design, higher gas taxes, unbundled parking, road diets, compact and mixed use land use patterns, location-efficient mortgages, traffic calming, converting one-way streets back to two-way, pay-at-the-pump car insurance, a land value tax (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_value_tax), adopting the “Idaho Law” for intersections, elimination of car level-of-service standards, elimination of street hierarchies, much higher street connectivity, elimination of required parking land development regulations, stop synchronizing traffic lights for motorist speeds, reduce the size of service vehicles, reduced pedestrian crossing distances, reduced building setbacks, and required parking cash-out for all future employers.

Yes, each of these education tactics are nearly impossible, politically, in Boulder (which shows the surprising backwardness of Boulder in transportation policy). But being effective is important if we want to do meaningful things, and there are quite a few meaningful things Boulder needs to do very soon, given all the enormous problems we face. This will require leadership. It will require courage.

Is Boulder up to the task?

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No-Growthers and the Double Standard

By Dom Nozzi

April 14, 2017

American communities, for several decades, have suffered from being the home of a great many citizens with two toxic beliefs: No-growthers, who oppose nearly all proposed developments, and the Double Standard crowd.

A shocking number of Americans (including nearly everyone in Boulder CO, where I live) hold two incompatible, all-about-me views at the same time: “I MUST OWN AND USE A CAR FOR ALL MY TRIPS, AND MY CAR MUST BE HEAVILY PAMPERED AND SUBSIDIZED BY SOCIETY!”

The second view, which is held by the very same people (especially in Boulder): “I HATE THAT OTHER PEOPLE OWN AND USE CARS AND WE MUST STOP DEVELOPMENT OR MINIMIZE DENSITY SO THAT WE KEEP THOSE CARS FROM CONGESTING ‘MY’ STREETS AND ‘MY’ PARKING LOTS!”Man Expressing Road Rage

No growthism, and applying double standards when it comes to acceptable behavior, are a recipe for a grim future. Neither attitude is in any way sustainable.

And it appears that there is little hope we will see much change in this regard.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Suggestions for Running a Smooth, Productive Public Workshop Centering on Street Redesign

By Dom Nozzi

March 31, 2017

A staff member from a college town transportation department learned that I would not be able to attend the first meeting of a citizen workshop pertaining to the redesign of a street on the eastern periphery of the urbanized portion of the town.

Because I was serving on the city transportation advisory board, the staff person thought it would be helpful for me to suggest ways the first meeting could run more smoothly and productively.

The following is my response.

In my 31 years of experience at public workshops as both a citizen and a professional, the two most important lessons I have learned in getting a group to operate smoothly and productively is that the process must start by having a skilled, non-threatening professional expert provide a summary of design principles.

That summary should describe what is known from research about the impacts and effectiveness of various design treatments, what might work locally, and lessons learned from other communities – in other words, the typical way to start a design charrette.

Without this upfront education, group members tend to be coming from vastly different perspectives and lack of knowledge that significantly increases the likelihood that differences of opinion cannot be resolved (and that there will be so much frustration about not being on the same page that hostility arises). A lack of knowledge on the part of some/all of the group members also amplifies an enormous problem in public meetings: The LESS someone knows about a topic, the MORE CERTAIN they are about the thought that they are right.

Two tools that are very helpful in providing quick, informed awareness, and meaningful input, for a non-professional group: (1) maximize the use of easy-to-understand graphics that visually show conditions, issues, and design principles (such graphics must be very June8workshop-1simple and minimize the amount of irrelevant engineering clutter that distracts from the important issues that need to be conveyed). (2) Use real-time visual preference (and other) surveys to assess group preferences during the meeting. The use of clickers to do real-time surveys of a group was extremely effective and useful at the traffic mitigation workshop the City sponsored a few weeks ago by the City.

I would also note, with regard to that traffic mitigation meeting, that I found it very useful to clearly point out at the beginning of the meeting that people need to LISTEN to others and be RESPECTFUL of others.

Overall, it is essential that the group start off with a clear understanding of the overall land use and transportation objectives for the corridor. If the objective is to, say, create another strip commercial corridor, the street to be redesigned at the workshop will need to have a higher speed design that makes free-flowing car traffic the imperative. If, on the other hand, the objective is to support safe, walkable, smaller scale retail, office and residential, the street under analysis will need to have a slower speed design that supports transportation choice and making the pedestrian the design imperative.

The staff person also asked me to imagine that, at the end of the day, I didn’t get everything I wanted for the street being analyzed, but I found myself really pleased with the process.  I was, in other words, able to say that it was both credible and meaningful.  What would have happened, this staff person asked?

I told her that given the high level of contentious hostility and ridiculing we were seeing at public meetings in this town, it would be essential that meetings are designed to make it safe for all viewpoints to be expressed – even those viewpoints that are relatively controversial – and that even those who are relatively timid in expressing their views feel comfortable in expressing their views. The use of the real-time clicker surveys is a good way to do that, as are a few other methods (such as allowing people to submit written ideas).

For me to feel as if the meeting was credible and meaningful, it is also essential that the group be provided with upfront education as I mentioned above. Without that, the group is likely to be little more than an uninformed, emotional mob with axes to grind. As a result, too many expressed citizen objectives end up being a random free-for-all of personal, parochial bias that ignores community objectives.

Another important way for me to feel that the meeting was meaningful comes from a feeling that the group has fully expressed their hopes and dreams (their visions). Too often in public workshops these days, I have a strong sense that attendees are either overly bashful about expressing their visions, or are not even aware that certain visions they may have are even feasible. This bashfulness or lack of awareness is another important reason why upfront education from a professional design expert is important, as doing so makes it much more likely that attendees will be less bashful or more aware of the full range of possible visions.

