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If I were King of My City

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

May 1, 2006

I often find myself highly frustrated by the actions or inactions of the city I live in. Because many of my views are so “controversial,” I have little chance of ever being elected to office in order to seek such changes from such a decision-making position. Instead, I am left to speculate what I would do if I were the “king” of my city.ki

If I were king, I would make deep and permanent cuts in police and fire budgets. Nearly all cities in America put excessive amounts of public tax money into the police and fire departments. Crime rates counter-intuitively increase when police expenditures increase (partly because doing so starves public programs that more effectively reduce crime rates, and partly because more police dollars means there are more police available to detect crime). Nearly every year, due to the politics of fear (“Babies will die in burning buildings if you don’t give the fire department another $30 million!” or “Your homes will be burglarized if you don’t give the police department another $10 million!”), communities spend excessive amounts of money on police and fire services. While these services are extremely important, they should not be funded by starving other services essential to local quality of life (parks and recreation, streetscaping, code enforcement, traffic calming, energy conservation retrofits, restoration of environmentally degraded natural areas, road diets, efforts to reduce noise pollution, open space acquisition, town and regional planning, bus service, and bike and pedestrian paths, etc.). More money for police also increases the number of times that citizens are charged with petty crimes (because the police have more resources to do so). This also promotes a “police state” atmosphere. In large part, the excessive moneys cities tend to allocate to police and fire services is based on extreme levels of societal hysteria, which candidates for office and elected officials both promote and leverage for their own ends. The excessive and continuously increasing police and fire budgets are a recipe for community ruin. A companion reason for this over-allocation is the utter lack of leadership found in America.

If I were king, I would ground law enforcement helicopters (used in many cities). A police helicopter creates substantial noise pollution (particularly in central city neighborhoods) and has little payoff in comparison to the high on-going maintenance costs. In addition, such helicopters create citizen anxiety in the sense that they create a “war zone” ambience in the community.

If I were king, I would establish and implement a citywide Road Diet and traffic calming plan. There is nothing that city government can do that would more effectively improve in-town retail, residential and office health and safety than to remove travel lanes from 4-, 5- and 6-lane roads and slow average car speeds. Such road modifications would also dramatically improve street safety and promote bicycle, transit and pedestrian travel. This would also be the most powerful way to slow and reverse suburban sprawl, discourage Big Box retail, reduce property taxes, reduce regional air pollution and fuel consumption, promote infill development, reduce sign pollution, improve property values and improve quality of life. I would couple diets/calming with a charter amendment which would set a 3-lane maximum street size in an urbanized area and 5-travel lane maximum road size in suburban areas.

If I were king, I would inventory downtown improvement needs, and then correct them. Conduct a thorough, detailed, walking tour of downtown to identify existing downtown needs—such as sidewalk gaps and other sidewalk flaws, needed road diets, needed on-street parking, needed raised medians, and surface parking that should be converted to infill buildings. Following the inventory, I would devote resources sufficient to aggressively eliminate such needs each year. Many downtowns fail to reach their full potential and are unable to invoke much civic pride due to the large number of neglected downtown infrastructure needs.

If I were king, I would shrink the size of most elected city commissions/councils. A larger number of commissioners ensures that decisions are dumbed down, and the necessary yet more controversial decisions are less likely to be approved. This defect is exemplified by the dysfunctional fiasco of “trying to do something by committee”—a universally recognized recipe for mediocrity – mediocrity that gets worse as the size of the group increases in size. Larger decision-making bodies also increase city administrative costs and lengthen city commission meetings.

If I were king, I would crack down on major noise polluters. Emergency vehicle sirens, cars, power landscape tools, burglar alarms, etc., have exponentially increased city noise pollution problems. The most effective method for controlling noise is to establish a powerful, full-time city noise pollution control office.

If I were king, I would reduce excessive car parking and road subsidies.  It is monstrously counterproductive for cities and private businesses to heavily subsidize solo auto commuting by offering free parking to their employees. Parking cash-out—where employees are given the option of either retaining their free parking or being given a salary increase—is the most effective way to reduce the excessively high and extremely costly single-occupant vehicle employee commuting patterns in cities. Such a program would also end the exceptionally unfair practice of not offering non-auto commuters an equivalent subsidy. Cash-out should be required for both local government agencies and for large private organizations in the area. Coupled with this should be a strategy to shrink the supply of free parking citywide. I would convert parking minimums to parking maximums in land development code citywide. I would eliminate required parking regulations and set parking maximums. I would establish market-rate metered on-street parking, and return the meter revenue to surrounding neighborhoods (in other words, create parking benefit districts [based on the recommendations of Donald Shoup]). Similarly, non-tolled, free-to-use roads promote excessive, long-distance, low-value, solo driving, as well as traffic congestion. User fees for both roads and parking would go a long way towards efficiently and affordably providing for car travel, and a more compact, livable community.

