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Modernist Architecture is a Failed Paradigm Ruining Our World

By Dom Nozzi

April 19, 2017

Nothing is more dated than yesterday’s vision of tomorrow.  – Unknown

 Modern architects recognize 300 masterpieces but ignore the other 30 million [modernist] buildings that have ruined the world. – Andres Duany

 Recently, a Boulder CO online newsletter published an essay I had written describing my vision for the redevelopment of the Boulder Community Hospital site (also known as Alpine-Balsam) that the City of Boulder had purchased and was planning to redevelop. Two Boulder friends of mine, who admirably tend to express support for compact, walkable urban design, noted as well to me their support for modernist architectural design in the redevelopment.

It was very disheartening for me to hear of their support for modernism. I believe that modernism would greatly contribute to undermining the potential success of this redevelopment – success that could serve as a model for future development in Boulder.

I prefer traditional design over modernist design.

Banks

Some Merits of Traditional Design

Traditional architectural design tends to be much more readily loved by most people. This makes a great deal of sense, since by definition, traditional design has stood the test of time. Not surprisingly, there is a fair amount of research suggesting that traditional architecture, such as Georgian and Victorian terraces and mansion blocks, contributes to our wellbeing. Beauty makes people happy.[1] By contrast, modernist architecture tends to be shocking or repellent to most. Visual preference surveys by Tony Nelessen conducted throughout the nation consistently shows this to be the case.

Traditional design tends to be more kind and interesting to pedestrians due to the use of ground floor windows, front-facing entryways, and building ornamentation. By contrast, modernist design has a bad habit of offering sterility and lack of place-making at the ground level.

Throwing Away Timelessness

The Modernist paradigm makes “innovation” the design imperative, which arrogantly assumes that there is no reason a new, untested design cannot reliably achieve admiration and greatness.

Modernists throw away design rules that have stood the test of time in creating buildings that are pleasing and comprehensible to most. Throwing away rules is a recipe for creating incomprehensible, unappealing, unsustainable garbage in the vast majority of cases. It is akin to handing a typewriter to a monkey and expecting the monkey to type out the works of Shakespeare.

Consider this example of a written paragraph, where rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation, consistency in font, and other writing conventions are ignored:

red moss teeaere         eeaapoiere   STRAIGHT method.   Tether: highlight. totalitarian doctrines. Fight, Might.  BreaD    Moss tree  Goofballs. Magnet; Tennis   Jodding. Running_____ Break. Slow! Aspirin. Hockey hockey hockey hockey. Shoes and purple.   WHISPER###  ****&&&&&&@@@@@

An “innovative” paragraph, perhaps, but incomprehensible, utterly ugly, and chaotic.

Note that I do not intend to suggest that architects are as uneducated as monkeys. To the contrary, architects tend to be highly intelligent. But by throwing out time-tested design rules, architects voluntarily blind themselves to design intelligence.

To me, it is exceptionally tragic that modernists are doing to our communities what the above paragraph does to writing. To abandon writing rules, and to abandon the timeless rules of neighborhood design, we abandon what should be (and has been throughout history) the beauty and elegance of the written word, and the beauty and elegance displayed by so many of our historic neighborhoods.

Look the Other Way with Greenwashing

It is quite common for a modernist architect to “green” the design of his or her building by covering much of it with vegetation. Modernists do this to soften the otherwise brutal, sterile nature of their “innovative” designs. By doing so, they leverage the human tendency to love nature and vegetation. “Maybe if I hide my unlovable design behind ivy and shrubs, people will like the appearance of my otherwise distasteful structure!”

High-tech conservation and solar energy methods, similarly, are often used by modernists to gain favor and have people look the other way with regard to the unfortunate, unpleasant building design. “Are you not impressed by my triple platinum LEED-certified building that conserves so much energy?” Pay no attention to the fact that the building looks like Soviet-era brutality.

The Conservation Benefits of Traditional Design

Despite the conventional wisdom that contemporary buildings perform far better than older, traditional buildings when it comes to energy conservation and overall environmental sustainability, it turns out that traditional, older buildings tend to be inherently much more “green” environmentally than modernist building design.

Why?

