Durable Growth

Stories from CNU 23: Infrastructure patterns, misallocated fishing piers, and the creation of funk

Main Street Gardens in Dallas

Main Street Gardens in Dallas

Nuts.   I still can’t share the update on Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds that I’ve been promising, although progress was made over the last few days.  I’ll continue to push for having something in my next post.

(For non-regular readers, I help organize a local urbanist discussion group.  The members have been assembling an independent land plan for a portion of the downtown Fairgrounds here in Petaluma.  The plan is proposed for implementation after the current lease expires in eight years.  I’ve been promising an announcement about the next step in the planning effort, but the pieces aren’t quite yet in place.)

In the absence of a Fairgrounds update, I’ll continue sharing moments that caught my attention at the recently completed 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.   (The photo is from a public park near the host hotel.)  This post will almost, but not quite, empty my notebook of shareable moments, although I’ll return in more depth to the topics addressed at CNU 23 in the coming weeks and months.  (Earlier snippets from CNU 23 are here, here, and here.)

The Persistence of Infrastructure: I’ve previously written that, even more so than buildings that can wear out and be replaced, patterns of infrastructure can persist nearly forever.  Build a bridge connecting two towns and the towns become so intertwined that a bridge must always remain.  Construct a lock to allow river commerce to an upstream town and it may be years before the lock can be abandoned.  Configure a subdivision around an assumption that everyone will drive and the multitude of homes may never allow pedestrian/bicycle/transit-friendly revisions.

Maria Zimmerman of MZ Strategies phrased it succinctly during CNU 23.  ”Infrastructure is a way to make your great-grandchildren live by your values even after you’re gone.”

Even if our periscopes toward the future are often foggy and distorted, we should try to build as timelessly as possible. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Stories from CNU 23: The insulating effect of cars and the forces behind gentrification

Architectural detail on Adolphus Hotel

Architectural detail on Adolphus Hotel

The Sonoma Marin Fairgrounds update I had hoped to deliver today hasn’t yet come to pass.  Instead, I’ll continue reporting about ideas that caught my attention at the recently completed 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.   This will be my third summary, with previous posts here and here, of moments from CNU 23 that educated, inspired, or challenged me.  As before, I’ll add my own elucidation and comment.

So that I don’t raise expectations too high, the Fairgrounds update won’t be major news, but will be a step in the right direction.  And it will hopefully open the door for participation by readers.

Cars as Psychological Separators: I’ve often written about the corrosive effects of automobiles on urban settings, how they facilitate a hopscotch pattern of development that undermines walkability.

But Andres Duany opened my eyes to another aspect of the damage that cars can do.  In his words, “Cars permit psychological separation.”

He’s right.  Imagine a troubled neighborhood between your home and the places you work and/or shop.  If you walk, bike, or even ride a bus through the distressed neighborhood, you’re interacting with the businesses and people there and you’re likely to become invested.  You begin caring that it becomes a better place, perhaps becoming willing to participate in efforts to make changes.

But if you travel through the neighborhood in a car, you roll up the windows, lock the doors, shake your head, and wonder why someone else doesn’t do something.

Cars can be wonderful things, granting freedoms that were unknown a century ago.  But when they psychologically separate us from our neighbors and our communities, they begin to destroy us. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Tidying up the urbanist loose ends

Historic train depot in Petaluma

Historic train depot in Petaluma

There always seems to something further that can be written on past topics.  Today will be a day to add supplement details to past discussions on transit funding, Petaluma Urban Chat, City Repair, and curvy bike paths.

Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee: As previously described, the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, on which I serve, met recently to consider an agenda with items of broader scope than our usual agenda items.

After hearing from the Friends of SMART and the Greenbelt Alliance, the committee voted to ask the Petaluma City Council to consider devoting a portion of the funds from the upcoming Measure A, if it passes, to transit.  Except for the one committee member who missed the meeting, the vote was unanimous.

The suggested transit funding was ten percent of the increased sales tax proceeds, an amount that is roughly consistent with pledges previously made by the Sonoma County Supervisors and by the Cities of Santa Rosa and Sonoma.

The use to which Petaluma Transit would put the funds was left undecided, but several possibilities for enhanced service were noted.

The agenda also included an update from a SMART representative about the interfaces between Petaluma Transit and SMART, including bus stop location, train schedule, and development plans for the mixed-use complex planned for the parcel adjoining the station.  No resolutions were reached, but lines of communication were opened, which was appropriate with SMART’s beginning of fare service barely 18 months away. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Public places need people, some more than others

Neogothic spires

Neogothic spires

Public places should be designed to attract people.  (Admittedly, too many are designed to feed the egos of design professionals and city councils, but that’s a topic for another time.)  A good public place should only be fully realized when it’s filled with people enjoying themselves.

