May 26, 2005

Infill Development: Patching A Neighborhood’s ‘Holes’

"To Sean Gilligan, a neighborhood is like a piece of fabric," begins a profile in the Albuquerque Tribune. "Sometimes it has holes.

" 'You want to stitch them up, make it work,' Gilligan says.

"The Albuquerque developer has been stitching holes in the inner-city fabric for seven years, bringing cohesiveness and value to its overlooked pockets. "

He adds small, contemporary townhouse and condo projects - 6 units here, 12 units there -- but observers say the projects work. They do well in the marketplace, and they add important neighborhood vitality by pulling a neighborhood together.

Gilligan's mission is infill - developing empty parcels in the city core. He says the way to revitalize Downtown is to start at square one, with residential units, building a little extra density into the area.

"That's the piece that needs to happen," he says. "Then you'll have a market, and business will follow."

The important things here aren't only adding residents and thus critical mass, but turning dead space into lively space. Because it doesn't take much dead space to deaden a surrounding neighborhood.

I don't mean you should build on every inch of open space; of course you want parks and other greenery in your downtowns. I'm talking about "open space" like litter-strewn weeds by a railroad track, or an ugly asphalt strip-mall parking lot that kills off the pedestrian ambiance of a commercial district.

May 21, 2005

It’s About Time! America’s “Love Affair With SUVs Begins To Cool”

I know there are good, decent, generous and kind people who have purchased SUVs. In fact, I know some personally - family, friends, one of my most delightful neighbors. But let's face it. An SUV says: "I don't give a crap about anyone else on the road."

"I don't care if I'm more likely to kill and maim someone else if I'm in an accident (SUV bumpers are dangerously high when in collision with conventional cars); I'm more important than anyone else."

"I don't care if people behind me can't see ahead."

"I don't care if parking spaces have to be bigger, if roads have to be wider, if I take up more than a fair share of space in crowded urban areas."

And, of course, "I don't care at all about generating more polution than necessary to get where I'm going. I don't care that I use more gasoline than needed for my trips."

Well, it seems that some SUV owners are finally paying attention to gas-mileage issues -- of course, not because they suddenly realize the impact their wastefulness has on the environment, or the danger they cause to fellow citizens, or how they're aiding our dependence on Middle Eastern fuel sources. However, one thing that's changed is the rising prices of gasoline and how it affects their wallets.

Aside: Our "expensive" gasoline is still bargain-basement priced compared to most of the world. In the UK., prices averaged more than $5/gallon; in Norway, also a major oil producer, they hovered around $5 -- and that was last year, before the latest price hikes! (see Money magazine chart). But I digress....

Anyway, today's New York Times has a front-page story that claims "America's love affair with SUV's is taking a breather. For the first time in 14 years, the passenger car is actually taking sales back at the expense of SUVs and other trucks, according to an analysis of auto sales data."

I don't think SUVs do much for livable communities. Beside the psychological concept of people closing themselves off in armored-vehicle-like behemoths, supersized vehicles require ever more space to be given to roads, parking and garages. All those things take a toll on a community's sense of place, making a neighborhood less appealing for strolling and simply being outside, sharing communal space.

May 18, 2005

Dealing With Insanely High Housing Prices

High housing costs are a key contributor to sprawl. OK, some people live in the exurbs because they want huge McMansions and multi-vehicle "Garage Mahals" to store their tank-sized SUVs. However, many people truly would prefer to live more modestly, in or near cities and closer to their jobs, but simply can't afford any reasonable housing.

In the San Diego area, a recently announced public-private venture aims to make a dent in the problem. A $90 million investment fund will help developers "build homes for middle-income workers throughout San Diego County in the single largest infusion of money targeted at the region's pressing housing needs," according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. "By providing easy access to capital, the fund will be a big boost to smaller builders who specialize in middle-income, urban housing and often struggle to find money for their projects."

The crucially important consumer target for this program is people who earn too much to qualify for government-subsidized housing, yet can't hope to pay the region's sky-high housing costs on their own. A family of four with household income of between $49,600 and $124,000 a year could quality.

Wrap your head around that for a minute or two, please. A six-figure salary still isn't enough to buy a decent home in San Diego County. How can companies possibly attract mid-level workers? How can the average worker in San Diego live anywhere close to their job?

"The investment pool will be used to leverage more than $500 million worth of housing and commercial development in the county. It is expected to generate enough money to build as many as 2,000 rental and for-sale homes within older, urban communities over the next five years," the San Diego Union-Tribune says.