One reason is that traditional design tends to more often deploy passive conservation methods such as overhanging pitched roofs. Such roofs are much more effective than modernist flat roofs in shedding  snow and rain. The traditional pitched roof much more effectively avoids costly moisture leaks from pooled water, or collapse from excessive snow weight. The roof overhang provides shade from a hot sun. Traditional buildings tend to be more appropriately oriented to take advantage of the cooling and heating cycles of the sun throughout the day and in various seasons. Modernist buildings tend to “innovatively” disregard such passive strategies.

Traditional building design also tends to use more durable building materials (such as brick, masonry, and wood), and use locally-sourced materials. This reduces the energy costs of initial cost, maintenance, repair, and replacement. By contrast, modernist buildings tend to use more exotic, difficult to maintain materials such as vast amounts of glass or polished steel.

Because traditional building design is more likely to be loved than modernist design, the building is more sustainable and environmentally friendly simply by the fact that by being lovable, citizens are more likely to want to protect and repair the building, rather than tear it down. The prolific tearing down of modernist buildings we have already seen in great numbers (due in part to their unlovable nature) is extremely costly in terms of energy conservation and environmental conservation. This frequent demolition of modernist buildings is certain to continue in the future.

Modernist Non Sequiturs

To win political and societal support for modernist design, modernist architects frequently use non sequiturs. Modernist buildings are praised for being “progressive” or “optimistic about the future.” Such buildings are called “democratic” or “egalitarian.” By Officescontrast, traditional buildings are disparaged as being “authoritarian” or “regressive” or “pessimistic.” Traditional buildings are often ridiculed as being “nostalgic” (implying an effort to create a fake historical appearance), or “not forward looking.”

Nonsense.

It is entirely inappropriate to associate political or ethical values with building style or design.

Giving Compact Development a Black Eye

Boulder residents have a long, unfortunate history of counterproductively opposing higher-density development with the justification that such development harms Boulder’s small town character, is environmentally destructive, or creates traffic and parking congestion.

Ironically, it is low-density development that is more responsible for such problems.

The essential need to shift Boulder’s politics toward support for more compact development shows why it is extremely important that compact, walkable, higher-density buildings be lovable in design. Using more lovable traditional design is a powerful way to gain more acceptance of compact design in Boulder. A great many people in Boulder dislike compact development because it is associated with “boxy” or “monolithic” or “sterile” buildings. The last thing Boulder needs is for ugly buildings to give compact development a black eye. Modernist buildings are also infamous for not fitting in with the context of their location (an inherent problem when “innovation” is the key design objective). Each of these traits are typical of a modernist building, whereas a traditional building is more likely to feel friendly or compatible in or near existing neighborhoods.

Traditionally designed neighborhoods tend to be unified in style and follow a design pattern. By being more compatible and lovable, traditional buildings are much better able to gain neighborhood and community acceptance when the project is more dense or compact. By contrast, modernist design theory, again, tends to celebrate “eclectic” and “innovative” design. Such design ignores context and tends to feel disconcertingly chaotic, incompatible, and bizarre. This is a surefire recipe for amplifying neighborhood opposition. “There are…reasons that more British cities are not beautiful. Firstly, there are the architects themselves, who tend to prefer innovative buildings over traditional ones.”[2]

The Absence of Mimicking Modernism

It is quite telling that in Boulder, as elsewhere, there are zero neighborhoods which people look upon with affection that are mostly or entirely modernist (similarly, I know of no predominantly modernist towns or neighborhoods that are tourist destinations). As John Torti, principal of Torti Gallas & Partners, has stated, “…could you imagine an entire city made out of Frank Gehry buildings? There’s a notion of the monument versus the fabric. Michael Dennis called it hero buildings versus soldier buildings. In most New Urbanist practices we create the soldier buildings, the fabric buildings that make cities.”[3]

Modernism vs Traditional in Boulder, April 2017

But there are many examples of admired neighborhoods in Boulder that are primarily traditional: Mapleton Hill, Iris Hollow, Dakota Ridge, Washington Square, and Holiday.

