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Redeveloping the Boulder Community Hospital Site in Boulder, Colorado

By Dom Nozzi

January 27, 2017

The most important task of the urbanist is controlling size. – David Mohney

As owners of the Boulder Community Hospital (BCH) site bounded by Broadway, Alpine, 9th Street, and Balsam, the City of Boulder has a golden opportunity to demonstrate the preferred vision for creating compact, walkable development in appropriate locations within Boulder.

For too long, citizens have rightly attacked many new projects in Boulder. We now have a chance to show how to do it right.

The following is one man’s opinion about how we can do it right at the BCH site.

First Determine the Context

Our very first task in establishing a “How to Do It Right” vision is to determine the “context” of the site. Where is it located in the community? Is it a walkable town center? A drivable suburb? A farmable rural area? Only when we answer that question are we able to know which design tactics are appropriate and which are inappropriate. For example, if we are in a suburban context, it is inappropriate to insert shops and offices within the neighborhood, or use small building setbacks. However, if we are in a town center context, those design tactics are entirely appropriate and desirable.

transect

In the case of the BCH site, it is generally agreed by the City that the context is walkable town center (what is called “Urban Center Zone” in the above figure). It is now important, given that, to ensure that the design of the site is compatible with that vision.

How do we do that?

A Form-Based Code

Perhaps the most effective way to do that is to establish what is called a “form-based code (FBC)” or a “subcommunity overlay plan,” which was successfully used to guide the development of the Holiday neighborhood in North Boulder.

The FBC or plan emphasizes the importance of “form” by specifying the appropriate and desirable building placements, street dimensions, and building materials. This differs from the conventional “use-based” zoning codes, which over-emphasize the importance of uses within a building, and only specify designs and dimensions that are prohibited, rather than specifying what is desired by the community.

As Andres Duany notes[1]

…A FBC protects us from the tendency of modern designers to disregard timeless design principles in favor of “anything goes.” An “anything goes” ideology too often leads to “kitschy” buildings, unwalkable streets, and other aspects of low-quality urban design.

…A FBC protects us from the whims of boards and committees.

…A FBC is necessary so that the “various professions that affect urbanism will act with unity of purpose.” Without integrated codes, architects, civil engineers and landscape architects can undermine each others’ intentions by suboptimizing.

…A FBC is necessary because without it, buildings and streets are “shaped not by urban designers but by fire marshals, civil engineers, poverty advocates, market experts, accessibility standards, materials suppliers and liability attorneys” – none of whom tend to know or care about urban design.

…A FBC is necessary because “unguided neighborhood design tends, not to vitality, but to socioeconomic monocultures.” The wealthy, the middle-class, and the poor segregate from each other, as do shops and restaurants, offices, and manufacturing. A FBC can ensure a level of diversity without which walkability wilts.

…A FBC is necessary to reign in the tendency of contemporary architects to design “look at me” buildings that disrupt the urban fabric.

…A FBC is necessary to ensure that locally appropriate, traditional design is employed, rather than “Anywhere USA” design.

…A FBC is needed to protect against the tendency to suburbanize places that are intended to provide compact, walkable urbanism.

…A FBC is necessary to protect against the tendency to over-use greenery in inappropriate places such as walkable town centers. In particular, grass areas tend to be inappropriate in walkable centers. Over-using greenery is a common mistake that tends to undermine walkability.

…A FBC is needed because codes “can compensate for deficient professional training. Because schools continue to educate architects towards self-expression rather than towards context, to individual building rather than to the whole.”

We can craft a FBC in hands-on workshops driven by citizens and urban designers. When crafting a FBC, such workshops are called “charrettes,” where professional urban designers provide attendees with a one- or multi-day training course in the time-tested design principles of creating a successful town center, suburb, or rural area. Armed with such knowledge, citizens and designers craft a FBC that is appropriate for the context and community values.

Designing the BCH Site

The following are my own individual suggestions for a FBC that would employ time-tested principles for creating a successful walkable, lovable, charming town center.

The overall layout is compact and walkable. For example, building setbacks are human-scaled and quite modest. Private front and backyards are similarly small in size. Public parks are smaller pocket parks rather than larger, suburban, fields of grass (note that abundant grass and athletic fields are provided adjacent to the west of the BCH site). Some of these parks are relatively small public squares formed by buildings that face the square on all four sides. If surface parking is unavoidable at the site (and I would very strongly urge against such parking), the parking should be designed as a public square that occasionally accommodates parked cars. Block sizes are relatively small, based on a street grid, and include many intersections. Internal streets and alleys are plentiful and narrow enough to obligate slower speed, more attentive driving. Give-way streets, slow streets, woonerfs, and walking streets are all appropriate and desirable.

