July 31, 2005

Calming Traffic

Officials, residents and planners in Seattle are investigating ways to once again allow city streets to be safely shared by pedestrians, cyclists and cars. "Feet First, a Seattle-based pedestrian advocacy group, supports [a] 20 mph speed limit [for residential streets] and much wider measures involving better urban design, traffic calming measures and generally reorienting ourselves from what might be called a car-centric orientation.," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer notes in an editorial.

The paper agrees that a 20 mph limit - which would still make it unlikely that drivers would be ticketed if driving 30 - "is just one of many ways Seattle could and should do more to protect pedestrians, make streets safer and encourage active lifestyles in an increasingly urban setting." The paper laments that Seattle seems to have lost its momentum on pedestrian issues. "Portland has surpassed Seattle in creating a transit- and pedestrian-friendly downtown, using speed bumps on streets and involving the public in traffic decisions," the editorial says.

The basic take-away here: You can't turn an area designed for automobiles into a lively pedestrian zone on the cheap. Painting crosswalks, while an important safety measure, is hardly enough. And make no mistake - well-designed areas with appealing streetscapes are quite good for both property values and the economy, as neighborhoods from Newbury Street to downtown Concord and Wellesley to Boston's North End attest.

July 29, 2005

Mall Revamps Entrance To Be Pedestrian-Friendly

Ah, sadly, that's not the Natick Mall or Shoppers World that are taking great pains to make a walker-appealing entry. Instead, it's the Fashion Square mall in Scottsdale, Ariz., that's thinking about making sure people walking into the center feel as welcome as when they drive into the parking lot.

"Before, the entrance catered to vehicles and was inconvenient for walk-ups, said Bob Gutierrez, an architect with Scottsdale-based Sixty First Place Architects," the East Valley Tribune reports. "Changes will include raised and widened walkways, better lighting, narrower roads to discourage traffic, automatic doors and a grand staircase leading to the doors."

Please note the part about narrower roads to discourage traffic. It's a concept that those designing, developing and overseeing the Framingham-Natick Golden Triangle has never seemed to grasp: Sometimes less is more. When roadways are too wide, and there's too much unbroken pavement, you end up with pedestrian-hostile traffic sewers (I forget who coined that term, but it's a great description of the Rte. 9 ambiance). It's so important to design for walkers and cyclists as well as cars, not simply for motorized traffic. When you design solely for maximum traffic movement, you tend to suck all the soul out of a place.

July 27, 2005

Another Open-Air Mall Expansion

While plans for the Natick Mall expansion are to build the kind of enclosed center popular half a century ago, with what appears to be quite a pedestrian-unfriendly exterior, trends in the rest of the country favor building open-air shopping centers that stress a pedestrian-friendly ambiance. The latest among numerous examples of such so-called lifestyle centers: Dayton, Ohio, where a 90,000-square-foot expansion at the Dayton Mall "will feature high-end restaurant and retail tenants in an open-air, pedestrian-friendly setting," according to GlobeSt.com.

Numerous other recent plans for shopping areas designed for walker-appeal are planned everywhere from Toledo to Colorado Springs, as CNN Money reported earlier this year.

Closer to MetroWest, a "pedestrian-friendly, architecturally upscale, open-air lifestyle center" has been proposed for 175 acres in Northboro, Commercial Property News notes. If this truly is the trend in retailing and more what 21st century consumers want -- and "the number of lifestyle centers has quickly accelerated, from just 30 in 2002 to 120 at the end of 2004. Between 10 to 20 new centers are slated to open each year for the next two years. By contrast, only eight new regional malls are expected to open by 2006, according to ICSC," CNN Money says -- one wonders if conventional malls like Natick's are the best tactic to attract upscale consumers.

Many consumers are getting tired of the sterile, soul-less atmosphere of typical suburban malls, and crave walker-friendly streetscapes with a sense of place. Some developers realize this. Others don't.

July 25, 2005

Revamping Miami’s ‘Design District’

What's now an "under-utilized area of designer showrooms and art galleries" will be transformed into "a bustling neighborhood of condos, rentals and new mixed-use buildings" under a plan that includes adding more restaurants, shops and appealing streetscapes in order to make the neighborhood a more desirable place to live and work, according to the Miami Herald.

"We are taking a vibrant neighborhood and making it more so. We're going to create live/work spaces for creative people and subsidize where young people need help,'' Craig Robins, head of Dacra Properties, told the Herald. Robins' plans include not only new "live/work" buidlings, but a new building to house his own art collection that will be open to the public.

The city will be planting trees along a main street, as well as improving sidewalks and lighting. Some lengthy blocks - too long to be pedestrian-friendly - will be carved into more manageable chunks.