The Rejection of Context

The modernist paradigm is focused on creating individualistic “statement” buildings that have no relation to their neighbors. Context, pattern, time-tested design, rules, and fabric are tossed into the waste can. Instead, the focus is on innovation, which tends to result in odious, unlovable buildings that almost never draw affection – particularly when modernist buildings are grouped together in a neighborhood (is it even possible to group together “statement” buildings into a coherent whole?)  Instead, modernist buildings are parasitically, invasively, and incrementally added into an existing traditional neighborhood, allowing the modernist building to piggyback on the affection for the traditional neighborhood.

Torti notes that:

“The notion of understanding and respecting the traditional city—rather than showing off a particular site or building—is the essential difference. Christopher Alexander, the great planning and architectural theorist, says it in a very poignant way. When you come to a place, a city, or a site, you must look and try to understand the whole place. It sums up what I think new urbanists are all about, which is being humble enough when we work on buildings to let the city take preference.”[4]

Similarly, Stefanos Polyzoides, principal of Moule & Polyzoides, Architects and Urbanists, says that

“…the prime ingredient of urbanism is really public space and the public realm. So the urban plan comes first and the building second. It becomes an issue of whether the building is a monument or a piece of fabric. Then does this building dominate what’s in place or does this building add to it or transform it? New urbanists essentially believe in compatibility between building and place, in the sense that buildings having specific intentions when placed in a particular location in the urban fabric.”[5]

Incrementally Destroying Affection

Tragically, over time, this incremental invasion by modernist buildings erodes the affection felt for the traditional neighborhood as it slowly loses its charm to the invader buildings. Each modernist building added to a traditional neighborhood is a new blight on the neighborhood, and the neighborhood takes another step toward being unloved.

Modernist buildings, by design, stick out like a sore thumb. They take pride in the amount of shock value they induce. They thumb their nose at conventions and timeless design and fitting into a context. A modernist building tends to call attention to itself, Homeswhich is most unfortunate for the neighborhood, as the modernist design is so commonly wretched.

There is a reason that modernists fear and oppose visual preference surveys. Their modernist designs always fail to gain support. The modernist excuse for this? “Citizens are too stupid or lacking in architectural knowledge to realize that the modernism was brilliant and beautiful!”

Rubbish.

Repetition and Making Lovable, Compatible Design Illegal

It is said, rightly, that imitation is the highest form of flattery. When a building design stands the test of time and is loved for many generations, it is natural and desirable that it be mimicked by new buildings. Traditional buildings, by definition, have long been 3718677272_880f14ecdc_bloved and should therefore become a pattern that should be followed by new buildings. Tellingly, the chaotic, no-rules modernist building tends to NEVER be replicated. I know of no examples.

One of the things we tend to love is a city that shows order, repetition, balance, and symmetry. Without an emphasis on repetition, it seems chaotic, like no one is in charge, which is disconcerting. Diversity and variety should be introduced gently so as not to take away from an overall design pattern (such as building height or shape). Variety might be introduced through differences in fencing style, color, or cornice, for example.

Much of Pearl Street Mall is a good example of lovable repetition with a dash of variety.

Given all of this, it is an atrocity that in America, communities have been saddled for several decades by federal historic preservation guidelines that REVERSE this time-honored method I have just summarized. In historic neighborhoods full of lovable, charming historic buildings, the federal historic preservation guidelines PROHIBIT additions to existing traditional buildings that mimic or are even compatible with the existing traditional building style. Instead – insanely – the federal guidelines REQUIRE that the addition to an existing historic and traditional building be “of its time.” Today, since “of its time” buildings happen to be unlovable modernist buildings, federal historic preservation rules make it mandatory that lovable historic buildings be degraded in all their charm and glory by being appended by a hideous modernist abomination.

Additions

Most modernist architects proudly – triumphantly – design “of its time” modernist buildings when new buildings are to be built in a traditional historic neighborhood.

Who needs enemies when we have ourselves?

What does it say about a society when it requires new construction to only use a failed, unlovable building design? Modernist architecture is, after all, a failed paradigm. We are now obligated to keep adding more and more failure to our neighborhoods so that the construction is “of its (failed) time.”

Today, it tends to be that only arrogant, elitist, pompous modernist architects who have “drank the Kool Aid” admire modernist buildings. The rest of us are too stupid to realize the brilliance of modernist buildings.

