Tag Archives: charrette

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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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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Making the Boulder Comprehensive Housing Strategy Less Controversial

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 9, 2014

Much of the conversation regarding the Comprehensive Housing Strategy in Boulder Colorado has centered around the extremely important issues of affordability and neighborhood compatibility. The issue has been exceptionally controversial. A few suggestions to turn down the volatility:

  1. One of the most effective ways to create affordable housing in Boulder is to create more walkable, compact, mixed-use housing (what Boulder is now calling “15-minute neighborhoods“). On average, a car now costs about $9,500/year to own and operate. If a household is able to only have to own one car instead of two, or two instead of three — because compact neighborhood design allows such a reduction — those households would have almost $10K a year that could now be put into housing rather than motor vehicles. Personally, I could not afford to live in Boulder if I owned a car.
  1. A related, powerful affordability tool is to allow more housing where the price of the housing is unbundled from the price of the parking. Boulder Junction will be the first time that Boulder sees housing where the price of parking can be unbundled from the price of housing. Big savings, given how much parking (especially in Boulder) can cost to provide. In addition, the average parking space consumes something like 300 SF of real estate. The outdated, excessive minimum parking requirements that Boulder uses too often is making it impossible to build smaller, more affordable housing units on smaller lots, because so much space is needed for parking. We need to leverage this affordability opportunity by reforming parking regulations (mostly by converting minimum parking to maximum parking, and by making it easier to unbundle parking — or requiring parking to be unbundled).
  1. Boulder’s future will see a growing number of Millennials, and we know that demographic group (more so than earlier generations) is looking for more walkable, compact, mixed-use housing where the need for a household to own 2-3 cars is less necessary. Does Boulder provide enough of that type of housing for the coming growth in demand (and a more sustainable world where car co-boulder-pearlst-01ownership is less necessary and less affordable)? I don’t believe it does. An equitable, healthy community provides the full, adequate range of housing and lifestyle choices from urban to suburban to rural. In my opinion, Boulder has a mismatch of such choices. There is an oversupply and relative under-demand for drivable suburban housing. Conversely, there is a large (and growing) demand for compact, walkable housing, and a very scarce supply of such housing in Boulder.
  1. Increasing the number of unrelated adults who can live in a home, as well as easing up on accessory dwelling unit and co-op housing restrictions, are very important affordability tools. And one that causes relatively little neighborhood disruption.
  1. Neighborhood compatibility and neighborhood objections to new development are highly contentious in Boulder. Perhaps the most fundamental building block I know of for creating neighborhood compatibility (not to mention creating the much desired, yet elusive vision for Boulder and its neighborhoods) is to implement charrette-driven form-based coding, instead of the vision-less, conventional, outdated zoning-based coding that Boulder uses. An excellent example of the power of form-based coding is the code created by Dover-Kohl for North Boulder and the Holiday neighborhood. I believe that now is a wonderful time for Boulder to either adopt form-based overlay zones in targeted areas, or to engage in a citywide, perhaps incremental, replacement of conventional zoning codes with what are called Smart (form-based) codes. Such codes not only incorporate detailed, inspirational visions and compatibility tools (and most importantly, uniquely significant neighborhood buy-in), but are effective (when appropriate) in creating compatible compact, human-scaled, lower-speed and mixed use development that induce civic pride and powerfully achieve important City objectives.
  1. I am worried that actions taken by Council on the Comprehensive Housing Strategy might lock certain parts of Boulder into a highly undesirable status quo. There are many areas, such as East Boulder and important transit nodes, that are in desperate need of re-development — places that are overly car-happy, declining, parking lot-choked areas with a terrible economic and quality of life problem. These places, in particular, are overdue for restoration through catalysts such as the needed reforms to land development and parking that I outline above.

In sum, the Comprehensive Housing Strategy offers the City an excellent opportunity to implement the reforms I outline above.

 

 

 

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One Size Does Not Fit All

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 15, 2014

As the debate in Boulder Colorado is fought over development, density, neighborhood compatibility, and future vision, I keep thinking about the important truism in urban design:

One size does not fit all.

In the Sunday, September 14th Daily Camera, Mayor Matt Appelbaum indirectly made this point when he was quoted as saying that “There is not going to be a consensus.”

Precisely.

There will ALWAYS be a large number of folks in Boulder who passionately advocate for and desire to live in compact, walkable neighborhoods. There will ALWAYS be a large number of folks who desire more dispersed, drivable suburban neighborhoods. And there will ALWAYS be a large number who want an isolated, rural lifestyle.

