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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

Redeveloping the Boulder Community Hospital Site in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 27, 2017

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

As owners of the Boulder Community Hospital (BCH) site bounded by Broadway, Alpine, 9th Street, and Balsam, the City of Boulder has a golden opportunity to demonstrate the preferred vision for creating compact, walkable development in appropriate locations within Boulder.

For too long, citizens have rightly attacked many new projects in Boulder. We now have a chance to show how to do it right.

The following is one man’s opinion about how we can do it right at the BCH site.

First Determine the Context

Our very first task in establishing a “How to Do It Right” vision is to determine the “context” of the site. Where is it located in the community? Is it a walkable town center? A drivable suburb? A farmable rural area? Only when we answer that question are we able to know which design tactics are appropriate and which are inappropriate. For example, if we are in a suburban context, it is inappropriate to insert shops and offices within the neighborhood, or use small building setbacks. However, if we are in a town center context, those design tactics are entirely appropriate and desirable.

transect

In the case of the BCH site, it is generally agreed by the City that the context is walkable town center (what is called “Urban Center Zone” in the above figure). It is now important, given that, to ensure that the design of the site is compatible with that vision.

How do we do that?

A Form-Based Code

Perhaps the most effective way to do that is to establish what is called a “form-based code (FBC)” or a “subcommunity overlay plan,” which was successfully used to guide the development of the Holiday neighborhood in North Boulder.

The FBC or plan emphasizes the importance of “form” by specifying the appropriate and desirable building placements, street dimensions, and building materials. This differs from the conventional “use-based” zoning codes, which over-emphasize the importance of uses within a building, and only specify designs and dimensions that are prohibited, rather than specifying what is desired by the community.

As Andres Duany notes[1]

…A FBC protects us from the tendency of modern designers to disregard timeless design principles in favor of “anything goes.” An “anything goes” ideology too often leads to “kitschy” buildings, unwalkable streets, and other aspects of low-quality urban design.

…A FBC protects us from the whims of boards and committees.

…A FBC is necessary so that the “various professions that affect urbanism will act with unity of purpose.” Without integrated codes, architects, civil engineers and landscape architects can undermine each others’ intentions by suboptimizing.

…A FBC is necessary because without it, buildings and streets are “shaped not by urban designers but by fire marshals, civil engineers, poverty advocates, market experts, accessibility standards, materials suppliers and liability attorneys” – none of whom tend to know or care about urban design.

…A FBC is necessary because “unguided neighborhood design tends, not to vitality, but to socioeconomic monocultures.” The wealthy, the middle-class, and the poor segregate from each other, as do shops and restaurants, offices, and manufacturing. A FBC can ensure a level of diversity without which walkability wilts.

…A FBC is necessary to reign in the tendency of contemporary architects to design “look at me” buildings that disrupt the urban fabric.

…A FBC is necessary to ensure that locally appropriate, traditional design is employed, rather than “Anywhere USA” design.

…A FBC is needed to protect against the tendency to suburbanize places that are intended to provide compact, walkable urbanism.

…A FBC is necessary to protect against the tendency to over-use greenery in inappropriate places such as walkable town centers. In particular, grass areas tend to be inappropriate in walkable centers. Over-using greenery is a common mistake that tends to undermine walkability.

…A FBC is needed because codes “can compensate for deficient professional training. Because schools continue to educate architects towards self-expression rather than towards context, to individual building rather than to the whole.”

We can craft a FBC in hands-on workshops driven by citizens and urban designers. When crafting a FBC, such workshops are called “charrettes,” where professional urban designers provide attendees with a one- or multi-day training course in the time-tested design principles of creating a successful town center, suburb, or rural area. Armed with such knowledge, citizens and designers craft a FBC that is appropriate for the context and community values.

Designing the BCH Site

The following are my own individual suggestions for a FBC that would employ time-tested principles for creating a successful walkable, lovable, charming town center.

