Dec 232016
 

Photos by Steve Mouzon

Trees should be planted either in swales (on primarily residential streets) or in tree wells (on Main Streets). Do not listen to “urban foresters,” who insist that trees must be planted in landscape beds large enough for their mature drip lines.
   Street trees are essential for strong Walk Appeal almost anywhere in the US, which makes them a fundamental part of the public frontage, which extends from the property line to the edge of the street. We’ll talk about other public frontage parts later, but street trees are so important that they warrant their own discussion. Two things will be apparent when we look at street trees and other public frontage parts: First, none of this is rocket science; simple rules of thumb cover most of these parts. On the other hand, it’s shocking how often a city, a Department of Transportation, or a developer gets them wrong… so do what you can to get people informed in your city or town.

Why should we plant street trees?

There are many reasons to plant street trees (most of which will be in a later post), but the two most obvious ones are closely intertwined: Walk Appeal and sustainability. In most of the US, a street without trees is a street where people rarely walk, and therefore almost always drive. This is bad for our towns, our wallets, and our waistlines.

Street tree types

If you’re not in a US state with a Canadian border, you really need street trees to shade the sidewalk. And if you’re North of New Orleans, those street trees should be be deciduous so they drop their leaves in winter so you can walk in the relative warmth of a winter sun. From New Orleans southward, shade is helpful throughout the year because it can be warm throughout most days of the year.

Spectacular street trees along Meridian Avenue create one of the best sidewalks on South Beach

   The type of street tree varies according to where you are in town. Along a Main Street, trees should be taller and more vertically-proportioned, so that when they’re mature, their lowest branches are 12-16 feet above the sidewalk so they don’t block business signs. Also, Main Street buildings typically pull right up to the street, so trees that are more vertically-proportioned don’t grow so hard up against the upper levels of the Main Street buildings. On a primarily residential street, the trees can be lower and spread more broadly because the buildings (mostly houses) are set further back from the street. The lowest branches only need to be a bit above the head height of a tall person.

Street tree spacing

Street trees should be planted roughly every 15-30 feet along a Main Street and every 25-50 feet along a primarily residential street. Start by planting a street tree at every property line. If the Main Street shops are really narrow (less than 15 feet wide) plant the trees on every other property line. If they’re really wide (more than 30 feet wide), plant the trees every 20 feet or so, but don’t plant them in front of the shops’ front doors. If you do, some shop-owners will sneak out at night and poison the trees.

This Alton Road street tree hasn’t been poisoned by the shop-owner… yet

   The Florida DOT had no clue about this basic rule when they rebuilt Alton Road on South Beach, so this is exactly what happened again and again. It’s a lose-lose deal for the business owners, because while killing the trees keeps their signs more visible, the sunburned sidewalks are not a place most people want to walk for most of the year. That’s why Alton Road today is by far the least-walked commercial street on South Beach. And this is in a place where 45% of the people don’t even own a car (because they don’t need them) and most of the tourists don’t rent cars as well. In other words, the Florida DOT through their ignorance killed a lot of real estate value on Alton Road. And yes, Alton has several glaring flaws that will take a lot of work to fix, but the street trees could have been done correctly, and at no additional cost.

Residential street trees planted every 25-50 feet along a street require only one tree on every property line on most residential streets in traditional neighborhoods. If the street is populated with narrow townhouses, it may require only one tree on every other property line whereas parts of the neighborhood with large lots (more than 50 feet wide) require two trees per lot.

Planting street trees

According to urban foresters, these magnificent trees (captured on an early spring morning just as they were budding out with new leaves) should never have lived because their tree wells are scarcely larger than their trunks, but they have shaded this Charleston street for centuries.

   Trees should be planted either in swales (on primarily residentail streets) or in tree wells (on Main Streets). Do not listen to “urban foresters,” who insist that trees must be planted in landscape beds large enough for their mature drip lines. Their grand lie is legendary… if what they said were true, canopy streets like Meridian Avenue on South Beach would be impossible. They are terribly wrong about this, and need to be called out on it. These are street trees, after all, not forest trees. Primarily residential streets may have swales up to 5 feet wide and of indefinite length, whereas primarily commercial streets may have tree wells 5 feet square or smaller.

YES, “urban foresters” can specify trees that are unsuitable as street trees and will die on an urban street. Yes, they can specify planting conditions that will cause their self-fulfilling prophecies to occur. But hopefully, you live in a town where at least one good landscape architect knows which tree to plant and how to plant it so that it thrives for centuries. Go to Charleston, South Carolina… this isn’t just possible, but is commonplace.

Original article.

Dec 212016
 

The Imperial Building is part of a community-wide commitment to the revitalization of the downtown urban core and provides the neighborhood with affordable housing, retail and restaurants, underground parking, a rooftop garden, and a new grocery store. For more information about this project, visit www.dpsdesign.org/what-we-create/imperial-building.

Dec 182016
 
 December 18, 2016  Homeless, Innovation

The Pit Stop project hired restroom attendants who can empathize with the population they’re trying to reach.

Sacramento’s Pit Stop project features a bathroom with three stalls, one of which is ADA compliant. (Carlos Eliason/City of Sacramento)

There’s a forlorn industrial area of Sacramento north of downtown dubbed the River District. It’s been marked for revitalization, but in the meantime it’s still largely filled with dusty streets and desolate warehouses. According to the city council member Jeff Harris, who represents the district, it’s also the area where you can find around half of the city’s homeless population. “At any given moment, there are around 500 homeless [people] there,” he says. The industrial nature of the neighborhood also means that there are no public buildings—and no public buildings means no public restrooms.

The combination of a significant homeless population and a lack of bathroom facilities available for their use has meant a large amount of waste on the River District’s streets. Human feces and used needles are routine sights. Lisa Culp, executive director of Women’s Empowerment, an organization in the district that helps homeless women get jobs and housing, told City Council that her staff would spend the first hour of every day cleaning excrement, needles, and toilet paper from the area around their building.

Until recently, that is. This past June, Harris spearheaded a six-month pilot project called Pit Stop that put a portable bathroom for the homeless population at a River District intersection close to organizations that serve them, such as Women’s Empowerment. A truck brings the three-stall unit to the location every day at 8 a.m. and hauls it away at 6 p.m. Two attendants staff the bathroom, which also functions as a collection site for needles and dog waste.

Culp says that since the program began, she and her staff have seen a 90 percent decrease in the amount of waste around their building. City statistics support her anecdotal evidence. In the first four months of the project, people used the facility more than 9,000 times, and over 600 used needles were collected.

The response from the area’s homeless has also been positive. One homeless man expressed his approval of Pit Stop to the Sacramento Bee: “A lot of people go on the sidewalk and in the street. It’s disgusting. It’s not because they want to be disgusting. It’s because there is nowhere to go.”

A homeless person sleeps on a sidewalk in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The pilot program has cost the city close to $175,000: $75,000 more than was budgeted. As a result, the city council has agreed to explore less expensive ways of maintaining the project, such as partnering with organizations in the River District to use their existing restrooms.

Those involved in running the program agree that one aspect of it should remain unchanged: the use of attendants. Projects similar to Pit Stop—such as Pit Stop of San Francisco, which inspired it—attribute their success to the use of paid monitors. Without their presence, there’s a higher chance of deterioration, vandalism, and illicit activities. Indeed, a number of Sacramento’s unattended public restrooms have been closed due to these issues.

Even more important is the attendants’ role as a point of contact for the homeless community. Many attendants are parolees or have experienced homelessness themselves, and they’re able to establish a rapport with the facility’s users. Herman Coleman, a Pit Stop monitor, told Capital Public Radio, “The [homeless] need a lot of assistance, a lot of help, and a lot of compassion and that’s what Pit Stop is about…Not to look down on anyone but to try to help bring themselves up.”

Forming a connection with someone like Coleman, Harris says, can bring a homeless person reluctant to accept help around to the idea. “Every time a service-resistant homeless person has an encounter that’s safe and sane, it brings them a little closer to the idea of accepting services and changing their lives,” he says. Emily Halcon, Sacramento’s Homeless Services Coordinator, adds that this is the larger goal of Pit Stop. “The more touch points we have,” she says, “the more people are able to be successful in ending their homelessness, which is our end goal.”

Most of Sacramento’s funding for the homeless goes towards programs with longer-term objectives, such as “rapid rehousing,” in which those in need receive rental subsidies for a number of months until they’re able to pay on their own. “Pit Stop addresses a short-term, urgent crisis,” Halcon says. “The idea is that it’s a type of program that will no longer be necessary in the future.”

But while housing initiatives play out more slowly, programs like Pit Stop can grant a daily dose of dignity to a population that’s often shunned. “There’s no job harder in this world than living outdoors,” Harris said at a November 2016 City Council meeting. “The lack of safety, hygiene, warmth, and creature comforts—it’s extraordinarily difficult. Creating a scenario in which a person can relieve themselves in cleanliness and safety is a very big deal.”

Original article.