The median price of an existing single-family home in San Diego County - excluding pricier new construction that averages over $700,000 -- is $530,000, while existing condos resell at a median price of $380,000. Housing prices doubled in the area between 2000 and 2004, while household income rose 10.4%, according to the San Diego Housing Commission. Yeah, nice if you bought into the market before then. Not so nice if you didn't.

May 16, 2005

Livability vs. Traffic Flow

Do you have to sacrifice traffic flow in order to create a livable community? Some Sacramento officials think so, according to the Sacremento Bee: "City of Sacramento residents may have to accept sitting in traffic longer to make their hometown a better place to live, say those working on the city's general plan update. They also may have to put up with a longer hunt for parking spots in the central city."

Well yeah, if you design solely to speed massive quantities of traffic, you end up with 12-lane highways (aka "traffic sewers") that don't generate much appeal to the streetscapes around them. Likewise, if your sole aim is to provide street-level parking lots for massive amounts of drivers, you'll end up with acres of asphalt and a cruddy sense of place.

But does that mean you need massive highways and acres of asphalt to keep traffic moving? I don't think so. Building lots of wide roadways doesn't guarantee the free flow of traffic - just look at Los Angeles, the freeway capital of America, which also suffers from the worst traffic congestion in the U.S., according to a recent traffic study.

The city council is trying to make Sacramento among the most "livable" communities in the nation, while also facing an expected population hike of 200,000 in the next 25 years. What they ought to be talking about in their new master plan is giving people alternatives to driving. Of course not everyone will want or be able to walk or take public transportation to work. But if the option is there, that can help ease demand for roadways and parking lots.

Design so that SOME people can live, work and shop in the same neighborhood. And, make sure the city is a park-once, walk-to-many destination, so that once people drive to the central city and park, they are encouraged by streetscape, ambiance and sense of place to do a lot of walking to different shops, restaurants and entertainment venues..

May 15, 2005

NYT’s James Traub Is Wrong

In the N.Y. Times Sunday magazine issue on Modernism, James Traub sees just two options available in mainstream urban planning: the neutron-bomb-like results of Modernism, where buildings on steroids ravage urban streetscapes and kill off pedestrian activity; or what he calls Jane Jacobs's "image of a city of stable, small-scale enclaves .... [T]he organic and folkloric alternative [to Modernism] offers us a city in amber -- the urban equivalent of the retro baseball stadium."

Not so! There are in fact urban settings that combine tall buildings with a thriving streetscape. In Manhattan, for instance, 59th Street at Central Park is a nice mix of traditional urban buildings with street life and open space. And I think there's a lot to be said for Rockefeller Center, where the masses of tall buildings didn't completely kill off street life throughout the neighborhood. In Boston, while the Prudential Center kind of deadens pedestrian activity on much of its side of Boylston Street, the Hancock building co-exists with street activity in Copley Square.

However, Traub is unfortunately dead on in this observation: "Today, New York is one of the very few American cities where the street matters enough that the problem bears thinking about."

May 14, 2005

Are Boston’s Pedestrian Signals Leaving Walker Safety To Chance?

Boston has a pedestrian-friendly reputation for good reason - for a major U.S. urban center, many areas of the city are well designed for walkers. But along with compact design and appealing streetscapes, it's also important to be able to cross streets safely. And the Boston Herald says the Hub is

failing to maintain crossing signals at major intersections across downtown, routinely forcing unsuspecting walkers to wade into fast-moving traffic, a Herald review found. At several locations this week, crossing signals were found to be damaged, poorly synchronized or absent altogether - a situation that at times left handicapped people and crowds of schoolchildren at the mercy of oncoming traffic. ...

Random visits to more than 60 downtown intersections found malfunctioning equipment at more than a dozen locations stretching from Chinatown to the Back Bay. Some of the worst problems were found just steps from City Hall.

Considering the, um, energetic enthusiasm with which many Boston drivers negotiate city traffic, it is indeed important to give pedestrians their own signal time to cross busy intersections. Let's hope this gets fixed soon now that the nice weather is (allegedly) here and more people will be out and about on foot.

May 12, 2005

200+ Condos, Hotel Planned For New Natick Mall

Developers expect to build "220 condominium units and an upscale hotel on the northwest side of the planned addition to the retail complex," mall representatives told the Natick Planning Board, according to the MetroWest Daily News. An "open-air park would connect the buildings to the existing mall."

