January 29, 2006

Thinking Outside the (Big) Box

The city of Ventura, Calif. has declared a one-year moratorium on development along Ventura Boulevard, where Wal-Mart was eyeing a former K-mart site for a new store.

"The moratorium, imposed to give city planners time to draft guidelines for development along the six-lane strip, effectively shelves an application from the retail giant to build one of its prototypical big-box stores," according to the Los Angeles Times. "City Manager Rick Cole said the action wasn't necessarily aimed at discouraging Wal-Mart, but at meeting a mandate in the city's new General Plan to transform Victoria Avenue from a traffic-choked corridor to a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare peppered with shops and houses."

It's a lesson I sorely wish planners here would take to heart as more retailers come to the Rte. 9/Rte. 30 Framingham-Natick "Golden Triangle": Just because the current environment is an ugly, pedestrian-hostile mess doesn't mean it has to stay that way together.

Time after time, local officials have lost the opportunity to begin remaking the area, by not requiring new development to conform to better standards than existing strip malls. You don't have to "grandfather" all future development! The old Lechmere mall could have been required to front the sidewalk with most parking in the rear, allowing Panera's outdoor seating to add to the pedestrian streetscape. Lowe's could have been required to build at the sidewalk; but after some talk at a Planning Board meeting, officials went back to the same old streetscape-killing, aesthetically awful strip mall.

“French Women Don’t Get Fat”

There are some interesting tidbits in the book French Women Don't Get Fat, which I recently took out of the library. I'm not sure I buy into everything author Mireille Guiliano put forth; but along with her tips for slow, mindful eating of high-quality foods (which makes a great deal of sense), she also points out some differences between typical American and European lifestyles. For example, the Swiss eat an average of 20 lbs of chocolate per person per year, yet they're not a particularly obese nation. Why?

"Half of their run-of-the-mill getting around is done on foot or bicycle," Guiliano notes. "Americans on average travel on their own steam less than 10 percent of the time. . . . Walking is an essential part of the French way of life, and the average French woman walks three times as much as the average American."

In fact, a fair number of American tourists are surprised when they visit Paris, sample the incredible food (including pastries) and come home the same weight or lighter. That happened to me during my lone visit to the French capital; and I'm sure that one reason was the hours of daily walking while sightseeing.

More time on foot isn't the only explanation for a French obesity rate of 11% vs. America's 24.5%. Many believe that French traditions she outlines -- notably a lack of convenience food, snacking and eating "on the run" -- play a large role. It's all part of an overall lifestyle package. And when you live in a community where it's not only unappealing but impossible to walk anywhere, and you spend almost all your time either sitting at a desk or in a car, it's not surprising that the pounds pile on. Especially when we're eating while watching TV, reading or getting ready to zip out the door, so our minds are less likely to register satiety with what we're putting in our mouths. Empty sugar-laden calories don't help.

"Obesity is linked to 112,000 deaths a year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention," New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof writes in today's opinion pages (Times Select subscription required). "[R]emember that fat kills far more Americans than terrorists. . . . Imagine if Al Qaeda had resolved to attack us not with conventional chemical weapons but by slipping large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup into our food supply. That would finally rouse us to action — but in fact it's pretty much what we're doing to ourselves."

January 26, 2006

Overhauling New York’s Javits Convention Center

If you've ever attended an event at the Javits Center (I've gone to numerous), you know what a poorly planned site it is. Besides the silly interior design, which involves going endlessly up and down stairs trying to get to where you're going, it's badly positioned in the surrounding neighborhood. Now granted, the surrounding area isn't the most appealing of Manhattan's neighborhoods. But the convention center could have helped revitalize nearby blocks, bringing a steady stream of foot traffic to stores and restaurants within walking distance. Instead, the project created no visual appeal or continuous streetscape to draw people into the surrounding community. Even without acres of on-site parking, Manhattan's Javits Center has a suburban sprawl feel.