Internal streets should have a spacing of at least one-to-one (or two-to-one or one-to-two) ratio of flanking building height to street width. (Pearl Street Mall has a ratio that fall within the ranges below).

ratio

To promote vibrancy and safety, the City should encourage 24/7 activity by discouraging weekday businesses, such as offices, that close after 5. Businesses that close after 5 create night-time dead zones.

Service vehicles that may use streets, such as buses, delivery vehicles, or fire trucks should be small enough that they do not obligate the establishment of overly large streets or intersections. When such vehicles cannot be relatively small, it is appropriate for such vehicles to be obligated to move more slowly and carefully. Dimensions, in other words, should be human-scaled, not tractor-trailer-scaled.

If feasible, Goose Creek under the BCH site should be daylighted. It would be appropriate to create a bustling, miniature version of the San Antonio Riverwalk, with homes and shops lining the creek. At a minimum, a daylighted creek needs to be relatively permeable with several pedestrian crossings along the way to promote walkability. Since the BCH site is in a compact, walkable zone, wide suburban greenspaces flanking the creek would not be appropriate.

Alignments are more formal and rectilinear. Internal streets, sidewalks and alleys have a straight rather than curvilinear (suburban) trajectory. Street trees along a block face are of the same species (or at least have similar size and shape), have a large enough canopy to shade streets, and should be formally aligned in picturesque straight lines rather than suburban clumps. Building placement is square to streets and squares rather than rotated (to avoid “train wreck” alignment more appropriate for suburbs). Buildings that are rotated rather than parallel to streets and squares are unable to form comfortable spaces.

Streets deploy square curbs and gutters. Stormwater requirements should be relaxed at the site to prevent unwalkable oversizing of facilities. Streets are flanked by sidewalks. Signs used by businesses are kept relatively small in size. For human scale, visual appeal, and protection from weather, shops along the street are encouraged to use canopies, colonnades, arcades, and balconies. When feasible, civic buildings or other structures with strong verticality are used to terminate street vistas.

Turn lanes and slip lanes in streets are not allowed on the site.

Street lights are relatively short in height to create a romantic pedestrian ambiance and signal to motorists that they are in a slow-speed environment. They are full cut-off to avoid light pollution.

Buildings are clad in context-appropriate brick, stone, and wood. Matching the timeless traditional styles of the nearby Mapleton Hill neighborhood is desirable. Building height limit regulations exempt pitched roofs above the top floor of buildings to encourage pitched roof form and discourage the blocky nature of flat roofs. Obelisks and clock towers are also exempt from height limits.

Buildings taller than five stories should be discouraged for a number of reasons. First, they tend to be overwhelming to pedestrian/human scale. Second, they tend to induce excessive amounts of car parking. Finally, if we assume that the demand for floor space is finite at the BCH site, it is much preferable from the standpoint of walkability for there to be, say, 10 buildings that are 5 stories in height rather than 5 buildings that are 10 stories in height.

Floor-area-ratio (FAR) is a measure of how much square footage can be built on a given piece of land. A relatively high FAR is supportive of walking, transit, and bicycling. In commercial areas, FAR should be at least 1.0.[2]  Richard Untermann, a well-known urban designer, calls for FARs of 2.0-3.0 in town centers.[3]

FAR

Buildings along the street are often graced with front porches to promote sociability, citizen surveillance, and visual desirability.

Relatively small offices and retail shops are sensitively interspersed within the neighborhood. For additional walkable access to shops and services, Broadway to the west of the BCH site should incorporate designs which make the crossing more safe and permeable. Narrowing crossing distances and various slow-speed treatments can effectively achieve increased permeability.

First floors of buildings along sidewalks provide ample windows. First floors of buildings are not appropriate places for the parking of cars.

Given the affordable housing crisis in Boulder, ample affordable housing must be provided. Residences above shops are desirable, as are accessory dwelling units and co-ops. An important element in providing affordable housing will be the fact that the inclusion of shops, services and offices within the neighborhood, residences will be able to allocate larger proportions of household money to their homes and less to car ownership and maintenance (since the household would be able to shed cars by owning, say, one car instead of two, or two instead of three).

An important way to make housing more affordable is to unbundle the price of parking for residences from the price of housing. Available parking is modest in quantity and hidden away from the street. Parking is space efficient because shared parking is emphasized and tends to be either on-street or within stacked parking garages. No parking is allowed to abut streets, unless the parking is on-street, or in a stacked garage wrapped with retail and services along the street.

The BCH site is exempted from required parking, and is also exempt from landscaping requirements.

Unbundling the price of parking and reducing the land devoted to parking are both important ways to create more affordable housing.

The Washington Village neighborhood project a few blocks to the north on Broadway and Cedar is a good model for appropriately compact and walkable spacing at the BCH site.

