Durable Growth

Black Friday Parking in the rearview mirror

Petaluma Market on a busy day

Petaluma Market on a busy day

A week ago, I introduced Black Friday Parking, an effort by StrongTowns to document an error within many municipal parking codes.

As StrongTowns notes, many parking codes set minimum parking requirements to ensure that all shoppers on the busiest shopping day of the year can find a parking space.  (I have a philosophical difficulty with that standard, noting, as I did in my earlier post, that it implicitly gives priority to the last arriving shopper on a single day of the year over the daily needs of transit riders who must tromp across expanses of largely vacant asphalt on every day of the year.  But that’s a topic for another post.)

The StrongTowns folks, although they may agree with my philosophical point, make a different argument.  They contend the busiest day standard isn’t set correctly.  They observe that, even on the day that many consider the single busiest day, Black Friday, many lots are far less than full.

To add strength to their observation, they ask StrongTowns members and friends to take parking lot photos on Black Friday and to post them to Twitter with the tag #BlackFridayParking.   I suggest looking through the postings.  They give insight to the uncertain function of parking standards.

Although I think that the StrongTowns’ argument is valid, my personal Black Friday Parking experience was anticlimactic.  Because of family obligations, I couldn’t set aside much time to sightsee in parking lots.  But, in the middle of the afternoon, I found a couple of free minutes to drop by one of the older malls in the northern California town of Chico.  I expected to find what others were reporting, a parking lot that was barely half full. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Neighbors can have great ideas, but shouldn’t have too much authority

120327B005 Suisun City Residential StreetscapeMy first land-use hearing speaking role was for a project that was also the largest of my career.  Almost 500 acres, 700 homes, a golf course, and a spectacular setting.   Although I can’t find the post right now, I’ve previously written about the walkable urbanist elements of the project, which were moderately acceptable at conception but leaked away during implementation.

At the hearing, the urbanist elements were still in the plan, but those elements, as laudable as they were, weren’t what captured my attention that evening.  It was the rancor of the neighborhood opposition.

Knowing the high level of interest in the hearing, the city had moved the hearing from the council chambers to the public works building.  Thus, the five-person development team, of which I was the junior member, found ourselves surrounded by two hundred noisy neighbors in an equipment bay that normally housed maintenance vehicles.

Even as the team made their presentation, the leader of the neighbors paced at the back of the room, gesturing with his clipboard like a rabid football coach, outside of sight from the hearing officer conducting the process but audible to many of the neighbors, making derisive comments about each presenter, and trying to build a frenzy.

When that time came for public comment, the outpouring was immediate.  The neighbors had grown accustomed to bike riding through the site to reach the national forest beyond.  The developer had engaged in shady practices elsewhere.  The neighbors enjoyed taking evening nature walks through the site.  The developer wasn’t local.  Despite what the studies showed and without an alternative factual argument, everyone knew the traffic would be horrendous.  The developer regularly broke promises.

The hearing officer listened politely, nodded occasionally, and, when he issued his decision a few weeks later, rejected virtually every argument made by the neighbors.

Frequently overwrought and unsubstantiated neighborhood reactions are an element of the land-use process that that concerns me for at least three reasons.  They seem to be gaining a stronger foothold in the land-use process to the detriment of our communities.  They can have unfortunate overtones of unsocial perspectives.  And they can result in reasonable and mutually-beneficial project adjustments being lost.  I’ll dig deeper into each.

Neighborhood objections are gaining a greater role in the land-use process.  CEQA, with its relatively low threshold for recourse to the court system, gives neighbors a potentially strong voice, if sometimes an undereducated role, in the process.  And developers, for whom time is literally money and wary of the CEQA-power potentially wielded by neighbors, will trim projects to avoid the CEQA recourse.  A frequent victim of the trimming is the lower-end residential units that would have reduced the displacement that can result from gentrification.

In addition to the CEQA concerns, there are more rumblings of giving veto power to neighbors for some types of land-use actions, enhancing the power of neighbors to halt projects despite a sometimes credible greater good.

On the social implications of neighborhood concerns, I’ll look back to the story of Yonkers, New York as recounted in the book and HBO show “Show Me a Hero”.  Under the Yonkers approach to land-use decisions, deference was given to the city councilmember in whose district a project would be located.  As most voters were opposed to public housing in their neighborhoods and most councilmembers were interested in reelection, all public housing was eventually located in the quadrant of the town that already had public housing and therefore wasn’t averse to more public housing.

