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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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Suggestions for the Springhills Development in Northwest Gainesville

By Dom Nozzi

May 2007

The City of Gainesville, Florida is mostly opposed to the Springhills project because they are concerned that such a large concentration of retail will suck retail energy from downtown and the rest of the urban area.

Fair enough.

I have that concern also. But why is everyone jumping for joy at the same time for a SUPERCENTER in east Gainesville that will do precisely the same thing? The supercenter will surely harm other retail in east Gainesville and suck much of the retail energy out of areas west of there, such as downtown.

I’d much rather have an enormous Springhills than Butler Plaza/Archer Road II in the NW 39th Avenue interchange location.

The battle to stop enormous retail in the Springhills location was lost when this community accepted (joyfully?) the ruinous decision to build and expand the capacity of the NW 39th Avenue interchange, and widen I-75 to 6 lanes. No force on earth is able to stop the retail tidal wave that is inevitably delivered to the 39th Ave interchange once those two things happened. The only (tragic) choice left to us now is whether we will have a Springhills “Lifestyle Center” (faux walkable, mixed-use Main Street) or Butler downloadPlaza/Archer Rd II. There is no possible way to have a “no development” option in this location.

Why are so many treating Springhills as if it was the worst thing ever to happen to Alachua County? It is as if a nuclear power plant was proposed there. Isn’t Springhills PRECISELY what this community indirectly decided on (and therefore asked for and deserves) when we opted for the pro-auto world we enthusiastically supported? Where on earth were these NIMBYs when I-75 was proposed for widening and the 39th Avenue interchange was proposed for expansion? Did they not realize that THESE were the decisions that made massive 39th Avenue interchange retail inevitable?? Seems to me these people need to be careful what they ask for (in this case, pro-car sprawl), because we might (will) get what we asked for (Big Box and Residential Sprawl).

Sure, I’d LOVE to see a compact, walkable, MUCH smaller, mixed-use project in that location. But that is completely out of the question now that we have widened I-75 and built a monster interchange at 39th Avenue. The unintended consequence of stopping Springhills is that we will incrementally get Butler Plaza/Archer Rd II in that location (because we will not have the land development regulations in place to ensure that – we squandered our efforts on failing to stop the development instead).

Why do I feel like the lone doctor in the Middle Ages who is pointing out that blood-letting is not going to cure a disease?

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Regulating Big Box (Large Format) Retail

By Dom Nozzi

March 2007

In 2006, I was assigned the task of preparing Big Box (large format) Retail land development regulations for the City of Gainesville, Florida. My hard work researching this effort unfortunately went into the dustbin, as I believe the City opted to simply mimic Walmartthe much more lax and largely ineffective Alachua County regulations for such retail.

Therefore, as a way to rescue my suggestions from oblivion, the following is what I recommended Gainesville adopt as regulations to manage new Big Box Retail.

Establish 3 “context zones” for large format retail with design standards that become increasingly oriented toward the use of relatively small, human-scaled dimensions for things such as block size, street and driveway width, and required parking. This method would be focused on delivering a quality public realm as the location shifts from a highway/sprawl zone to a walkable urbanity zone.

The three context zones for calibrated regulations:

  1. Town Center and surrounding, relatively walkable neighborhoods.
  2. Areas outside of #1 and #3.
  3. Properties adjacent to major, high-speed, multi-lane roadways.

The primary reason for three context zones is that if (as is so often the case) one-size-fits-all regulations are used, the inevitable result is mediocrity, since the design features that urban designers seek in walkable areas are inappropriate, and therefore disregarded and ultimately abandoned in drivable areas.

Eventually, the one-size-fits-all approach means that walkable areas get only what makes sense in drivable areas (lowest common denominator regulations). In other words, such walkable, compact areas get nothing that promotes or protects walkability. Instead, it gets design that undermines walkability. For example, since it is nonsensical to require large format retail to place its parking behind the building or install first floor windows when near the Interstate, such essential design features end up not being required in the town center either.

Proposed Context-Sensitive Regulations:

In zone 1, the maximum size for large format retail is 15,000 square feet. Low-speed street and intersection dimensions and geometry required. Building setbacks and facades based on context of neighborhood.

In zones 2 and 3, the threshold is 50,000 square feet.

Connectivity to adjacent properties required.

Abandoned large format retail buildings (very common for such a retailer to abandon a building) must be demolished and have site restored.

Mixed use residential required.

A long list of encouraged and discouraged architectural features to be used in design review.

At least two public realm amenities (such as a pedestrian plaza or clock tower) is required from a list provided.