Let’s not squander this important opportunity. Let’s insist that we build a neighborhood that fits the pattern of walkable Siena, Italy, not drivable Phoenix Arizona.

phoenix

 

References

[1] “Why We Code,” Sky Studio. http://www.studiosky.co/blog/why-we-code.html?utm_content=bufferdde8c&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook.com&utm_campaign=buffer

[2] SNO-TRAN. Creating Transportation Choices Through Zoning: A Guide for Snohomish County Communities. Washington State (October 1994)

[3] Untermann, Richard. (1984). Accomodating the Pedestrian, pg190.

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A Vision for Designing a Community

 

By Dom Nozzi

April 16, 2006

A Work in Progress

Because it is a matter of fairness and political viability, it is essential that we design for at least three community components: Urban, Suburban and Rural/Preservation.

The following are the examples of components, principles and assumptions for each of the three zones.

The overall objective for the community is equity, quality of life and sustainability.

As an aside, I recognize that the Suburban Zone is not sustainable. It is provided for because America is so overwhelmingly suburban that to not provide for it is politically unsustainable.

Urban

Principles: Sociability, equity, sustainability, supremacy of a quality public realm, compactness, mixed-use, walkability, sense of community, civic pride.

Streets. Low design speed, relatively narrow travel lanes. Maximum size is 2 lanes (major streets have turn pockets.) Roundabouts acceptable. Bulb-outs to increase landscape area, reduce car speeds and pedestrian crossing distance. Turning lanes are either not used or extremely rare. Relatively small dimensions for turning radii, sight triangle. Straight, rectilinear trajectory.Catania Italy walkable

Alleys. Common.

Congestion. Not considered a problem, in part because the Urban Zone is rich in features that allow relatively easy evasion of congestion. Indeed, congestion is seen as an ally to reduce regional air pollution, reduce fuel consumption, reduce car speeds, reduce low-value car trips, promote infill and higher-density residential, promote mixed use, promote compactness, promote trip dispersal.

Congestion fees. Electronic system. Used to recover costs (air pollution, noise, danger, public realm degradation, water pollution, etc.) imposed by motorists entering the Urban Zone. Revenues dedicated to Urban Zone public realm improvements. Revenue, by law, cannot be allocated to road capacity increases.

Signal Light Synchronization. Strongly discouraged, but if employed, timing is based on bus and bicyclist speed (15-20 mph).

Street lights. Structure is no taller than 20 feet — preferably less. Full-spectrum lighting is required.

Lot sizes. Relatively small.

Block size. Relatively small. No more than 200 feet long on a side.

Sidewalks. Required on both sides of street, due to high number of utilitarian and sociability walking trips. Rectilinear and parallel to streets, buildings. Curvilinear alignment not allowed.

Street connectivity. Maximized. High level of trip dispersal in the street network.

Parking.  On-street parking emphasized. Parking is market-priced. Off-street parking, when necessary, is relatively modest and on the side or rear of buildings. Off-street parking is never located at the street corner of a lot at an intersection.

Transit. High frequency and convenient access from residences and shops to stops.

Service vehicles. Fire trucks, delivery trucks and buses are relatively small.

Landscaping. Hardscape much more common than greenscape. Rectilinear rather than curvilinear placement of vegetation.

Street trees. Formally aligned large canopy trees forming street enclosing envelope. Trees are of same species along individual streets.

Land Development Regulations. Form-based (emphasis is on building location and design) rather than use-based. Promoting a quality public realm for pedestrians is the imperative.

Building setbacks. Little or none.

Accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”), home occupations, bed & breakfasts. Expressly allowed.

Drive-throughs, retailers over 30,000 sf of first floor area, parking lots as a primary use. Prohibited.

Maximum building height. 5 stories.

Housing types. Mixed.

Garages. Recessed.

Signs. Relatively small, unlit, subdued.

Building entrance. Faces street.

Land uses. Housing mixed with neighborhood-scaled retail, office, light industrial.

Neighborhood incomes. Mixed

Residential density maximum. No maximum. Market-driven.

Travel choice. Maximized. All forms of travel are provided for.

Schools. Exempt from requirements for outdoor ball fields.

Stormwater management. Relatively low concern for inconvenience flooding means that stormwater basins are relatively small in size. Basins are not placed in front or at the street corner of a lot at an intersection.

Interaction with others. Sociability, connection, interaction.

Public Realm. Aggressive efforts to maximize quality. Regular cleaning.

Suburban

Principles: Separation, privacy, equity, supremacy of private realm, landscaping to simulate nature, large open spaces and large parks, ease of free-flowing travel by car.

Streets. Moderate design speed. Maximum size is 4 lanes. Roundabouts acceptable. Turning lanes are common. Relatively large dimensions for turning radii, sight triangle. Tend to have curvilinear trajectory.huge turn radius for road

Alleys. Rare or non-existent.