Dec 092016
 

Image by Opticos Design
The Form-Based Coding process ensures that the discussion about where and what type of housing to allow happens at a community level, rather than on a project-by-project basis.

Housing advocates and developers rightfully claim that discretionary review processes are contributing to housing crises across the country by increasing the cost and delivery rate of housing, and often directly preventing needed housing from getting built. President Obama, Governor Brown of California and the State of Massachusetts have joined the “by-right zoning” bandwagon, and here at Opticos, we’re on board, too.

However, residents, environmental groups and others are rightfully upset about the idea of by-right zoning because it often seems that the discretionary review process is their only tool to prevent inappropriate and out-of-scale development. Their zoning codes are too blunt to provide the needed control, so they cling to discretionary review as their only protection. Admittedly, in some cases, this may be NIMBY’s refusing to allow more or certain people into their communities. However, in many other cases, it’s community members from all walks of life who want walkable neighborhood living rather than city living. They feel they have no other tools to compel developers to be respectful of their cherished places. From this perspective, by-right zoning may have Jane Jacobs rolling in her grave.

Conventional zoning is too blunt for a by-right process

So, isn’t zoning supposed to define what can be built in our communities? The answer is yes, but conventional zoning is plainly flawed. Here are some of the reasons conventional zoning doesn’t work well to regulate our walkable neighborhoods:

  • Conventional zoning regulates in the negative, describing what is NOT allowed rather than what is required or intended, preventing any possibility of accurately predicting what will be built. Setbacks, Floor-to-Area-Ratio and density are examples of unpredictable regulations.
  • It doesn’t regulate enough detail regarding the form of the building and how it shapes the public space (and often regulates too much detail about unnecessary things). For example, in walkable neighborhoods, it’s often important that the front door faces the street, but most zoning doesn’t address this.
  • Conventional zoning codes are overly complicated, often with layers of fixes and overlays, rendering it nearly impossible to determine what actually can and cannot be built.

Without fixing these problems, removing the discretionary review process in cities and towns with conventional zoning could detrimentally impact our walkable neighborhoods.

The win-win of form-based codes and a by-right process

Fortunately, we have a proven solution: Form-Based Codes (FBCs). FBCs regulate the form of the buildings in a prescriptive manner and at a sufficient level of detail so that the outcome is predictable. This renders the design review process unnecessary, enabling by-right review. FBCs work like this:

1. Create a detailed community vision

First, the community comes together to create a physical vision for their places, including important details about how the buildings must be built to contribute to the public spaces that are our streets and plazas. The community can dial up or down the level of detail they include based on what they want to allow or require in their neighborhoods.

Importantly, the visioning should also include a community discussion and decision-making about how much and what type of housing is needed and where to put it, preventing later project-level battles. This is the best time and place for communities to show leadership in advocating for all constituents’ right to decent, affordable, walkable housing options, and for neighbors to consider their desires for their own neighborhoods within the context of how many families are homeless or paying too much of their income for housing and transportation.

2. Write prescriptive regulations

Once these decisions are made, the FBC is written to prescribe what can be built, mostly by focusing on the form of the buildings as they shape the public space, although also including simplified use regulations. Examples include regulating front build-to lines—rather than setback lines—and maximum footprints to prevent buildings that are too large for the neighborhood character. All of these regulations are carefully written to reflect the context—the regulations for a downtown main street will be different than for a streetcar suburb or for a large city center. They are also written to regulate only what is truly necessary, removing unnecessary or obsolete standards.

Because of the prescriptive and simplified nature of FBCs, the community can more easily understand what the code is allowing and can work with city staff to vet the code to ensure the prescribed outcome is appropriate for the neighborhood. In other words, everyone can actually understand the code and its intention, so everyone can help make sure it’s right.

3. Enable a by-right approval process

Once the desired outcome is prescribed appropriately in the FBC, the code can then include a by-right review process. A discretionary process is no longer necessary because the community can be confident that what will be built will be appropriate.

The by-right review process then enables developers to know all of the requirements before they start the design process, so they can create a more accurate pro forma to determine whether the project will be viable. They will also only have to design the building once, saving the cost of multiple redesigns. The lower cost and lower risk of development under a by-right process will contribute to making projects more viable, leading to more housing being built, and to lowering the cost of that housing. In addition, this lower risk on all of their projects within FBC areas can enable developers to lower their profit margin thresholds, since their profit margin will not need to cover the cost of projects that did not survive a risky discretionary review process.

By-right zoning is needed, so let’s get it right

By-right zoning is critically important to increase housing affordability at all levels of the housing spectrum. To get it right, conventional zoning codes need to be updated to FBCs to effectively prescribe the outcome desired by the community, enabling communities to confidently let go of discretionary review. FBCs with by-right zoning contribute to housing affordability, ensure that development meets the community’s vision, and help to provide housing options for everyone who wants to live in a walkable neighborhood.

This article first appeared on Logos Opticos, the blog of Opticos Design.

Original article.

Dec 072016
 
https://www.flickr.com/photos/120167116@N06/13105187084/

Traffic in Tokyo Reveals Narrow, Safe Traffic Lanes. Photo by Raphael Desrosiers / Flickr

In Beijing, Chennai and Fortaleza, the rate of fatalities from road crashes is 20-27.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. What do these cities have in common? They have traffic lanes wider than 3.6 meters (11.8 feet). A long-standing belief among transportation planners and engineers is that wider traffic lanes ensure safe and congestion-free traffic flow. Recent academic research, highlighted in Cities Safer by Design, a WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities publication, shows that wider lanes are more dangerous than narrower lanes. To further investigate how cities are stacking up against the existing evidence, the Health and Road Safety team of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities decided to compare typical lane widths in selected global cities with reported traffic fatality rates.

How Wide Should a Traffic Lane Be?

WRI’s research shows that cities with travel lane widths from 2.8 to 3.25 meters (9.2 to 10.6 feet), such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Tokyo, have the lowest crash fatality rates per 100,000 residents. However, many cities, specifically in the developing world, have wider lanes and higher fatality rates (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Comparative illustration showing travel lane widths of different cities, their fatality rates per 100,000 population and Safety Index. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

New Delhi, Mumbai and São Paulo have wider lanes, ranging from 3.25 meters to 3.6 meters (10.6 to 11.8 feet), which leads to a fatality rate of 6.1-11.8 residents per 100,000, while Beijing, Chennai and Fortaleza have the highest fatality rate, 20-27.2 deaths per 100,000, with lane widths of 3.6 meters (11.8 feet) and higher.

But Why Are Wider Lanes Misinterpreted As Safer?

For decades, transport engineers and planners have considered wider lanes safer, as they provided higher maneuvering space within the lane and were said to help prevent sideswipes among cars. Yet, in an urban setting, this means cars may go faster, and, when cars go faster, the likelihood of crashes and injuries increases. For example, if a car is traveling at 30 km/h (18.6 mph), pedestrians have a 90 percent chance of survival, but, if the car is traveling at 50 km/h (31 mph), there is only a 15 percent chance the struck pedestrian will survive (See Figure 2).

Figure 2. Pedestrian Death Risk declines at lower vehicular speeds. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Narrower travel lanes, coupled with lower speed limits, can foster a greater sense of awareness among drivers. Narrower lanes also ensure shorter crossing distances for pedestrians at intersections, which reduces the risk of an accident.

Do Wider Lanes Help to Reduce Congestion?

In 1963, Lewis Mumford said: “Increasing road width to reduce congestion is the same as loosening your belt to fight obesity.” In fact, increasing road space by having wider lanes doesn’t reduce congestion due to rebound effects. More road space results in generating more traffic. Research shows that 3 meter-wide lanes have 93 percent of the road capacity of 3.6 meter lanes—not a noticeable difference. In addition, if narrower lanes reduce speeds, this should not put great strain on vehicle movement. A recent study from Grenoble shows that private vehicles take only 18 seconds longer to travel a kilometer on a road with speed limit of 30km/h as compared to a road with a speed limit of 50km/hr. Moreover, signal delays at intersections create congestion—it rarely depends on mid-block traffic flows.

How Would Road Dieting Help?

Road dieting is a technique of narrowing lane widths to achieve sustainable and safer pedestrian and cyclist environments. If cities embrace narrower lanes, there are a range of possibilities for re-designing city streets to make them safer and more accommodating for pedestrians and cyclists.

Scenario 1: Narrowing lanes may provide space for a pedestrian refuge island or median

Figure 3. Before intervention: 12 meter-wide, two-lane roadway. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Figure 4. After intervention: 12 meter-wide, two-lane roadway. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Scenario 2: Narrower lanes may provide space to install protected bicycle lanes

Figure 5. Before intervention: 24 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Figure 6. After intervention: 24 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Scenario 3: Narrower lanes can provide wider sidewalks

Figure 7. Before intervention: 32 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

Figure 8. After intervention: 32 meter-wide street section. Graphic Credit: WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities Health and Road Safety

But Why Aren’t 3 Meter Lanes the Norm?