How do we meet these three different lifestyle needs?

For over a century, most communities — including Boulder — have unfairly believed that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to community design. And land development regulations too often reflect this unfairness.

No, what is needed is not to find an impossible “consensus” amongst those seeking differing lifestyle paths (a recipe for a dumbed down, lowest common denominator plan). In my opinion, one huge solution is for Boulder to adopt what is called a Rural to Urban Transect Sandy Sorlien“Smart Code.” A Smart Code includes an “urban-to-rural transect,” where land development regulations are calibrated so that a quality urban lifestyle is achieved in the areas designated as compact and walkable, where another set of regulations are calibrated to achieve a quality suburban lifestyle, and a third set of regulations is adopted to achieve a quality rural lifestyle.

The transect concept asks this question: What elements are immersive in the habitat we are working in—be it Charleston or the Everglades? For example, the transect instructs that a sidewalk is immersive in Charleston, and a “transect violation” when within the Everglades. Conversely, a 200-acre marsh is immersive in the Everglades and a transect violation in Charleston. In other words, something is immersive if it promotes the quality of the habitat being designed. It is a violation if it harms the quality of the habitat being designed.

And frankly, this is where some of the conflict and impatience comes between those who are currently the loudest: many Better Boulder advocates and many with PLAN-Boulder County. A good number of PLAN-Boulder advocates don’t seem to have a conception of a transect or immersiveness. To such advocates, it is always a good idea to incorporate more nature, larger setbacks, and lower density everywhere—which fails to acknowledge that a 200-acre marsh in the middle of an in-town urban neighborhood harms the quality of a walkable Charleston. Natural features are not always immersive in all locations (it took me a while to realize that, since I came from an environmental academic background).

Conversely, many Better Boulder advocates are guilty of not taking proper care of sensitive ecosystems in projects they support. That more density, or taller buildings, or smaller setbacks are always appropriate in all locations. But it is also true that a many environmental scientists are guilty of not taking proper care of urbanism in their advocacy. Both advocacy positions (urban or suburban) can harm the other if not applied where it belongs.

Let the city be a city and let nature be nature. It goes both ways.

It has been accurately stated many times in Boulder that there is very little coherent “vision” for Boulder’s future in its Comprehensive Plan or its land development regulations. This is certainly true for Boulder’s largely conventional land development regulations, which utterly lack any vision. Instead, the regulations only tell us what we DO NOT want. The result, as we see, is unpredictable, often random, often unloved development — development that is certainly worrisome and opposed by many neighborhood groups.

A Smart Code effectively addresses this lack of vision, as well as the equitable need to provide lifestyle and housing options for the full range of community desires — from compact to rural. It does this by not only adopting a code that varies as it moves from urban to suburban to rural, but also by incorporating a “Form-Based Coding” system, which is in stark contrast to the conventional zoning used in much of Boulder. Instead of the conventional, use-based codes that are found in most all of Boulder — a code that is mostly concerned about what happens inside of buildings, only tells us negatively about what is not allowed, and strives to avoid any mixing of housing with retail, services, or offices — a Smart Code with form-based coding reduces the excessive concern about what is inside a building (by separating uses from each other with such regulations, the use-based conventional zoning makes it much harder for Boulder to achieve crucial transportation objectives).

A form-based Smart Code also provides us with a predictable, neighborhood-supported, positive vision for future development in neighborhoods. And that predictability and neighborhood buy-in is not only a wonderful way to reduce opposition to development, but is also a great way to ensure economic health (predictability is very important for business). Our regulations can show developers the building appearance and location on the property that the community and neighborhood desires in a given part of the “transect,” rather than the conventional use-based zoning, that only tells us what NOT to do.

In my opinion, Boulder should use this highly contentious debate over future development as an opportunity to call for the development of a form-based Smart Code — either in targeted locations such as what has already been done in North Boulder, or citywide. This code should be developed in a “charrette” process (intense, community- or neighborhood-based design workshop facilitated by trained professional urban designers). A charrette is an excellent way to provide community design education to citizens, as well as to achieve a great deal of citizen/neighborhood buy-in (because citizens end up making many of the design decisions).

The North Boulder Sub-Area Plan and the Holiday neighborhood within that location (prepared by Dover-Kohl consultants in the mid-90s) represents an excellent local model for a form-based Smart Code that has delivered popular, quality development. I understand that the plan and regulations remain popular after almost 20 years of adoption of that plan and its Smart Code.

 

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