Unfortunately for me, it would seem that nearly all architects who design buildings in Boulder prefer modernist design, which makes it extremely likely that modernist design will once again be the dominant (exclusive?) design at the hospital site being redeveloped.

I believe that more modernist building design is likely to meet with strong citizen opposition to the redevelopment of the hospital site, thereby undermining this golden opportunity to have the City show how compact development is properly and popularly done.

Affordability and Jobs?

Having said all of this, there are one or two advantages to modernist buildings. First, they are so strongly disliked by so many people that they will therefore not see a significant increase in price over time. They will not retain their value. Or, if there is an appreciation in housing value in the community, the appreciation for modernist homes will be lower than the appreciation that traditional buildings will see. Very few people will be interested in buying a home that seems so dated and so bizarre, which will put downward pressure on the price of the home. Because modernist homes will be so difficult for an owner to sell, such homes will be relatively affordable to lower income people who don’t have much choice about how attractive their homes might be.

A study from the Netherlands showed that ‘even controlling for a wide range of features, fully neo-traditional houses sell for 15 per cent more than fully non-traditional houses…London terraced houses built before the First World war went up in value by 465 per cent between 1983 and 2013, compared to 255 per cent for post-war property of the same type. Beauty sells, but because it’s rare, it’s exclusive.[6]

So providing more affordable housing in an expensive housing market is one benefit.

Another benefit is that because modernist buildings tend to be so unlovable to the vast majority of people, modernist buildings will provide more jobs in future years because they will be more frequently demolished and in need of reconstruction to other buildings.

Time to Sunset Modernism

It is far past time that America end its failed architectural experiment of modernism. The modernist paradigm has destroyed lovability throughout the nation, and has bred widespread cynicism about our ability to create buildings worthy of our affection.

Hotels

Our quality of life and any hope of civic pride depends on our returning to the tradition of using time-tested building design.

[1] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

[2] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

[3] https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2017/03/09/great-idea-architecture-puts-city-first

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] West, Ed. “Classical architecture makes us happy. So why not build more of it?”, The Spectator. March 15, 2017.

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Infill Development vs Sprawl Development

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 26, 2003

“Infill development” is a form of development in which a vacant, undeveloped lot within the developed portion of the city is developed to contain housing, offices, retail, civic, or industrial. In other words, the lot is a “leftover” piece of property that was never developed as urbanization progressed outward.

By contrast, the opposite of “infill development” is “sprawl development” or “outlying sprawl-developmentdevelopment” — in other words, development that happens remotely from or at the periphery of the developed portion of the city. Note that “infill” can also include the REDEVELOPMENT of a property. In general, redevelopment infill uses more of the property than was used by the original development of the property.

Appropriately, infill has long been considered highly desirable by public planners, because it discourages costly sprawl, reduces travel distances, reduces car dependence, reduces household transportation expenditures, improves the quality of life of the community, improves the tax base of the community, often improves upon a property that may be experiencing crime problems or aesthetic problems, and reduces the development pressure faced by outlying, typically more environmentally important lands outside the city.

In general, infill has unfortunately been much more difficult for a developer to achieve than development in outlying areas. Usually, development in outlying areas means lower development costs, less opposition from citizens (particularly from those who live near the proposed development), less time needed for development, less need to worry about possible contamination that may be at the property due to past activities, and less need to mitigate “traffic problems.”

 

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The Fruits of NIMBYism

By Dom Nozzi

November 25, 2009

NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) hysteria played a destructive role in Gainesville, Florida in the years I worked there as a town planner (1986 to 2007).

The irony is that the NIMBY is convinced, in their zealotry, that their tactics are the tools of salvation, and their repeated failure on many of their campaigns simply instructs them to re-double their efforts to fight an even more vicious battle in the future.

It is a strategy ensuring that the Gainesville area would be locked into a downwardly spiraling future.