But some places have an even greater need for people.  They require people to avoid being creepy.

During my extended travels to CNU 23, I spent an evening in Pittsburgh.  A North Bay friend who had recently relocated to Pittsburgh offered to give me a tour of some of his favorite urban settings in the Steel City.

And so it was that after we enjoyed jumbo fish sandwiches at the Original Oyster House on Market Square (plain, but tasty), we walked over a block to look at the plaza in the heart of PPG Place, a cluster of neogothic towers executed in heavily shaded plate glass by famed architect Philip Johnson.  (PPG was formerly Pittsburgh Plate Glass, hence the unusual choice of building materials.) Continue reading

Durable Growth

Stories from CNU23: Zoning, complexity, and encouragement to risk mistakes

Park sculpture in Dallas

Park sculpture in Dallas

In my last post, I began recounting moments of insight from the recent 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  Today, I’ll continue along that path.  Eventually, I’ll begin digging more deeply into the some of the topics covered during CNU 23, but for now, reporting the flashes of illumination, along with elucidation and comment as required, is my only goal.

Zoning Interrupted: In a long ago post, I dubiously reported a theory by urbanist flamethrower James Howard Kunstler that the unfortunate American architecture of the 1950s and 1960s was the result of Germany being a World War II enemy.  In Kunstler’s hypothesis, Hitler loved classical architecture, the U.S. hated Hitler, and the U.S. therefore rejected classical architecture.

I don’t claim to be an architectural historian, but suspect that Le Corbusier had a far greater role in creating the post World War II architectural aesthetic than did a rejection of everything Hitler.  I enjoy the barrages put down by Kunstler, but find that some of his more outlandish conjectures must be taken with a stiff dose of skepticism.

However, Professor Emily Talen, addressing a gathering of first-time CNU attendees (I observed from the back of the room), suggested a German war story that seemed far more credible.  She noted that it was in Germany where the concept of zoning was first invented during the 1870s.  By the 1910s when the U.S. was just beginning to dabble in zoning, the Germans had developed elaborate and effective theories about zoning.

But World War I resulted in a rupture from all ideas German, leading the U.S. to wander in the wilderness, including the failed experiment with sprawl, before gradually returning to some of the German concepts. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Missing middle housing: Where to find it and where to encourage it

Webster Street apartments

Webster Street apartments

I’ve written about Opticos Design of Berkeley and one of its principals, Dan Parolek, on several earlier occasions.  First, I reported on Opticos’ role as the lead consultant for the Petaluma Station Area Plan.  More recently, I noted the national award given to Opticos by the Congress for the New Urbanism for their work with Cincinnati’s new form-based code.

And now, I can report that Opticos has begun staking out a key element of urbanism as their particular domain.  In Parolek’s term, it’s the “missing middle housing”.

I recommend reading Parolek’s entire article on missing middle housing.  It runs long, but Parolek uses his words well, explaining the urban gaps left behind by the missing middle housing and some possible configurations for reestablishing it.  But for those without the extra minutes, I’ll try to summarize.

Most use-based zoning codes divide residential uses into single-family and multi-family.  Within the two categories, there is usually a variation in allowable densities, but ultimately there is a clear physical delineation between single-family and multi-family homes.

If we look around neighborhoods that have been built since World War II, the line is obvious.  Multi-family housing is almost always a place apart, built by different developers, served by different parking, and separated from single-family homes by clearly evident fencing or landscape buffers.

But if we look at older city neighborhoods, the places that were developed before the use-based zoning codes assumed their dominance, we find a blurring of the line.  Stealthily scattered among the single-family homes are buildings that have a scale and character similar to single-family homes, but contain multiple residences.  Those buildings are important to city life because they provide the density necessary to support walkability without undermining the single-family feel that many find comfortable.

But with many recent zoning codes having outlawed these middle housing options, hence Parolek’s use of “missing”, the potential for walkability is undermined.  Parolek argues that reestablishing the missing middle is a key step toward reestablishing walkability. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Urbanism and gatherings of food trucks

Proposed location for The Block

Proposed location for The Block

I attended my first annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism back in 2013.  CNU 21 was held at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City, a massive and ornate hotel that tried to evoke an earlier and more elegant era of American hostelries.