The overall layout is compact and walkable. For example, building setbacks are human-scaled and quite modest. Private front and backyards are similarly small in size. Public parks are smaller pocket parks rather than larger, suburban, fields of grass (note that abundant grass and athletic fields are provided adjacent to the west of the BCH site). Some of these parks are relatively small public squares formed by buildings that face the square on all four sides. If surface parking is unavoidable at the site (and I would very strongly urge against such parking), the parking should be designed as a public square that occasionally accommodates parked cars. Block sizes are relatively small, based on a street grid, and include many intersections. Internal streets and alleys are plentiful and narrow enough to obligate slower speed, more attentive driving. Give-way streets, slow streets, woonerfs, and walking streets are all appropriate and desirable.

Internal streets should have a spacing of at least one-to-one (or two-to-one or one-to-two) ratio of flanking building height to street width. (Pearl Street Mall has a ratio that fall within the ranges below).

ratio

To promote vibrancy and safety, the City should encourage 24/7 activity by discouraging weekday businesses, such as offices, that close after 5. Businesses that close after 5 create night-time dead zones.

Service vehicles that may use streets, such as buses, delivery vehicles, or fire trucks should be small enough that they do not obligate the establishment of overly large streets or intersections. When such vehicles cannot be relatively small, it is appropriate for such vehicles to be obligated to move more slowly and carefully. Dimensions, in other words, should be human-scaled, not tractor-trailer-scaled.

If feasible, Goose Creek under the BCH site should be daylighted. It would be appropriate to create a bustling, miniature version of the San Antonio Riverwalk, with homes and shops lining the creek. At a minimum, a daylighted creek needs to be relatively permeable with several pedestrian crossings along the way to promote walkability. Since the BCH site is in a compact, walkable zone, wide suburban greenspaces flanking the creek would not be appropriate.

Alignments are more formal and rectilinear. Internal streets, sidewalks and alleys have a straight rather than curvilinear (suburban) trajectory. Street trees along a block face are of the same species (or at least have similar size and shape), have a large enough canopy to shade streets, and should be formally aligned in picturesque straight lines rather than suburban clumps. Building placement is square to streets and squares rather than rotated (to avoid “train wreck” alignment more appropriate for suburbs). Buildings that are rotated rather than parallel to streets and squares are unable to form comfortable spaces.

Streets deploy square curbs and gutters. Stormwater requirements should be relaxed at the site to prevent unwalkable oversizing of facilities. Streets are flanked by sidewalks. Signs used by businesses are kept relatively small in size. For human scale, visual appeal, and protection from weather, shops along the street are encouraged to use canopies, colonnades, arcades, and balconies. When feasible, civic buildings or other structures with strong verticality are used to terminate street vistas.

Turn lanes and slip lanes in streets are not allowed on the site.

Street lights are relatively short in height to create a romantic pedestrian ambiance and signal to motorists that they are in a slow-speed environment. They are full cut-off to avoid light pollution.

Buildings are clad in context-appropriate brick, stone, and wood. Matching the timeless traditional styles of the nearby Mapleton Hill neighborhood is desirable. Building height limit regulations exempt pitched roofs above the top floor of buildings to encourage pitched roof form and discourage the blocky nature of flat roofs. Obelisks and clock towers are also exempt from height limits.

Buildings taller than five stories should be discouraged for a number of reasons. First, they tend to be overwhelming to pedestrian/human scale. Second, they tend to induce excessive amounts of car parking. Finally, if we assume that the demand for floor space is finite at the BCH site, it is much preferable from the standpoint of walkability for there to be, say, 10 buildings that are 5 stories in height rather than 5 buildings that are 10 stories in height.

Floor-area-ratio (FAR) is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land. A relatively high FAR is supportive of walking, transit, and bicycling. In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0.[2]  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers.[3]

FAR

Buildings along the street are often graced with front porches to promote sociability, citizen surveillance, and visual desirability.