Now comes word of major plans to overhaul the aging center. "On Monday, Empire State Development Corp. Chairman Charles Gargano unveiled plans drawn up by another British architect, Sir Richard Rogers, teamed up with New York's FxFowle and Chicago's A. Epstein, for an expansion of the convention center that would virtually double its convention exhibiition space, to 1.1 million square feet, and reorient its truck marshalling and security area," according to the Slatin Report. "The plan also calls for a new convention hotel on state-owned land and the sale of a full-block parcel south of the convention center to a private developer. while adding a convention hotel on state-owned land immediately across the street from the center."

One key part of the plan is to create a "more appealing public spaces outside the Convention Center." A worthy goal indeed. It's nuts that a convention center in the heart of one of America's most walkable cities was designed in such a pedestrian-hostile manner.

You can see some images of the proposed revamped Javits here. The blog Bungie Sitings has a photo of the existing center here.

Thanks to Planetizen for the initial link.

January 22, 2006

Parking Foolishness

Does it strike anyone else as ridiculous that strip malls adjacent to each other often have parking so separate that big signs warn of imminent towing if you dare leave your car there EVEN WHEN THEIR STORES ARE CLOSED? Such "planning" ensures that a community ends up with more blacktop parking than it needs, taking away space from landscaping, buffers and additional retail.

For example, Imperial China's parking lot can't always accommodate peak Saturday night dinner demand. Right next door is a strip mall where pretty much every store is closed on Saturday night -- but signs warn not to park there if you're not a customer of one of those stores. Now, I understand why those stores want to preserve parking for their own customers first. But shouldn't the town encourage ways to have adjacent businesses share parking if their peak demands are at different times? In fact, that should be allowed in parking calculations for new development.

Grass, Trees & Gardens, Not Garages & Driveways

It's sometimes hard to get through to suburban planning officials, who obsess mostly about "setback" and occasionally "screening," how critical it is to create a pleasing sense of place and pedestrian-appealing streetscape by NOT having parking lots, driveways and garage doors as the chief features of your streetscape.

It's why I'm so disappointed with the two two-family townhouses built on Nicholas Road in Framingham. They could have enhanced the pedestrian experience, providing an attractive walking link between the Pinefield development of single-family homes on one side, and the apartments, condos and neighborhood retail on the other. Instead, the buildings have huge garage doors as the main feature you notice from the street, blacktop parking adjacent to the street and no sidewalk at all. Sigh.

This came to mind as I was reading about a townhouse development north of the border: "When homeowners at Garden Park Village in Whitby [Ontario] step out of their front doors, they will see grass, trees and gardens thriving with flowers instead of garages and driveways," the Globe & Mail reports. "Rockport Group's freehold townhouse development will be pedestrian-friendly, offering gardens, pathways and a central courtyard with benches. Each of the 163 units will include a built-in double-car garage, but it will be located at the rear."

Do you see garages and driveways when you walk along Newbury Street or Commonwealth Avenue in Boston's Back Bay? No. Does this enhance the pedestrian experience, quality of life and neighborhood sense of place? Yes. Has it hurt property values? Um, no, considering that's some of the most expensive real estate in New England.

January 16, 2006

Ikea Traffic Nightmare

So my husband and I decided to head down to Massachusetts' first Ikea store today to see what all the fuss is about. And I must say, from a retailing point of view, it's an amazing store. It's ENORMOUS - close to 350,000 square feet (in contrast, the big Jordan's Furniture on the hill in Natick is around 130,000 square feet). It was absolutely packed with people (at least on this Monday holiday), and filled with interesting merchandise. I was particularly impressed with the lighting choices; and in general, it appeared that Ikea was offering mid-tier quality at low-tier prices.

But in terms of planning and community, the store is just this side of an abomination. And I don't mean simply that it's yet another ugly big box that encourages sprawl (although it's certainly that). I'm astounded that a world-renowned "design" company would set up shop in such a poorly designed parcel, so customers are all but guaranteed to sit in hideous traffic bottlenecks. I don't know whether the fault lies with Ikea or Stoughton planning officials, but the on-site traffic flow is a mess.