Planners envision a walkable neighborhood that can meet people's basic shopping needs as well as entertainment. Said local boutique owner Susane Ronai:

I had to send a client needing batteries for her camera over to [Biscayne] Boulevard and several blocks down to find batteries. Two years from now, no one will have to go outside the district for a battery. We need more boutiques, caf├ęs, restaurants, a newsstand. We need a little movie house, and I would love to see a bookstore here.

July 21, 2005

Ideas For Better Store Sitings

Two socially responsible investment groups have published a report advising major retailers on community-friendly ways to locate, design, build and run their stores.

Outside the Box: Guidelines For Retail Store Sitingsincludes suggestions on preserving cultural heritage, so as not to ruin the ambiance of a historic town center; and smart growth concepts, such as trying to site near public transit, providing safe pedestrian and bicycling environments (I'd add appealing walking and cycling environments); and working to mitigate traffic impact. The report was authored by analysts at Christian Brothers Investment Services and Domini Social Investments LLC in New York.

In one example

...a 2004 plan for a 203,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store in Monona, Wisconsin, featured 600 underground parking spaces that city officials believed would make better use of land, while keeping shoppers warm. Site owner Continental Properties also agreed to pay the city for a full traffic impact
study and traffic-related improvements, transportation for the elderly to and from the store site, and a reduction in storm-water runoff from the site by 20 percent from the current level. Following the agreement, the City Council rejected a proposed moratorium on big-box development.

July 14, 2005

Three Cheers For Lynchburg, Va.’s New Planning Report

...which "takes the focus away from cars and pays more attention to pedestrian needs," according to the Lynchburg News & Advance. Kudos to the study's author(s), who rightly observe that plans to widen roadways through a community's commercial center rarely ease congestion (instead, more cars are encouraged to use the roadway). Multi-lane, high-speed thoroughfares through a business district are more likely to impede revitalization efforts than help.

"More than any other feature, streets define a community’s character," the study notes. "Great streets are walkable, accessible to all, interesting, comfortable, safe, and memorable."

Planners are also concerned about students at Lynchburg College being isolated from the nearby Midtown business district due to an "expanding auto zone." Framingham State and Framingham Centre anyone? Framingham State and the hideously unappealing walking atmosphere to downtown Framingham anyone?

That's why I'm hoping Framingham can host a walkable community workshop, but so far I haven't heard from any town officials that they do want to express interest to the Boston Metropolitan Planning Organization, which has asked any interested area cities and towns to notify them by July 27.

Harvard Square Spiff-Up

A $3.5 million improvement project is slated to begin this fall in Harvard Square, the Cambridge Chronicle reports, funded in part by area businesses. It will include widening sidewalks and improving street lights, with the goal of helping the Square compete for area shoppers.

It's great to see that Harvard Square doesn't rest on its laurels, and understands how critically important a pedestrian-friendly streetscape is to its appeal. It would be great if planners also understood that it's crucial to beef up the number of local stores there - ones that shoppers can't find in every mall in America.

When Cambridge Mayor Michael Sullivan says that Harvard Square's real competition isn't other town centers but area shopping malls, he should also understand that the Square can never compete with those malls for regional shoppers by offering easy access (i.e. free parking) -- although clearly it'll always be attractive for people who live within easy walking or T distance.

Instead, the Square's chief asset as a regional destination is its sense of place. Pedestrian ambiance, street performers and so on are a major part of that, as of course is Harvard University. But sense of place also means feeling like you're someplace special, instead of a slightly different version of a mall with all the same shops people can find everywhere.

July 11, 2005

How Much Revamping Does Downtown Crossing Need?

Boston city government and retailers will be spending a combined $1 million over the next year to spiff up Downtown Crossing, the Boston Globe reports, describing the existing retail district as "a craggy mix of discount chains, fast-food spots, and vacant storefronts [that] line Washington Street and surrounding blocks in Downtown Crossing."

''It's tired, it's dirty, and it can be a real downer," David Levin, chief executive of Casual Male Retail Group Inc., told the Globe.

But Bostonist wonders how much of an overhaul is needed. Better sidewalks, free wi-fi and attracting a new supermarket or Target? Yes. But yuppification/gentrification/mallifcation? They're not so sure. "Boston already has the Copley mall and the innumerable fancy malls that dot the western suburbs, but we don't have so many unique urban spaces where the diversity of our city is actually visible without the aid of demographics charts," they note.

Good point. However, there should be plenty of room on the spectrum between leaving someplace dirty and tired but just fixing up the sidewalks, and trying to turn it into another Newbury Street.

I'd favor trying to turn it into a place that's not a ghost town after 7 pm, and that means creating a streetscape where people feel comfortable after dark - enough businesses and residences to achieve critical mass for urban nightlife. Upscale stores aren't the only reason Newbury Street is alive after dark - along with an outstanding urban pedestrian streetscape, there are enough restaurants and cafes to attract people after the shops close, and enough residents nearby to populate them.