It was a pattern that a federal court system eventually determined to be systemically racist, with the court forcing the city to take remedial action and leading to the story told in “Show Me a Hero”.  I understand that many neighbors who would look with a jaundiced eye at the idea of public housing in their neighborhoods aren’t covert racists, but if the result is a land-use pattern judged to be systemically racist, it’s a distinction without a difference.

On the last point, a frequent frustration during my career was having neighbors, in the heat of public testimony, offer ideas that truly would have benefited both the developer and the neighbors, but that were quickly buried in a flood of opprobrium.

It was always fun to chat over beers with a developer after a long public meeting, reminding him of the speaker who impugned his character and his business practices and then to suggest that the speaker’s idea about realigning the road could benefit both the project and the neighborhood.

I was successful with a fair number of those conversations, but it was unfortunate that I had to first overcome the negative impression left by the speaker.

Looking at the biggest possible picture, I often think of a land-use decision as balancing the needs of three public constituencies, the neighborhood which will have to deal with the traffic, parking, visual, and noise impacts from the project, the community which has an interest in creating a more resilient and sustainable community, in minimizing infrastructure maintenance, and in having employees living as close to employment, schools, and shopping as possible, and the broader public which has a concern that resources, particularly those with climate change implications, are used efficiently.

Balancing those three constituencies isn’t easy or trivial.  Given the same set of facts, ten fair-minded individuals would likely come to ten different reasonable conclusions.

But balancing them is essential.  And when we give any of the parties unreasonable control, either through CEQA authority or through veto powers in zoning codes, we undermine that balance.

Do I have solutions to propose?  Not really.  I can’t think of any way to change the land-use process to remove the bumps I describe above.  But I can implore governing bodies to not give too much authority to neighbors, neighbors to be aware of the bigger picture, and applicants to look past the sometimes inflammatory rhetoric for the good ideas that may be tucked behind.  Building better communities requires us to work together.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Durable Growth, Transportation

NFL called for intentional grounding, penalty is loss of credibility

Transit in San Francisco

Transit in San Francisco

Back in 2012, the NFL was eager to tout the urbanist pleasures of Superbowl XLVI in Indianapolis, where many of Superbowl week venues, including the stadium, were within walkable distance of the host hotels.  Four years later, the NFL keeps stubbing its urbanist toe.

The first urbanist bust was at Superbowl XLVIII.  The NFL failed to account for the increasing use of transit to reach major sporting events and gave New Jersey transportation officials bad estimates of the division between car passengers and transit riders for game day planning.  When far more fans used transit than expected, the results were overcrowded cars and long wait times.

And now, in the run-up to Superbowl L, the NFL has misread the changing urban realities once again.

Having decided that most Superbowl festivities should be in San Francisco, rather than 45 miles south in Santa Clara where Levi’s Stadium is located, NFL officials have been meeting with representatives of the City of San Francisco to discuss event coordination.  One request recently made of the City was for the temporary removal of the overhead electric bus wires along Market Street. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

Calling Friday Black for a better reason

North Bay shopping center parking lot on a busy Sunday afternoon

North Bay shopping center parking lot on a busy Sunday afternoon

About this time of year, perhaps a decade ago, a coworker described the day after Thanksgiving as Black Friday.  I was puzzled by the reference.  To me, Black Friday referred to the 1929 stock market crash.  I assumed my coworker was mistaken.

Although I still remain dubious about the cultural references of the coworker, it turned out that he was right and I was wrong.  In fact, I was doubly wrong.  In the stock market, Black Friday refers not to the 1929 crash, but to the much earlier 1869 crash.  The worst day of the 1929 crash was a Tuesday, now known, predictably, as Black Tuesday.

Meanwhile, when I wasn’t looking, the Black Friday name had been co-opted in the past few decades to describe the pre-Christmas retail frenzy of the day after Thanksgiving.

Even with knowing that bit of common culture, I’m puzzled by the ascribing of “black” to a pre-Christmas retail event.  I would have expected red or green to be better color choices.  However, I’m told that black refers to how the day helps ensure that retailers will finish their years with a profit, or “in the black”.  As much as anyone, I value the need of businesses to be profitable in order to remain in business.  But I still find it perplexing that we use a bookkeeping benchmark to describe a mass of people descending upon malls and big boxes.