How bad was it? We pulled out of our parking spot in the Ikea parking garage at 1:39 p.m. We finally managed to exit the Ikea property at 2:17 p.m. That's right: It took us 38 minutes to crawl through the Ikea gridlock and get off the store's property. And this wasn't the Friday after Thanksgiving or the weekend before Christmas. There were no special sales going on. It was just a Monday holiday where, yes, people were out shopping; but Rtes 9 and 30 in Framingham were flowing fine, while mall parking lots looked like they were moving.

At one point, I got out of my car and took a walk up the traffic-choked road to try to find out what was happening. I asked one of the "security" guys in the parking lot why nothing was moving ( he was occasionally directing traffic or answering a question, but otherwise apparently doing not much of anything except freezing). He said the problem was that there were 3,000 cars but only 2,000 parking spots. Well, that was certainly part of the problem; but it's also a hideously designed parking area in a bad location, the very last parcel in what might best be described as an industrial park for retailers. What's needed is a grid with multiple, parallel paths and several different exits. Instead, numerous feeder roads converge on a few main parking arteries that all merge into one clogged road with just one way in and out of the Ikea parcel.

If this is how Ikea deals with the traffic mess it generates, I can't say I blame people in Somerville for being concerned about Ikea coming to town.

Update: I'm told there are actually two entrances/exits into the Ikea parcel, although there was only one available to us from where we were parked. They still need more, and they still need some kind of grid so that large numbers of cars aren't funneled into a bottleneck to only one exit.

Mass. Smart Growth Agenda

Massachusetts lawmakers should provide greater incentives for communities that develop compact housing in downtowns, restore investment in conserving open space and implement a transportation plan that assures a balance between roads and public transit, according to Shared Destinies: A Smart Growth Agenda for Massachusetts, a report issued last month by the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance.

"[S]tories about the facts of our lives in Massachusetts today—increasingly long commutes to work, soaring housing prices, vanishing rural character and natural areas, strains on water supply and quality—are all connected," the report notes. "They illustrate how our current policies and decisions do not support managing development and redevelopment of land in ways that preserve what is best about the places we love, and that make life better as we grow."

Did someone say sprawl? The loss of "sense of place?"

In fact, sprawl isn't the result of unfettered market forces, but "is actually the product of more than half a century of federal, state and local policies. Because we created the framework that made sprawl possible, we can also change regulations, incentives and disincentives to promote different growth and development patterns."

One of my favorite recommendations: "Invest in a sense of place through good design." The report rightly notes that "A sense of place comes from the design of the public realm—the parks, public squares, streets, sidewalks and landscapes that belong to the whole community."

No one appears to have given that any thought in the commercial heart of Framingham, the Rte. 9/30 "Golden Triangle." It's all about setback, adequate parking and "screening"; but no one seems to care at all about creating an appealing streetscape. Is anyone really proud of the ugly strip-mall-after-strip-mall result?

Page 10 of the 19-page report has a nice roundup of what they envision "smart growth" in Massachusetts would look like:

  • Lively and walkable town centers

  • Distinction between town and country, with fewer isolated subdivisions and strip malls

  • Rejuvenated urban centers

  • More transit choices (i.e. everyone wouldn't have to drive everywhere)

  • More housing choices

  • More sustainable rural economies

"Good design and planning make the difference in public acceptance of smart growth," the report concludes.

January 15, 2006

Fading Enthusiasm For Skywalks

They seem like a good idea: Covered or enclosed walkways connecting downtown buildings, allowing easy passage between offices and shops when the weather is bad (and even when it's not). But elevated walkways, not unlike elevated highways, can have unintended negative consequences on a neighborhood. "Instead of drawing additional people and retail to a second level, skywalks have left streets lifeless, presenting a cold and alienating environment," Fred Kent, president of Project for Public Spaces, tells Associated Press.