Congestion. Considered a serious problem, in part because the Suburban Zone provide very few features that allow evasion of congestion. Congestion fees are therefore important.

Congestion fees. Electronic system. Used to discourage low-value car trips, retain free-flow conditions on at least one lane for emergency access. Revenues dedicated to capacity increases. Signal Light Synchronization. If employed, timing is based on motorist speed (35-45 mph).

Street lights. Structure is 30 feet (or whatever the existing suburban design standard happens to be).

Block size. Variable.

Sidewalks. Optional, due to high percentage of walking trips being recreational. Tend to be curvilinear.

Street connectivity. De-emphasized. Cul-de-sacs common. All neighborhood streets feed into sparse network of major streets.

Parking.  Off-street parking emphasized. Parking is free. Parking can be in front of buildings.

Transit. Low frequency (or no service) and poor access from residences and shops to stops.

Service vehicles. Fire trucks, delivery trucks and buses are relatively large.

Landscaping. Greenscape much more common than hardscape. Curvilinear alignment is most common.

Street trees. Few street trees. Clustered trees of variable sizes and species.

Land Development Regulations. Use-based rather than form-based. Separation of uses and provision for car travel are the imperatives.

Building setbacks. Relatively generous (existing suburban setback requirements).

Accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”), home occupations, bed & breakfasts. Discouraged or prohibited.

Drive-throughs, retailers over 30,000 sf of first floor area, parking lots as a primary use. Allowed.

Maximum building height. 5 stories.

Housing types. Mixed.

Garages. Protruding.

Signs. Relatively large, often lit and animated (due to higher speeds and larger setbacks).

Building entrance. Tend to faces rear parking.

Land uses. Strictly segregated, single-use areas. Areas are either all residential, all commercial, or all industrial.

Neighborhood incomes. Mixed

Residential density maximum. Relatively low maximum (existing suburban setback requirements).

Travel choice. Relatively little. Nearly all forms of travel must be by car.

Schools. Existing conventional standards.

Stormwater management. Relatively high concern for inconvenience flooding means that stormwater basins are relatively large in size. Basins are irregular in shape and incorporate native landscape.

Interaction with others. High levels of privacy, separation.

Public Realm. Relatively unimportant. Emphasis is on generous landscaping, setbacks.

Rural/Preservation

Principles: Extreme levels of separation and privacy, equity, farmlands, environmental preservation, small and compact villages, large open spaces and large parks, ease of free-flowing travel by car.

rural landscape

rural landscape

Streets. ?

Alleys. ?

Congestion. ?

Congestion fees. ?

Signal Light Synchronization. ??

Street lights. ??

Lot sizes. ??

Block size. ??

Sidewalks. Rare. When used, tend to be on only one side of road??

Street connectivity. ??

Parking.  ??

Transit. ??

Service vehicles. ??

Landscaping. ??

Street trees. ??

Land Development Regulations. ??

Building setbacks. ??

Accessory dwelling units (“granny flats”), home occupations, bed & breakfasts. Expressly allowed.

Drive-throughs, retailers over 30,000 sf of first floor area, parking lots as a primary use. Allowed.

Maximum building height. ??

Housing types. Mixed.

Building entrance. ??

Garages. ??

Land uses. Housing mixed with neighborhood-scaled retail, office, light industrial.

Neighborhood incomes. Mixed

Residential density maximum. ??

Travel choice. ??

Schools. ??

Stormwater management. ??

Interaction with others. High levels of privacy, separation.

Public Realm. ??

 

 

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Specialization is Killing Cities

By Dom Nozzi

Andres Duany has made the essential point that specialists are killing cities. Conventional traffic engineers, for example, specialize in the narrow needs of how to design a road for maximizing car movement – and very little else. Many civil engineers produce scenes such as what is shown in the photo at right. As specialists, many such engineers have only one task: Move stormwater as fast as possible to reduce flooding.

Instead, we need traffic engineers who have the training (and permission from their community leaders) to incorporate the needs of walkers, lovers, bicyclists, transit users, seniors, children, admirers of quality urbanism, and others so that the street is a lovable, quality experience for more than just someone who is in a hurry while driving a car. Traffic engineers need to know urban design and architecture, which includes an understanding of human psychology (so that the engineer understands what designs will produce various forms of human behavior and human affection).

More so than most any profession, traffic engineers profoundly shape the quality of our community – positively or negatively. They must therefore be generalists, not (car-happy) specialists. The fact that the vast majority of them have been the latter goes a long way towards explaining why so many of our (mostly more recent) communities are so lacking in charm or lovability.

In sum, we need a paradigm shift in how we train traffic engineers. And town planners (the failed profession of public town planning is the subject of another blog I need to write).

_________________________________________________

Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.

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