Some examples of the fruits of NIMBYism in Gainesville…

The Hogtown Greenway

By waging this ferocious, emotionally angry campaign, the NIMBYs succeeded in changing the city charter to prevent the City from EVER building a paved trail along Hogtown Creek. By doing so, the NIMBYs have guaranteed that the creek will continue its incremental degradation. The trail prohibition amplifies the most insidious enemy of an urban creek: Neglect. Because the paved trail was the only way the creek would allow benign public saintreportpicture3access (and, therefore, on-going, real-time citizen awareness of the condition of the creek), the prohibition of the trail will ensure that the incremental destruction will continue to go unnoticed and therefore unrectified. Every month, new homes, shopping centers, offices, or industrial projects are built close to the creek. Without a public trail, such harmful insults to the creek will remain ignored. The creek will ultimately die a slow death, because the most significant threat it faces is neglect, NOT a public bicycle and pedestrian trail.

Residential Suburban Development

Perhaps more so than any other form of development, NIMBYs turn out to oppose the construction of residential subdivisions. They yell and scream, and frantically try to find ANYTHING that can be used to stop the project — stormwater problems, endangered species, wetlands, large trees, traffic. Ultimately, such desperate tactics almost always fail. All of the energy and resources of the community are directed toward achieving the least likely outcome: prohibition.

As a result, no time or energy is directed, proactively, toward what is REALLY for a better future: Removing travel lanes from over-sized roads (Not that most NIMBYs are concerned about big roads. Nearly all of them LOVE multi-lane “bliss”). Of course, this “road diet” tactic is very long-term and will not likely bear fruit in our lifetime (it will take a long time to reverse the Big Road network we’ve singlemindedly assembled over the course of 50-70 years).

Therefore, we need an interim tactic to bridge ourselves to a sustainable future: Quality, walkable, compact, mixed-use urban design regulations.

By failing to direct any energy toward the establishment of such regulations, and almost always failing to stop a development project, the end result of the NIMBY battles is that we continue to get walloped by disgusting, auto-oriented, sprawling residential misery. Misery that is built all around us every week.

The Greenways/Weiss Project

This project was proposed in the northwest portion of Gainesville. NIMBYs screamed. Elected officials buckled. Project “halted.” Result of the NIMBY war against Weiss? Instead of the mixed use, compact project proposed by the Weiss developers (albeit not great new urbanism, but certainly better than most of what is developed in Gainesville), Gainesville would ultimately see auto-oriented, low-density, single-use, single-family development out there — the kind of horror we see in sprawling areas all over the U.S. Which is ultimately much more ruinous for the financial, ecological, transportation, and social health of this community.

Cell Towers

Another example of the likely fruits of NIMBYism.

Activists devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to prohibit the construction of a tall cell tower near their neighborhood in downtown Gainesville (I share in the horror of such a structure).

It is nearly impossible to prohibit construction of the tower.

Why do we not consider using this crisis to create an opportunity? Why don’t we consider the approach of Palm Beach County? There, the towers are allowed. But they must be attractive, BRICK towers resembling clock towers or church spires. The towers could (through regulation, NOT prohibition) be an attractive addition to the ambience of the neighborhood. Or, co-location can be required on existing tall structures. Instead, the NIMBYs will fight for prohibition. And almost always, they will lose.

Result: ugly towers will go up.

Capstone Project

Here, a walkable, compact, infill residential project was proposed at the southwest corner of Northeast Park in Gainesville. The project, in all likelihood, would have delivered healthier nearby retail (retail would be a short, walkable distance away, which would provide more affordable housing, since households would not need to own as many cars), an improvement of values and the condition of a neighborhood that has been in an impoverished decline for several decades, improved transportation conditions for the community, increased amenities for the park, brought healthy tax revenues to the city, and diverted pressures to live in sprawlsville.

NIMBYs screamed. Elected officials buckled. Project “halted” by commissioners who had paid lip service to precisely this kind of infill project for years. Message to future developers: “Don’t build infill projects in the city. Build in sprawlsville. There you will find a lot less pain, heartache, cost, and anger…”

Fate of that portion of the neighborhood: Continued low-density and low-income downward spiral.