I haven't seen latest plans, but the design of that park, as well as entry ways to the buildings, will be critical in determining whether residents and visitors will actually *use* the park, and be encouraged to walk through it; or it will simply exist but be too off-putting to use (you know, like existing sidewalks on Rte. 9 and Speen Street around the current mall. See many people walking on them?)

The simple existence of open space is not enough. Designed incorrectly, the "park" could be an open-air wasteland that nobody uses (or even worse, used for the sorts of activities you'd prefer to discourage, not encourage). Designed properly, the complex could offer residents a pedestrian-friendly streetscape that encourages them to stroll and sit outside in nice weather.

Preliminary designs for the Natick Mall expansion were NOT encouraging. Walkways around the planned new mall building offered no screening between pathway and whizzing traffic -- a big no-no for a pedestrian-friendly ambiance; and plans to "connect" the mall with the Cochituate Rail Trail had the trail simply dump into a parking lot, which gives you an idea of the importance developers initially placed on creating an attractive pedestrian environment.

Hopefully, things have improved as the design evolves.

The condos will include 15% "affordable," starting around $150,000, to pricetags of more than half a million dollars, the News reported. The tallest building would be 80 feet high, but most would be shorter. The hotel is allegedly going to be "non-chain, small, upscale."

May 11, 2005

Day/Evening Downtown District

A thriving, successful downtown business district doesn't close up shop at 6 pm when all the business people go home; nor is it dead all day to only come to life after dark. Instead, it's multi-use: a place where people can live, work, shop and be entertained -- even if it's not always the same people.

"In cities that have achieved a 24/7 nightlife, the demographics often change rather dramatically at 10 pm, between people who are going home and people who are just arriving," notes CoolTown Studios in its summary of the Responsible Hospitality Institute's criteria for vibrant and safe downtown centers. Keeping the streets and sidewalks clean and well maintained despite heavy usage is crucial.

Also important: multi-use sidewalks. "As streets become more pedestrian-oriented, they provide greater uses, from outdoor dining and entertainment to festivals." Those who choose to live on such streets need to understand this. But when done right, it doesn't necessarily hurt property values -- there are plenty of urbanites who thrive on activity, hustle and bustle. Think Manhattan; think Newbury Street. Housing in and around those areas costs a lot more per square foot than the average quiet exurb!

May 10, 2005

Lowe’s Revises Plans … for Charlotte

Lowe's is planning a new store on Rte. 30 in Framingham; and as far as I know, the Planning Board is allowing them to use the same old big-box, suburban-sprawl sort of design that has made the Golden Triangle an aesthetic nightmare: unattractive, car-oriented and incredibly pedestrian hostile. Even when sidewalks exist, the streetscape is unpleasant (no one wants to walk by endless asphalt parking on one side and 4 lanes of whizzing traffic on the other side, with no attractive screening on either side). Although one Planning Board member urged Lowe's to site their new store at the street, instead of set back with the parking in front, I don't think any other town officials joined in.

Pity. We're losing a major chance to begin the process of transforming Rte. 30 to more of a park-once, walk-to-many-destinations boulevard. Instead, it's just another tangle of parking lots with no sense of place.

In Charlotte, N.C., meanwhile, the Charlotte Observer reports:

Lowe's has made substantial changes to its plans for a home improvement store on South Boulevard....The plans also move the garden center to the South Boulevard side of the store, next to a new 5,000-square-foot retail building that could house a coffee shop, a deli or other types of neighborhood retail. As in the previous plan, the store would still have parking on the roof and be lined by up to 60 condominiums.

The store will also include a pedestrian entrance on South Boulevard.

Here in Framingham, meanwhile, the main post office doesn't even have a pedestrian entrance, or pedestrian walkway from the sidewalk to the door; you've got to walk through the parking lot to get there. And the Lowes will make things worse, since it will knock down the old New England Telephone building that at least presents a decent front to the street.

May 5, 2005

Providence Plan: More Green, But More Building Height

"A team of urban planners laid out a vision for Providence last night that is a little greener and a little taller," the Providence Journal reports.

After listening to the 90-minute presentation, members of the audience who spoke expressed a love of parks and open space, but a fear of heights. ... The urban planners said there are ways for the city to grow taller and more pedestrian-friendly at the same time.

Providence officials hired Sasaki Associates of Boston to develop plans for a portion of the city center. Part of the proposal would include first-floor shops and restaurants, as well as lining streets with treets and lights.