Most cities in developed countries, like the U.S., follow road design guidelines from standard-setting bodies like the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials’ A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, commonly known as the Green Book, which actually allows lane widths to vary between 10-12 feet (3.0 to 3.6 meters). While the book provides a range, engineers tend to design streets with the maximum lane width, due to the ill-informed notion that wider lanes are safer and can help reduce congestion. Many cities in low- and middle-income countries have adopted this same approach, erring on the supposed side of caution.

Today, with new research showing the opposite of the status quo and a rising interest in cycling, walking and bus systems, it is time for cities to reassess how their own standards foster a safer and healthier city.

Original article.

Nov 182016
 

New recognition of the health and safety benefits of parks is changing how the public and leaders view green spaces.

Central Park in New York City generates $1 billion in economic benefits annually. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

For generations, parks were viewed simply as an amenity, a way to beautify a city. Whether they were planned for gardens, sports, or picnicking, parks were rarely seen as central to public safety and health. But that is beginning to change.

As cities around the world continue their growth, the role of parks is shifting. Parks are no longer seen as something nice to have, but rather as a vital system within the city’s overall network of infrastructure. These hard-working public spaces are probably the biggest untapped resource for cities in this century. Why? Livable, sustainable cities must balance density with open space for the health of their residents, their environments, and their economies.

An entrance to Rockaway Beach carries visitors over new plantings designed to protect against storms.

From physical and mental health, to economic development, to resilience and sustainability, parks offer myriad tangible benefits. New York City’s parks, which attract more than 130 million visits a year, model those benefits to the world. For example, our parks are crucial to the city’s resiliency efforts: NYC’s shoreline parks in the Rockaways and Coney Island are being rebuilt since Hurricane Sandy to withstand rising sea levels, storm surges, and to protect waterfront communities. And thanks to our collaboration with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, our parks have become sites of crucial green infrastructure like rain gardens and storm water-collecting bioswales.

Alongside their environmental benefits, parks have demonstrated time and time again their ability to stabilize communities and drive economic development. According to the Trust for Public Land, well-maintained parks add 15 percent to the value of homes within 500 feet.  Our experience in New York bears that out. For example, in under a decade the world-famous High Line has brought more than two billion dollars in new real estate investment to the surrounding community –an enormous return on investment for a $153 million park. An older but well-loved landmark can also drive value: Central Park generates $1 billion dollars of economic benefits annually.

The High Line. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Now we’re working to bring the benefits of well-maintained parks to all New Yorkers, with our $285 million Community Parks Initiative, which will completely rebuild more than 60 historically underserved parks across the five boroughs.

New York is the city I know best, and I am proud of the progress we have made. But as I have traveled, I have seen many cities begin to take parks seriously as part of their urban infrastructure. Houston’s Buffalo Bayou Park, for example, was created a century ago to control the flooding of local waterways and to provide a recreational area for the city. Now, it is one of the nation’s finest urban parks –and a core element of Houston’s water management infrastructure. On the other side of the globe, Singapore’s spectacular Gardens by the Bay not only offer Singaporeans an awe-inspiring new public space, but they are built to clean and filter water and cultivate biodiversity of flora and fauna.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore. Photo courtesy of Mitchell Silver.

Lawmakers, designers, and planners the world over are learning that well-designed, well-maintained open spaces makes cities work. As our urban centers become more dense, let’s make sure that our investments—and innovation–in city parks matches their importance in our lives.

Original article.

Nov 112016
 

LYNN RICHARDS NOV. 11, 2016
Lynn Richards is President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Our principles—and our Charter—are timeless, and the work of our members is as relevant and populist as it has ever been.

Like a lot of people, I was shocked by the results of Tuesday’s election. Donald Trump’s unprecedented victory has far-reaching implications for our social programs, foreign affairs, and civil rights. On top of that, Trump has made it impossible to predict exactly what policy priorities he’ll tackle first. We will have to watch and wait.

But as President and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism, my primary focus is on the future of our cities, towns, and neighborhoods. Here, the major issues are clearer: we have specific federal programs at stake, looming questions about reframing our work, and an uncertain path ahead.

This is what we can expect.

Under President Obama, federal agencies like HUD, DOT, and EPA expanded their work on sustainable communities, especially through the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. These programs have long been a target for congressional Republicans—from 2009 to 2012, I had to defend the EPA’s Office of Sustainable Communities against elimination-minded officials arguing that its “core goals had been sufficiently incorporated.”

Unfortunately, these programs are likely to be eliminated. If they are, CNU and its partners must continue their legacy of supplying essential urbanist resources and information to the American public. Their considerable body of publications and best practices on community design and development represent decades of hard work and innovation. We cannot let that knowledge be lost.

One silver lining in their elimination may be how other federal agencies absorb the staff talent from these excellent programs. Already, Republican leadership has discussed a federal hiring freeze and 10 percent workforce reduction—meaning that dozens of leading experts on community design and development will move to new positions within their agencies. This presents an opportunity: how can we take advantage of these urbanist connections in new federal program areas?

Finally, keep in mind that Trump will likely draw federal appointees from previous Republican administrations. This could be good for our work. Under George W. Bush, the budget for the EPA’s smart growth programs more than doubled—and by sticking to a bipartisan framing, we saw our federal work thrive.

In fact, I’ve seen a great deal of discussion in recent days about reframing New Urbanism or attempting to pander to a new political agenda. CNU’s message has been consistently bipartisan for over two decades. Our strength is in our apolitical principles: to build places where people and businesses can thrive and prosper.

These principles—and our Charter—are timeless, and the work of our members is as relevant and populist as it has ever been. Dan Solomon’s transit-oriented affordable housing projects are the very opposite of elitist, and Erik Kronberg’s work rebuilding New Orleans with affordable homes that support the character of the existing neighborhood would be a welcome addition to any city, town, or county in America.

We cannot lose the bipartisan appeal of these core values because of one political moment. I’ve had great urbanist conversations with Tea Party activists and radical environmentalists, and I’ve worked alongside struggling communities and residents of every color, creed, and class. Open community engagement is a fundamental principle of New Urbanism—and while we can absolutely improve on this process, it is not something to be abandoned or “reframed.”

Finally, as I’ve said before, cities and towns are emerging as America’s leading innovators in placemaking and government. From innovation districts and development financing to climate change and equitable neighborhoods, our cities are the new urbanist laboratories, creating and embracing new strategies and practices faster than any other level of government. Regardless of what the federal government does, this is a trend that will continue to gain strength—and we should focus much of our energy there.

This is not to say we have an easy road ahead. Once, in 2004, the then-EPA Administrator Michael O. Leavitt gave a keynote for the smart growth awards. I was thinking the former three-term Governor of Utah might speak on their success with Envision Utah. Instead of engaging on the issue, or reading the speech we prepared, the newly appointed Administrator spoke fondly of his favorite tree in his backyard and his adventures golfing. That man is now a key figure in Trump’s transition team.

But the New Urbanist movement wasn’t built in a day and it isn’t going away. It speaks to all kinds of places and people, from thriving urban neighborhoods to rural Main Streets, and it has weathered storms before. What we’ve been doing for decades has worked, and will continue to work, and our regions, cities, and towns will continue to thrive.

Hold steady friends, we’ve got this.

Original article.

Oct 132016
 

OCPG member, and videographer Aurelio Ocampo (Red Sky Productions – www.RedSkyPro.com), recently released this brilliant short video on the Downtown Oxnard Vision Plan Charrette process. Aurelio clearly and beautifully documents the Charrette event that took place over a 5 day period in January of 2016. Enjoy!

Oct 102016
 

Last week, the City of Oxnard received the Helen Putman award from the League of Calif Cities at their 2016 Expo. (Read about it here: https://www.oxnard.org/city-of-oxnard-wins-2016-helen-putnam-award-for-excellence-for-city-corps-youth-partnership/)

The City Manager and his leadership team were there and received the award. Apparently, they were all very taken with the keynote speaker, Jason Roberts of the Better Block Foundation. This is a group that is a leading practitioner of guerrilla Tactical Urbanism in Dallas, TX. They’ve got a wild story.  Click here to explore: http://betterblock.org/

Here are some YouTube vids of Jason rapping about Better Blocks:

From Feb 21, 2012:

From Jun 29, 2016:

You will find more like the above here.

Let’s do a Better Block project here in Oxnard – If you want to participate contact the OCPG by clicking here Contact and join the effort!

Oct 082016
 

Innovators at summit brainstorm ways the city can further transform itself

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Photographs by KIRK MCKOY Los Angeles Times

COLUMNIST STEVE LOPEZ, from left, architect Brian Lane, Wendy Greuel, commissioner of the L.A. Homeless Service Authority; Tanya Tull, president of Partnering for Change; and Mike Alvidrez, chief executive of the Skid Row Housing Trust, discuss homelessness.

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LONG BEACH Mayor Robert Garcia shares information about the changes his city is undergoing.

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TULL advocates for rent subsidies and so-called tiny houses as solutions to the homelessness crisis.