It's a circle - retailers don't want to pour money into upgrading their stores if the district doesn't seem like it's moving somewhat forward with the times. That doesn't have to mean high-end yuppification, but it does mean understanding that the streetscape of the '80s may be a bit outdated a quarter-century later. I used to enjoy shopping at Filene's and Macy's in Downtown Crossing, but the last couple of times I visited, the stores just seemed depressing - the only women's clothing store worth the trip was H&M. Some modernizing isn't a bad idea - if it's done with improving the pedestrian ambiance.

July 10, 2005

Boston Places, Great & Horrid

It was a beautiful summer Sunday today here in New England, and Boston was swarming with both locals and tourists eager to enjoy the weather. Parks, streets and neighborhoods were packed with pedestrians - in fact, I overheard a tourist nearby comment, "Boston is a walker-friendly city." Indeed!

Yet this is what Boston's City Hall Plaza looked like at lunchtime today:

City Hall Plaza

I've written about this before, but here's proof that the large, sweeping concrete plaza is a poorly designed urban space. It's offputing to pedestrians, and naturally shunned by people even on a day when they crave being out and about.

Problems: not enough landscaping, no sense of enclosure, not human scaled, no so-called "outdoor rooms" carved out of the massive space, and on and on. These are critically important things to keep in mind when designing any space, whether a public plaza or a shopping area.

In contrast, here's what the scene looked like just across the street, in Quincy Market:

Quincy Market

and in nearby Columbus Park:

Columbus Park

I think that's enough bandwidth for one post (sorry, the original files are 2 megabytes; even after cropping and shrinking, the files are still big), but I hope you get the idea. These are spaces that naturally invite people on foot to come enjoy them. Boston Commons is especially such a space (sorry, no photos there today). Those winding paths through the park are more than pleasing to the eye - they and great landscaping help break the park up into many smaller "outdoor rooms," inviting people to share the larger space in smaller units for different purposes, everything from a softball and a playground to simply sitting.

July 9, 2005

Some Cities Seek Families; Some Discourage Them

In Massachusetts, there's a boom in housing for 55+ year old residents. In many revitalized U.S. urban centers, childless young professionals or empty-nesters are moving to city neighborhoods, and the number of children is dwindling. But Vancouver, where the downtown population doubled over the past 15 years, is seeing a baby boom.


July 7, 2005

Major Housing/Retail Complex Proposed In Northborough

350 apartments and townhouses. Half a million square feet of retail. That's what's being proposed for a parcel of land at the intersection of Rtes. 9 and 20 in Northborough, and town officials "are grappling with whether it would be a boon or a bane for the town," according to the Boston Globe West Weekly.

The development would, of course, increase taxes, as well push the town over the state-mandated 10% affordable housing threshold, thus protecting it from possible future large-scale developments over which it would have no control. However, such a development would also increase the need for town services - not to mention traffic.

The retail development would be an open-air center, and "the company is considering a pedestrian-friendly 'Main Street experience,'" the Globe says. No word as to whether it would be a pedestrian-appealing experience for residents of the apartments and townhouses to get to the stores....

Targeting Public Transit Riders

My deepest sympathies to the people of London, especially to loved ones of those killed in today's horrific attacks, and those who were injured.

Tragically, attacking a major world city's public transit network at rush hour guarantees a high casualty rate, because terrorists can be assured that buses, trolleys and trains will be densely packed with people. (It's the same reason that trams in Sarajevo were such a popular target of Serb snipers besieging the Bosnian capital).

Now, residents of cities throughout the Western world will naturally be more nervous about taking public transportation - as many Israelis have been for years because so many of their buses have been the target of suicide bombers. Attempts to search and screen passengers getting on city buses - the response to airline hijackings and the 9/11 attacks - appear largely impossible without bringing the system to a crawl.

Londoners have been used to the threat of terrorism for decades because of militant Irish separatist activities, but today's attacks sadly bring the danger to a new and more lethal level. London must grapple with the issue of keeping citizen trust in the safety of its public transportation network at a time when the city has been trying to get people out of their private cars by charging them to drive autos in key center districts. It will not be an easy task.

July 5, 2005

Another Problem With Using Eminent Domain For Grandoise Urban Renewal

I share the widespread outrage over a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing governments to take people's properties because they think some more upscale development would make better use of the land. But John Tierney points out another problem with the ruling: It enables (and perhaps even encourages) governments to embark on what are often bad projects - destroying existing neighborhoods to create a grand new planned environment.

Unfortunately, in many cases, the dramatic scale of such buildings and projects doom them to end up as soul-less hulks, replacing what could have been vibrant rejuvenated neighborhoods had existing buildings and streetscapes been improved instead of razed. Boston's Scollay Square experience is a case in point, replaced by the sweeping City Hall Plaza - where there's now pretty much universal agreement that changes are needed in the awful design in order to get people to actually utilize it.

