Tag Archives: development

The Fruits of NIMBYism, Part II

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2017

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

My response:

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

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

Oops.

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The Growth Ponzi Scheme

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2016

In Charles Marohn’s 2012 book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns, we find a five-part essay about how suburban growth is an unsustainable Ponzi Scheme.

New suburban development initially costs little for local government, infrastructure like roads is built by the developer then handed over to local government for free, and tax revenue starts flowing in quickly. Looks like a great deal.

Initially.

But what is not well understood is that the long term maintenance and repair cost is huge. And the tax revenue from the low-density development comes nowhere near paying for the ongoing costs for those roads and sewers. The “solution” has been to try to endlessly promote even MORE suburban growth. The revenue from the new growth is used to pay for the old growth. But endless new suburban growth is impossible. Particularly in Boulder and Boulder County.

The result of having new growth pay for old growth is a classic Ponzi Scheme.

Could the road funding controversy in Boulder County be at least partly explained by Marohn’s Growth Ponzi Scheme?

Compact, slower speed, human-scaled urban development creates wealth. Lower density, higher speed, car-scaled suburban development destroys wealth.

How can suburban development pay for itself? We can start, implies Marohn, by nearly doubling property (and other) taxes in new suburban neighborhoods.

Since this is not politically feasible, the future will be, shall we say, challenging.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Do People Inevitably Ruin Pleasant Places?

By Dom Nozzi

May 22, 2016

Do humans inevitably ruin pleasant places? I hear this proclamation often from a good friend.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Making cars happy by fighting against traffic congestion and fighting for more free parking inevitably and powerfully fouls the human habitat – our neighborhoods and cities. Many of us have fled our car-happy fouled nests for greener pastures.july-2015-2

Why did we foul our original nest to make cars happy? Why don’t we return to the timeless tradition of making our nest PEOPLE-happy places?

Because it is inconceivable to us to make car travel inconvenient and costly. We have made the awful mistake of equating happy, cheap car travel with quality of life. It is a recipe, ironically, for fouling our own nest and fleeing to the “untouched” outlying areas.

In sum, this pattern has little or nothing to do with population growth or humans being hard-wired to want to destroy what they love. It has a LOT to do with our drive to make the car habitat wonderful, which unintentionally and unknowingly fouls the human habitat.

Humans don’t hate compact living arrangements. Indeed, we LOVE such design when we travel to ancient European cities.

Humans in space-hogging cars hate compact living arrangements.

When we get behind the wheel of a car, we think like a car. We think paradise is wide open highways and huge free parking lots. What we don’t realize until it is too late is that our cities then become like Houston. Or Buffalo. Or Detroit. Or Phoenix.

A huge number of Boulder CO greenies and intellectuals, for example, unknowingly promote loss of Colorado wilderness by ruinously thinking the key to their quality of life is to “stop growth,” fighting against traffic congestion and fighting for more free parking.

Shame on them. Shame on most all of us for agreeing with this.

 

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Oversizing Our Community

By Dom Nozzi

January 29, 2016

The first task of the urbanist is to control (horizontal) size. American cities have utterly failed to do that.

Either America has too few urbanists who understand that, or too rarely listen to the urbanists who do understand this.

Despite the conventional wisdom, most all of Boulder’s areas intended to be urban have WAY too much “open space.” By space, I refer to the crazy wide stroads (motor vehicle traffic routes that try and fail to be both a street and a road), the over-sized building arapahoe-ave-boulder-cosetbacks, the over-sized parking areas, and the place-killing plazas that are not human-scaled (and therefore become dead zones). Why is Boulder so allergic to creating human-scaled, lovable, charming spaces? Why are we so in love with horizontal gigantism?

Perhaps the biggest offender when it comes to oversizing our communities is parking for motor vehicles.july-2015

Parking is a fertility drug for cars. Yet Boulder – despite decades of lip service paid to reducing car use – continues to be quite far behind the times when it comes to parking. Boulder continues to use outdated, conventional, excessive parking requirements for new development.

What are the effective tools that will result in some people owning and using a car less? (and therefore reducing the ruinous demand for more parking space)

First, compact, mixed-use development to reduce travel distances and increase the financial desirability to create neighborhood-based retail.

Second, less car subsidies and other financial inducements. Tools to do this include priced parking, unbundling the price of parking from housing, tolling roads, and higher gas taxes.

Third, less space for cars. We need to shrink size of roads, parking lots, and building setbacks so motorists are obligated to drive/park more slowly and attentively.

Fourth, we need a lot more traffic calming to reduce motorist speeds.

Designing for People or for Cars?

It is highly appropriate and extremely important that space-hogging motor vehicle drivers not feel happy, that parking (and pricing) is a “bitch,” and that driving a vehicle be a huge, inconvenient pain in the ass. That is exactly the recipe for creating places people love (rather than places that only a car could love).

