Tag Archives: zoning

Debating Whether Transportation Drives Land Use with My Gainesville Planning Department Supervisors

By Dom Nozzi

February 17, 2000

I had a loud debate with my Gainesville, Florida planning department supervisors yesterday on what the Land Use portion of Gainesville’s Long Range Plan should say.

I pointed out that because transportation drives land use, it is hopeless, in the long run, for local government to fight proposed rezonings from single-family residential to non-single family on major, hostile streets. None of them agreed with me at all, and believe the City should continue our long, hopeless fight against rezoning proposals from single-family to non-single family on hostile streets. This is maddening, and obviously being colored by recent NIMBY attacks against the City.

After the meeting, I sent the planning manager excerpts from the West Palm transportation element. He responded with this:

Dom, I didn’t read all of this but I generally agree with the part I read. Transportation travel land use, and bad land use decision drive people away also.  If the Street is bad and the Land use is bad what do you think will happen.  For Gainesville the Streets are bad and the Land use is no so bad, so lets change the street and keep the land use. [this is the verbatim, uncorrected transcript of his message to me]

I responded to those comments with this:

“Glad you agree with West Palm and folks like Walter Kulash, who would say exactly what I and West Palm Beach would say on these issues. My main point: We are fooling ourselves and doomed to a life of permanent, never-ending battles with people who want to rezone single-family residential land that they own and cannot use as single-family residential land use due to the road.

“Granted, there are a few who could live in a single-family residential home and put up with the noise and reduced property value. Forty years from now, if we do not fix our arterials to make them more livable, we will, though incremental zoning changes, have those streets lined with offices and multi-family residential and retail. And over those 40 years, we will have a bunch of planners burned out on fighting those never-ending battles.street without on street parking

“In the long term, as Kulash points out, no force on earth – not even five no-growth advocates on the City Commission — can stop that incremental change. Yes, we can succeed, in the short term, in keeping the single-family. But that will only mean that we’ll have a bunch of vacant homes, and depressed property values.

“The best we can realistically hope for, in the long run, if we don’t fix the streets, is land use that makes sense for major streets (according to what the market wants), and helps transit, while minimizing strip commercial. That is why I think we should give some consideration to favorable recommendations on petitions that request going to office use or multi-family use (but not retail).

“Again, I am not recommending that we initiate the land use changes (that will inevitably come) — even though that would be most fair for suffering single-family property owners along major streets. Our message must be: “Either fix the street, or be fair and honest by realizing we are going to get incremental conversion away from single-family.”

West Palm Beach FL has shown clearly what can happen overnight (dramatic land use improvements and property value increases) when the street is fixed.

My comments to the Gainesville Comprehensive Long Range Planning Chief:

“I’ve not had a full night’s sleep for weeks, and have recently developed a severe case of insomnia. So when you see me dozing off at future staff meetings, you’ll understand.

“And it is not just student noise that is out of control. It is also emergency vehicles, vacuum trucks, police helicopters, etc… With regard to SW 13th Street (a major state highway running north-south through the middle of Gainesville), let me again try to make clear that the public sector, short of doing a major change to the street (such as we’re proposing for SW 20th Avenue), has nearly no meaningful way to affect the land use market. The Land Use plan I wrote for Gainesville, for example, will have a future land use map that merely adopts what is on the ground already, with a few minor tweaks based on what citizens have asked for on their individual property and we have agreed to. But even IF we could make wholesale, visionary changes to our land use map, such changes would have little meaning (or fairness) unless they are attuned to what the market calls for in those locations — and us planners would not be doing work to determine market feasibility of changed designations. Again, transportation drives land use. So unless we make radical changes to SW 13th, all we can expect is uses that are consistent with that sort of highway.

“Personally and frankly, I think converting SW 13th to a “4-lane urban street” is an oxymoron. Not to say that I’ve given up on 13th, because I think we’ll ultimately return to our senses and make it a 2-lane. I don’t know enough of the details to know what Chapel Hill has done, but I’m fairly certain that they are things we cannot duplicate anytime soon — such as buildings up to the street (which I would oppose on a 4-laner without on-street parking, since it is unfair to the business).

“I would have to see why Chapel Hill works well. I do not think it is feasible to slow traffic on a 4-lane state highway because FDOT would not allow it. It can happen with a 2-lane state highway due to things like congestion and a narrow street profile that does not create the illusion of a high-speed highway.