If I were king, I would effectively promote walkable, timeless, traditional development. In the city planning department, hire a set of walkable urban design planners to review site plans. In city public works department, hire a traffic engineer as director who is a skilled and enthusiastic supporter of transportation choice and walkable, compact urban design. Not doing so ensures that in walkable areas, site plans for new development and street designs for modified streets will be sabotaged by staff who have a suburban value system. I would revise city land development codes to be form-based and transect-based (graphics-rich, comprehensible, vision-based, and context-sensitive). I would move development regulations away from one-size-fits-all by establishing a set of urban/walkable regulations for walkable areas, a set of suburban/car-centric regulations for suburban areas, and a set of rural/preservation regulations for peripheral areas with important natural features or agricultural land.

If I were king, I would transform shopping centers into walkable town centers. Conventional shopping centers are over-designed for “happy cars.” Their excessive use of “sea of asphalt” parking in front creates a strip commercial, “anywhere USA” atmosphere that degrades quality of life and civic pride, and takes away from a unique community character. Travel by transit, walking or bicycling is significantly less likely because nearly all trips to such centers must be by car (due to the hostility of such design for bicyclists, walkers and transit users). I would require selected conventional shopping centers to incrementally transform themselves into walkable, mixed use town centers, as has happened across the nation.

If I were king, I would require buildings to behave themselves. When parking is placed in front of buildings, and buildings are set back an enormous distance from a road, human scale is lost, quality of life is harmed, development is less attractive, and travel by transit, foot or bicycle is less possible. In walkable areas, I would prohibit car parking in front of buildings, and require modest front building setbacks.

If I were king, I would improve citizen comprehension of development actions. Nearly all communities have a nearly incomprehensible set of land development regulations and have a staff which specializes in making presentations and writing reports that are nearly impossible for citizens to understand — thereby subverting democracy and citizen involvement. I would revise city land development codes to radically shrink the size of the land development regulations. Replace jargon and “legalese” with “Plain English” and simple drawings. I would train staff to make presentations and write reports that are easily understood by citizens. I would hire a full-time city employee whose only responsibility is to ensure that city documents and presentations are clearly understandable to citizens.

If I were king, I would create effective incentives for converting downtown surface parking lots into multi-story buildings. Nothing is more deadly to a downtown than the deadening influence of surface parking. To be an attractive destination and to be competitive with the suburbs, a downtown must maximize vibrant, active, economically healthy use of its land, and surface parking works strongly against these objectives. I would allow no net increase in downtown surface parking lots, and would incrementally reduce the amount of existing surface parking. Vertical increases through parking garages would be okay, but only if first floor is retail, office, entertainment, or a combination of these.

If I were king, I would improve sidewalks. Sidewalks improve property values, improve quality of life, create a formal and walkable ambience, create a more human-scaled streetscape, promote safety for pedestrians (particularly seniors and children), and send a message that the community values walking. I would significantly increase funding for sidewalk gap removal, and significantly reduce funding for repair of trivial sidewalk damage (hairline cracks repair is wasteful and gives city a very bad black eye). I would hire a full-time urbanist pedestrian engineer to review site plans.

If I were king, I would rehabilitate creeks. Many urban creeks are placed in pipes, covered over, or otherwise harmed ecologically. I would restore (“daylight”) concrete ditches and channelized creeks to naturalized, meandering creeks. I would rehab creeks in this way as long as walkability can be retained in walkable areas.

If I were king, I would reduce fuel subsidies. Motorists are heavily subsidized not only with free parking and free roads, but also by the fact that gas taxes only pay a tiny fraction of the cost of impacts that motorists impose on society. I would significantly increase the gasoline tax, but only if there is an ironclad assurance that revenue would only be used for bicycling, walking and transit — not road capacity increases.

If I were king, I would establish geography-sensitive impact fees. Nearly all new development—particularly in the suburbs—are heavily subsidized by existing residents. New or increased impact fees can reduce this market distortion by having development pay its own way. I would exempt walkable, self-contained, mixed-use projects.

