Tag Archives: low-density

Why Are Mom and Pop Stores So Scarce?

By Dom Nozzi

May 17, 2017

A friend of mine recently complained that the city we live in (Boulder CO) is “planning ANOTHER bank for the Pearl St. Mall! When is enough enough,” she asked?

She went on to claim that there are “15 empty store fronts but that is because of landlord greed.”

“When,” she wondered, “will the city decide that we need to encourage mom and pop stores over banks and large chains that have no vested interest in the city?”

The City of Boulder, I explained to her, is not planning to add another bank to the Mall. A bank president is planning to do that.

Banks, I said, are common in such low-density places (such as American pedestrian malls) that are unable to attract a large number of customers, as are jewelers. If you were a landlord along the Mall, I told my friend, I suspect that you would be aggressively seeking the rents sought by the existing landlords, as I believe you share the same values as those landlords: making money rather than losing money. And I suspect you would not consider yourself “greedy” for wanting to avoid losing money.

Throughout its history, and up to this very moment, Boulder (like a great many cities in America) has desired mom and pop stores along the Mall. But there is almost nothing a city can do to encourage such stores for two primary reasons: (1) The rent is very high along the Mall, which makes it financially impossible for a mom and pop store to afford to be there; and (2) The density of residential and commercial development in the vicinity of the Mall is far too low to attract enough customers to make it feasible for a mom and pop store to survive.

Mom and pop stores only occur when rents are relatively low, when there are a high number of customers living and working in the vicinity (such as in Brussels, Antwerp, Bern, Siena, and many other compact cities), or both.

The Law of Large Numbers, when applied to cities, shows that as a city grows its population, and does so relatively compactly, worker productivity increases, innovation increases, mom and pop stores grow in number, cultural diversity grows, and the range of restaurants and grocery store items grows. The Law partly is driven by synergy. UntitledSynergy occurs when larger numbers of people congregate and work together, and the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Low densities, by isolating creatives, destroys diversity, innovation, smaller scales and the number of choices available.

Boulder is an interesting case because it shows both effects: a very low density, yet relatively high levels of innovation due to the large number of brilliant and creative people who have settled in Boulder — largely due to the high quality of life. If Boulder became much more compact and dense, I believe levels of innovation, diversity, productivity, mom and pop stores, and productivity would grow substantially (the city would also be far more walkable and bikeable).

Boulder’s decades of NIMBYS fighting tooth and nail to lower densities (and the very high quality of life) in the city are the primary reason why mom and pop stores are rare on the Mall and big chains/banks/jewelers are common.

When is enough NIMBYism enough?

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Filed under Economics, Politics, Urban Design

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

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

Why?

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

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

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

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

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

Anywhere.

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

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

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

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How Do We Preserve Small Town Ambiance?

By Dom Nozzi

May 15, 2015

The most sought after, popular form of community for Americans today is the small town.

When we ask many community activists to describe what they seek for their community, they state that they are trying to preserve or restore a “small town feel.”

How do we do that?

For most NIMBYs and assorted anti-development champions of happy cars, it is to fight against density, tall buildings, and congestion.

But I believe this is counterproductive in creating a small town ambience.

I agree we shouldn’t allow skyscrapers. My limit is five stories.

beacon hill bostonBut the most effective way to preserve or restore the small town feel is to keep roads and intersections modest in size, and avoid sprawling low density.

Pushing for lower densities and fighting to reduce densities, by contrast, almost always compels a community to build monster roads and intersections.huge turn radius for road

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Population Growth, Density, and Cars

 

By Dom Nozzi

January 3, 2016

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

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

In addition to a lot more cars on the road.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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The Growth Ponzi Scheme

 

By Dom Nozzi

October 15, 2016

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

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

Initially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Some Problems Associated with Low-Density Residential Living

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 14, 2001

A large percentage of Americans LOVE low-density residential living, and regularly fight against any proposal that would bring more compact development anywhere near them.

But low-density development has many problems – problems that a growing number of Americans are beginning to recognize.sprawl-development

For example, low-density development locks everyone into extremely high levels of car dependency. Transit, walking, bicycling and carpools become nearly impossible. A sense of community is often non-existent. Auto-dependent communities suffer because there tends to be no “there there.” Seniors and kids lose their independence because they are forced to rely on others to get around. Suburbs are more dangerous than walkable in-town locations because the risk of a car crash is much higher than “stranger crimes” like murder, mugging, rape, etc.

Car dependent designs are not only unaffordable for all levels of government. They are also unaffordable for households, since the average car costs the equivalent of a $50,000 home mortgage, and nearly every family must now own more than one car. Low-density, disconnected street patterns create congestion even at very, very low levels of car trips because ALL trips are forced onto one or two major roads (and because cars consume such a vast amount of space). Disconnected roads therefore create the misperception that things are “too crowded.” The naive, misguided knee-jerk “solution” is to fight for lower densities, which, of course, simply makes things worse. Increasingly, what this means is that people who should know better (liberals, intellectuals, greens) are urging “no growth” and “no change”, and fighting AGAINST smart growth tactics — thereby unintentionally aligning themselves with the black hat sprawl developers.

Tragically, the low-density lifestyle compels people living in such a setting to fight hard against the compact development that would actually reduce the problems cited above. They do so because the low-density pattern quickly results in enraging traffic congestion and loss of car parking. This vested interest in low density locks such residents in a long-term downward spiral, as positive change tends to be fiercely resisted.

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia

Placing Blame

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 30, 2004

An important point I make in my speeches is that most of the ruinous transportation decisions we arrive at (regularly) are decisions that we are compelled to make by our unfortunate circumstances. I don’t, for example, blame folks for their desperate desire to make their cars happy (with, for example, big roads). What choice do they have when they live in a remote, low-density, single-use area filled with disconnected roads?

The approach I try to take is that we must work with the hand we’ve been dealt. Design our transport system in such a way as to not “get rid of cars,” but to make our cars behave themselves. (to be our slaves, not our masters).

Traffic calming. Connected streets. Mixed uses. Modest setbacks. Unobtrusive off-street parking.

It is important to point out that the conventional transportation design strategy WORSENS conditions for the motorist.

In our increasingly cocooning, isolationist, gated community culture, it is EXTREMELY difficult, politically, to push the connected streets agenda — crucial as that agenda is. Given that, can we really blame the traffic engineer for recommending a monster intersection on our sparse, cul-de-sac’d road network?

In the end, I recommend that the community establish and protect lifestyle choices within the community: Walkable urban areas and rural areas — not just car-dependent suburban areas. Each has clear design imperatives that we must abide by. One size does not fit all. Freedom of choice is difficult to argue against.

I am dedicated to doing all I can to see that high-quality models of the walkable, traditional lifestyle (a lifestyle that is rapidly vanishing) are established in my community so that people can see with their own eyes that it works quite well (envy can be our friend.) Models help us avoid the “abstractions” problem. Or the common wet blanket that it “won’t work here because ‘they’ are different than us.”

I live for the day when we have reached that much-sought-after “tipping point.” In other words, when smart growth is self-reinforcing, and does not need ZEALOTS like me to keep making what many find to be embarrassing, awkward observations about needed transportation and urban design reforms.

 

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