“More so than most, I can envision such a 13th Street corridor fairly easily. Given time and vision and courage, it can be wonderful. Many people consider me a pessimist on certain things, but hypocritically are extreme pessimists on things I’d like, such as a walkable city. I would strongly support what you suggest be done on 13th. But I do not believe it (a four-lane urban street) would dramatically change 13th to make it a good market for higher density residential or pedestrian vibrancy. Call me a pessimist, but I’m convinced we MUST remove travel lanes to make SW 13th work. And isn’t that necessary if we are going to install on-street parking there?

“But are we not skirting around the key effort? Don’t we need to admit that we need to slow the growth of UF, get more on-campus housing, or get better code enforcement (or a combination of such things)? I’m sorry, but I just don’t see a realistic way to transform SW 13th the way you and I know it needs to transform someday.

“In my humble opinion, we cannot realistically expect good redevelopment along SW 13th as long as FDOT forces it to remain a high-speed highway. I just don’t see colored crosswalks, landscaping, or wide sidewalks dramatically changing things. Don’t we, for example, have some colored crosswalk pavers out on Newberry Road near Oaks Mall now. Has that meant anything at all?

“I like your enthusiasm and ideas about Westgate, too, but am not sure even a Dover/Kohl charrette could do much unless the owners of the center felt the plaza was collapsing economically. There are things we might be able to do with an overlay district I’ve outlined in my urban design toolbox (which has been pulled from the urban design plan I wrote because it is “too new urbanist”). I’m hoping we can adopt such an overlay for places like Westgate, but the change will be painfully slow unless the plaza is torn down. That is the only way we can get the buildings re-configured in a proper way.

“Thanks for your comments, good suggestions and concern.”

More of my thoughts expressed to the Comprehensive Long Range Planning Chief:

“Probably our most enormous problem with ‘fixing’ this area is that we will not be able to do it as long as it remains a high-speed, 5-lane state highway. We can only save it if we can take out 2 travel lanes, but I suspect this is not politically feasible, given our FDOT people and our commission. SW 13th already has a bike lane that is excellent for bike commuters, but it would be interesting to create an off-street greenway trail there. Any opportunities? Any way to extort such a thing? Also, the existing buildings are way too far off the street to make for quality urbanism. We’d need code requirements that say that any reconstruction or new development must be on the sidewalk. Again, probably not politically feasible.

“So without removing travel lanes and without pulling buildings close, we have a long-term, huge problem. And this is not even to mention the fact that our residential density and commercial intensity along there is way too low. Once again, all we can do as the public sector to move the market in that direction is to remove travel lanes.

“I think we’d probably need some special, non-Traditional City [walkable Gainesville regulations I wrote for downtown] overlays for the two areas, and perhaps hire Dover to do the plan. Retrofitting such miserable places is a monstrous job that requires a lot of political courage and staff time. (which is why people like Dover are helpful) I could do overlays for the areas, but it will take a LONG time for them to transform those areas.

“An example of the problem of Trad City applied to Westgate: Would it be feasible and appropriate, without an internal street plan, to require all redevelopment there to demolish the strip store and put it up on 34th or University? Seems like we first need to adopt an internal street plan, and then find the courage to get the plan adopted and conformed to. And then have enough redevelopment interest to see meaningful redevelopment over a reasonable period of time.”

 

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The Appropriateness of a Neighborhood Association President Expressing an Opinion

By Dom Nozzi

February 21, 2005

In early 2005, while serving as the president of my neighborhood association, I sent the following letter to a resident of the neighborhood who had expressed concerns about my comments in a recent Association newsletter:

Thank you for your thoughtful comments and concerns about the views I have expressed recently (and over the years) in the “President’s Corner” of the Neighborhood Association (NA) newsletter. I firmly believe that it is healthy for a community and its neighborhood residents to openly express differences of opinion. I am also pleased to know that you have contributed to the NA in the past. Support for the Association is important and appreciated.

Note that I saw your kind email comments to another neighborhood resident about the work I do for the NA, and I appreciate those comments.