Nearly all environmentalists in Boulder furiously fight against even modest density increases. For the stunningly powerful PLAN Boulder County advocacy group I served on for a few years, it is nearly the be-all and end-all of “protecting” Boulder.

It would appear that the only thing Boulder environmental activists care about is fighting to stop density increases (even modest ones). Such activists are convinced that more density means more emissions, more loss of wildlife, more cars, and more loss of open space. The opposition to density is much more pronounced in Boulder than in Alachua County, where I lived and worked as a town planner for 20 years. Understandable, since many came to places such as Boulder seeking wide open spaces they assumed the West would deliver.

As my “The Frustration Syndrome” essay points out, because most environmentalists must drive a car everywhere, it is understandable that so many environmentalists are ENRAGED by more density because it seems obvious that more density means more cars, which means more driving frustration (ie, loss of quality of life, as they understand it). Many environmentalists express concern that more density will be environmentally harmful, but I have come to learn that for most environmentalists, the unspoken agenda is the fight to retain easy motoring.

Yes, there is a diverse range of environmentalists (and Feminists and LBGT advocates and Republicans and parents…), but in extremely car-dependent America, the one thing that unites nearly all advocacy groups is the nearly universal desire to find easy driving and easy parking. After all, as my essay notes, nearly all of us drive a car multiple times every day of our lives, and it is therefore very frustrating multiple times a day for both Republicans and Conservationists to FIND A DAMN PARKING SPACE or AVOID THOSE SLOW DRIVERS. The inevitable consequence for nearly all Americans (regardless of their ideology) is to confuse easy driving with quality of life. Since increased density seems like such an obvious culprit for our daily driving frustrations, nearly all of us (regardless of whether we love money or Bambi) hate more density. I’d say 95 percent of the environmentalists I know in Boulder hate more density (and they disingenuously claim it is due to environmental harm, rather than unhappy motoring).

I don’t believe that this can be explained away by referring to where a person lives in a community. I’d say nearly all residents of my very compact, walkable, mixed use Boulder neighborhood are VIOLENTLY opposed to more density. And in Boulder, since we are ringed by a 55,000-acre greenbelt, nearly all proposed increases in density are for in-town development. Yet opposition to more density is huge here. Regardless of location.

I fully agree, as an aside, that compact development is inappropriate in sensitive outlying areas.

Too many residences in the US now front hostile, high-speed, dangerous, noisy 4- to 8-lane highways (streets that were improved to “meet contemporary needs.”) Healthy cities require lower speeds and agglomeration economies and adaptability. Too often, “contemporary needs” in road design undercut those essential ingredients. In my view, in-town streets should not generally exceed three lanes. Anything more will undercut the healthy cities factors I mention above. We need to draw the line somewhere. I choose to draw it in such a way as to not go beyond street designs which induce excessive motorized speeding, excessive sprawl, and loss of transportation choice.

Very, very few traffic engineers understand the needs of a healthy city and end up being single-mindedly focused on the sole objective of moving as many cars as they can as quickly as possible through a road. By confusing that objective with quality of life or an “improvement,” they (or their elected officials) end up pushing for a design that is toxic for a city.

For the record, no one I know is seeking to “intentionally inflict pain and inconvenience” on motorists. However, many of us do seek to design cities so that we have fairness, transportation choices, a thriving city, and lifestyle choices. Designing cities in such a way has the unavoidable consequence of increasing the inconvenience of motorists (because the size required by cars is excessive).

It comes down to a few simple questions: Do we design for a financially and socially healthy town with a high quality of life for people? Or do we design our town in such a way as to enable ease of car travel? (which delivers us places like Detroit or Houston) This is not a win-win game. It is a zero-sum game. I would add that this is NOT a call for the elimination of travel by car. It IS a call for a return to designing for fairness, choices, and resilience. The century-long effort to pamper cars has reduced fairness, reduced choices, and reduced resilience. We need to restore a balance. A big way to do that is to move much more toward user fees for travel. But that is another topic…

Imagine if we had a quiet two-lane neighborhood street, and a traffic engineer wants to design it to allow convenient 18-wheel tractor trailer use of that street (they have faced this issue countless times). In my view, it is important that for a quiet neighborhood street to remain pleasant for its fronting homes, the street SHOULD feel inconvenient for an 18-wheeler. If it was convenient for such a large vehicle, wouldn’t that street therefore be unsafe and unpleasant for homes?

None of the four tools I mention above will mean that ALL people will opt to not own or use a car. It will mean that SOME people will own less cars, use their car less often, or both.

By contrast, stopping development, reducing development densities, or fighting against population growth are not effective in reducing car trips or car ownership — because it is pretty much impossible to stop development or population growth locally and especially regionally. On the contrary, Boulderites who try to stop development or population growth and force development to be less compact (lower density) actually INCREASE the per capita car ownership and use in the area — both in the short term and long term.