The result of this calibrated approach is more calibrated, appropriate, fair, and politically sustainable design regulations for Big Box Retail.

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Conversation with the VDOT Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator About Transportation and Land Use

By Dom Nozzi

December 10, 2008

In late 2008, I had an email conversation with the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) Bicycle and Pedestrian Coordinator about which comes first: transportation or land use.

VDOT Coordinator: “This particular issue raised quite a storm on the [Bicycle/Pedestrian professionals email] list and it then continued when I raised the issue here at VDOT.  But the bottom line is this (and it reflects what I mentioned in my previous posts), we at VDOT react to what localities do in terms of land use and planning.   …”

“… Another issue that was raised,” noted the Coordinator, “was that of suburban environments that urbanize over time and become areas with greater need for transit, pedestrian, and bicycle travel.  My response then … was that the shortfall is with local planning, both for having created these environments in the first place, and also for not revisiting these environments when the roadway is no longer compatible with the context of land use that has developed.  Under the new [regulations], localities have the option, and are being encouraged to develop corridor plans which will then be submitted to VDOT with exceptions to the standards.  …”

I responded by pointing out that I enjoyed, agreed with, and often learned from what he posted on the email list.

However, I said, speaking as a 20-year senior city planner, I need to point out here that “we in city planning” react to what private landowners and developers propose to us with regard to development along a roadway. Public sector planners have very little control as to densities or mixed uses or types of businesses that are proposed along a roadway. Yes, publicRichmond Cary St downtown Jun06 planners can write development regulations or corridor plans that call for walkable, mixed use, higher density design, but if the roadway is 5 lanes and designed for 45 mph (inattentive, talking-on-the-cellphone) speeds, such regulations will be a moot point, as property owners and developers tend to build to what the market seeks. And when you have a multi-lane, high-speed roadway, the market tends to seek low-density, drivable, single-use suburbia.

In other words, transportation determines (drives) land use.huge turn radius for road

Yes, such suburban areas can incrementally transform themselves to be more urban, compact, walkable, dense environments. But public planners and their regulations and plans will be almost entirely powerless to catalyze such a transformation. The effective catalyst in the case of a suburban environment fed by high-speed, high-volume roadways is for the DOT to make amends for its earlier decision to build an oversized roadway (usually justified on the grounds that the 5 lanes are needed to reduce or avoid congestion — even though we should all know by now that we cannot build our way out of congestion).

Often, the DOT will claim that the proposed large, suburban road is needed because of the land uses allowed by local government in the area. “DOT is just meeting the demand created by the land uses on the ground.”

Again, however, such suburban markets (and subsequent development) would not have occurred had larger, higher-speed roads not been built elsewhere in the community (not to mention all the underpriced parking provided).

So yes, public planners can play a role in developing regulations or plans that call for walkable, urban, mixed use environments. But the road must first be redesigned to accommodate it and create the market for it (usually by removing travel lanes and introducing other slow-speed design tactics).

I don’t pretend to believe that we can do this in the near future. It took us over 80 years to build this car-friendly mess we are in. We are therefore unlikely to find our way out of this for quite a while.

Here is a December 2008 article by Christopher Leinberger on the transportation/land use “chicken & egg” issue:

Transportation drives development

Dear President-elect Obama:

There is a “chicken and egg” question many people ask about building the built environment; which comes first, the transportation system or the buildings. This is asked about rail transit in particular. I can now definitively give you an answer to that question: transportation drives development. The transportation system a society selects dictates the form of the built environment. The current car/truck transportation system means most US metropolitan areas only have one development option, the familiar drivable sub-urbanism.

Much research has shown that there is now pent up demand for the opposite of drivable sub-urbanism; walkable urbanism, where most of daily needs can be met on floor, bike or by transit. The extra-ordinary price premiums per square foot being achieved for walkable urban development, whether in high density Manhattan, lower density Bethesda in DC or the newly developed Pike Market area in Seattle, shows that people are voting with their feet and pocketbooks for the ability to live and work in mixed-use, walkable places.

However, the bulk of the country is stuck with only a 20th century transportation system, completely car and truck dependent for all residential and commercial transportation. The majority of Americans are stuck with only the drivable sub-urban option for how to live and work.

For the US to become competitive with the market, economic and environmental demands of the 21st century knowledge-based economy, a more balanced transportation system with vastly increased options is crucial…that means more rail, bike and walking options. It also means a national high speed rail system connecting out major metropolitan areas to complement the Interstate Highway system and the national air system.