To respond to your comments…

First, you note concern about the NA president expressing views as if they were the views of the entire neighborhood, and treating the column as if it were a soapbox. Let me start by saying that the NA is not a gardening club. The initial, on-going, and primary purpose of the NA is to look out for the interests and welfare of the neighborhood, and this inevitably entails that the NA and its officers should and do openly express viewpoints about governmental and private sector plans and actions. Indeed, the NA was formed, in part, to hold forums for candidates running for political office (our 2/22/05 city commission candidate forum is an example of a long-standing tradition of the NA holding candidate forums), and, when necessary, to appear before the City Commission to make appeals for neighborhood interests. In addition, there has been a long NA tradition of inviting elected officials, local government staff, and local developers to NA general meetings to discuss issues, plans and proposed developments in or near the neighborhood (primarily to urge that such issues, plans and developments proceed in a way that is compatible with the neighborhood).

Furthermore, an essential role played by the NA president (both currently and in the past) is to serve as the official spokesperson for the neighborhood. And to do so in a way that, in the judgment of the president and its officers, is promoting the interests and welfare of the neighborhood. This often requires that controversial, highly-charged opinions be openly expressed. Inevitably, in a healthy community, these opinions will not necessarily be shared by all members of the community (in which case, dissent should be expressed). However, it is important that the president provides a viewpoint that is believed to promote the welfare of the neighborhood, rather than be silent on issues that are important to the neighborhood welfare. Should the neighborhood be silent on such issues, there is great danger that the neighborhood will convey the implied message that it has no concerns or viewpoints about its welfare.

Neighborhood silence can easily lead to quite inappropriate, harmful actions being taken by elected officials, public staff, or private developers with regard to neighborhood interests.

In sum, it is entirely appropriate for the NA president to use her or his judgment to frequently and openly express viewpoints believed to be in the interests of the neighborhood, even if those viewpoints are considered “controversial,” or if it is known that the opinion is not shared by everyone in the neighborhood.  Limiting the views of the NA president to only those in which there is a known neighborhood consensus would not be practical or desirable as it would be exceptionally difficult to ascertain what views are considered a consensus. And even if it were possible to know when consensus was reached, the consensus views would be almost exclusively composed of trivial, unhelpful, non-statements (the neighborhood, after all, has residents with widely differing opinions on nearly all important issues — as it should).

You note that the NA president suggests that the neighborhood “insist” that a new nearby business be designed in a way that is compatible with the neighborhood. You indicate that it is not appropriate for a neighborhood to tell a private property owner how to design their private property.

On the contrary, I believe it is extremely appropriate (indeed, I would call it an obligation) for the neighborhood and its elected representatives to express opinions about how developments near and within the neighborhood are designed.

Why?

Because developments in or near a neighborhood can have a very direct, significant impact on the welfare (the property values or quality of life or civic pride) of the neighborhood. The US Supreme Court acknowledged this approximately 80 years ago (and continues to affirm this in its decisions since then) by granting local governments the power to zone private land and apply land development regulations to such land. By doing so, the Court clearly acknowledges that such power is both appropriate and necessary “to protect the health, safety and welfare” of the community. Examples of these constitutionally permissible, appropriate powers applying to private property include sign regulations, zoning regulations stating which uses are allowed on which private properties in a community, building setbacks, noise regulations, building height limits, parking regulations, controlling access to public roads, building and electrical code safety regulations, stormwater control regulations, fire regulations, utility regulations, etc.

Community public safety would be dangerously compromised if this regulation and oversight were not in place. Only if the development of the site would have no affect on the health, safety and welfare of those who visit the site or those who live near the site should the property owner be granted the ability to “do anything she or he pleases to do with their private property.” A long-recognized ethical principal states that your right to swing your fist ends at the beginning of my nose.

I don’t believe it is fair to describe my comments about the proposed 16th Avenue and Main Street development to be comments of “disdain.” Indeed, I am largely impressed by what is proposed and what the designers are willing to do to create a higher quality project. My comments were intended to simply have the neighborhood residents be vigilant about the proposed design of the site so that it can perhaps become an evenco better design (from the point of view of neighborhood interests), and to be on guard against design revisions that would be undesirable to neighborhood welfare. I apologize if the wording of my comments suggested otherwise.

Note, as an aside, that with regard to equity, the public has every right to have a say as to how the property at 16th Avenue and Main Street is developed, as a substantial amount of the commercial value embodied in that property is due to road and utility improvements which were paid for by public tax revenues.

As for the Main Street views I expressed, I offer no apologies for the position I proudly take (and publicly express). While my views are not necessarily those of the City of Gainesville, they are views that are consistent with a recent vote of our city and county commission sitting as the Metropolitan Transportation Planning Organization (MTPO).