And in fact, AP notes, "While skywalks remain popular in some cold-weather cities such as Des Moines, Iowa, an increasing number of cities have started tearing down some of their walkways or would like to remove them. Planners and others in cities such as Cincinnati, Baltimore, Charlotte, N.C., Hartford, Conn., and Kansas City, Mo., now believe increasing street-level pedestrian traffic will lead to more downtown homes, shops and entertainment."

What I like about the Boston's Copley Place Mall skywalk is that it is often used for pedestrians to more easily get between the mall and nearby neighborhood, helping to bring foot traffic to the nearby Back Bay neighborhood instead of avoid it. And fortunately, nearby Newbury Street and more recently Boylston Street are interesting enough in their own right that they can easily draw mall shoppers. But that's a relative rarity. As I recently posted in The Critical Importance of Street Life, planners need to pay close attention to things that generate foot traffic in a downtown business district as well as avoid things that are likely to kill it. Anyone looking to revitalize a business district needs to be crafting an attractive streetscape with pedestrian appeal.

"Cincinnati City Architect Michael Moore said the difference is striking around Fountain Square since two of the city's original 22 skywalk bridges were removed as part of a renovation to make the square a more welcoming, downtown center," according to AP, telling reporter Lisa Cornwell, "It looks so much larger and brighter."

January 10, 2006

The Critical Importance of Street Life

I've just finished reading a couple of interesting articles from the New York Times real estate section. And while they seem to be about widely different things - one, Goodbye Suburbs, about urban dwellers who moved out to raise families but realized they needed to return to Manhattan or Brooklyn; and another on efforts to revitalize Hartford - a common theme emerged: the critical role street life plays in community life.

Now, I'll admit that for those who like more isolated exurban living - McMansions on an acre+ of land, on quiet streets where the only way to get anywhere besides other houses is to climb into your SUV - street life doesn't matter. And that's fine; people like different things.

But if you want to make more compact neighborhoods attractive to people who DON'T long for 2-acre zoning and 3,000-square-foot homes, the vibrancy of life on neighborhood streets is critical.

"It's definitely someone's dream; it's just not our dream," photographer Andrew McCaul said of the $580,000 suburban home he and his wife lived in for a year before returning to the city.

"It's not as easy as being in Brooklyn where you just start talking at the playground and there's always someone to talk to," added his wife, Sarma Ozols. In widely spaced suburbs, it's simply harder to run into people.

Newlywed Sara Mendelsohn, who lived briefly in a Long Island suburb, told the Times: "When we come home and walk from the train to our apartment, there's no one on the street between 7 and 10 p.m. It's just that feeling of being alone. You walk the dog and there's no one there."

Likewise, hearty urban pioneers are coming to still-troubled Hartford because of the possibility of walking to the theater and museums.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez told the Times that one goal of a redevelopment project is removing a skywalk that linked downtown buildings. "All that did was turn this into a 9-to-5 office park," he said. "Yes, we saw job growth, but at the other end we sacrificed street life, and we're paying for it in a sense."

This is critically important for town planners to think about if they ever hope to revitalize downtown Framingham. As long as downtown keeps its more compact zoning, the type of newcomers such a district attracts is people who are willing and often eager to swap lots of private space (not to mention quiet) for a bustling, thriving public space out their door.

Keep an unappealing pedestrian environment with nowhere to walk to, and you end up with the worst of all worlds.

Town-Gown Success: University of Pennsylvania

"Penn is at the forefront of a national trend of urban colleges that are aggressively trying to bridge 'town-gown' tensions by investing heavily in adjacent troubled neighborhoods -- and by making a connection with local civic life," the Washington Post reports. "Since Penn launched its efforts in 1996, officials from more than 100 schools have made pilgrimages to study how it transformed a decaying neighborhood with a thriving drug traffic into a vibrant college community."