The 2009 reauthorization of the federal transportation bill is the country’s opportunity to put in the 21st century infrastructure we so desperately need. Funding a balanced system, rather than a highway-biased system, will do more than give the people what we want. It will also allow for the development of a way of living and working that is far more energy efficient and far less green house gas emitting. An upcoming Brookings study will show what is intuitively obvious; walkable urban households use about ¼ of the energy and emit ¼ the green house gases of drivable sub-urban households. Encouraging walkable urban development will also make the US far more energy secure, reduce the hundreds of billions of dollars we send to hostile countries abroad and will spark a huge boom in real estate development which will help drive the economy out of our current economic crisis.

The new Obama administration has the opportunity to fundamentally alter how we built the built environment; which accounts for over 35% of our country’s assets. The 2009 transportation bill will be the most important domestic legislation of the new century and will put the country on the road to development that is sustainable in so many ways. It is as important to the country from economic, environmental and social perspectives in the 21st Century as the highway and air systems in the 20th Century were. President Obama could preside over transportation legislation as important to the country’s future as President Eisenhower’s with the building of the Interstate Highway system.

Christopher B. Leinberger

Leinberger is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, director and professor of the graduate real estate program at the University of Michigan, partner in Arcadia Land Company and president of LOCUS, a national real estate organization.

This article is available in the December 2008 issue of New Urban News, along with images and many more articles not available online. Subscribe or order the individual issue.

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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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“Punishing” Developers: Are We Actually Punishing Ourselves?

By Dom Nozzi

It is no secret that a great many Americans HATE land developers.

They try to find as many ways as possible to punish developers and stop them. But too often, the tactics of those opposing new development request that the developer do the OPPOSITE of what a developer should be doing to promote quality of life or sustainability.

Because so many of us have come to conclude that quality of life means abundant free parking or free-flowing roads, and because so many of the buildings built over the past several decades have been so utterly unlovable (largely due to the epidemic of “modernist” architecture), development opponents force developers to build huge parking lots, huge building setbacks, and a strict separation of residential and non-residential land uses. At the same time, dsc03864government spends billions to widen roads and intersections to “accommodate” the new development.

By insisting on these development “concessions,” we ensure that everyone is FORCED to drive a car for every trip they make, and guarantees that the development will be loved by cars and despised by people. In other words, our demands trap us in a downwardly spiraling vicious cycle. The more we scream that new development provide MORE PARKING or BIGGER ROADS or LOWER DENSITY or BIGGER SETBACKS or SEPARATION OF HOMES FROM BUSINESSES, the more likely it is that we will be trapped in a future of unsustainable car dependency, loss of civic pride, and a dwindling quality of life.

Is it any wonder we have a nationwide NIMBY (not in my backyard) epidemic where neighborhoods fear ALL new developments? Is it any wonder that we have intolerable traffic congestion that gets worse and worse every year? Is it any wonder our governments are bankrupt? Is it any wonder our public planners have no credibility and our developers are the most hated people on earth?

How Can We Convert This Downward Spiral Into a Virtuous Cycle?

A virtuous cycle, the opposite of the downward spiral of a vicious cycle, is a self-perpetuating advantageous situation in which a successful solution or design leads to more of a desired result or another success which generates still more desired results or successes in a chain.

How can we create a virtuous cycle in the development and maintenance of our community?

The most effective way to create a virtuous cycle for our community is to insist that developers, planners, and government officials return to the timeless, traditional ways of building communities that are designed to make school neighborhood basedpeople, instead of cars, happy.

Hard as it might be to believe, there are a growing number of “enlightened” developers who are realizing that it is now quite profitable to build such people happy (instead of car happy) places. Places that are walkable, sociable, safe, and charming.

We need to welcome such developers (instead of the knee-jerk response of opposing ALL developers). We can do that by updating our local development regulations so that they make it easy to do the right thing (i.e., building for people rather than cars).

I am strongly pro-growth if the new development is designed to make people happy by using timeless principles, rather than using conventional, out-dated car-happy tactics.

We have workable solutions to our growth and development problems. Solutions that go beyond STOPPING GROWTH. They mostly focus on having growth pay its own way, that it be sustainable, and that it be focused on making people happy and not cars.

Instead, in too many instances, too many new developments and suburban lifestyles EXTERNALIZE and EXPORT their costly, negatively-impacting behaviors on all of the rest of us with their cocooned “McMansions” on isolated cul-de-sacs (which belch a relatively high number of car trips on the rest of us, and make it more costly to serve).

