By Dom Nozzi
December 14, 2005
I reviewed plans for the design of a new “student village” in southwest Gainesville Florida in late 2005.
I am an enthusiastic advocate of walkable, quality urbanism and was therefore quite pleased to see the dense, mixed-use, walkable, compact design that had been created by a student studio project group for this southwest Gainesville location at the southwest gateway to the University of Florida campus.
Here are some items that concern me:
I believe it is unwise to allow the size of fire trucks to dictate the height of the buildings and the width of the travel lanes, as this plan proposes. If walkable design requires certain dimensions, I don’t think it is a good idea to revise those dimensions to accommodate over-sized trucks. I would suggest that the final report recommend that the City and County invest in smaller fire trucks (and maybe smaller transit vehicles) to accommodate the walkable, compact, human-scaled neighborhoods that we will increasingly be building in our communities.
Yes, buying such trucks would probably be more expensive. But it is a lot more expensive to save money on the conventional over-sized fire trucks and then be obligated to bear the large costs (car crashes, lower-value/lower-quality development, etc.) that result from those big trucks.
Quality urbanism is somewhat more expensive than mediocre urbanism, but this community needs to have the wisdom and the pride to willingly want to pay those extra costs by, for example, buying smaller fire trucks.
I was impressed by how the proposal is illustrating block size comparisons for the downtowns of well-known cities in other parts of the world. It is crucial for walkability that the block sizes used in the Student Village be as small as possible (200 to 400 ft). Note that Portland OR is widely admired for its modest block sizes.
Similarly, it is crucial that the design maximize connectivity and accessibility, as this significantly adds to travel choice and walkability, not to mention substantially reducing traffic congestion.
In my opinion, the design options are showing an over-abundance of park space. While I acknowledge that a large number of SMALL parks, plazas and squares is important for quality urbanism, we should be careful about relatively large parks. Such parks can detract from the human-scaled proximity that walkability requires by introducing walking distances that are too large. As a side note, I would be concerned that the quantity of greenspace in the proposal might have a significant deadening effect on the Village — walkability is better promoted when we have a bustling, compact concentration of mixed and vibrant buildings in close proximity to each other. Parks, if not laid out modestly, can detract from that.
I wonder about how much dense urbanism we can realistically expect in this location. While it is close to the UF campus, I don’t know that it will contain a major transportation “crossroads” that throughout history has been essential in the emergence of dense urbanism. Main Street and University Avenue originally did that in Gainesville. Today, it is primarily the I-75 interchanges that provide such a critical mass of vehicle trips. Can we realistically expect a critical mass of trips in this location to drive dense urbanism? I believe this is an important question, as doing such things as changing land use designations from low density to high density doesn’t do much at all to influence the emergence of dense urbanism.
I am uncomfortable with the recommendation to allow buildings that are 7-10 stories high. Taller buildings typically detract from walkability, because they generally result in excessive amounts of auto parking surrounding them. Taller buildings also result in a smaller number of buildings in the Village. For walkability, I’d rather have, say, 6 five-story buildings than 3 ten-story buildings. More buildings means more vibrancy and more proximity, and less dead space. Paris, for example, is one of the great cities of the world with regard to quality urbanism, and I believe they limit their buildings to 5 stories.
I am uncomfortable with the idea of creating tall, dense development in the southwest corner of our urban area. Frankly, I don’t believe that poly-centric cities are a good idea. My concern is that a second “downtown” for Gainesville would drain retail, office and residential energy that is so desperately needed in Gainesville’s original downtown. Also, it seems to me that for the sake of creating a sense of community and reducing vehicle travel, our civic, socially-condensing institutions should be located in a single place (downtown, and to a lesser extent UF), rather than creating a second set of civic buildings at our urban edge.
One could argue, I suppose, that the Village could become a stand-alone “new city” that is distinct from Gainesville, but again, due to the lack of an important crossroads here, I’m not sure this is a realistic idea.
I applaud the project for recognizing the importance of creating low-design-speed streets in the Village. That is essential if this is to be a successful, dense, vibrant, walkable project. As I indicated at the meeting, there are a great many designs that can be introduced to slow vehicle speeds beyond creation of 10-foot wide travel lanes. I firmly believe that to create safer, low-speed, high-quality streets, we need to move back to the timeless tradition of re-introducing friction in our streets (on-street parking, buildings and street trees close to the street, bulb-outs, no more than 3 lanes of street width, etc.). Streets are safer when motorists are obligated to pay attention and be careful. Streets are less safe when we follow the “forgiving street” convention of removing friction, which enables inattentive, high-speed car travel.
A dilemma for this project in its desire to create low design speeds is that the Village is located in a suburban, high-speed environment. That means that when driving in this portion of our urban area, motorists have a very strong expectation of being able to drive very fast and very inattentively. That means that it is crucial that the Village incorporate strong, unmistakable messages at its borders. That is, high-visibility Gateway Street treatments are important. As a motorist enters the Village, the street should clearly announce that the motorist is entering a slow-speed, pedestrian-oriented village. Features that could be used to announce such a message might include a narrowing of the street, buildings closer to the street, lower-profile post-mounted traffic signals, perhaps a roundabout, landscaped monument signs (and maybe a banner of some sort) proudly announcing entrance to the village, on-street parking, brick paving, painted paving, etc.
In my opinion, parking strategies are essential to the success of this project as a walkable, vibrant, urban place. First, it is very important that this project strongly encourages (or if feasible, requires) new residential (and ideally, commercial) development to UNBUNDLE parking from the cost of the residential unit. The convention of bundling the cost of the parking into the price of the residence is almost begging people to own and use cars at the residence. Since the project recommends a strong transit element, I am confident that a good number of residents would opt to forego paying more for their residence by not purchasing a parking space (only possible if the parking is unbundled from the residential price).
I have some concerns about the project calling for structured, multi-story parking garages. The per-space cost for such parking is quite enormous, and I am not at all sure that the land/market where the Village is located will be able to justify such an expense. How many retailers or prospective residential tenants, in other words, would be willing to pay roughly $10,000 per parking space in this location? Also, I have learned over the years that people tend not to want to park in structured parking unless they will be parked for several hours (for a job, a major entertainment event, etc.). Typically, people don’t like parking in a garage in order to go shopping.
In sum, I believe that parking in the Village should emphasize priced parking — particularly on-street parking. Certainly, structured parking is preferable to surface parking because it minimizes the parking footprint, thereby promoting compact walkability and additional retail opportunities. But while I favor structured parking, I don’t know that we can expect the market to be able to provide it in the Village. This is not to say we should just have a free-for-all on surface parking. Surface parking can and needs to be controlled by having the Village be parking exempt (don’t require new development to provide parking). Downtown Gainesville, for example, is parking exempt — a necessity for any place that intends to be walkable. It also needs to be controlled by only allowing it to occur at the rear or side of buildings. Structured parking, by the way, should only be allowed if it is wrapped by office/retail/residential.
I would refer the designers of this proposal to Donald Shoup’s new book (The High Cost of Free Parking). In my 19 years as a city planner, it is one of the most magnificent book I have ever read. The book should be required reading for all planners, engineers and elected officials.
I have not seen this yet in the Village plan, but I assume that the plan will recommend that there is a modest build-to requirement that obligates buildings to be pulled up to the street and sidewalk.
In sum, I am quite impressed by the project, despite my concerns.