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DEBORAH VANKIN and Paul Schimmel talk about arts and culture in urban development at the future of cities event at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Schimmel says L.A. needs to improve pedestrian areas.

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When Michael Maltzan visited Los Angeles in the 1980s with a group of architectural students, he was comfortable in a way that many of his fellow travelers were not.

L.A. conveyed the same low-density, car-friendly vibe that he grew up with in the Long Island suburbs — the sense that “you could just go,” he recalled Friday.

Los Angeles, in some ways, still clings wistfully to that identity even as it grows up instead of out, builds light rail instead of freeways and transforms its long-neglected downtown into a cultural center and home to tens of thousands.

The challenges and promise of that transition were the focus of discussion at the Los Angeles Times Summit on the future of cities, held at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

“I think there’s a psychological change,” said Maltzan, the founder of Michael Maltzan Architecture. There “is more anxiety, fear around development,” than decades past, when L.A. just kept pushing out and out.

Now the city is folding back on itself, ind the boundary pushing has to come by way of architecture and innovative infrastructure projects that wire density into commercial thoroughfares without overwhelming neighborhoods, he said.

Instead of a bridge having one use, it can be equipped with solar panels to generate electricity and collect stormwater — as Maltzan has proposed for a reimagined Arroyo Seco Bridge in Pasadena.

“For me that’s the future of infrastructure,” said Maltzan, whose firm designed the One Santa Fe apartment complex in the downtown Arts District and the Sixth Street Viaduct that will span the Los Angeles River.

Paul Schimmel, partner at Hauser Wirth & Schimmel, said the international arts gallery found its inspiration in the past, in the form of a more than century-old flour mill in the Arts District.

“It was really the space,” that allowed his firm to transform the building into an enormous gallery space that is fast becoming a community hub with its courtyard and restaurant.

For much of its modern history, Los Angeles was obsessed with private space — the joys of a backyard, a single family home and a solo drive down an open freeway.

But now there is a hunger for walkable public areas, a need that is reflected in plans for the Los Angeles River corridor, downtown’s Grand Park and the popularity of neighborhoods like the Arts District.

“We’re returning to a sense of community,” Schimmel said, adding that the city needs to improve access to pedestrian areas.

“Maybe do a little work on the streets,” he said wryly.

As to whether $6 coffees and upscale apartment construction were driving artists out of the Arts District, Schimmel said he suspected the neighborhood was too expensive for artists before the arrival of bars and restaurants.

But the transformation was much slower than he expected. “In the early ’80s I thought it would be the next Soho,” he said.

“People love the idea of what it was” — a gritty creative community, Schimmel said. Though some of the grit has been scrubbed off the downtown arts scene, “it seems to have roots,” he added.

Moreover, the messy sprawl of the L.A. Basin still offers plenty of relatively cheap industrial space that artists can turn into studios, Schimmel said, citing moves to warehouses in the Interstate 10 corridor.

He also suggested it was time for Santa Monica, an arts incubator in the 1970s and 1980s, “to make its next big move … This is a community that needs to step up again and take the leadership it has in the past.”

Other panelists discussed a more disturbing change in the Los Angeles landscape: the explosive growth in homelessness.

In 1980, people were not living on the streets, said Tanya Tull, founder and CEO of Partnering for Change and an expert in family homelessness.

“Just about everything we’ve done” to address the homeless problem nationally, Tull said, “we’ve done wrong.”

Funneling most funding into supportive housing for the mentally ill will not end homelessness, she argued. “We cannot build ourselves out of this.”

Rather, Tull said, rent subsidies are critical to countering the spiraling cost of housing in Los Angeles that has driven families and individuals to the streets and kept them there, sometimes for years.

She also said local government should be more open to nonconventional housing, such as the “teensy” apartment units San Francisco is experimenting with.

“Don’t you think it’s better to have a tiny apartment than a tent?” Tull asked.

Brian Lane, a principal of Koning Eizenberg Architecture, which designs affordable housing projects, argued that L.A. needs to shed the notion that a neighborhood always equals single-family homes.

The city has “miles and miles” of single-story commercial strips that can be rebuilt with greater density and create neighborhoods around transit hubs, he said.

Sam Polk is a former hedge-fund trader on Wall Street who is working on another shortage — healthy fresh food in poor city neighborhoods that he calls “food deserts.”

Polk founded the nonprofit Groceryships, which does educational outreach to improve eating habits in parts of the city dominated by fast-food restaurants.

He also co-founded Everytable, which prepares meals in a central kitchen and then sells them to go in storefronts.

The prices vary according to what a neighborhood can afford.

Someone living in South L.A., for instance, pays $4 for the same meal that costs a buyer $8 on the Westside.

“Healthy food is a human right,” Polk said, pointing out that it simply took some innovative thinking to develop the Everytable business model.

In perhaps the most optimistic prediction uttered at the Summit, he declared: “We are on the verge of becoming one of the great cities of the world.”

Original article.

Oct 062016
 

The authors of Global Cities, Local Streets make a case for preserving small-scale retail.

Orchard Street on the Lower East Side teems with shoppers in 1975. (Jerry Mosey/AP)

In the few short months that I’ve lived in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, two new bars have opened within a block of my apartment. The neighborhood, once notorious for violent crime, is in the midst of what The New York Timesdescribes as a “renaissance.” New restaurants, cafés, and boutiques draw people from all over the borough, mostly to one street: Franklin Avenue.

“The shopping and commercial activity on a street, whether it’s done by locals or not, really defines how we understand the changes taking place in a neighborhood,” says Phil Kasinitz, a sociology professor at the CUNY Graduate Center. Kasinitz, along with Sharon Zukin of the CUNY Graduate Center and Xiangming Chen of Trinity College, is the author of the new book Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity from New York to Shanghai (Routledge, $32).

In the book, the authors examine 12 shopping streets in six cities—New York, Shanghai, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Berlin, and Toronto—to demonstrate how global and cultural shifts play out in local enclaves.The authors discovered patterns across the sites: chain stores invading shopping streets at the expense of mom-and-pops; bars, coffee shops, and art galleries cropping up as harbingers of what the authors call “gentrification by hipsters”; immigrants from around the world establishing small businesses in neighborhoods where they may not live, creating a “super-diversity” that reflects and informs shifts taking hold in cities.

Change at the neighborhood level, Kasinitz says, is often quantified through residential data. But it’s local shopping streets, Zukin adds, that function “as the public face of communities.” In Global Cities, Local Streets, the authors argue that these streets are essential for cities’ character.

CityLab caught up with Kasinitz and Zukin to discuss shopping streets and how communities should preserve them.

What did you look for in selecting the streets to research for the book? What purpose do they serve?

ZUKIN: We were searching for streets that were important in terms of neighborhood identity, but weren’t central business corridors or necessarily well-known on a broader scale. These are normal, local marketplaces, surrounded by residential areas, where people supply themselves with the everyday necessities of life. In New York, we chose Orchard Street on the Lower East Side, which has a tradition of small-scale bargain shopping, over, say, Fifth Avenue. In the book, we quote a passage from E.B. White’s Here is New York, where he describes the city as a patchwork of neighborhoods, marked by the repetition of these local shopping streets. It’s a beautiful way of representing what feels like the soul of any big city: this village-like nature. Local shopping streets enable interactions between strangers; it’s a respite from some of the alienation and anonymity of the city.

One of the main points you make throughout the book is how, despite their local specificity, these streets reflect globalization. How so?

KASINITZ: In big, modern cities, local shopping streets, when they work well, strike a balance between neighbors and strangers. They’re cosmopolitan spaces. In working with colleagues all over the world on this book, it was surprising to learn that the owners of small shops on local streets are usually outsiders in some sense: they’re often ethnic minorities, immigrants, or out-of-towners. They may not live in the area themselves, but they become the pillars of the neighborhood because they spend more of their waking hours there than many of the residents do.

Fulton Street, a main thoroughfare in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. (Anthony Camerano/AP)

Small businesses are often under threat in cities. What’s at stake for neighborhoods if these local streets are not sustained?

KASINITZ: It’s a story you hear over and over again: In major cities that are growing increasingly expensive, landlords will raise the rents dramatically at the end of long leases, forcing out mom-and-pop tenants because they know they can make more money by brining in a chain store, like a Starbucks or a Duane Reade. But if everyone’s thinking along those lines, then the street becomes homogenous—there’s no reason to come back to it anymore. It’s the greater-fool theory at work. Right now, huge rent increases encourage instability, which means that landlords will continue to charge more to factor in a period of vacancy every few years. When people hear commercial rent regulation, they compare it to the residential system and freak out, but there has to be a way for cities to discourage massive rent increases and diminish the turnover of small businesses.

What other steps can cities take to preserve local shopping streets?

KASINITZ: You don’t want to preserve the streets like a fly in amber. We’re not advocating that every mom-and-pop be granted some landmark status that can’t be changed; cities are functional, living things, and local streets respond to that.