In addition, I have been a senior city planner in Gainesville for nearly 18 years with a master’s degree in city planning. A few years ago, I wrote the long-range transportation plan for the City, and served, professionally, on a design team for the reconstruction of Main Street.

In preparation for much of that work, I conducted substantial, thorough research of published literature and analyzed the work done in communities throughout America. What I have learned is that in countless communities (many of which are quite similar to this city), a courageous decision was made to reduce the number of travel lanes on large community roads within the community. Invariably, this sort of road “restoration” in cities in all parts of the nation lead to dramatic, nearly overnight improvements in street safety (for motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit users), retail and residential health, and civic pride. It is quite astonishing to see how many communities have experienced such a substantial improvement in these community factors so quickly and inexpensively. Far from “making it more difficult to travel,” these “diets” usually improve not only motorist safety but also improve driving pleasure and convenience.

Which helps explain why our MTPO voted in favor of the idea.

All of this helps explain why I recently wrote a book entitled “Road to Ruin,” published in October 2003 by a national publisher (Praeger Publishers in Connecticut), and why I am regularly invited to speak throughout Florida and the nation about the viewpoints expressed in the book.

The above observations help explain why I believe I know a thing or two about the proper design of streets such as Main Street, and partly why I believed it was appropriate for me to make my viewpoint known in the NA newsletter.

You should know that on a number of occasions, I have remained silent on issues that troubled me and were related to the neighborhood. Largely, these are issues where I don’t believe I have sufficient information or knowledge about the topic, or don’t believe there is sufficient neighborhood support for the view which I hold about the topic. In general, I strive to have the views I express at NA meetings and in the newsletter be tempered by what I believe are acceptable (or officially approved) by the NA Board of Directors and the majority of neighborhood residents.

In closing, let me point out that you are more than welcome to run for president, vice-president, or Board of Directors of the NA so that you would have a larger voice in what views are expressed by the NA. Or to urge others to do so, should you feel the desire to influence the viewpoints expressed by the NA. Having the NA be silent — even if silence is only applied to issues considered “controversial” — is, I believe, a recipe for neighborhood decline, and a dereliction of duties for its duly-elected office-holders.

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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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Hometown Democracy: Should We Give Citizens the Right to Vote on Proposed Development Projects?

By Dom Nozzi

I worked as a long-range town planner for 20 years.

In 2007, a constitutional amendment was advanced in the state of Florida that would give citizens the right to vote on whether they approve of or disapprove of a proposed development in the community, or a proposal to change the zoning or land use designation of a property. On the surface of it, such a form of direct democracy sounds like a great idea.

But is it?

Over the past several decades in America, even town center residents (who live in a relatively dense, compact, mixed use location) have regularly been angry opponents of infill development in very appropriate locations.

This is predictable.

Predictable for two reasons. First, because nearly all development that has occurred over the past century has been awful, car-based schlock. And second, because when one lives in a world of massive subsidies for car travel and suburban sprawl, the citizen concern that overwhelms all others is the single-minded focus on MINIMIZING DEVELOPMENT EVERYWHERE.admin-ajax (7)

The citizen must plead for this because nearly all Americans live in dispersed, low-density, single-use locations that require car travel for nearly every trip. This means that the number one priority for most Americans is minimizing density (or opposing any form of new development) everywhere (including in the relatively dense town center, where compact development is most appropriate and desirable).

Why?

Because cars consume space so voraciously, car travel becomes dysfunctional and nearly intolerable with even a relatively small population. The level of frustration goes up exponentially when the neighborhood population increases, because there will now be even more people consuming enormous amounts of road and parking space!

Therefore, if one is compelled by community design and government subsidies to drive everywhere, the only possible community design agenda is to angrily oppose density increases (or any new development) every time it is proposed – and no matter where it is proposed. I am (but shouldn’t be) astonished by how many times I’ve seen even town center neighborhood residents fight like the dickens to oppose new development (and the fear that “spillover” parking by the new development will take away “our” neighborhood parking) in or nearby the neighborhood. Again, this is predictable in a society where car pampering — and the extreme car dependence that results from such artificial promotion of the car — means that nearly all of us have a vested interest in fighting to stop new development.

