Tag Archives: density

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?

Advertisements

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics

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.

Leave a comment

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

A Quality Future for Boulder CO Means Something Vastly Different from What No-Growthers Seek

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 8, 2017

The great irony of those in Boulder, Colorado who seek to protect the low-density character of neighborhoods (and to allegedly protect the “small town charm” of Boulder) is that by following the tactics recommended by too many “no-growthers,” Boulder will continue to take the Anywhere USA path that so many other American cities have taken (and continue to take).

Fighting against compact development is a recipe for keeping this city from becoming more walkable, charming, and human scaled. Such a fight will make it more likely that our future will be more car-dependent, more isolated, less walkable, more filled with surface parking lots, and less affordable (due to a growing lack of travel choices). Much of Boulder was built in an era of failed community design ideas that are unsustainable. Many of those who seek to “protect” neighborhoods are those who like the privatopia of suburbs and don’t like cities, and therefore don’t understand or appreciate those elements that make for healthy cities: slow speeds, human scale, compact development, agglomeration economies, diversity, conviviality, and choices.

Such advocates, instead, ruinously seem to believe that free-flowing and high speed traffic and easy car parking are the keys to quality of life. Actually, such objectives are toxic to a 51df393d218c6-imagehealthy city because they undermine the elements I list above.

The lifestyle of those who live in low-density Boulder neighborhoods compels them to fight for a halt to population growth, fight to minimize density and building heights, fight to oppose traffic calming and modest street and parking allocations, and fight to oppose mixed use.

Why?

Because fighting for those things helps protect their ability to travel easily by car. Because their neighborhood design obligates them to make most or all trips by car, they must fight for these things to protect their suburban lifestyle. Car travel becomes highly inconvenient when a community is more compact and slow speed. Densities over 2 or 3 units per acre make car travel much more inconvenient.

Conversely, densities below 3 or 4 units per acre make walking, bicycling, and transit nearly impossible.

It is therefore easy to understand why so many in suburban Boulder have concluded that easy driving and parking are equivalent to quality of life. Tragically, easy driving and parking are enemies of a quality city.

It is important to note, despite the unfair, inflammatory falsehoods we often have thrown at us urbanists, that this is NOT a call to make all neighborhoods in Boulder more compact. It IS a plea to recognize that for too much of Boulder’s history, the only acceptable form of development is high speed, car-happy suburban.

And that it is NEVER acceptable for there to be slow speed, compact walkable development.

Anywhere.

The result is a vast oversupply of drivable suburban development — which has no future, by the way — and a substantial undersupply of compact walkable development. Indeed, I would be hard-pressed to point to ANY compact development in Boulder. Because there is a big and growing demand for a walkable lifestyle — particularly among the younger generations — the price of such housing is skyrocketing (there are other reasons, but this one is substantial).

Boulder must do what it can to provide a larger supply of walkable housing — in appropriate locations.

Not doing so will lead to a grim, more costly future for Boulder.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics, Transportation, Urban Design

Population Growth, Density, and Cars

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 3, 2016

I have a friend who fears a huge growth in population in our area due to how attractive our area is considered, and is worried that it will result in intolerable density.

I informed her, to the contrary, that for the past 80 years, America has seen population growth WITHOUT higher density. There is absolutely no certainty that more people in the area will mean more density. If the NIMBYs remain powerful in the region (extremely likely), we will instead see more low-density, car-dependent sprawl.

In addition to a lot more cars on the road.

We will see a lot more cars on the road than would be the case if the NIMBYs did not block cities like ours from having the projected growth in our area live in more compact settings. The NIMBYs fighting for low density, in other words, are responsible for giving our area a traffic jam on huge hwyLOT more cars. What an irony, since NIMBYs HATE more crowded roads and parking lots.

Yes, there is a trend over the past several years of people (especially young people) to want to move into town centers and not want to live in sprawl. A huge problem in our community, I informed her, is that the NIMBYs loving low density will continue to violently fight to stop ANY development in the town center because they HATE more compact development.

So while much of the remainder of the nation will see a growth in town center housing, the NIMBYs in our community — who love low density — will do whatever they can to stop pretty much all of that healthy trend.

Ironically, the NIMBYs will fight new housing to keep roads and parking from getting more crowded. The result of their efforts will, however, be MORE cars than would have been the case had they not fought against new housing.

Be careful what you fight for, I told her. You might get it.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Transportation

Boulder CO Struggles with Too Many Jobs

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 9, 2003

A friend asked me what I thought about Boulder, Colorado trying to get a handle on the “problem” of too many jobs.

Here is what I told her…

In looking at Boulder efforts, I think it would be wise if Boulder went ahead with its proposal to expand the use of mixing housing, jobs, and retail. This step is very important for quality of life, but because nearly every community is its own worst enemy, such a policy would undoubtedly draw a FIRESTORM of opposition in Boulder, as it has done in the past in that city.

Boulder also needs to grow its residential densities in appropriate, job-rich areas.

Working toward a jobs-housing balance is a good idea, as the City proposes.