ZUKIN: You can’t just host a “shop local” campaign to raise awareness about the need for these businesses. There has to be conversation between stakeholders and city council members, in all places across the globe, to discuss legal solutions that are both constitutional and effective. In many places, you can’t prohibit certain kinds of businesses, like chain stores, from opening, but the size of a store can be legislated. Keeping the scale of shops on these streets physically small and economically small is something that can be done—the Manhattan borough president, Gail Brewer, limited the size of storefronts along Amsterdam Avenue to effectively stop big banks from taking over.

And there also needs to be consideration for the factors that sustain the diversity of these streets—class, race, and immigration. If cities continue to permit these expensive changes on local streets, they’ll shut out immigrant entrepreneurship and abet the upscaling of neighborhoods to benefit only more affluent people. In many cities, demographic shifts along the shopping street don’t align with the residential population. City governments could offer apprenticeship systems or financial support to potential owners, who could oversee the next generation of small businesses serving local communities.

Do you think that local shopping streets will continue to survive in major cities?

ZUKIN: At least in the United States, we have an advantage: we’ve gone over the hump of modernization. We’ve had supermarkets, we’ve had transnational chains, and we’ve started to move away from completely embracing those models. Now, I think there’s a growing culture of appreciation for specificity; people are again seeing the value of small shops.

Global Cities, Local Streets, $32 at Amazon.

Original article.

Oct 032016
 

THE NATIONAL POLITICAL dialogue is suffused with substantive issues like Benghazi, beauty pageants, and the best debate memes. But the biggest bugbear in neighborhood politics just got some serious side eye from the Obama administration: Parking.

It sounds bitty and trivial, but parking is a very big deal in city halls and neighborhood associations. Even dense cities like New York, Boston, and Washington, DC, have long required developers to cough up enough parking to serve the residential projects they hope to build.

If you live in the neighborhood, this makes sense—you don’t want n00bs taking your spot. But as cities impotently scrabble to keep housing affordable, requiring developers to provide off-street parking feels like dead weight. The cost—up to $60,000 per underground spot—can kill projects before they even start. And you could argue that it’s better to use that land for bedrooms and kitchens and living rooms, not hunks of metal that spend most of the day sitting still. Don’t forget that in 2013, more than a quarter of US renters spend over 50 percent of their monthly incomeon housing. Affordability is a huge problem.

Indeed, says the White House. In a Housing Development Toolkit released Monday, the Obama administration calls off-street parking minimums an affordable housing no-no. “When transit-oriented developments are intended to help reduce automobile dependence,” it  says, “parking requirements can undermine that goal by inducing new residents to drive, thereby counteracting city goals for increased use of public transit, walking and biking.”

Granted, the toolkit is merely a list of recommendations, with no teeth. And cities control zoning laws that dictate things like off-street parking. But the Obama administration is reiterating what urban planners have long said: Parking ain’t great for your city. And cities are finally listening.

Death to the Parking Lot

People have written tomes detailing the downsides of the urban parking lot, but let’s lay out the case against it real quick. By investing in cycling infrastructure, sidewalks, and bikeshare programs, dense cities have made it clear they don’t want people driving. But requiring developers to provide parking incentivizes car purchases—along with congestion and pollution. UCLA urban planner Donald Shoup found that people searching for parking in one 15-block stretch of Los Angeles burn 47,000 gallons of gas and produce 730 tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Parking requirements are especially nonsensical in a real estate landscape where buyers pay a premium to live near transit and not have a car. In fact, the requirements effectively tax those who don’t want or can’t afford a car, by passing that cost on to them. And don’t forget that the cost of parking often prevents affordable housing development.

Building parking lots to reduce the demand for on-street parking doesn’t actually work, says Michael Manville, an urban planner who studies land use and traffic congestion at UCLA. “The street is an unpriced commons, which is why you have a shortage of parking,” he says. Cities once thought they could protect free parking and make existing residents happy by passing the hidden costs of those spots on to new residents. But the free spots will always be full—thanks, Econ 101. Manville says any city worried about parking should do the smart but unpopular thing: require permits or install meters.

The Very Slow Death of the Parking Lot

Into this lake of evidence wades the White House. It isn’t the first to do so. People like Manville have been warning anyone who will listen about the downsides of off-street parking minimums for at least 15 years. And cities have been getting in on the anti-parking lot regs for almost a decade. Seattle relaxed requirements for developments within a quarter-mile of mass transit in 2012. New York City and Denver did much the same for low-income housing. Other cities aregranting developers waivers to parking requirements, but they aren’t making it easy.

You can attribute the change in part to a growing shortage of affordable housing, says Stockton Williams, the executive director of the Urban Land Institute’s Terwilliger Center for Housing. And you can expect such policies to become more popular as the affordable housing crisis reaches ever further into the middle class. “Affordability is increasingly understood to be a problem that affects people beyond those in the lowest income bracket,” says Williams. Even tech workers feel the squeeze.

Of course, hitting parking where it hurts is no panacea. The White House toolkit points out other important policy adjustments—like taxing vacant land, zoning for density, and letting homeowners build additional dwellings in their backyards—that will promote affordable housing. All of them must be enacted together to keep everyone housed.

But the White House has said its piece. “Obama’s a lame duck, but as [his administration is] heading out the door, they can choose to make bold statements on any number of fronts. The fact that one of the fronts they chose to make a statement on is zoning, I think, is symbolically important,” says Manville, the urban planner.

Symbols serve their purpose, so go sleep in your nearest parking lot tonight.

Original Article.

The War on City Parking Just Got Serious

Oct 012016
 

oxnard_performing_artsBy Steven Nash

The Oxnard Performing Arts & Convention Center (PACC) is a wonderful community asset. However, it could be much better. Its new executive director, Chelsea Reynolds, previously worked as a performing arts specialist with the Maryland-National Park and Planning Commission. Under Ms. Reynolds’ direction, the PACC increased its social media presence, launched a new website and connected to print and broadcast media. Ms. Reynolds is reaching out to promoters, which is putting the Oxnard PACC on the radar for a variety of touring acts. But it may not be enough.

The PACC opened in 1968. In addition to the main auditorium, it has two banquet rooms, five classrooms, outdoor stages and an attached youth center. The facility, which ideally would be self-sustaining, has long required subsidies from Oxnard’s general fund. The city’s contribution was $11.1 million from fiscal year 2003-04 through last summer. On top of that, Oxnard in June 2016 paid $2.8 million to erase accumulated fund deficits. The ongoing tab from the general fund is about $900,000 a year. That’s more than half of the center’s $1.5 million budget.
Nonprofit groups now pay half the rental rates commercial entities do. A worksheet provided to the board of directors showed more than $131,000 in rental fees were subsidized for nonprofits in the last fiscal year. Schools get space for free. Revenue from all rentals for the year totaled $585,655. The executive director told the board she is looking at putting a cap on the number of subsidized nonprofits. She also has started reserving dates — weekends, holidays — for potential commercial customers.

draculapaccI believe we can and should diversify the PACC’s mission and make it a true visual and performing arts center. The City should ask for something in return for its $900,000 a year subsidy. That something is physical space for the following. First, a multimedia studio to accommodate PEG (that’s Public, Educational and Government) programming could be carved out of the 5 classrooms. Perhaps a new structure could be built and paid for out of the over $2 million in PEG fees the City has available to fund such ventures. Certainly Measure O money (the ½ cent sales tax initiative to enhance city services) might also be utilized. A head end connection to the local cable franchise would allow real time broadcasting of PACC events which cannot occur presently. A studio would allow for the training of residents to produce their own content which could then be shown on the public access channel. Opportunities for collaboration with the City and local school districts would provide incredible opportunities for young and old alike.

Second, a satellite senior center, focused on the arts and perhaps partnered with a child care facility, would allow seniors access to both volunteer and participate in opportunities at the PACC. Bringing the arts to the community should be a high priority of the PACC and its Board of Directors. Observing the arts is fine but participation in the many forms of art leads to human growth and the fulfillment of human potential, at any age!

These are just two examples of numerous ways to fully utilize this wonderful asset. The PACC can someday be connected to the downtown and its museums and theatres by a future vision expressed by the Oxnard Community Planning Group we call the Paseo Cultural. More on that later.

I hope this leads to further discussion of the immense potential represented by our Performing Arts and Convention Center.

Oxnard Performing Arts & Convention Center
800 Hobson Way, Oxnard, CA 93030

Sep 302016
 

Administration calls for local laws to allow accessory dwelling units and denser development and eliminate off-street parking requirements, among other changes.

The Obama Administration is calling on cities and towns to reform land-use regulations to allow denser development by right while recommending actions that new urbanists have long supported.

The administration released a “toolkit” on housing development that recommends eliminating off-street parking requirements and allowing accessory dwelling units.

The toolkit also calls for more “high-density and multifamily zoning,” “streamlining or shortening permitting processes and timelines,” and allowing “by-right development,” which are consistent with many form-based codes and new urban reforms.

Antiquated land-use regulations, often dating from the 1970s or earlier, are holding back economic growth and increasing housing costs across America, says the administration.

“Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher—paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality,” the report says.