The same sort of negative citizen response regularly occurs if there is a proposal to change the zoning or land use of a property within the community. After all, one would think that the adopted land use and zoning plan for a community is designed to promote quality of life. It therefore seems wise to “follow what the community long-range plan specifies for land use and zoning designations,” instead of letting some “greedy developer” harm the community plan by selfishly changing such designations.

However, city and county land use and zoning maps don’t tend to be a “plan” at all. For nearly all communities, the adopted land use and zoning maps are not designations chosen by planners, citizens and elected officials to achieve a better quality of life. Rather, such maps tend to merely adopt what is on the ground already. If an area has low-density residential development, the map will specify “single-family” for that area. If another area has offices, the map will specify “office” for that area.

That ain’t plannin.’

It is a spineless, leadership-less way of memorializing what already exists. No thought whatsoever went into an evaluation of whether certain parts of the community should evolve into a different land use pattern to achieve community quality of life objectives. Maybe once or twice in my 20 years as a town planner did my city meaningfully propose a land use that differed from what was on the ground already.

In the early years of our nation, Thomas Jefferson pointed out that a healthy democracy depends on an educated electorate. I don’t believe he wanted the direct democracy envisioned by giving citizens the right to vote on proposed developments or proposed changes to land use or zoning designations. I don’t think that direct democracy is at all workable – logistically – nor do I think it improves decision-making. Indeed, particularly when there is little citizen education, having large numbers vote inevitably dumbs down decisions when lots of uninformed people are able to vote about complex societal decisions.

Are we comfortable with the idea of dumbing down community design decisions? What sort of future can a community expect if citizens are given the such “direct democracy” power, and use it in a short-sighted way? A way that is now unduly, artificially distorted by car pampering, which leads most citizens to desire low-density sprawl and happy car travel? Won’t that lead to decisions that leave a community without a “Plan B” when faced with extreme climate change or peak oil problems? A community, in other words, without the resilience to adapt to a changing future? A community that suffers significantly because it did not plan for land use and transportation patterns that would reduce costs and provide options when the price of low-density land uses and car travel become unaffordable?

An important concern with the direct democracy of citizens voting on proposed development or proposed land use changes is the risk of driving development further out into the countryside, away from existing town centers.

As I look around the nation over the past several decades, this sort of sprawling is already happening – even without the added boost of citizens voting for more sprawl.

When I see remote subdivisions sprouting up like weeds, all I can think about is how we are paying for the ugly sins committed by our forefathers and mothers who were part of a pro-car generation. We are still embedded in that pro-car world. A world where the price of car travel is substantially hidden from us, so we drive more than we would have without such a clouding of our awareness. A world where we feel it is necessary for us to vote for nest-fouling, pro-car, pro-sprawl decisions because we are trapped in car dependency. In the end, we have become trapped in being our own worst enemies.

I am firmly convinced that representative democracy works better than direct democracy – particularly in larger, more complex societies such as ours. Most citizens do not have the time, interest, or wisdom to be sufficiently knowledgeable about community planning or transportation issues that must be decided upon.

Despite all of the above, I must admit that I have some sympathy for direct democracy applied to planning and transportation decisions to the extent that the amendment is an expression of unhappiness about the long parade of awful car-centric road projects and strip commercial sprawl developments that have occurred in American communities so frequently since the 1940s. I would have loved the opportunity to have been able to vote against the monster highway widening projects and massive shopping center developments that have been built in my community (and using public tax revenue to boot).

So in a sense, I am sympathetic to the idea of applying direct democracy to town planning. But overall, I believe the idea does more harm than good. It is a sledgehammer that wipes out the good with the (admittedly) bad.

Examples of good? Increasingly, developers and property owners are proposing high-quality, sustainable projects because there is growing evidence that compact, mixed-use development that promotes a higher quality of life, an affordable lifestyle, and transportation choice is the most profitable way to go. In part, this is due to the emerging Millennial Generation, which seeks more of a lifestyle that is based more on town center living and reduced use of car travel than previous generations. And in part, it is due to price signals and growing concerns about a sustainable future in a world where unstable energy and climate change are making a car-based lifestyle seem increasingly inadvisable.

By killing good and bad, we are left with the status quo, which is awful in so many instances (every American community is infected by unlovable, unsustainable, strip-commercial sprawl). We NEED developers and property owners to propose projects that will heal such car-happy insults to our quality of life.

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Filed under Politics, Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design