Elections

NIMBY battalions played a role in election losses in Gainesville. Many NIMBYs became enraged by elected officials who did not fight to the death to PROHIBIT their pet evil project. A comment I heard from a Gainesville environmental NIMBY: “Newport and Hutch (progressive, green conservationists who have achieved and fought for many environmental causes for decades) are NOT environmentalists!!!!” Many NIMBYs ended up splitting the green vote by voting for fringe NIMBY candidates. Many NIMBYs “stayed home” (didn’t vote) because they could not stomach the thought of voting for “anti-environmental” Newport or Hutch.

Many NIMBYs failed to campaign hard to get Newport, Hutch, or Barrow elected.

These sorts of NIMBY electoral actions resulted in Gainesville and Alachua County voters electing several right-wing candidates that are strongly opposed to environmental conservation.

These NIMBY actions resulted in the election of a mayor for Gainesville who was disastrous for Gainesville’s environmentalists. At a time when Gainesville needed elected officials to possess wise leadership and courage to wage a war against auto-dependent sprawl, Gainesville elected “Dr. No” — a mayor who was merely an empty vessel. Someone who was more than willing to do the bidding of the enraged-citizens-of-the-week. A mayor with a suburban, populist, no-growth agenda. A man who cares little about promoting transit. A guy who loves multi-lane roads and big parking lots. A guy who despises higher density infill development and mixed use. A man who has no agenda except to say “no” to any and all proposals objected to by hysterical NIMBYs.

Given all of the above, it is increasingly clear that Gainesville needs to change its name. Nimbyville. Much more accurate about the Gainesville character.

Ultimately and ironically, NIMBY battles will deliver Gainesville a future of big roads, big parking lots, accelerated loss of important natural areas, higher taxes, more auto dependence, and endless urban sprawl.

How often did such NIMBYism result in the acceleration toward what south Florida, southern California, Atlanta, and Houston have become?

Too many fail to understand that their actions ENSURE that our future will be ruinous sprawl. We have met the enemy. He/she is NOT a “pseudo-environmentalist” elected official, as defined by NIMBYs. He/she is NOT a compact, infill developer. He/she is NOT an evil corporate polluter.

He/she is us…

 

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Essential Ingredients for a Walkable, Compact Town Center

 

By Dom Nozzi

December 20, 2013

I attended a joint citizen board meeting regarding “Sustainable Streets and Centers” in Boulder, Colorado. Here are my thoughts about necessary strategies.

Assumptions

  • Boulder has adopted a clear vision for one or more newly emerging walkable, compact centers in locations such as East Arapahoe Road, Colorado Street, and East Boulder, and intends to use effective tactics to induce the creation and sustainability of such centers.
  • 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.
  • 15-minute neighborhoods are an important Boulder objective, which will require the creation of a relatively large number of centers.
  • 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.

General comments

First, strive to use words that resonate and are understandable to non-professional Boulder citizens. Terms such as “multi-way” or “activity center” or “alternate modes” or “corridor” are confusing, uninspiring, and negative. Second, when visioning or seeking comments from citizens, it is important that citizen comments be guided and informed by skilled design professionals (such as Dover-Kohl) who are skilled in presenting information in an understandable, inspiring way (particularly through use of quality graphics). Third, existing housing, employment, or land use patterns should not necessarily dictate visions if such patterns conflict with Boulder objectives. Fourth, the needs or convenience of regional commuters should not trump the low-speed, vibrancy, pedestrian scaled needs of Boulder’s centers.

Toolbox of Strategies that are Essential in Creating a Walkable, Compact Center

(somewhat different toolboxes are needed for other lifestyle zones – “transect zones” – in Boulder)

Land Development Regulations:

  • Motor vehicle parking is behind buildings.
  • Shorter blocks via cross-access pedestrian ways between buildings.
  • Mixed-use zoning to reduce walking/biking distance, and increase 24-hour vibrancy and safety.
  • Relatively high residential densities and commercial intensities.IMG_3045
  • Remove any regulatory barriers to infilling existing parking with buildings.
  • Do not allow gas stations at intersections.
  • Convert parking minimums to parking maximums. Require that the price of parking be unbundled. Increase allowable shared use and leased parking opportunities.
  • Relatively modest building setbacks. At intersections, a sense of place is achieved by requiring buildings to abut the back of sidewalks.
  • Exemption from landscaping requirements.
  • Relatively small minimum lot sizes.
  • Relatively small signs required by the sign ordinance (to help signal a low-speed, pedestrian scaled setting).
  • Proactively overlay a street grid with small block sizes before development is proposed.
  • Do not allow fences to cut off non-street access to adjacent parcels. Fences used should not exceed three or four feet in height along a sidewalk.
  • Emphasize multi-family housing rather than single-family housing in centers and along major streets.
  • Consider requiring at buildings 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.