The big mistake that nearly all communities continue to keep making is to look upon in-town traffic congestion as THE evil that must be fought at all costs — apparently the primary evil being targeted in this Boulder jobs-housing study. Unless Boulder can find the wisdom and leadership to accept congestion as an ALLY and not a foe, it will increasingly degrade itself. I say this because the conventional tools to fight congestion are tools that Boulder seems eager to want to use. While more mixed use and jobs-housing balance is a good idea, conventional (and, in the end, destructive) tools include:

  1. Fighting to minimize residential growth and density within the city.
  2. Widening roads with more travel lanes or turn lanes.
  3. Increasingly providing more surface parking.
  4. Fighting the “intrusion” of non-residential into residential areas.

It is crucial that Boulder realize that not only is congestion an ally–it promotes more compact, walkable urban development, reduces regional air pollution and fuel consumption, slows cars, etc. Congestion is also SELF-REGULATING. People have a tolerance level for how much congestion they are willing to put up with, and will decide to do things to adjust if it gets too intolerable: They’ll live closer to the places they need to go to (work, school, shopping…). Or they’ll drive on different routes. Or drive at non-rush hour times. Or start walking, bicycling, or using the bus. People that cannot do any of those things (probably a lot of people cannot do those things Boulder) will, in the long run, simply move somewhere else in the country. Probably something not considered catastrophic for folks in Boulder…

Fighting against development density, or fighting for BIG ROADS, short-circuits that self-30th-and-arapahoe-double-leftsregulation. By doing so, it accelerates the downward spiral of a community’s quality of life. Because it means that the city is increasingly making life pleasant for cars instead of people. It will end up as a big roads, big parking lots, strip commercial land of misery.

An important problem in places like Boulder is that the quality of life is so high, that people are willing to put up with higher levels of congestion, long commute distances, and other travel nuisances because it is compensated by a high quality of life. As a result, congestion and long commutes will be worse in places like Boulder than in places like, say, Toledo.

Not sure what to do about that. Maybe nothing needs to be done. It is a problem that may sort itself out on its own.

For me, personally, I have a very low tolerance level for congestion or long commutes. Even a high quality of life is not sufficient compensation for me (for many in Boulder, the quality apparently DOES compensate). If I were to live there and accept the relatively high congestion and commuting patterns there, the only way I could do it would be to figure out a way to live in or near downtown. If I could not figure out a way to do that, I’d leave the Boulder region.

In other words, congestion controls not only the location of growth, but the rate of growth…

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation

Steve Belmont on Successful Urbanism

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 17, 2003

I recently read the writings of Steve Belmont. He wrote a book called Cities in Full, and has published journal articles about the benefits of centralization. After reading Belmont and mentioning his thoughts on an urban design list I subscribe to, a comment was made that Belmont is not particularly bullish on new urbanism.

It is clear from his comments that Belmont does not like the idea of building new towns in greenfields. He is a VERY strong supporter of centralization and high (centralized) densities.

Belmont urges that for the sake of healthy transit, and to achieve noticeable environmental and social benefits, cities MUST retain the lion’s share of employment, shopping, and higher density housing. The idea of moving jobs and shops to “edge cities” as a way to reduce trip distances (due to suburban housing migration) is NOT supported by logic or data. He points out that given a fairly uniform dispersal of housing in a region, moving jobs to the suburbs might reduce commute distances for the subdivisions in that one portion of the urban area, but moves the jobs FURTHER from those who live in other parts of the region. The only way to minimize travel distances for the entire region is to centralize them.

Keeping employment, shopping and compact housing in the downtown is important, according to Belmont, but it is also essential that low-density, detached suburban housing be kept OUT of downtowns (suburbanizing downtowns is an extremely common and counterproductive practice, as Paul Bedford would point out).

The housing market seeking a walkable urban lifestyle, states Belmont, is most likely to be lured by walkable amenities such as proximate distances to retail, services, small parks, and offices. These amenities can only be established in a walkable manner when residential densities downtown are relatively high.

My presumption is that Belmont is not supportive of walkable new towns in greenfields because he believes it would not only drain energy from a downtown, but would also (even over the long run) increase trip/commute distances. That is, the greenfield new town could not be designed to be “self-contained” enough to capture most trips (unless there was no urban development within driving distance of the new town project, presumably).

Similarly, Belmont argues against the “polycentric” model, in which multiple (activity/town/neighborhood/commercial) centers are designated and promoted in a city. He points out, accurately, that a great many city planners have urged this form of urban development as a way to minimize trip distances (in my opinion, “multiple centers” are frequently promoted because the inevitable establishment of major shopping centers at major intersections has reactively compelled planners/officials to do so). But as he says, when both spouses work, it is extremely unlikely that they will work in the same (nearby) center, even in the long run, and especially given the frequency of changing jobs. In addition, with the exception of chain stores/restaurants (where there is no distinction between them), people will continue to travel to their favorite stores, restaurants, etc., often in places remote from the nearby sub-center. And continue to want to visit their friends and relatives in other parts of the region. The result: An increase in travel distance and an increase in auto commuting when we move jobs/commercial/entertainment centers out of our central downtown.

The only way to minimize trip distances for the region, and to promote a healthy city, in Belmont’s point of view, is to keep urbanism centralized.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Transportation, Urban Design