Thus, I was surprised when the late morning session on first day of the conference ended with the announcement that lunch was available in a parking lot across the street from the hotel.  But all was soon clear.  Every midday for the duration of the conference, a collection of food trucks would assemble in the empty parking lot and we would lunch on a wide range of available cuisines while lounging on the grassy landscape islands.

The pizzas were good, but the star, at least to my taste buds, was the fried calamari.  I’ve never had better calamari than in a parking lot in the high desert near the foot of the Wasatch Range, hundreds of miles from any ocean.  I suspect the key was the paper thin slices of lemons that were fried and served with the calamari.

The convention center for CNU 22 in Buffalo didn’t have a location suitable for lunchtime food trucks, but the closing party was held at a privately-owned public space, Larkin Square, where the dining options were again food trucks.  I enjoyed a falafel while chatting about the finances of urban redevelopment with a Buffalo-area developer.

I didn’t know the plans for the upcoming CNU 23 in Dallas, but certainly expected that food trucks will again play a role. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Stories from CNU 23: Sixty-eight percent versus four percent

Apartment building in downtown Dallas

Apartment building in downtown Dallas

I’ve previously written that I recently attended the 23rd annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  As was also true of the previous CNU conferences I attended, CNU 23 was filled with moments of illuminating insight.

Today, I’ll begin offering a few of those gems of urbanist thinking, along with a bit of elucidation as required.  It’s a path that I’ll follow for several posts.

Sixty-Eight Percent versus Four Percent:  I don’t recall who first noted the 68 percent versus 4 percent dichotomy, but it doesn’t matter.  It seemed that every other speaker had his or her own version of the statistic which pointed to the same issue, which is that 68 percent of the American public report that they would like to live in a walkable setting, yet only 4 percent of the current housing stock has a WalkScore of 80 or above.

Admittedly, there are a number of holes that one can poke in the statistic.  Perhaps some of the respondents expressed a preference for walkability along with a desire for a three-car garage or a home on a cul-de-sac, both of which can inhibit walkability.  Perhaps the WalkScore threshold of 80 was set too high.  (I live in a home with a WalkScore of 63.  My walkable retail options are limited, but schools for all grades from K through 12 are within short walks.  For a family with children, my home would be a great walkable solution.)

On the other hand, one could argue that the desire for affordable housing could actually go higher if the financial savings that should accrue to walkable settings weren’t being redirected by government policies that favor sprawl. Continue reading

Durable Growth

San Rafael needs a progressive after Nader Mansourian

First up: if you’re interested in becoming a new Director of Public Works for a small city, apply by the end of today.

Downtown San Rafael, Image from  the Business Improvement District.

Downtown San Rafael, Image from the Business Improvement District.

For years, San Rafael has been something of a mixed bag to Marin’s suburbanists. On the one hand, its downtown is the most transit-accessible places in the county. On the other, the network of one-way streets and pedestrian barriers – especially on Second and Third – have rendered large swathes of the city no-go zones for pedestrians.

With Nader Mansourian’s retirement as Director of Public Works in March, San Rafael has a chance to hire someone who makes moving people a greater priority. If I were a member of the city council, I would ask candidates the following questions:

1.       What do you believe the role of a city’s streets should be? The answer I’m looking for: for moving people, and for building the community’s wealth. The answer I’m not looking for: to move vehicular traffic. The first answer indicates the candidate understands that traffic and street problems are more than just engineering issues around traffic flow. There are competing priorities for city streets.

The second answer indicates the opposite, that moving cars, regardless of the occupancy, is more important than pedestrian safety or encouraging more efficient use of the street network. Continue reading

Durable Growth

In praise of magic gates

Whole Foods gate

Whole Foods gate

While shopping at the Whole Foods in Petaluma a few days ago, I noted a gate that had previously escaped my attention.  It was a simple little gate, chain-link, self-closing, keyed from both sides.  But it had a magical function.

The gate provided direct walking access from a low-income, senior housing community to the front door of Whole Foods.  Even from the furthest home, the walking distance to Whole Foods was barely more than 300 feet.

Many seniors, whether because of declining health, waning skills, or reduced finances, no longer have cars.  At the Edith Street Apartments, those seniors needn’t be dependent on others, or on local bus service, for grocery shopping.

Some may argue that Whole Foods is an expensive place for low-income seniors to shop.  My response is that spending an extra dollar a pound for organic asparagus is a cheap trade-off against the cost of owning and maintaining a car.

I was charmed by the gate.  And by the circumstances that made it possible, those circumstances being adjoining sites with different, but complementary uses. Continue reading