Infrastructure

  • Shorter street blocks (200 to 500 feet max).
  • 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. Raised medians with turn pockets are to be encouraged.
  • Raised crosswalks when feasible and appropriate.
  • 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 ambiance 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 benefiting 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.
  • On-street parking is allowed and priced.
  • Consider visually prominent gateway features at the entrances to centers to clearly signal to motorists that they are entering a low-speed, walkable setting that requires attentiveness.

 

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Gainesville Florida Joins Many Cities in Promoting Suburban Sprawl

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2005

I wrote the following essay at 4 a.m. in 2005, “inspired” by my rage after being woken up, once again, to the infuriating sound of a vacuum truck vacuuming the large asphalt parking lot in a nearby shopping center. The vacuuming had been an on-going outrage that the City of Gainesville was unwilling to address.

What are the primary causes of “suburban sprawl”? In general, it is recognized that widespread ownership of cars, abundant free parking and free-to-use roads, combined with the construction and widening of urban highways, the footloose nature of employers, the desire for larger yards for children to play in, and rising incomes, have been important influences that have led people to flee the city.

In Gainesville in 2005, it was commonly pointed out that the flight from in-town neighborhoods in recent years was driven primarily by two problems: (1) A high crime rate (or at least a perception of a high rate); and (2) Poor quality public schools.

Unfortunately, five additional problems had emerged in Gainesville and a great many other communities in America — factors that are probably most noticeable in neighborhoods near the town center. Problems that mostly originated from service tasks that originate in the town center. Problems that I believe are influencing people living in or near the town center to “pull up the stakes” and move out to sprawlsville.

  1. The Vacuum Truck. At a frequency of three or four times each week back in 2005 (I do not know if this assault on nighttime peace and quiet continues to this day), I was awakened sometime between midnight and 4 a.m. on a regular basis by the high-pitched whine of a vacuum truck. The truck was hired by shopping centers in and near the town center to vacuum their enormous asphalt parking lots. This work — akin to the sound of a dentists’ drill — usually lasted about 30 minutes, but can sometimes go on for over an hour.

Part of the problem was the Gainesville noise ordinance, which I had written a few years earlier in my role as a town planner for Gainesville. To deal with the problem of officers not having a noise meter or not being trained to use one during a violation, I inserted a “plainly audible” rule, that allows a “reasonable person” (such as an officer) to determine, by listening, that the noise is plainly disturbing from a distance in excess of 200 feet. Unfortunately, despite this standard being upheld around the country, a Florida court had recently rejected it.

A second problem was that the vacuum truck produced a high-pitched whine that, while annoying, probably did not exceed the decibel limits in the ordinance. The remedy was to amend the ordinance to establish “octave band” limits used by a number of other cities. What this would mean, however, is more expensive meters would be needed, and more training for our officers.

Unlike in the relatively open, dispersed land use patterns found in sprawl locations, those living in or near town centers tend to be so near other homes, shops and services that noise pollution is much more of a problem. The utter inability of Gainesville and many other American cities to control the unbearable, on-going noise bombardment of vacuum trucks into nearby neighborhoods, then, is a guarantee that the flight to sprawlsville will continue at its high rate.

  1. The Malathion Truck. Each summer, I dreaded the “hissing sound” when I lived in my in-town neighborhood in Gainesville. It was a sound that forced me to leap to my feet, dash to the windows, and shut them before The Malathion Truck passed by — invading the outdoor and indoor air with a sickly-sweet smell of the Malathion pesticide. Among other things, I was forced to frantically shut the windows because the spray gave me headaches.

I realize the truck is used to try to kill mosquitoes, but I have an environmental mosquitomainpic01science degree, which gives me the knowledge that if we want to control mosquitoes, such spraying is about as effective as spraying water vapor.