Detroit's Renaissance Center is another example of a grand plan gone awry - it might have looked great on paper, but because the center is not human-scaled and not integrated with the nearby neighborhood, and fell far short of its promise.

July 4, 2005

Change For The Better: New York Responds To A Hate Crime

Two decades ago, a group of black men sought help in Howard Beach, N.Y. when their car broke down. Some white men responded by chasing the men into the path of an oncoming car; one was killed. The incident touched off heated racial unrest in New York.

Last week, a white man attacked a black man in the same neighborhood, fracturing his skull. Response to the incident is much different, according to the New York Times, with Rev. Al Sharpton praising city officials for their response instead of adding fuel to an already explosive situation.

Why? The city has changed. Then, African-Americans felt ignored or worse by the city's power structure, while "whites had been slowly losing their majority status in the city, and felt threatened as more neighborhoods hit a tipping point as minorities moved in. Crime, bolstered by the crack epidemic, was increasingly adding to the sense of insecurity about a city out of control. And a series of explosive events - crystallized by Bernhard Goetz's shooting of four black teenagers he thought were about to mug him on the subway - heightened festering tensions between the races. ... Sometime in the 1980's, New York became a majority-minority city. Those changes were reverberating politically."

Now, Queens has a black borough president. And where there was once widespread black mistrust of law enforcement, that is slowly changing. This year, a majority of the latest graduates of the Police Academy are from one minority group or another. ... In 2000, a Times poll found that only 3 percent of black voters in New York City said Mr. Giuliani cared about the needs and problems of people like them. In a Times poll completed last week, 51 percent of blacks said Mr. Bloomberg cared.

Crime is down, neighborhoods are being revitalized and the city is a calmer place. It's not a racial nirvana, but people are definitely getting along better. There's not full equality, but people have learned to share power. And when attacks happen, others in the community can work together to deal with the fallout, instead of tearing the social fabric apart.

July 2, 2005

What Should the ‘Gateway’ to Boston’s Theater District Look Like?

The Boston Redevelopment Authority has been wrestling with this question for 8 years now, according to the Boston Globe. And while one can appreciate their desire to get this important piece of property done right, 8 YEARS and they still can't even pick a design? Hello?

Now two more plans have been submitted - both, apparently, including "flashy Times Square-like electronic billboards." Hmmm. As a native New Yorker, I love the thrill and excitement of gaudy Times Square, but it works in part because of the human energy from great masses of people. However, the corner of Stuart and Tremont streets will not have anywhere near that magnitude of foot traffic. I fear flashy neon billboards will more likely make people think of Boston's theater district as a minor league of New York's - one that can't measure up - instead of creating energy and excitement. Big flashy billboards facing sparsely-populated streets are depressing.

Boston works so well because of its human scale. After 8 years, you'd think someone could come up with a design that takes advantage of this, instead of trying to do Broadway Lite.

Does housing belong in a major new building on the site? Interesting question. Good urban planning favors "mixed use" neighborhoods, but you might want housing adjacent to the main theater-district buildings and not actually in them.

Transforming a Suburban Center

"In one minute in Bethesda, I passed more [pedestrians] than I did in five hours in Columbia."

--University of Maryland professor Reid Ewing, comparing Columbia's designed-for-the-auto Town Center with Bethesda's walkable downtown

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there's a very simple way to see whether a community is walkable or not, and it doesn't require labor-intensive tasks like measuring and counting sidewalks. Just see if people are out walking. If they're not, there's a problem that needs to be addressed.

In Columbia, Md., "General Growth and the county are planning to transform the area into a bustling urban center...." the Baltimore Sun reports. "Ewing pointed out that Columbia has a number of barriers that discourage walking -- low residential density, long blocks, wide streets, poorly marked crosswalks, buildings set far back from streets and no benches along the sidewalks."

That's a good starter list for what discourages people from walking. Note that sidewalks exist in the town center, but the area is so poorly designed for walkability that no one actually wants to use them. "It's not walkable, it's very auto-oriented," Ewing explained.

A key part of the plan for Columbia is developing a 50+-acre parcel with businesses, residences, parking and open space. One planner involved in the project said the proposal will feature shorter street blocks, street-oriented buildings, well-marked crosswalks and additional sidewalks.

I'm not sure I buy the need for short blocks - avenue blocks in Manhattan are crowded with pedestrians, and they're pretty long. But I agree with the rest of the list - especially street-facing buildings, not set too far back. And with windows toward the street! Blank walls are rather off-putting for people on foot.

However, planners are also going to have to grapple with how to combine more walkability with easing traffic congestion, the article notes. But there are plenty of non-walkable places with impossible traffic - Los Angeles comes to mind. Well-designed walkable communities don't cause traffic problems because they're pedestrian-friendly. Forcing people to drive everywhere is also a problem.