On the other hand, “Cities like Chicago, Seattle, Sacramento, and Tacoma and states like California and Massachusetts have already begun to foster more affordable housing opportunities by removing restrictions, implementing transit-oriented-oriented zoning ordinances, and speeding up permitting and construction processes,” according to the Housing Development Toolkit.

The report marks a first—at least going back several decades—that the White House has made local zoning and land-use regulations a national issue.

“City zoning battles usually are fought block by block, and the president’s involvement will create friction, particularly among environmental groups and the not-in-my-backyard crowd,” notes a Politico report. “But the White House jawboning is welcome news to many others, including mayors and builders increasingly foiled by community opposition to development.”

The report is backed up by a fiscal year 2017 budget proposal to spend $300 million on Local Housing Policy Grants to help cities modernize housing regulatory approaches. However, the Administration’s lame duck status means budget priorities could radically change with whoever is elected in November.

Nevertheless, land-use reform could win support across the political spectrum—from mayors and smart growth advocates to developers and pro-business groups.

“It’s important that the president is talking about it,” Mark Calabria, director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute, told Politico. “Local restrictions on housing supply are a crucial economic issue. I would say it’s one of the top 10.”

In addition to previously mentioned priorities, the Toolkit recommends:

· Taxing vacant land or donate it to non-profit developers

· Establishing density bonuses

· Employing inclusionary zoning

· Establishing development tax  or value capture incentives

· Using property tax abatements

Sep 112016
 

formbasedcode-graphic

Kaizer Rangwala, New Urban Network

While lifting federal funding restrictions on stem cell research President Obama said, “we will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse.” Notwithstanding the political rhetoric, are standards different than strict guidelines? Can guidelines be rigorously enforced? In common usage, the terms “guidelines” and “standards” are frequently used interchangeably. However, within the development regulatory framework, a guideline is a helpful suggestion — you don’t have to follow it, but it is recommended. On the other hand, standards are legal and mandatory requirements.

Design Guidelines

Guidelines are explanatory and interpretive recommendations that encourage, not require, its use.  Administered through appointed design review committee, commission, or advisory board, guidelines are created to fit a wide range of situations, but not all. Guidelines are typically attractive to cities that are not politically ready to enforce design standards. Guidelines are also preferred by designers who have little tolerance for any standard that tends to limit their creative expression. Good judgment is needed in deciding where and how to apply design guidelines.

The problem with design guidelines is that their application is skin deep and fails to breathe life and soul into a place. The diagram (to the right) illustrates the differences between conventional zoning, design guidelines, and form-based codes. The building block (top image) complies with typical zoning controls such as land use, FAR, and height. This block is not likely to create walkable urbanism. At best, design guidelines  (middle image) can recommend articulation and openings to the building’s facade. In contrast, Form-Based Codes (bottom image) conceptualize a public realm by pulling together the individual elements: the diverse street types, variety of public and private open spaces, and contextual building types into a complete, cohesive, and memorable place.

A key barrier to protecting and creating distinctive places is lack of clear and precise place-based standards and a predictable review process. Design guidelines are difficult to apply consistently.  They offer too much room for subjective interpretation. Design guidelines are difficult to enforce. A developer can legally refuse to comply putting at risk the larger collective investments of neighboring properties. Design Guidelines require oversight by discretionary review bodies, leading to a protracted and politicized planning process that can cost time and money.

Form-Based Codes

Form-Based Codes (FBCs) are clear and precise standards that offers predictability. The FBCs are developed to create a specific place that the citizens desire. Both the vision and FBCs are developed with citizen input. The citizens have a higher comfort level with the end result the standards is likely to produce. City staff gets a streamlined and easy to administer review process. FBCs also create more choices, more opportunities and options for the property owner.  Typically, developers borrow money to pursue pre-construction work. For developers, time is money. The biggest incentive that cities can offer is not money, but clear and predictable development standards. Most developers are willing to build to higher standards if the rules are clear and the process is predictable. By offering adjacent predictable environment FBCs reduce risks where banks in this credit-starved economy may be more willing to loan construction money.

Conclusion

Design Guidelines can be added to complement Form-Based standards to address certain discretionary items such as architectural style and historic preservation. The Denver Commons Form-Based Code, recognized with the 2009 Form-Based Codes Institute’s Driehaus Award, includes both standards and guidelines. The mandatory standards address the critical form related aspects that shape the public realm, while the guidelines provide further suggestive recommendations for enhancing the public realm experience by encouraging creativity in a flexible manner.

Louis Kahn called a street “a room by agreement.” The agreement, in the form of  binding standards, is an implicit consent between the architects and their buildings to not ignore the street but to bring forth a collective etiquette and a minimum capability to pull together buildings to shape and enhance the public realm.

By itself, the guidelines simply fail to deliver great places. The terms “strict guidelines” fail to inspire compliance. The “abuse and misuse” continues with discretionary review and unpredictable outcome fueling NIMBY sentiments and discouraging economic development. Design guidelines work best only when they are paired with form-based codes.

Original Article.

Jul 172016
 

Variety within a narrow range gives distinct character to the Place Des Vosges in Paris. Photo by Steve Mouzon.
The most-loved places are comprised of buildings with an endless variety of details within a limited range of architecture, giving distinct and recognizable character.
The most-loved places around the world vary enormously. At first glance, there seems to be no common thread, because it is the uniqueness of each of these places that makes them notable. Further observation, however, yields at least one common thread: each of them exhibits great variety within a very narrow range. And it is precisely the narrow range that gives them their identity. Look at the photos below. Is there any doubt as to what part of the world in which each is built? Many people can probably name the town and maybe even the neighborhood at a glance.

Boston townhouses; Pienza, an Italian hill town; and the French Quarter, New Orleans. Photos by Steve Mouzon.

A very narrow range of variety may at first appear to be very similar to no range of variety because the range is so small, but they are actually polar opposites: great variety is the opposite of no variety, even when (or especially when) the range is narrow. The narrow range is necessary, because it is only by editing things out that you make a place distinctive. Allow anything, and it could be anywhere. Narrow the range, and you have taken the first step towards creating a sense of place.

Great variety

People judge the vitality of a place by the amount of variety. Create everything out of five standard models, and it will appear dead. Allow things to vary slightly from one building to the next, and the place starts to live. So the narrow range is necessary to define the character of a place, while the wide variety is necessary to make it live. Combine both, and you have a chance of creating what Christopher Alexander calls “the character without a name.” Or put another way, a narrow range without great variety creates mechanical objects; great variety without a narrow range creates disconnected randomness. Combine the two, and you have a chance of creating a living thing.

What’s the difference between these places shown in photos below? Why do millions from around the world visit the second, while the first has never had a single tourist, and never will? The architecture in both places has variety and the urbanism is similar on both streets. But look closely at the architectural variety: one place has precisely the variety within the narrow range that makes it live and be loved for centuries: the same idea created all the bay windows, all the eaves, all the gables, etc., but no two are identical. The other has five standard models that are built out of precisely the same details: the same eaves, the same siding, the same columns, the same foundations, etc. This is fake variety of the worst sort. If there is any doubt as to whether the customers understand this or not, look at the price of real estate in each place.


A subdivision in Frederick, Maryland; and a village in The Cotswalds, England. Photos by Steve Mouzon

So how do we go about making living settings with an identity of place? The best method is a vernacular mechanism, in which place-making wisdom is held by everyone in a culture, rather than just the architects, and we trust the people again to make the sequential little decisions that created the “most-loved places.” We’re working toward that, but it won’t happen overnight.

The first step is to build by coding rather than building by designing. In other words, tell many people what to do and let them do it rather than designing it all yourself. One person cannot possibly think of as many variations as many people can, nor will one person consider it efficient to draw a thousand details, whereas a thousand people will naturally create the variety by simply doing what they each naturally do. As the code grows into a living tradition over time, the engines of the vernacular mechanism will rumble back to life.

Place Des Vosges

The best example I have ever seen of a coded place with great variety in a narrow range is the Place Des Vosges in Paris (see photo at the top of the article). As a matter of fact, it could be a Rosetta Stone of sorts, unlocking secrets of living variety for code-makers today. It is Paris’s oldest square, dating from the early years of the 17th Century, and is a bridge between the medieval city and its building methods and the later Renaissance city. The specific code or plan used to create the Place Des Vosges has apparently been lost over time. Popular sources have Baptiste du Cerceau as the likely designer, but not even that is totally certain. So the most useful question to ask isn’t “what did the lost code look like?” but rather “how can we accomplish the same thing?”

Look carefully at the photos below. They represent a few of the 39 houses ringing the Place. Because of the tight quarters inside the fence of the central square, these shots include only the upper bodies of the buildings, although the arcade exhibits a similar variety. At first glance through the desensitized lenses of our post-industrial architectural vision, these buildings might appear to be all the same. They all are four-bay brick structures of exactly the same width and eave line, with hipped & dormered slate roofs of the same slope surmounting a two-story body on a stone arcade. But somehow, it feels right… it feels alive. Nothing like the buildings we extrude today, like toothpaste out of a tube. What’s the difference?


Photos by Steve Mouzon

Look closely at one element at a time, such as the outer circular-roofed dormers. Or the balconies and their railings. Or the window heads. Or the central dormers. Each varies slightly, from one house to the next, like leaves on a tree; no two are exactly the same. How did they do this?

It is hard to imagine that Baptiste du Cerceau (or whoever) scenographically designed each elevation with slightly different details. So if not, then how? The simplest rational explanation is that the builders of each pavilion were given verbal instructions, at most accompanied by very simple drawings laying out the important characteristics (eave lines, etc.) of the Place, leaving the minor details to the master builder of each of the houses.

Form-based codes of today can, in theory, do precisely this. But the built products of many current form-based codes either devolve into sterile sameness when the developer decides to “be efficient,” or devolve into chaos when lot-purchasers demand to do “my thing.” In other words, too little variety or too big a range. So what are techniques that might help create great variety in a narrow range with today’s most common building delivery methods?

Custom design

Custom-designed houses on lots sold directly to homeowners are usually designed in too wide a range. Responsibility for this usually falls at the feet of the architects; few except dedicated new urbanist architects understand the value of coherence in a place. The most effective tool for developments marketed this way is a good pattern book, which is a set of instructions to designers intended to produce coherence. Any bona-fide New Urbanist pattern book is a huge step in the right direction for a custom-built development, but there is an intriguing new type of book that resolves many of the problematic issues of pattern books to date.

A more recent idea in pattern books is principle-based books (as opposed to the earlier style-based books) which code for the best architecture for the regional conditions, climate, and culture rather than for a collection of historical styles. Because they code for low, medium, and high settings of a single architecture rather than for many styles, they can drill down much deeper into the patterns of the architecture. And they explain the rationale for each pattern. Instead of the style-based books’ unspoken premise that “thou shalt do this because I have better taste than you…” that produces compliance at best, the new books explain “we do this because…” allowing everyone to think again.

Developments that sell houses rather than lots were once in the minority of new urbanist developments, but today, developments as high-end as Alys Beach primarily sell houses rather than lots. Many house-selling developments (not including Alys Beach) tend to value efficiency, producing many iterations of a stock design, which produces a range that is too small.

One solution might be to do schematic drawings (stock-plan-level detail at most), then allow the small variations that occur between framing crews, trim crews, and masonry crews to naturally occur. The problem here is that the detail departures of today’s subcontractors cannot be trusted because they default to the horrible details that produced American suburbia. Here there is no substitute for direct education of the subcontractors. The core tool is a good set of drawings by an architect familiar with the principles of the New Urbanism, including “let the street have the ‘street appeal’ and allow the buildings to be calmer.” Beginning there, every framer, mason, and trim carpenter should have a copy of a good syntax code that explains the basic Do’s and Don’ts of traditional construction. Beyond that, builders workshops are extremely helpful because when construction workers see proper details built before their eyes, they realize that “I can do that,” and they never get it wrong again. Workers have literally come to builders’ workshops in the morning knowing they would be wood-butchers or brick-throwers the rest of their lives and have left at the end of the workshop realizing that they can be craftspeople, building details correctly in their hometown for the first time in a hundred years.

Manufactured buildings

Partially- or wholly-manufactured buildings (panelized, modular, or manufactured) have their own set of challenges. Assembly lines exist to churn out large numbers of identical items without retooling, in order to get the price and time down. That objective seemed irresolvable with the idea of making each building slightly different. The best you could have is the “five standard options.” Yet it has been discovered recently, and quite by accident, that if you manufacture houses that seem just a bit too simple, but that are easily modifiable, people will make weekend projects out of customizing them to their own preferences. The modifications can be minor: adding capital trim to a square wood post, adding brackets to a porch beam, adding trim around a door, etc. The key is that the buildings are simple enough to encourage owner modification, and that they are built of materials that allow modification — meaning that they can be sawn into and nailed onto, then painted.

This article first appeared in New Urban News, later called Better Cities & Towns. For more on Steve Mouzon’s ideas about variety within a narrow range, watch this video from the City Building Exchange of 2016.

Original article.

Jul 162016
 

Missing middle housing types and their location between single-family and mid-rise buildings. Opticos Design

Mismatch between current US housing stock and shifting demographics, combined with the growing demand for walkable urban living, has been poignantly defined by recent research and publications by the likes of Christopher Nelson and Chris Leinberger and the Urban Land Institute’s publication, What’s Next: Real Estate in the New Economy. Let’s stop talking about the problem and start generating solutions!

Unfortunately, the solution is not as simple as adding more multi-family housing stock using the dated models/types of housing that we have been building. Rather, we need a complete paradigm shift in the way that we design, locate, regulate, and develop homes. As What’s Next states, “it’s a time to rethink and evolve, reinvent and renew.” Missing Middle housing types, such as duplexes, fourplexes, bungalow courts, mansion apartments, and live-work units, are a critical part of the solution and should be a part of every architect’s, planner’s, real estate agent’s, and developer’s arsenal.

Well-designed, simple Missing Middle housing types achieve medium-density yields and provide high-quality, marketable options between the scales of single-family homes and mid-rise flats for walkable urban living. They are designed to meet the specific needs of shifting demographics and the new market demand and are a key component to a diverse neighborhood. They are classified as “missing” because very few of these housing types have been built since the early 1940’s due to regulatory constraints, the shift to auto-dependent patterns of development, and the incentivization of single-family home ownership.

The following are defining characteristics of Missing Middle housing:

A walkable context. Probably the most important characteristic of these types of housing is that they need to be built within an existing or newly created walkable urban context.  Buyers or renters of these housing types are choosing to trade larger suburban housing for less space, no yard to maintain, and proximity to services and amenities such as restaurants, bars, markets, and often work. Linda Pruitt of the Cottage Company, who is building creative bungalow courts in the Seattle area, says the first thing her potential customers ask is, “What can I walk to?” So this criteria becomes very important in her selection of lots and project areas, as is it for all Missing Middle housing.

Medium density but lower perceived densities. As a starting point, these building types typically range in density from 16 dwelling units/acre (du/acre) to up to 35 du/acre, depending on the building type and lot size. It is important not to get too caught up in the density numbers when thinking about these types. Due to the small footprint of the building types and the fact that they are usually mixed with a variety of building types, even on an individual block, the perceived density is usually quite lower–they do not look like dense buildings.

A combination of these types gets a neighborhood to a minimum average of 16 du/acre. This is important because this is generally used as a threshold at which an environment becomes transit-supportive and main streets with neighborhood-serving, walkable retail and services become viable.

Small footprint and blended densities. As mentioned above, a common characteristic of these housing types are small- to medium-sized building footprints. The largest of these types, the mansion apartment or side-by-side duplex, may have a typical main body width of about 40-50ft, which is very comparable to a large estate home. This makes them ideal for urban infill, even in older neighborhoods that were originally developed as single-family but have been designated to evolve with slightly higher intensities. As a good example, a courtyard housing project in the Westside Guadalupe Historic District of Santa Fe, New Mexico sensitively incorporates 6 units and a shared community-room building onto a ¼ acre lot. In this project, the buildings are designed to be one room deep to maximize cross ventilation/passive cooling and to enable the multiple smaller structures to relate well to the existing single-family context.

This courtyard housing project in Santa Fe, NM incorporates 6 units on a ¼ acre lot (24 du/acre) in a form that is compatible with adjacent single-family homes. Source: Opticos.

Smaller, well-designed units. One of the most common mistakes by architects or builders new to the urban housing market is trying to force suburban unit types and sizes into urban contexts and housing types. The starting point for Missing Middle housing needs to be smaller-unit sizes; the challenge is to create small spaces that are well designed, comfortable, and usable. As an added benefit, smaller-unit sizes can help developers keep their costs down, improving the pro-forma performance of a project, while keeping the housing available to a larger group of buyers or renters at a lower price point.

Off-street parking does not drive the site plan. The other non-starter for Missing Middle housing is trying to provide too much parking on site. This ties back directly to the fact that these units are being built in a walkalble urban context. The buildings become very inefficient from a development potential or yield standpoint and shifts neighborhoods below the 16 du/acre density threshold, as discussed above, if large parking areas are provided or required. As a starting point, these units should provide no more than 1 off-street parking space per unit. A good example of this is newly constructed mansion apartments in the new East Beach neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. To enable these lower off-street parking requirements to work, on-street parking must be available adjacent to the units. Housing design that forces too much parking on a site also compromises the occupant’s experience of entering the building or “coming home” and the relationship with its context, especially in an infill condition, which can greatly impact marketability.

A new mansion apartment in the East Beach project is successfully integrated into a neighborhood with mostly single-family homes. Source: Opticos.

Simple construction. The days of easily financing and building complicated, expensive Type-I or II buildings with podium parking are behind us, and an alternative for providing walkable urban housing with more of a simple, cost-effective construction type is necessary in many locations.  What’s Next states, “affordability—always a key element in housing markets—is taking on a whole new meaning as developers reach for ways to make attractive homes within the means of financially constrained buyers.” Because of their simple forms, smaller size, and Type V construction, Missing Middle building types can help developers maximize affordability and returns without compromising quality by providing housing types that are simple and affordable to build.

Creating Community. Missing Middle housing creates community through the integration of shared community spaces within the types, as is the case for courtyard housing or bungalow courts, or simply from the proximity they provide to the community within a building and/or the neighborhood. This is an important aspect, in particular within the growing market of single-person households (which is at nearly 30% of all households) that want to be part of a community. This has been especially true for single women who have proven to be a strong market for these Missing Middle housing types, in particular bungalow courts and courtyard housing.

Marketability. The final and maybe the most important characteristic in terms of market viability is that these housing types are very close in scale and provide a similar user experience (such as entering from a front porch facing the street versus walking down a long, dark corridor to get to your unit) to single-family homes, thus making the mental shift for potential buyers and renters much less drastic than them making a shift to live in a large mid-rise or high-rise project. This combined with the fact that many baby boomers likely grew up in similar housing types in urban areas or had relatives that did, enables them to easily relate to these housing types.

Fourplexes like this one in the Midtown neighborhood of Sacramento are highly sought after. Source: Opticos.

This is a call for architects, planners, and developers to think outside the box and create immediate, viable solutions to address the mismatch between the housing stock and what the market is demanding–vibrant, diverse, sustainable, walkable urban places. The Missing Middle housing types are an important part of this solution and should be integrated into comprehensive and regional planning, zoning code updates, TOD strategies, and the business models for developers and builders who want to be at the forefront of this paradigm shift.

Original article.

Jul 162016
 

Once blighted and overlooked, these small streets are transforming into community and sustainability hotspots.

Image mirastories
An art walk art walk through Seattle’s Nord Alley. (mirastories)

The alley is dark no longer.

In the United States, these almost-accidental spaces between buildings have existed in a sort of limbo: not quite streets, but still thoroughfares; not private, but not public enough to feel protected; backdrops to crime, or filled with trash heaps.

But as cities grow increasingly strapped for space, neglecting these narrow streets is no longer a viable option. Cities from Los Angeles to Baltimore to Seattle are rethinking their alleyways and transforming dead ends into into places of connectivity and productivity.

A brief history of alleys

In other parts of the world, the size or location of a thoroughfare did not dictate its utility in the same way it did in the U.S. Daniel Toole, an architect and blogger at Alleys of Seattle, previously told CityLab that in European cities like Paris, Rome, and Barcelona, beautiful alleys are vital pedestrian passageways. In Kyoto and Melbourne, they’re retail hubs.

Even the names alleys are called around the world, Toole said, suggests their different functions: in Japan, they’re calledroji, or “little street”; in Australia, they’re “laneways,” suggesting, to Toole, a more pedestrian-friendly figuration.

However, in America, Toole said, alleyways were specifically set aside as infrastructure. Originally conceived as service access to buildings, they were a place to conduct activities considered unfit for the main street—hence today’s association with garbage collection. “It’s really messy,” Toole said. Imagine loading docks for construction, piled-up trash, exposed gas conduits.

The case for transformation

For places that were meant to be unseen, alleys take up a not-insubstantial amount of space. A 2011 report by Mary Fialko and Jennifer Hampton, graduate students at the University of Washington*, found that in Seattle, there are 217,000 square feet of public alley space downtown, 85 percent of which are underused. The report estimated that reinvigorating alleyways could increase the number of total public space in the city by 50 percent.

Alleys, too, are vital players in a city’s overall ecosystem. As the need for cities to rely on more sustainable approaches has become more pressing, the proliferation of trash and flooding in alleyways has come to be seen not only an aesthetic blight, but an environmental one.

And as Daniel Freedman of the Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative says, there’s a lot of crossover between sound environmental practices and livability. Revitalizing an alleyway creates an opportunity to introduce green infrastructure, but also, Freedman says, it invites the surrounding community to collaborate on improvements and make use of the space.

Across the U.S., cities’ approaches to their alleyways have been varied and specific; at their core, however, are fundamental practices that can be considered and applied universally.

The “green alley” approach

In 2006, Chicago took stock of its 13,000 alleys—among the country’s vastest—and saw a problem. Decades previously, most of the city’s 3,500 acres of alleys were paved with impermeable asphalt or concrete, and stormwater drained through grates at the center. As those systems fell into disrepair through lack of maintenance, flooding became commonplace.

In response, the city pioneered the Chicago Green Alley Program, among the first in the United States to bring sustainable building practices to a network of alleyways. According to Gizmodo, over 100 of the city’s alleys have since beencovered with permeable surfaces that redirect stormwater into the ground and away from Chicago’s “overtaxed” sewer system, reducing flooding and recharging the surrounding soil.

A privately funded initiative in Detroit has taken a similar approach. Peggy Brennan of the Green Garage told Gizmodo that Detroit’s resulting Green Alley incorporates permeable surfaces and gardening space, and has transformed a space once filled with mattresses and hypodermic needles into a community gathering place.

Los Angeles expects that a new network of green alleyways will help the city meet its goal of increasing stormwater capture to 50 billion gallons by 2035; currently, the city saves 8.8 billion gallons annually, The New York Timesreported. The newest alley in the network centered in the city’s South Park neighborhood is projected to capture 700,000 gallons per year.

Making space for the community

In Baltimore, the issue was trash. Leanna Wetmore, the community coordinator for the Baltimore Waterfront Parternership’s Healthy Harbor Initiative, had been trying to figure out a way to engage the local communities in her organization’s goal of having a fishable waterway. “But it’s hard to talk to people about clean water in our city, when there are a million other important issues,” Wetmore says.

An alley makeover underway in Baltimore. (Healthy Harbor/Flickr)

So she decided to focus on the garbage pileup in neighborhood alleys. The trash that piles up there filters down through the storm drains and into the harbor; getting the community on board with getting rid of the trash, Wetmore thought, would bring people together and start to free up the water. The Healthy Harbor Initiative’s Alley Makeover Program brings communities together to clean up their alleyways, then implement some “small, cheap improvements that reset people’s expectations of what an alleyway can be,” Wetmore says. Through a $30,000 grant from the Rauch Foundation, 20 alleyways in six neighborhoods are now covered in murals and artwork; they’re filled with block parties and cleared of trash.

Seattle decided in 2008 to clear its alleys of dumpsters, moving instead to a trash-bag collection model of waste management. The same year, theInternational Sustainability Institute (ISI), based in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, partnered with Gehl Architects on a survey of downtown Seattle’s public spaces, which identified the newly dumpster-free alleys of Pioneer Square as a a potential asset. Pioneer Square, says Liz Stenning, the public realm director for the Alliance for Pioneer Square, had fallen on hard times: it was mostly devoid of retail, office workers left after closing hours, and the streets were quiet.

Inspired by the feedback from the Gehl report, ISI cleaned up the alley adjacent to its office, and hosted a party. It was a rainy night, Stenning says, and the festivities weren’t much more than a local musician and some folding chairs, but people stayed. Since then, ISI has partnered with Stenning’s organization, the Alliance for Pioneer Square, to revitalize alleyways throughout the neighborhood; they now play host to anything from projecting World Cup games from the back of a U-Haul truck, to cat adoptions, to revolving art installations. “We were just trying to do things that change people’s perspective on being in an alley,” Stenning says.

The next frontier for retail

It wasn’t long before local businesses caught on. In Pioneer Square, Back Alley Bike Repair opened its doors in 2011 onto the 700-square-foot Nord Alley; independent restaurants have moved in and capitalized on the 15 or so revitalized passageways as outdoor seating areas.

The opening celebration for Bike Alley Bike Repair in Seattle. (Kari Quaas)

When it opened in 2012, the East Cahuenga Alley in Los Angeles swiftly drew crowds. The brainchild of a member of the Hollywood Business Improvement District, the plan for the lane—once known as “Heroin Alley”—re-imagined it as a pedestrian space filled with outdoor dining and an artists’ market on Sundays. The Los Angeles Sustainability Collaborative compiled an extensive report on the space, Freedman says, to “put a spotlight on what happened in one community, to show what could be possible for others.”

Though Freedman’s organization focuses primarily on the Los Angeles area, the success of the East Cahuenga Alley model has radiated out to other cities. The Z Block office and retail development is slated to open in Lower Downtown Denver next year; the developer on the project told The Denver Post that the alley bisecting the site was as much a focus as the buildings themselves. While previous alley activations in Denver were limited to one-offs, the Z Block alley will play permanent host to a distiller, a chocolatier, a coffee-bean roaster, and an ice-cream shop, all of which will open out onto the small street.

Historically, Freedman says, urban alleyways were often places of dangers or sources of shame. But in the places where these spaces have been revitalized and repurposed, there’s a particular delight in their new use. The success of these projects, Freedman says, “shows how it’s possible to take a space that was once a liability, and turn it into a resource.”

Original article.