As I've written before, New Urbanist planners are absolutely correct that a "sense of enclosure" is critical for a streetscape that people will actual use, as opposed to putting in sidewalks that few people walk on unless they absolutely have to. If you want a thriving retail district, whether a town center or city downtown, you need to do more than just put in sidewalks -- even if those sidewalks "meet code." Trees can help offer pedestrians an appealing environment in a smaller commercial center that doesn't have the kind of critical mass of population density and public transportation that downtown Boston or midtown Manhattan do.

May 2, 2005

When Parking Is The Problem … But Not What You Think

"Lack of parking" does not necessarily kill neighborhoods or business districts. In fact, requirement too MUCH parking can cause as many problems as too LITTLE, a number of planners argue.

Onsite parking requirements—currently under attack by UCLA planning professor Donald Shoup and the Victoria Transportation Institute among others—have, for now at least, sealed the fate of older communities like Sunland-Tujunga [Calif.] They have made it practically illegal to introduce pedestrian-oriented uses that don’t resemble the convenience retail or auto repair shops that have come to characterize commercial boulevards throughout the city.

So writes Mott Smith, a planner and "in-field" developer, in The Planning Report". Residents of that Sunland-Tunjunga L.A. neighborhood "must drive no less than 20 minutes to Glendale, Pasadena or Burbank just to be able to do some shopping on foot in a pleasant commercial district."

Sound familiar, suburbanites?

Demands that every enterprise have its own on-site parking, regardless of neighborhood circumstances, "seem designed with sprawl as the objective."

The answer is not to eliminate parking. Most suburbs won't have dense enough development to support thriving downtowns that a critical mass of people can reach by foot, bike or public transit anytime soon. I'm a realist. We're not going to wean American suburbanites off the convenience of the passenger automobile (although those who prefer non-auto-centric living should have options outside America's 10 largest cities).

The answer IS to design communities where you can park once, leave the car, and then enjoy walking around a pedestrian-appealing streetscape that has been designed with the ambiance and needs of walkers in mind. It's the "sweet spot" middle ground between ugly suburban sprawl that's designed solely for the automobile, and downtowns that lost out to malls 40 years ago because they couldn't provide enough convenient parking.

Smith urges development of "community parking," so people can leave there cars in unobtrusive yet convenient municipal lots.

It's not rocket science; well-designed communities have done this for decades. Concord, Mass. has some community parking, downtown Waltham's successful revitalization has it.... the key is have enough of it, well designed, so it's convenient and attractive for people to leave their cars there and then walk to an appealing business area.

It could have worked along Rte. 9. It would have transformed Rte. 30 in Framingham, had all the retail and commercial buildings been built at the street with parking in the rear, wide beautifully landscaped sidewalks installed, a truly attractive median strip been installed, crosswalks that actually allowed people to walk across the street on foot without constant fear been included, Panera's cafe been part of sidewalk activity instead of fronting a huge parking lot.... what an opportunity lost.

May 1, 2005

Shopping Mall Developer Promotes New Urbanism For … A City Downtown

Robert Stark "got started more than 20 years ago as a developer of generic suburban shopping centers. But he converted in mid career to New Urbanism, a movement based on the principal that communities are livelier when housing, offices and retail are mixed together, as in cities, rather than zoned apart, as in suburbs," the Cleveland Plain Dealer reports.

Now, ironically, Stark is trying to use the lessons he's learned from developing suburban malls that mimic Main Streets to help resuscitate Cleveland, which Plain Dealer's architecture critic calls "a shrinking, poverty-wracked city where fresh thinking of ten gets the brushoff."

His concept? "Fill the surface parking lots in the Warehouse District with a million square feet of high-end shops operated by national and local retailers. He'd stack hundreds of apartments atop the retail floors. ... And he'd sprinkle office space throughout to add a diversity of uses."

Bolton TM Ponders Pedestrian-Friendly Article

Bolton (Mass.) Town Meeting members will be asked to vote on spending $10,000 to extend Main Street's sidewalk to a new senior housing project, allowing residents to safely walk to the center of town.

"We want to make the center more pedestrian-friendly so that people will walk if they can," Public Ways Safety Committee Chairwoman Cia Ochsenbein told the Bolton Common.

The idea is that in some places, the walkway won't be at the street, but set far back from traffic, similar to Stow's pathway. And while the location of the project may have started for the senior center, the idea is to allow all residents, not just seniors there, to do more walking downtown.