 

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Filed under Politics, Transportation

Is Boulder, Colorado in Danger of Becoming Too Dense?

By Dom Nozzi

March 9, 2017

I hear it all the time as a resident of Boulder, Colorado: “Boulder is too dense!”

I beg to differ.

I support Boulder’s long-standing objectives, such as reducing the city carbon footprint (to ease global warming), reducing noise pollution, improving affordability, increasing the number of trips made by foot or bike or transit, slowing tax increases, ensuring the City has the fiscal capacity to engage in needed/ongoing maintenance of our infrastructure, protecting environmentally sensitive outlying areas from suburban development, reducing traffic injuries and deaths (in part by designing streets to be slower speed and obligate motorists to be more attentive), promoting small retail shops and discouraging large retail shops, encouraging diversity and creativity, improving public health, and retaining a lovable character rather than an Anywhere USA character.

Each of these worthy objectives are furthered by more compact (dense) development.

Unfortunately, despite the conventional wisdom, Boulder is actually quite dispersed. Shockingly so.

Indeed, Boulder is so extremely low-density suburban that if we don’t become more compact and add a lot more housing, we will continue to undermine each of the objectives I list here.

Besides the low density and short-statured nature of development I have observed in Boulder, there is another element that strongly signals that Boulder is suburban in character. sprawl
Christopher Leinberger has pointed out that in compact, walkable neighborhoods, “more is better.” That is, new, more compact development tends to be welcomed because it typically improves the quality of life of those living a walkable lifestyle (more things to walk to, for example). By contrast, says Leinberger, in a drivable suburban neighborhood, “more is less.” In such a setting, new and more compact development tends to be detrimental to the drivable quality of life of residents (roads are more congested and parking is more scarce, for example).

For decades, Boulder has had a near consensus that “more is less,” which is a strong signal that Boulder is a drivable suburban community. Indeed, stopping development – or, if not possible, at least minimizing the density of new development — tends to be the be all and end all of protecting or improving quality of life in Boulder.

Our very low-density, dispersed suburban character means that Boulder’s per capita environmental impact is, ironically, very large (being “green” means far more than engaging in curbside recycling or driving a Prius). Dispersed land use patterns found in Boulder are unsustainable, very environmentally destructive, and ensure that nearly all trips in Boulder will be made by motor vehicle.

There is a growing desire for compact, walkable, town center housing — particularly with the Millennial generation — yet Boulder provides very little if any of that sort of housing. Demand for such housing is substantially higher than the supply of it. Which severely amplifies the affordable housing crisis in Boulder.

Sustainability is far out of reach for Boulder unless we provide a lot more compact, walkable housing.

In sum, I think Boulder is quite far from being “too dense.” So far that a “too dense” Boulder will not happen in our lifetimes — if ever. Indeed, it seems to me that Boulder’s biggest concern should be that we are too dispersed.

I previously wrote about why I believe so many people in Boulder (like in so many other American communities) believe their community is “too dense,” despite the obvious signs I cite above.

It is enormously ironic that a great many Boulder residents — not to mention the millions worldwide — love the great historic cities and towns of Europe so much that they happily spend huge sums of money to visit such towns on a regular basis. Nearly all of us love Copenhagen. We adore Amsterdam. We are charmed by Perugia. We are delighted by Dubrovnik. We cannot get enough of Granada.

Yet each of these celebrated cities are far more compact – far more dense – than Boulder.

Why this disconnect?

I believe there are three important reasons. First, the contemporary modernist architectural paradigm we have been saddled with for several decades has thrown the inherently lovable 315-0722092524-NSA-building-and-parking-lotand timeless traditional building design into the waste can in favor of repellent, “innovative,” look-at-me design. Citizens are thereby conditioned to equate new compact development with hideous buildings. Second, local zoning regulations in cities such as Boulder have made lovable, human-scaled design illegal by requiring excessive setbacks, excessive car parking, and excessive private open space. Third, nearly all citizens live car-dependent lifestyles. And because their cars consume such an enormous amount of space, motorists are compelled to fear and oppose town design that they otherwise love as tourists. They have, in essence, become their own enemies by striving to improve their life as motorists (equating quality of life with easy parking and free-flowing traffic), not realizing that doing so is ruinous to a healthy city and a lovable quality of life.

For much of our history up until the 20th Century, citizens welcomed and celebrated new development in their communities because they knew that almost invariably, the new development would improve the quality of life in their community.  Steve Belmont has informed us that a densifying city is a sign of city health. But that welcoming of new development has been understandably inverted into a widespread opposition to new modern-architecture-Ronchamp-Chapeldevelopment, largely due to the modernist architectural paradigm, local car-friendly development regulations, and car-dependent citizens who have become cheerleaders for their cars rather than for themselves, their family, and their neighbors.

Boulder can comfortably house a great many more newcomers, and if our land development regulations are properly crafted to insist that new development be walkable, our community will be greatly improved in each of the ways I list above.

For the record, I generally dislike buildings taller than 5 stories (the limit set by city charter), but know that the city can be much better and provide a lot more housing by allowing buildings to be 3-5 stories in appropriate locations.

Note, too, that I do not believe that EVERYONE should be obligated to live in more compact, walkable housing. A community should always provide sufficient housing for the full range of lifestyle choices: walkable town center, drivable suburban, and rural.

Unfortunately, drivable suburban is about the only lifestyle option offered in Boulder. Because we have made the cities we love impossible to build.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking