Tag Archives: town center

Should We Require Green Space in Front of a Large Building in a Town Center?

 

By Dom Nozzi

March 15, 2017

 

Some of my friends in Boulder, Colorado are bothered that a new Google corporation development project in the eastern town center lacks “open space” between the building and the street. I point out in response that Boulder town centers have WAY too much open space (Boulder Junction, for example, has far too much open space). Most of this excessive town center open space is for cars, by the way, but even if such space was for people, it would be inappropriate for a town center.

I’d rather our town centers be like Siena. Why do such people want our town centers to be like Buffalo or Phoenix? Large open spaces are inappropriate in what should be compact, walkable, human-scaled town centers (what new urbanists would call a “transect violation”).

Given this, it would be a terrible mistake if Google had a huge, windswept dead zone open space in front of their building. It would kill walkability and vibrancy.

Similarly, I strongly dislike the dead zone concrete open space “plaza” in front of the new Pearl West building in original Boulder town center. It is another form of deadening. Walkable design principles that reliably deliver vibrancy instruct us that such a space is a dumb thing to do.

But we don’t seem to care much about walkability.

We then scratch our heads when so many drive instead of walk short distances.

If I was in charge, all Boulder town centers would make it illegal to create large (even “green”) open spaces. An occasional hard surface piazza or square would be okay if designed well – which is, of course, HIGHLY unlikely.

Would anyone use the open space in front of Google if they installed such a space? Does anyone use the open space in front of, say, Celestial Seasonings or IBM? Those open boulder_signspaces make us more like Houston and less like old town Bologna.

Why do we want that???

By pulling their buildings up to the streetside sidewalk (instead of separating the buildings from the street with “open space”), Google will put more people on buses, on sidewalks, and in retail shops.

Those are all WONDERFUL things for urbanism.

Why do we instead want green space in front of buildings that put less people on sidewalks, less people on buses, and less shoppers for smaller retail? Do we want green space in front of Google so it will look nice as we drive by in our cars at 40 mph?

That is desirable for a suburb, not a city.

 

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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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Recreational Bicyclists and On-Street Parking

 

By Dom Nozzi

June 27, 2002

Ever since I started work as a town planner in 1986, Gainesville FL has had very loud bicycling advocacy.

As a lifelong bike commuter, I am obviously supportive of some of what is being advocated. Yet despite this city paying a lot of lip service to fighting sprawl or increasing the number of bike commuters or reviving our town center, much bike advocacy has been detrimental to such objectives.

The problem, as I see it, is that bike advocates tend to be mostly recreational bicyclists, have little understanding of the needs of a bike commuter, and have even less of an awareness of quality urban design. The result is that they tend to sub-optimize on the needs of recreational bicycling. That is, they overemphasize such needs to the detriment of other crucial community needs.

Bicycling advocates in Gainesville and other communities in America will often fight against on-street parking. In my opinion, such a fight is terribly counterproductive to not only quality of life, but the interests of bicyclists.

In my years as a city planner, the most important lesson I’ve learned is that the pedestrian is the design imperative for cities. Not bicyclists. Not transit users. Not motorists. Not Bambi. Not even seniors or the disabled.

Getting it right for the pedestrian is the most effective, efficient way to create and promote a city quality of life.

And one of the most important way to design for the pedestrian is to have on-street parking.garrett-street-glenwood-park-atlanta

A healthy town center (not to mention healthy transit, healthy Bambi, and a healthy place for seniors/kids/disabled) depends on a healthy pedestrian environment, as even AASHTO recognizes. And a healthy town center is an important way to protect or promote a compact city.

An unhealthy town center, by contrast, accelerates the abandonment of the town center and dispersal of important community destinations to destinations that are too remote to get to by bike, by bus, or by wheelchair.

This is an important reason why bicycling advocates should be advocates for pedestrian design — particularly for features such as on-street parking. A quality pedestrian design promotes the continuation of a compact city. A compact city reduces travel distances. Modest travel distances are, of course, crucial in making bike commuting viable, not to mention improving conditions for Bambi, the disabled, children, and transit users.

 

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Should We Subsidize a Town Center?

 

By Dom Nozzi

September 26, 2002

Why have property values have risen recently in American town centers? As someone who has lived in a town center neighborhood since the late 1980s, I would attribute the recent increase to a number of things.

First, many cities have seen a dramatic improvement in the health and perceived safety of downtown in recent times, which makes town center neighborhoods a more hip and fun place to live. For those yuppies who are concerned about safety, an apparently safer place to live is another reason.

Yuppies and other wealthy people have been gentrifying town center neighborhoods by renovating homes and bidding up the value of homes by moving into such neighborhoods at increasing rates. The yuppies are being attracted by the other improvements I mention here.

Town center neighborhoods tend to be built with timeless design strategies that will NEVER go out of style. That is, unlike contemporary neighborhoods, it is walkable, human-scaled, romantic, and safe for kids and seniors and pets. It is designed to make PEOPLE happy instead of cars. It is therefore a sociable, friendly place where people know each other and watch out for each others’ collective security. It comes as no surprise, as a result, that many town center neighborhoods now have the fastest rate of property value increase of any neighborhood in the region.