I posted on the University of Pennsylvania's West Philadelphia initiatives, discussed at an American Planning Association conference, back in April. But Penn's initiatives deserve another look, because it's pretty amazing that a private institution surrounded by slums successfully invested a billion dollars to help turn around the nearby neighborhood instead of simply throwing up more barricades.

"Today," the Post notes, "Penn is the among the hottest schools in the country -- sitting smack in the middle of a clean and vital retail neighborhood where crime has been reduced by 49 percent in the past decade, and where students swarm the streets. ...

"As a case study, Penn's urban renewal effort is probably the most comprehensive -- targeting every service and institution that makes a community vibrant. The university restored shuttered houses and offered faculty incentives to move into the neighborhood; invested $7 million to build a public school; brought in a much-needed 35,000-square-foot grocery store and movie theater; and offered the community resources such as hundreds of used Penn computers."

It IS possible to turn around crumbling, crime-ridden neighborhoods. But it takes great vision, planning and resources.

January 7, 2006

Miami Makeover

Miami has long had a "glamorous" look and "spectacular setting; but until recently, notes the New York Times, "a drive down among the high-rises at night revealed mostly shuttered office buildings and empty spaces." However, the city is in the midst of a major new development effort, "as developers build spaces where people will shop and play - and live."

Along with private development has come investment in public spaces: the Miami Performing Arts Center slated to open in the fall. And, "along Biscayne Bay, Bicentennial Park is being transformed into Museum Park, home of science and art museums." Nearby, according to the Times article, "Bayfront, an underused 32-acre public park redesigned in the 1980's by Isamu Noguchi, will be redesigned again 'to be more pedestrian friendly,' Mayor Diaz said."

I haven't seen the development plans, but it seems the city is learning some important lessons for a vital downtown: Mixed-use is critical, or your city center will likely be dead at night. Destinations are important. And you've got to design a pedestrian-friendly streetscape, because that's what attracts people looking for an enjoyable experience somewhere with a sense of place. If it's not an appealing streetscape, people might as well head to a mall or a Rte. 9-like series of strip malls.

January 1, 2006

Newburyport: A Center That Works

It's always great to visit a town center that works, and Newburyport's definitely does. What makes it a pedestrian-friendly, appealing regional destination?

History and some beautiful architecture help.

Newburyport, by the Chamber of Commerce      Newburyport library

So does being near the water, especially since there's a small park with a walkway along the water right next to the main business district shopping area. But there are a lot of other towns along the coast where people don't want to drive 30+ miles to walk around and spend an afternoon.

What else makes Newburyport's downtown work so well? So many things:

* Great mix of retail in the main shopping area. In the key blocks set aside as the main retail center, you don't see medical offices, insurance offices or other businesses not interesting to shoppers -- everything you walk by is either a restaurant/cafe or a store for shoppers. This is absolutely critical for creating an appealing downtown to compete with area malls. You also see few chain stores in Newburyport's downtown; instead, there are mainly locally owned businesses that you can't find anywhere else. This attracts people looking for an "experience," not simply those running errands.

* The streetscape is attractive - interesting buildings, appealing windows, variety of shapes of windows and walls (so there's not one long, flat wall for an entire block, which is less interesting to walkers), ample and well-maintained sidewalks, buffer between sidewalk and street.

* Although there's a lot of traffic in the area, it's not 4 lanes of cars whizzing by; the traffic is "calmed" and goes slowly through the downtown. There's free off-street parking nearby, just on the edge of the main shopping area -- close enough to be convenient, but not actually in the heart of the main shopping streets (which would degrade the pedestrian experience, if people were walking by big parking lots while window-shopping).

Framingham may not be by the sea, and downtown may not have quite the federalist architecture that Newburyport does, but there are still very useful lessons here on how to create a successful downtown retail center - if the town decides someday it wants to try to create a regional destination in part of downtown, the way Waltham has, instead of a local business district.

Note on above photos: Left - Newburyport at night, from the Chamber of Commerce; right, historic pubic library, my photo, which doesn't do any justice to the converted mansion where George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de LaFayette, among others, were entertained.