Relatively small offices and retail shops are sensitively interspersed within the neighborhood. For additional walkable access to shops and services, Broadway to the west of the BCH site should incorporate designs which make the crossing more safe and permeable. Narrowing crossing distances and various slow-speed treatments can effectively achieve increased permeability.

First floors of buildings along sidewalks provide ample windows. First floors of buildings are not appropriate places for the parking of cars.

Given the affordable housing crisis in Boulder, ample affordable housing must be provided. Residences above shops are desirable, as are accessory dwelling units and co-ops. An important element in providing affordable housing will be the fact that the inclusion of shops, services and offices within the neighborhood, residences will be able to allocate larger proportions of household money to their homes and less to car ownership and maintenance (since the household would be able to shed cars by owning, say, one car instead of two, or two instead of three).

An important way to make housing more affordable is to unbundle the price of parking for residences from the price of housing. Available parking is modest in quantity and hidden away from the street. Parking is space efficient because shared parking is emphasized and tends to be either on-street or within stacked parking garages. No parking is allowed to abut streets, unless the parking is on-street, or in a stacked garage wrapped with retail and services along the street.

The BCH site is exempted from required parking, and is also exempt from landscaping requirements.

Unbundling the price of parking and reducing the land devoted to parking are both important ways to create more affordable housing.

The Washington Village neighborhood project a few blocks to the north on Broadway and Cedar is a good model for appropriately compact and walkable spacing at the BCH site.

Let’s not squander this important opportunity. Let’s insist that we build a neighborhood that fits the pattern of walkable Siena, Italy, not drivable Phoenix Arizona.

phoenix

 

References

[1] “Why We Code,” Sky Studio. http://www.studiosky.co/blog/why-we-code.html?utm_content=bufferdde8c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] SNO-TRAN. Creating Transportation Choices Through Zoning: A Guide for Snohomish County Communities. Washington State (October 1994)

[3] Untermann, Richard. (1984). Accomodating the Pedestrian, pg190.

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Human Scale in Urban Design

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 11, 2013

As I often point out, reducing sizes of spaces is one our most essential tasks (at least in the walkable town centers of our city), which means I regularly want to refer to the need to achieve or protect human scale. I guess a reason I like “human-scaled” is that I commonly point out that we have ruined ourselves by designing to make cars happy, rather than meatmarketpeople. “Human-scaled” ties into that. I strive to be clear about what I mean by “human-scale” by talking about what I consider to be appropriate building heights, size of setbacks, and number of travel lanes (or width of street) in various contexts.

In my view, anything more than 5 stories exceeds human-scale (Paris does quite well at 5 stories, and we can get a LOT of density at that height). In my opinion, when we talk about a town center (where I believe human-scale is essential), two or three lanes of street width SHOULD be the limit. I believe places like Hong Kong, Manhattan, and the Champs-Elysees are wonderful DESPITE their over-sized buildings and over-sized streets, not because of such features.

I LOVE the concept of the transect partly because it provides design choice for the entire continuum of lifestyle choices. There are many different preferences for what people seek out in how their environment or neighborhood is designed. However, while I am a strong advocate of providing several different “transect zones” for different lifestyle preferences, I also am a strong advocate of insisting that WITHIN a transect zone, we stick with the theme and avoid transect violations. There should not, in other words, be a design continuum WITHIN a transect zone. My personal preference is to live in and celebrate the compact, walkable transect zone, so I tend to talk about that design almost exclusively. And I insist on certain design elements within that zone. I oppose things I view as violations of such a transect.

One of my best friends in Boulder regularly tells me not to ever mention to any of my friends or family (or on my Facebook posts) any good things about Boulder Colorado because she is very worried that too many people will want to move to Boulder. I usually respond by telling her that Boulder can benefit from having a lot more people move here. One important thing Boulder needs, I tell her, is to increase the low, suburban densities we have in places that need to be more compact and walkable.

Despite my frequent comments along those lines, she continues to believe (like most in Boulder) that the most important way to keep or improve quality of life in Boulder is to STOP LOCAL POPULATION GROWTH.

