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“Hometown Democracy” in Florida

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 10, 2004

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design

Gigantism: Is Boulder’s Future Green or Grey?

By Dom Nozzi 

Boulder, Colorado has a magnificent greenbelt that will stand as an engine for quality of life far into the future.

But there is a counterbalancing sickness, exemplified by an asphalt cancer that is spreading within the city. Why? Because a person in a car consumes as much space as 17 people sitting in chairs. Despite all of the admirable things Boulder has done, there are lots of cars in the city.

The needs of cars (mostly lots of asphalt space and high speeds) and the needs of people (mostly low speeds and human-scaled spaces like Pearl Street Mall) are diametrically opposite. When Boulder provides (or allows) all of this expensive asphalt for cars, a powerful sprawl dispersant is created.

Boulder is suffering from a disease faced by many cities: GIGANTISM. Gigantic streets, gigantic speeds, gigantic intersections, gigantic parking lots, and what amounts to gigantic sprawl.

Despite this overabundance of asphalt for cars, roads and parking lots are often congested, due to how much space each car consumes (see the Untitledimages). It is also because roads are free to drive on, and nearly all parking is free. First year economics (and the Soviet bread lines) inform us of the inevitable result: congestion and long lines.

There is plenty of conversation about affordable housing, but no mention of a powerful tool to create such housing: designing neighborhoods so that households own one car rather than two. Or two cars rather than three. The annual cost of owning a car is $9,000. With proper neighborhood design, a household able to shed a car can devote that $9,000 to a mortgage or rent each year.

Boulder actually has plenty of affordable housing. But that “housing” is for cars, not people. And it is in the form of inhospitable seas of asphalt that people abhor. We’re in a vicious cycle, as space-hogging cars have an insatiable need for ever more asphalt, which makes Boulder less walkable. Less human-scaled. Like drug addicts, cars can never have enough “free” road and “free” parking space. The excessive amounts of car parking is another reason why housing is much less affordable, as many are forced to pay for expensive parking they don’t need.

Part of the vicious cycle: the more asphalt we create for cars, the more driving we induce, because the excessive asphalt makes it increasingly unpleasant and dangerous to walk, bicycle, or use transit. Fewer walk or bicycle each time we add turn lanes or off-street parking. More of us are compelled by the added asphalt to drive more frequently.

The asphalt cancer accelerates global warming, a thinly-spread and unsustainably sprawling region, and a self-inflicted (and enormously expensive) ruination of our quality of life.

Causes and treatment for this cancer?

• The four- and five-lane Canyon and Broadway in the town center. Since three lanes is the limit for human scale and calm speeds, we must put these highways on a “road diet” (reduce them to three lanes) when they enter Boulder’s town center – a place that should be calm, low-speed, and human-scaled, not for high-speed regional highways.

• Fair pricing. Motorists shouldn’t be subsidized. Price roads and parking.

• Double-left turn lanes. Engineers point out that adding a second turn lane suffers from severely diminishing returns. We cannot exempt Boulder from the Iron Law of Roads: You cannot build your way out of (intersection) congestion.

• Large off-street parking lots. In a town center which should be compact, walkable, and charming, big off-street lots create unwalkable, gap-toothed dead zones that repel pedestrians, small shops, and homes. Such parking should be incrementally supplanted with buildings and if necessary replaced by on-street parking and parking garages. Parking rules should be reformed and more efficiently provided by allowing more shared parking, and by properly pricing it so that people are not spewing car exhaust as they circle in search of parking (proper pricing ensures there will be available parking spaces).

• Continuous left turn lanes on North Broadway and East Pearl Street. Needed intervention: transform these into “turn pockets” with raised medians.

Enrique Penalosa once pointed out that a city can be friendly to people or it can be friendly to cars, but it can’t be both.

Boulder must return to the timeless tradition of designing to make people happy, not cars. Our future should be green, compact, place-making, and more calm. It should not be riddled with an asphalt cancer that only a car could love.

 

Note: A version of this essay was published by the Boulder Daily Camera on February 21, 2014.

 

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Filed under Road Diet, Sprawl, Suburbia, Urban Design