The tragedy? Nearly all local governments in America make it largely illegal to build these kinds of neighborhoods in other parts of the city. The streets are too narrow, the setbacks are too modest. There is too much mixed use and mixed housing types. The street intersections are too small. Etc. Etc. Etc. We have met the enemy and he is us…

In recent years, a growing number of people have been getting sick of the congestion, street without on street parkingtraffic danger, sterility, auto-dependence, and lack of neighborhood friends that they find in Sprawlsville. As a result, in growing numbers, we are seeing people seek out the traditional, in-town neighborhoods nationwide. They are seeking a sense of place. A sense of community. Things they are denied in their suburban, antiseptic lifestyles.

Does It Make Sense for a Community to Subsidize Their Town Center?:

I believe we are using a very important principle when we “subsidize” a town center. The principle that says we should tax what we want less of and subsidize what we want more of. We want less sprawl and a more healthy town center.

Sadly, too many cites mostly subsidize sprawl and add burdens to their town center.

I don’t think there can be any question that a healthy town center benefits the entire community. Even those who live in the suburbs. A healthy town center increases suburban property values. Instills civic pride. Creates a sense of community. Creates a necessary lifestyle choice.

Assuming we can agree that we ALL benefit from a healthy town center, why should we not subsidize something we want more of, or want to improve? Is it not a matter of fairness and equity? After all, we’ve  poured BILLIONS of tax dollars into ROAD subsidies in sprawlsville (interstates, multi-lane arterials, etc.). WAY more than we would ever subsidize in a town center. Many suburban road subsidies induce the market to build large shopping areas and shopping malls. Without the Big Roads subsidy, those places don’t exist. With the subsidy, the malls swoop in and in the process KILL town centers. So a TINY subsidy for downtown is simply a tiny way to try to even the playing field, and compensate for how public tax subsidies have destroyed the town center. Nevertheless, the town center subsidy pales in comparison to the sprawl subsidy for roads, utilities, emergency service, postal, etc. It is those who live in sprawl that are on welfare in a BIG way. When so many suburban dwellers attack tiny town center subsidies, they are demonstrating hypocrisy.

And getting back to why suburban folks should support a healthy town center: A healthy town center means that people are less likely to desire to flee in-town locations for sprawl locations. And as we all know, it is WAY more costly to provide services and public facilities in those remote locations (and by providing those facilities and services, we subsidize people in remote locations). THAT costly sprawl is the primary reason why we have “high” and growing taxes at the local level. Costly sprawl lifestyles, NOT tiny town center subsidies, are the prime drivers of high and growing local taxes.

Another way of putting this: If we desire to moderate the property tax burden, the most effective way we can do that is by ending subsidies for sprawl, and increasing subsidies for in-town locations. By proposing we stop the public assistance for a healthy town center, suburban folks cut their own throats. Because a downwardly spiraling town center means more flight to costly sprawl locations. This flight ultimately causes our taxes to go through the roof.

Or we accept a lower quality of life. Or both. The tax increase due to tiny town center subsidies are trivial by comparison.

If it were up to me, we’d pour a lot more subsidy into our town centers, because I believe doing so would be equitable and beneficial to the entire community.

 

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Easing Our Guilty Conscience Can Subvert Quality Urban Design

By Dom Nozzi

September 19, 2003

Over the past few decades, environmental advocacy groups have had great success in making most people feel “sinful” for “damaging” nature. Such guilt leads to an increased desire to, for example, recycle soda cans. Or object to cutting down a few low-value trees. We ease our guilty conscience — guilt felt because many of us know, in the back of our minds, that we lead environmentally destructive lives. So recycling a few cans is our way to do penance and avoid damnation.

Another result is that arm-chair enviros often naively think that making our world tidy and neat is a meaningful and sufficient form of environmental conservation.

For both the can recyclers living in remote, car-dependent subdivisions with their SUVs, and the tidy and neat “enviros,” we see that most in our society have internalized the idea that “protecting the environment” is good. It is a cultural norm that most everyone takes for granted. It is now pretty much a bi-partisan consensus.

The end result of such a cultural victory, unfortunately, is unintended consequences. Many seem to believe that a tree or a shrub is ALWAYS a good idea in EVERY POSSIBLE location. It is inconceivable that a tree is not a good idea in some places.

That is, nature is sacred.

Given this cultural norm, naive enviros who don’t see the big picture too often decide to exclude a town design decision that has overall positive benefits for both humans and nature. For example, naive enviros will occasionally succeed in stopping an in-town project by convincing decision-makers to save a low-quality wetland or woodlot located in a town center. Naive enviros are often joined by commissioners who are naive about the needs of quality urbanism. Lacking any knowledge of what the ingredients might be for urbanism, it often seems case, that it is a no-brainer that we should save a few trees in exchange for loss of, say, a retail corner on an otherwise sterile building.