By contrast, one of my most important agenda items for the city is to REMOVE EXCESSIVE OPEN SPACE (mostly for cars) so that the city has more intimate, human-scaled spacing. Examples of excessive open space: big streetside parking lots, big roadway dimensions, big building setbacks, and big private yards.

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Boulder NIMBYs make quality of life in Boulder worse

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 22, 2015

When it comes to development, Boulder is most well-known for its well-deserved reputation for an extreme, hostile, antagonistic attitude that a large number of Boulder citizens express toward development. This hyper NIMBYism is almost entirely driven by ruinous demands that new development not congest roads or parking. Boulder NIMBYs are convinced that keeping roads and parking uncongested is simply a matter of stopping development (population growth) in its tracks. If that is not possible, to minimize the building height and density. It seems commonsensical: Minimizing people minimizes cars crowding our roads and parking!

This leads to both neglect and incoherence regarding reform of conventional land development regulations here in Boulder.

The fundamental, tragic mistake is that many in Boulder conflate happy, free-flowing, easy parking cars with quality of life. This blunder is highly counterproductive. Happy cars are toxic to quality of life. When cars are inconvenienced and seemingly free to drive or park, quality of life for a city is powerfully undermined, as communities with such an agenda end up with over-sized parking and roads and intersections, excessive and inattentive car speeds, unlovable building design (because there are no coherent, contextual design regulations), sprawl, light and noise pollution, high air emissions per capita, and unwalkably low density development.

Designing roads and parking for happy cars also induces excessive car dependence (yes, even in Boulder), because oversized, high-speed road and parking lot dimensions make 40-peopletravel by walking, bicycling or transit less safe, desirable, or feasible. Coupled with the excessively low densities that NIMBYs demand, and the enormous amount of space cars consume (17 times more than a person in a chair), Boulder’s roads and parking lots quickly and ironically become rapidly congested. This congestion, caused at least partly by NIMBYism, motivates NIMBYs to scream for even MORE opposition to development and compact design.

Which, of course, causes more road and parking congestion…

Allowing planning board and council to apply random, discretionary, subjective demands on proposed development (rather than a predictable, objective form-based code) plays well with those opposing development, as it means further torture and cost increases for developers, yet does nothing to make buildings more lovable or contextual. Ironically, NIMBY attitudes therefore make a visionary form-based development code (which calls for lovable, contextual building design) less possible, even though adopting a good one would, over time, reduce NIMBY hostility.

Example in this photo: the Boulderado hotel in town center Boulder. The most loved building in all of Boulder has been made either illegal or highly unlikely. Maximum Hotel_Boulderado1-T1building height even in the most urbanized areas of Boulder is now a crazy low 35 feet in the town center (Boulderado is 55 ft). In addition, the building design regulations say almost nothing about creating similar buildings going forward.

By naively concluding that free-flowing car traffic is the path to protecting quality of life, and deciding that the only way to preserve such a nirvana is to stop population growth, Boulder NIMBYs force the City to devote too much time and effort towards development opposition, and too little time and effort toward adopting visionary form-based coding that would deliver a more lovable future.

Instead, Boulder NIMBYs increase the likelihood that development which DOES occur (and it WILL occur, since there are no feasible ways to stop population growth) will be regrettable and unworthy of our affection.

The NIMBYism is therefore self-perpetuating, as it ensures an on-going growth in citizens who oppose development of buildings that are at least partly unlovable due to NIMBY distraction from the important task of creating visionary form-based development codes.

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Local Government Development Regulations as a Recipe for Sprawl

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 5, 2005

I worked as a town planner for Gainesville, Florida for 20 years. Like most cities, Gainesville’s plans, policies, regulations, elected officials, and planning staff proclaim that the City supports compact development, more bicycling and walking and transit use, and less sprawl.

Tragically, however, Gainesville has adopted a long list of development regulations that require dispersed, drivable suburbia. Examples are nearly endless.