I’m concerned that spraying might make the mosquito problem worse over time, since it could be harmful to the critters in our neighborhood that naturally feed on mosquitoes.

Again, unlike in the dispersed, outlying sprawl neighborhood locations, those of us living in or near town centers tend to be much more likely to be inflicted with toxic pesticides sprayed into the air we breath. (remember the old adage: “The solution to pollution is dilution”?). The practice of Gainesville to engage in frequent spraying of toxins into the relatively confined spaces of town center neighborhoods is, again a guarantee that many will be chased to sprawlsville.

  1. The Banner Planes. Each fall, during the college football season, Gainesville’s in-town neighborhoods are frequently treated to the loud, low-flying sound of the “banner planes” — planes dragging large advertisements over the thousands of fans at the UF football stadium during games. Loud, flying billboards on a Saturday afternoon inflict terrible noise pollution into town center neighborhoods on each and every football weekend.

The City of Gainesville is not allowed to regulate planes, due to federal law. The result, once more, is another reason to relocate to the relatively quiet sprawl locations.

  1. Emergency Vehicle Sirens. Living near a town center in an enormous number of American cities, one is given the impression that she or he is living in a war-torn area, given how often in-town neighborhoods are treated to the shriek of emergency vehicle sirens racing down the town center streets (where a “hub” for emergency services tends to be located). In cities lacking in elected leadership, this problem is particularly severe, as the elected officials don’t have the courage or the wisdom to control their emergency service providers. Gainesville, like so many American communities, has lacked leadership for decades, so it was no surprise to me that friends and family visiting Gainesville would often point out to me that the sirens in Gainesville were much more noticeable than in any other city they had visited or lived in.

I’ve heard of one city that informed its fire and police supervisors that they need to ease up on the sirens in the middle of the night between intersections, since there are so few cars on the road at those times, and the supervisors complied. I’ve not heard that this particular city has suffered from an epidemic of babies dying in burning buildings, regular traffic accidents, or widespread burglaries, as a result of that effective policy to control the exponential growth in out-of-control emergency vehicle sirens.

How many people in Gainesville, consciously or unconsciously, relocated out of a town center residence because they found the screaming discomfort of rampaging fire trucks to be intolerable?

  1. The Police Helicopter. When I lived in Gainesville, the city police department and county sheriff jointly purchased a law enforcement helicopter. Like the banner planes, it was loud and low-flying. Unlike the banner planes, it was often used late at night, and frequently used an invasive searchlight to scan areas. The helicopter would sometimes circle for what seemed like an endless amount of time. Fortunately, the helicopter problem has apparently subsided over time.

Like the emergency vehicle sirens, police helicopters tend to be much more frequent in the town center skies than in outlying areas of a community. Escaping the Big Brother helicopter is, of course, commonly achieved by moving to the hinterlands.

Am I Being Thin-Skinned?

Could it be that I am just a hyper-sensitive, thin-skinned person when it comes to these five items? I don’t believe so. On a number of occasions during my time in Gainesville, I had people tell me that they noticed these problems to be significantly less noticeable in cities much, much larger. I also had a number of people over the years complain to me about the vacuum truck, the banner planes, the Malathion Truck, and the police helicopter.

Due to the enormous number and scale of benefits I enjoy by living centrally, I am committed to living in town center neighborhoods, so these problems have not chased me away from living in such locations. But I wonder how many of my neighbors have left because of these growing nuisances…

Are these problems inherent for those that live in town center neighborhoods — problems that people should expect as part of the ambient conditions of living in such a central location? Again, I don’t believe so. I believe that it is possible for a healthy downtown to function without such an excessive amount of vacuum trucks, relentless sirens, banner planes, helicopters, and Malathion trucks. It has been successfully done in nearly all healthy cities over the course of human history. We got by without such things in the past, and did quite nicely. Why is it not possible now?

Until some of these problems are resolved, cities such as Gainesville will continue to see people fleeing in-town residences for the perceived peace and quiet of sprawlsville. If we are truly committed to sustainability, infill, and compact development, I believe we should do what we have an obligation to find the leadership to reduce the nuisances I’ve summarized above.

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