But is it really a no-brainer?

Is it really true that we can afford to give up a retail space in a part of a town center that is a scary, uninhabited prostitute- and drug-saturated no-man’s-land? A part of our town center where no one (except the homeless) walk, because there is nothing to walk to except empty parking lots and vacant buildings? (and a tired clump of trees)

The unintended consequence of saving every tree in a town center is that the town center ends up becoming, incrementally, a dead zone that no one wants to be a part of. Nothing happens there. It is not hip to be there, or be seen there. The hip, safe, happening places instead are in the outlying areas — areas that are incrementally wiping out our REALLY important woodlands and wetlands.

Preserving natural habitat by creating better human habitat. So says – correctly — the Smart Growth America’s web site.

The campaign over the past few decades to make environmental conservation (however naively practiced) a cultural norm has meant that we end up unintentionally harming other societal objectives — an example of “knowing just enough to be dangerous.” We strip commercial sidewalkoften fight and win easy “environmental” victories (such as saving a scraggly tree or degraded wetland), and pat ourselves on the back. But we are either blind to, or have given up on, the REAL war: stopping auto-oriented roadway and town design.

Because there are few, if any, citizens or decision-makers who know anything at all about what the ingredients consist of for a quality, compact, walkable habitat for humans, we easily and blindly harm that habitat as we zealously continue winning tiny, trivial battles to save Bambi.

No one objects, because no one sees any harm.

 

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Advice to a Friend About Finding a New Dance Venue

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 10, 2004

I have enjoyed “contra” dancing for over 25 years. Contra is an “old-tyme” form of dancing. It is a folk dance made up of long lines of couples. It has mixed origins from English country dance, Scottish, French dance styles in the 17th century, with strong African influence from Appalachia. Sometimes described as New England folk dance or Appalachian folk dance, contra dances can be found around the world and have much

Contra dance, Gainesville FL April 2007

popularity in North America and the United Kingdom where weekly or monthly dances and annual dance weekends are common. The dance is guided by a “caller” and tends to get its music from a live fiddle band.

A contra dance friend of mine in Florida – Tara – contacted me in 2004 to ask for advice about the local contra community seeking to buy a new venue building for contra dancing. Here is what I offered.

Hi Tara,

I’m flattered that you have contacted me to ask me about this. I have been seeing the email postings about this exciting proposal for a few days now and, coincidentally, was going to email you about it today.

First, I think it would be a very good idea for the dance community to own and have control over its own facility. Having full control over the scheduling of the building would be an enormous advantage over the current venue.

I don’t mean to rain on this encouraging parade, Tara, but I have very serious concerns about the Moose Lodge location on 23rd Ave. As a long-range city planner, it is my opinion that community-serving “social condensers” (of which the local dance community is one) should not be located away from a downtown location — a location that is essentially inaccessible by foot, transit or bicycle. In particular, inaccessible to the downtown residences.

There are a number of reasons why I believe community-serving “social condensers” should be downtown:

  1. They are an essential building block toward creating a “sense of community.” Like most cities, the town center is about the only place where a sense of community can be experienced, because the center is where residents gather for cultural, civic, political and entertainment purposes. When community-serving activities leave the town center, the sense of community declines.
  1. In the town center, there are “spillover” benefits. At the current location of the dance hall, it is easy for folks to walk to the hall from other town center locations, or to walk from the hall to various town center destinations. Due to the flight of such activities from town centers throughout the nation, there is “no there there” in the town centers of much of America.
  1. In my opinion, an essential ingredient in the creation and maintenance of a quality city, as the Toronto Planning Director once said, is that there is at least one place where people can choose to live without being forced to use a car to get to important, regular activities in life. Despite the erosion of town centers due to flight from them, many centers continue to serve the purpose of providing a car-free lifestyle choice to some extent. Folks who choose to live in the town center (thereby being able to take advantage of a less car-dependent lifestyle) would not be able to walk or bicycle to NE 23rd Ave, and find it more difficult to use a bus to get there.

Given the above, while I am thrilled about the idea of the dance community owning its own dance venue, a location on NE 23rd Ave would mean that (a) Our town would, overall, offer a lower quality of life for those opting for a car-free lifetyle; and (b) Spillover benefits to the town center associated with dancing would decline.

Finally, as one of those “weirdoes” who strives to live a less car-dependent lifestyle, I would sadly need to end my roughly 15 years of attending contra dances in town if the venue was moved to a place that was largely inaccessible to a person wanting to walk, bicycle, or take transit to dances.

Again, thanks for contacting me about this.

 

 

 

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The Second Hand Smoke of the Driving Citizen

 

By Dom Nozzi

In an urban to rural transect, suburbs are drivable (and private spaces are emphasized) and town centers are walkable (and public outdoor spaces are important). Our future needs imagesto be one where those who drive from their suburban privatopia into the sociable town centers are seen as introducing toxins such as second-hand smoke into the walkable town centers. The higher speeds and larger asphalt spaces degrade the quality of life in the town center portion of the transect.

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