For too many in Boulder, compact development means more cars. More cars means less free flowing traffic and less parking spaces. The only tool such folks see to address this is to battle for lower density and slowing the rate of development. And battle they must, as they wrongly mistake free flowing cars and easy parking as equivalent to quality of life. They thereby fail to understand the transportation feedback loops that result in more cars as a result of their only tool.

Such people cynically believe that the reduction in per capita car ownership and car trips elsewhere in the nation (following the establishment of compact development patterns) will not be seen here in Boulder if we provide compact development. Of course, ALL communities have that same cynical view of their own town.

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

An important problem is that in the US, we have way too often designed streets (“improved them”) so that it feels convenient for a car that consumes way too much space. I have been to Europe many times, and the streets that tourists flock to from all over the world are extremely inconvenient for cars. Would those streets be “better” if they were convenient for cars? It seems clear to me that the massive size of cars is a big problem. We face a choice between conveniencing big metal boxes or designing streets for happy, safe people (which, almost inevitably, feels inconvenient when you are in a huge metal box).

Personally, I would opt for designing for happiness and safety for people. Every time.

 

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Filed under Road Diet, Transportation, Urban Design

Bean Counting is Bad for Boulder

 

By Dom Nozzi

August 15, 2015

Boulder voters are being asked this fall to vote on a seemingly wonderful measure called “Growth Shall Pay Its own Way.”

I spent 20 years, as a professional town planner, implementing such a law in Gainesville FL, a college town the same size as Boulder. In Florida, we called it “growth management concurrency.” Cities in Florida were required to adopt “level of service” standards (for example, at least 5 acres of parks per 1,000 people). New development, to be “concurrent,” needed to demonstrate that they were not degrading the adopted levels of service. There were many features or services that had adopted levels of service.

Who could be opposed to the fairness of development paying its own way?

At the end of the day, however, Gainesville’s citizens and elected officials (and nearly all of the other cities and counties in Florida) only cared about was the bean counting of ROAD level of service. This was the only standard where developers were required to be “concurrent.” The only standard that was important enough to stop the development in its tracks if the project was not “concurrent.” None of the many other level of service standards mattered at all. “Concurrency” was therefore code language for “road concurrency.”

The right-sizing project on Folsom Street in Boulder makes it crystal clear that like nearly every other community in the nation, many Boulder residents equate easy, higher speed motor vehicle travel with quality of life. It is therefore dangerously likely that Boulder – if it adopts a concurrency rule such as “growth paying its own way” — will follow Florida’s concurrency path of putting easy car travel, and nothing else, on a privileged pedestal. Big roads and intersections become far more important than any other quality of life measure.

It is easy to be seduced by confusing happy car travel with quality of life. After all, most all of us get caught every day in rush hour traffic going to and from work at rush hour, or can’t find an available parking spot near our restaurant.

But ruinously, putting easy car travel on a pedestal is precisely the OPPOSITE of what we should do to protect and promote quality of life in Boulder. Easy car travel delivers more sprawl, higher taxes, more strip commercial “sellscapes,” more injuries and deaths, huge turn radius for roadreduced travel by walking or bicycling or transit, less affordability, more air pollution due to more of us driving, more huge parking lots and huge intersections and huge roads, and more noise pollution.

What do we consider to be measures of quality of life in Boulder? For many of us, the list includes Pearl Street Mall; proximity to the Flatirons, the Foothills, the Rocky Mountains, and great outdoor recreation; desirable climate and air quality; transportation choices; the feeling of safety and relative freedom from crime (particularly for seniors and children); our greenbelt; quality culture and good restaurants; small town ambience; a highly educated, healthy, and physically fit population of creative people; housing choices; low noise levels; and abundant, high-paying, rewarding jobs.

Having “growth pay its own way” does NOTHING to promote any of these quality of life measures, and because it is possible that the law will induce Boulder to focus heavily on easy car travel (partly because it is an easy bean-counting measure), it will do quite a bit to DEGRADE many of these measures.

Adequate Facilities laws (such as “concurrency” or “growth paying its own way”) incentivize bigger, wealthier projects and developers, because the smaller, local projects and developers are less able to afford to jump through the Adequacy hoops.

Yes, many recent buildings are ugly – largely because they are creepy and weird modernist buildings that are unlike anything from Boulder’s past. Such buildings have thrown away the timelessly lovable nature of traditional design exemplified by the Boulderado.

But the way to have more lovable buildings is in no way helped by having growth pay its own way. We can move in that direction by implementing things like a “form-based code,” which will soon regulate building design at Boulder Junction.

Having Boulder follow Florida’s “Growth Pay Its Own Way” path will likely lead to a grim future for this city because Adequate Facilities laws are a form of bean counting for happy cars. Quality of life is about qualitative measures, not drowning in bean counting minutiae for SUVs.