Gainesville’s building setbacks, like in nearly all cities, are gigantic and desperately fought for by staff.parking_sea

Gainesville’s parking requirements, like in nearly all cities, are ENORMOUS, and staff aggressively fights for as many parking spaces as it can extract from the developer. To do this is to be a “hero” for nearby neighborhoods concerned about “spillover” parking – one of the great bugaboos in American town planning.

Nearly everyone in Gainesville — including most public works staff — join the Florida Department of Transportation in fighting for HUGE intersections and wider roads (I recall that my proposal to limit use of turn lanes downtown in the Transportation Element I prepared for the City was shot down, and my 4-lane maximum road size was subsequently removed after the plan was adopted.

Gainesville has over 33 zoning districts. More single-use districts means more sprawl.

Sidewalk requirements don’t really do much to discourage sprawl when located in suburbia, because distances are too large to encourage people to walk to destinations. They just ease our guilty conscience.

Maximum “floor area ratio” (FAR) requirements (which set the maximum square footage of building that can be built on a property) are extremely low. Low FARs strongly discourage walking, and undercut the need for creating an urban fabric that possesses human-scaled charm.

Minimum lot widths are excessive. Relatively small lot widths promote vibrant, sociable, convenient walkability.

Maximum building height limits are nearly always less than 5 stories. As such, compact urbanism is extremely difficult to achieve.

The City adopted a huge and growing “transportation concurrency exception area” (TCEA). This was done when it was realized that requiring developers to show that “adequate” road capacity was available for the new car trips the development would produce was counterproductively promoting car-oriented sprawl. But instead of adopting a TCEA that covered only the relatively discreet downtown, Gainesville adopted a TCEA that applied to the entire city – including suburban locations.

Which promotes sprawl.

And even if it properly only applied to the downtown, it would still have been unhelpful because it did not effectively require any form of meaningful compact urban design. To correct this, the City should have only been granting a TCEA if the City was getting urbanism in exchange for exception. As it is, all the City got was what amounted to little more than a few shrubs for landscaping.

Overall, Gainesville – like nearly all cities in America – has adopted land development regulations that ensure a future of unlovable, car-happy sprawl.

How odd, since the plans and elected officials and staff always seem to be united in opposing sprawl…

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The Proposed Student Village in Gainesville Florida

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 Tetro_Student_Village_Renderings_003distances 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.

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Maximum Heights for Buildings in Smaller Cities

 

By Dom Nozzi

July 2014

I believe that five stories generally makes sense as a maximum height for a smaller city such as Boulder CO. I wouldn’t be rigidly opposed to taller buildings, but I think taller buildings in Boulder should be extremely rare (and probably clad in brick or stone to reduce the jarring nature of a relatively tall building).

Besides the human scale that is lost when a building gets taller than five stories, there are other important concerns I have.

Speaking from experience (and particularly in a city such as Boulder where transit service is good but not great, as it is in many big cities), when a building has a lot of stories, it is very likely that there will be an enormous amount of financial, political, imagesemployee, and resident pressure to serve that building with massive surface parking lots, and monstrous (and monstrously expensive) parking garages (and underground parking).

There will, in other words, be huge expenses associated with storing the huge number of cars, and the taller building will therefore be drawing a rather large number of cars — which is generally not good for a relatively small city or a place that seeks to be walkable.

Relatively tall buildings can generally avoid this problem if served by very frequent bus or rail transit. In addition, that huge influx of cars can put a LOT of pressure on local and state government to add a lot of toxic, ruinous roadway capacity to the existing street system in order to serve that influx of cars — not at all good for a small city wanting to be walkable.

Another point I’ve made in the past about taller buildings is that it is probably true that a given city can only expect to support “X” number of jobs or housing or retail space. I think it is much preferable for a city that wishes to be walkable, vibrant and interesting to have, say, 50 buildings that are five stories tall than to have 25 buildings that are 10 stories tall.

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