If I were king, I would strengthen codes enforcement. When people live on smaller lots in a more urbanized area, it is especially important to enforce codes such as the noise ordinance, lighting, dumping, and the like. This is because in “close quarters,” people tend to be less shielded from the actions of their neighbors. There is, therefore, an elevated need for sufficient code enforcement for most people to choose to live in more compact locations to encourage people to live in or near such locations.

If I were king, I would build an off-street greenway system. An off-street greenway path system for bicyclists and pedestrians is a powerful means of improving community quality of life, promoting sociability, and enhancing civic pride. Such paths are also an effective way to provide a “training ground” for novice bicyclists who, through using the paths, can gain the confidence and skill needed to “graduate” to in-street bicycling. I would hire a “Get Things Done” Greenway Czar for effectively moving the city public works department in this direction.

If I were king, I would establish an urban growth or urban service boundary. Because nearly all communities have ruinously allowed departments of transportation to build enormous roads within the city and county, there now exists enormous market pressure to develop residential and retail projects in the remote sprawl areas of the county. The only way to correct that market distortion in the short term (so that the pressure to sprawl is emasculated) is to enact an urban growth boundary around the city. Because of big roads, plans and regulations are completely insufficient, even if every commissioner was anti-growth and pro-compact development.

If I were king, I would make downtown infill development less costly. Reuse and redevelopment in the town center is often highly desirable, and there is often market interest, yet such downtown improvements are not achieved because the developer learns that it is simply too costly to follow various building codes downtown (widening building hallways, for example, is commonly required by contemporary codes, yet such a building modification is nearly always prohibitively expensive). I would create more incentives for more residences and other forms of infill buildings downtown — in part, by lowering the bar for building codes that create obstacles for building retrofits or new buildings. States such as New Jersey and Maryland have effectively achieved this by adopting what they call a “Smart Building Code.”

If I were king, I would adopt a land value tax, which is a levy on the unimproved value of land. It is an ad valorem tax on land that disregards the value of buildings, personal property and other improvements. A land value tax (LVT) is different from other property taxes, because these are taxes on the whole value of real estate: the combination of land, buildings, and improvements to the site. A land value tax, as exemplified by Pittsburgh PA, is a powerful way to promote town center development, as conventional property taxes discourage town center development by punishing the property owner with higher taxes when building improvements are added to the land. The result of the conventional property tax is that it leads many property owners to speculatively hold their property in a low-value use such as a parking lot.

If I were king, I would increase residential densities in appropriate locations. In walkable areas, establish higher residential and commercial densities and mixed use to make walking, transit, and bicycling more feasible, smaller and locally owned (and neighborhood-based) retail more possible, and to make the public realm more vibrant.

If I were king, I would ensure that the primary community farmers market is located within the town center. Too many communities blunder badly by deciding to locate their main farmers market in a peripheral location that can only be reached by car. The result is that it is more costly to shop at the market (in terms of time and transportation cost), and because there are no nearby retail, office or cultural facilities nearby, there are no “spillover” benefits. A number of downtowns throughout the nation enjoy such spin-off benefits, and promote transportation choice, by choosing a downtown market location.

If I were king, I would end the draining of downtown energy. To be healthy and vital, a downtown needs to exhibit “agglomeration economies.” That is, there must be a compact concentration of offices, retail, housing and civic buildings within a walkable, downtown location. Unfortunately, due to our car-crazed society, a number of such destinations have left for peripheral locations to find more free parking, bigger roads, less costly regulations, and less NIMBY opposition. I would prohibit the further dispersal of such “social condensers” from the downtown, such as the conference center, the farmers market, large movie houses, the main post office, government buildings, medieval faire, etc. Importantly, this is achieved by keeping town center roadways small in size and low in speed, as well as minimizing town center surface parking lots.

If I were king, I would adequately fund recreation. One of the great embarrassments of communities throughout the nation is the woeful state of undeveloped, unfunded parks and recreation system. Indeed, most communities spend only pocket change on recreation. I would re-allocate city annual funding (primarily by drawing dollars from the long over-funded police and fire budgets, which I would reduce substantially) to provide substantially more funding for parks and recreation development and programming. And do so without increasing taxes.

Concluding Thoughts

The above agenda is not one that will win any elections in this day and age. But they are all essential, long-neglected tasks that communities must achieve to avoid the downward spiral. It is telling that so much of the above agenda is politically toxic. A better future, however, can only be achieved if a community finds the political leadership to move in these directions.






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Filed under Economics, Environment, Politics, Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design, Walking