 

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“Hometown Democracy” in Florida

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 10, 2004

In 2004, there was a voter referendum proposed in Florida called “Hometown Democracy.” It was an effort to substantially increase the use of direct democracy over representative democracy (due largely to many Florida residents feeling as if their elected officials were not listening).

This is my take on this constitutional amendment to go to direct democracy…

In general, I am quite uncomfortable with the idea. In some ways, the amendment would be an obstacle to the “re-use of vacant/abandoned lands” efforts that have become an important issue, because citizens would have a high likelihood of voting against nearly all proposals to intensify a land use designation on a property — and such “upzoning” is often needed to make it viable to re-use abandoned lands.

It also strikes me that the direct democracy folks are an extreme form of NIMBYism (the Hogtown Greenway Bike/Pedestrian Path Debacle is a good, infamous example of the dangers of direct democracy in Gainesville). While I am sympathetic to the thought that nearly all upzonings in the past have delivered us bad development (auto-oriented national chains and big box retailers and huge asphalt parking lagoons), and that it would therefore be handy to have citizens be able to trump weak-kneed politicians who so often cave in to Supercenters and Drive-Throughs (etc.) by reversing a zoning or land use decision, it seems to me that this is a sledgehammer rule that would lead to a lot of unfortunate, unintended consequences.

Indeed, in so many places (including Gainesville), if we were to lock in the status quo by having NIMBY citizens always voting against upzonings, we’d be locking ourselves into a dispersed, suburban, auto-oriented downward spiral that we are in today. Often, we need to have selected properties upzoned from residential to non-residential so that we can have a more walkable, compact community that is vibrant, sociable, and less dominated by excessive car travel. But it would seem that with direct democracy, about 99 percent of all such upzonings would be voted down.

It strikes me that the crucial change we need is to revamp the land development codes for places like Gainesville so that in-town developments deliver us walkable, pleasant, friendly projects that don’t overwhelm neighborhoods with big roads, big traffic, big noise pollution, and big light pollution. In other words, requiring that development build in a neighborhood-friendly, traditional manner.

The key to a better future does not lie in stopping all growth and development. The key is stopping auto-oriented development, rapid land consumption at the periphery, and BIG roads. We desperately need well-designed, walkable, in-town development.

Gainesville’s land development regulations require project design that delivers suburban, auto-oriented development everywhere. In my opinion, we must move away from that destructive, one-size-fits-all approach that says everyone should live the suburban lifestyle. Some of us should have the option of living a walkable urban lifestyle or even a rural lifestyle. The Gainesville code largely says we have only one choice: suburban.

I say we should revise our codes so that we set up at least 3 lifestyle zones, with accompanying regulations. Urban Zone gets compact, walkable design regulations, Suburban Zone gets big setbacks and other car-oriented dimensions. The Rural Zone gets small village cluster and farm/woodland regulations. That way, citizens will increasingly urban-to-rural-transect-Duany-Plater-Zyberk-smbe accepting of new development projects in their neighborhoods. They will hopefully live in their lifestyle zone of choice, and will eventually find that the 3-tiered development code results in new projects that promote their lifestyle. The nearly universal desire to fear the next proposed development in the neighborhood (no matter what it might be) can transform to that happy time in our decades ago past when we actually looked forward to the new development proposal.

As Padriac Steinschneider once said, the opposite of bad development is good development, not no development.

However, I might be sympathetic to the idea if it were somehow restricted to unincorporated areas remote from cities where we don’t want any development.

 

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Horrified by Explosive City Growth in Egypt

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2008

My cousin, Tony Fanucci, told me that he was shocked by the explosive growth of Cairo, Egypt.

I responded by pointing out that it is likely that Cairo will follow the tragic path that the US pioneered and is now ruinously being followed by many newly developed parts of the world — most conspicuously, China and India.

These cities are foolishly using the US as a model for development, which means they have an awful future they are creating for themselves. They are building grotesquely wide, Beijing-smog-624850high-speed highways and overpasses and endless expanses of asphalt parking lots in a hopeless effort to avoid traffic and parking congestion.

Their future will be that of the US: they will bankrupt themselves trying to make motorists happy (because monster highways and widenings and interchanges and parking lots are hideously expensive).

In the end, such unaffordably expensive efforts will lead to choking traffic, high levels of car dependence and sprawl (where it is impossible to travel except by car), sky-high taxes, awful air pollution, affordability problems (because it is WAY more expensive for a family to have to own 3 cars than to use transit or ride bikes), and an unsustainable future (due to such things as a loss of farmland and the fact that extreme car dependence has no future).

The lesson of the ruinous, car-happy path that the US embarked on will not have been learned until it has destroyed many of the cities throughout the world.

 

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