I do NOT say that certain lifestyles should be prohibited. I just want to see that those that enjoy those lifestyles are paying the full cost for them, instead of having me pay some of the cost through higher taxes or a lower quality of life. We also need more CHOICES in housing and transportation, since increasingly, our only choice is the isolating, community- and environment-destroying auto-dependent suburbs, where everyone enjoys subsidies not in the public interest, and everyone is forced to drive a car for every trip.

Americans have built far too much low-density, drivable, suburban housing. So much that we are glutted by this option – an option that is now declining in preference, as demographic and financial shifts are now resulting in a growing interest in compact, walkable housing options. At the same time, we have built far too little compact, walkable housing options. There is a serious mismatch regarding the supply of and demand for these two forms of housing.

Because we have over-built car-dependent, unwalkable suburban housing, and the interest in such housing is now declining, such housing is losing value and is comparatively troubled financially.  Conversely, because we have built too little compact, walkable, town center housing, and the interest in such housing is now growing, such housing is becoming extremely expensive.

We need to build a lot more compact, walkable housing. And do so quickly.

To make such housing more available and affordable, to restore the development community to the admired status they once had a century ago, and to make our future both more lovable and sustainable, let’s return to the days of lifestyle and travel choices. To the days when we insisted on building to create a quality of life for PEOPLE, not cars.

 

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Parking and Urban Design Tactics for Creating a New Urban Village

By Dom Nozzi

A large percentage of American communities have experienced an enormous amount of dispersed suburban sprawl. Unless we are to eventually need to abandon and perhaps bulldoze such unsustainable development (probably a more likely outcome than most realize), we need to talk about retrofitting drivable, unsustainable sprawl development with something more compact, walkable, transit-friendly and sustainable.

Indeed, the creation of “activity centers” (an utterly terrible yet common term referring to efforts to create multiple downtowns or town centers in a community, rather than the traditional, centrally-located downtown) is being discussed by academics and city councils throughout the nation.

Commonly, the vision is to transform a conventional, car-based strip commercial shopping center (that largely consists of a huge surface parking lot and giant roadways serving it) into a walkable, mixed use places (what I will call an “urban village”).

One of the first questions that tends to come up in such discussions is “What about the parking??”

First, it needs to be understood that it is not an immutable law that all residents living at such a newly-created urban village will forever want or need a parking space for a car (or even have a car).

As a matter of fact, we are seeing car ownership and use leveling off and sometime declining around the nation – particularly with the “Millennium” (younger) generation.

Believing that the provision of suburban parking is forever necessary is a self-fulfilling prophesy. If we provide that level of excessive parking, we actually induce many to want more parking and more cars than they would have wanted had we not enabled such car ownership and use with excessive “free” parking. After all, surface parking makes walking less likely, and the resident has a vested interest because they have already paid for the parking spots we have forced them to own. Excessive suburban parking regulations also kill any chance of having the developer provide the necessary compact residential development, because more compact residential development is, by definition, no longer compact when we must add the enormous amounts of acreage required to fulfill suburban parking rules.

Walkability is impossible when seas of asphalt separate destinations. Surface parking dramatically increases walking distances, and obliterates vibrant and walkable urbanity by creating dead zone gap tooth “no man’s lands.”

“Unbundling” the price of parking from the price of residences in a new neighborhood is an effective financial incentive for reducing car ownership and use, because some residents will opt not to own or use a car if they are able to opt for housing that is lower in cost due to the lack of provided parking.

Some argue that unbundling the price of parking from the price of the housing is impractical, because there will be “spillover” parking by people using a space they did not pay for. But there is an easy solution for this concern: Enforcement of parking regulations at the development via parking permits or parking meters. Despite the conventional wisdom, there are a surprisingly large (and growing) number of citizens who want the option of being able to pay less for housing in exchange for not having parking provided. This is particularly true in cities where a healthy supply of bicycling, walking and transit options are provided. It will also be true if the new urban village is properly designed with human-scaled mixed use, walkable design.

Any “minimum” parking requirements that a community uses (for example, many communities require at least four parking spaces per 100 square feet of retail development) should be converted to parking MAXIMUMS. Why? Because the big risk over the past several decades has not been that a developer will provide too little parking. In large part because most financers for new development insist on the provision of abundant parking as a condition for financing a proposed development, developers tend to provide TOO MUCH parking. Too much parking is particularly a problem if the design objective is to create compact walkability and reduce neighborhood car use.

On-street parking is desirable and tends to be priced in an urban village.

The new urban village should liberally allow shared use of parking by multiple residential and commercial developments in the village. One way to do this is to create parking that can be leased, rather than obligating all land residences and commercial to have their own parking.

