Tag Archives: zoning

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Transportation, Urban Design, Walking

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.

Leave a comment

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