If a developer insists on wanting to provide excessive amounts of suburban surface parking, they must be denied approval in the same way as a developer proposing to, say, develop a smokestack industrial use in their residential neighborhood.

For the relatively modest amounts of parking that must be provided at a new urban village, nearly all (if not all) parking should be in multi-story garages that are wrapped with residential, retail, and office “liner” buildings. Any surface parking that needs to be provided should be behind buildings, and buildings pulled up to the streetside sidewalk.

If a prospective resident of a new urban village wants free and abundant parking, they should be told that there are plenty of other, more suburban places where they can opt for that lifestyle in the community.

 Other Essential Ingredients for a Walkable, Compact Village

Streets should have shorter blocks (200 to 500 feet). For relatively long blocks, cross-access pedestrian ways between buildings can be created. Streets also benefit by being paired with alleys. Proactively overlay a street grid with small block sizes before development is proposed. Another way to keep walking distances relatively short is to not allow fences to cut off non-street access to adjacent parcels. Fences used should not exceed three or 4 feet in height along a sidewalk (anything higher inhibits neighborly conversation and pedestrian enjoyment of street-facing building facades).

When streets passing through the proposed center are 4 lanes or more in size, they need to be necked down (road dieted) to no more than 3 lanes.

Intersections must be kept relatively small in size so that they are pedestrian-scaled. No more than one turn lane in a given direction, relatively narrow travel lanes, and small turning radii.

Continuous left turn lanes are to be discouraged in the village. Raised medians with turn pockets are to be encouraged.

Raised crosswalks, when feasible and appropriate, are desirable to slow car speeds and increase pedestrian visibility.

Street (including lane width) and turning radii dimensions are small and slow-speed.

Street lights should be pedestrian-scaled so that light bulbs are no more than 14 feet in height. Taller lights create a highway ambience and induce higher car speeds.

Bus bays are inappropriate in a compact, walkable center due to loss of pedestrian scale and increased pedestrian crossing distance.

Sidewalks have straight, rectilinear trajectories rather than curvilinear, suburban trajectories. Curvilinear trajectories, by adding unnecessary distances to walking, are annoying and patronizing to pedestrians. They are mainly benefitting motorists, who obtain a more pleasing view as they drive along a street with curving sidewalks. They also increase the likelihood of dirt cowpaths being formed by pedestrians seeking the shortest route.

Visually prominent gateway features at the entrances to centers are highly desirable to clearly signal to motorists that they are entering a low-speed, walkable setting that requires attentiveness.

Mixing residences with offices, retail, recreational and cultural activities substantially reduces walking and biking distances, and increase 24-hour vibrancy and safety. Relatively high residential densities and commercial intensities are also important, and for the same reasons. Emphasize attached housing rather than detached, single-family housing in centers and along major streets.

Buildings should be at least two-stories in height for more of a sense of place, a sense of enclosure, mixed use opportunities, and better adaptability to change over time.

Should the community have any regulatory barriers to infilling existing parking with buildings, those barriers need to be removed. Similarly, the community needs to exempt the proposed new urban village from landscaping requirements, as such requirements tend to require too much spacing for compact walkability. Ample landscaping belongs in the drivable suburbs.

While common because of their high visibility nature, gas stations should not be allowed at street intersections.

Building setbacks need to be modest in size. At intersections, a sense of place is achieved by requiring buildings to abut the back of sidewalks. Lot sizes should be relatively small in size, which often requires the community to reduce the minimum lot size required in its land development code. Each of these design features is an important way to create charming human scale that pedestrians tend to insist on and enjoy.

The community sign ordinance should require relatively small signs for retail and office development. Small signs help signal a low-speed, pedestrian scaled setting.

Summary

People that desire to live in walkable, compact living arrangements seek a setting that is conducive to such a lifestyle. That setting features low-speed, narrow and human-scaled streets and intersections, very short walking distances to most destinations, buildings pulled up to the sidewalk to create enclosure, and a vibrant experience (in contrast to deadening expanses of parking and large building setbacks). The market for higher density housing will be very weak and unsustainable if such a walkable setting is not provided.

Existing housing, employment, or land use patterns should not necessarily dictate visions for a new urban village if such patterns conflict with community objectives for such a compact village. Similarly, the needs or villageconvenience of regional commuters should not trump the low-speed, vibrancy, pedestrian scaled needs of these new village centers.

Overall, the objective for centers is a drive to rather than drive through experience, a park-once setting, and a design that makes the pedestrian the design imperative.

In the Urban Village, we should be firmly committed to walkable urbanity, where car use is optional, not required.

 

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Filed under Economics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design, Walking