Luckily for common sense, StrongTowns and others are retasking the name Black Friday with a definition of “black” that seems more appropriate.  Their subject, and the target of their frustration, is retail parking.  In particular, the surfeit of retail parking. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Thinking about Paris

Parisian street

Parisian street

This will be relatively brief post.  In part because I need to practice brevity.  And in part because I’ve chosen a topic on which I could get into trouble if I ramble overly long.

I’ve only seen Paris once.  My wife had a life-long dream of visiting the City of Lights.  So, for our fifth anniversary, we broke away from a bargain vacation in London, took the Chunnel, and spent three days in a fine hotel in the heart of Paris, across from the Tuileries and not far from the Louvre.

They were a fine three days.  Having different interests, my wife and I spent much of our time in different pursuits.  I visited the Rodin Museum and the sarcophagus of Napoleon while she wandered shops, in particular the Parisian perfumeries.

Sarcophagus of Napoleon

Sarcophagus of Napoleon

But we met up under the Eiffel Tower at the exact time of our wedding five years earlier (ignoring the time zone difference), took a cab to the Arc de Triomphe, and ambled down the Champs-Elysees, stopping for beverages at a sidewalk café.  It was a great way to commemorate an anniversary.  And then we returned to our rented flat in London.

It’s likely that we’ll never again visit Paris, but those three days remain bright in our memories.  Bright enough that the recent terrorist attacks had a particularly sharp impact on us. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

People in glass houses shouldn’t complain about public pensions

Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

In recent years, it seems that every ballot measure to bump municipal taxes in the North Bay has elicited comments like “I’m willing to pay more for better city services, but will vote against this tax increase for fear that my money will instead be spent on pensions.”

I understand the sentiment, but it misses the point.  Pension funding is already a legal commitment on California cities, a burgeoning financial obligation that hangs like a sword over the desk of every city manager and financial officer in the Golden State.  Whether or not a tax measure passes will have no impact on the financial hole already dug.  The only question is whether we choose to backfill some of the funds that were sucked toward pension funding by the recession.

Regular readers will likely recall my take on the recent history of municipal finance, including pensions.   I argue that the costs of suburbia were becoming an uncomfortable burden as early as the 1970s.  But rather than looking to the root causes, rabble-rousers such as Howard Jarvis grabbed the public spotlight by claiming that government inefficiency was the real problem and that taxes could be trimmed without harm.  The result was Proposition 13.

By the 1990s, the financial crunch had continued to worsen and, in the absence of enough folks pointing a finger at the flawed land-use model, local governments were becoming increasingly clever in looking for ways to offload near-term financial obligations. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Looking where StrongTowns points to spot a rara avis

Hays. Kansas

Hays. Kansas

Those who have spoken with me about municipal government have likely heard one of my favorite sayings, “If your city manager and planning director aren’t at risk of being fired at least once a year, they’re not doing enough to make your city a better place.”

Like most good aphorisms, it contains a grain of truth along with a dose of exaggeration.  Productive city employees shouldn’t be expected to continually skate near the edge of termination.  Not only would excessive changes be disruptive to city halls, but employees, no matter their position, are human beings, with human concerns about supporting spouses with community ties, taking care of children trying to enjoy their high school years, and not risking retirement vesting.

Furthermore, innovation should not be encouraged only at the top, but should spring from everywhere in city halls, with everyone from the city manager to the custodians encouraged to offer ideas to improve city services.

Nonetheless, we need city managers and other folks near the top of municipal organization charts to be particularly alert to new ideas.  Thus, I was intrigued when StrongTowns offered a link to an audio interview with the city manager of a small town in Kansas who had become a devotee of the StrongTown message. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Forget casinos and shopping malls, the real threat may be something else

Seaside, Florida

Seaside, Florida

In 2004, the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians acquired a large parcel of land south of Petaluma, tucked between Highway 101 and the Petaluma River.  Since 2004, Petaluma city government and residents have worried about the possibility of a casino on the site.

Recently, in the face of consistent casino denials by Dry Creek leadership, the concern has morphed into a worry about a regional shopping center on the land, a center that could well attract tenants and sales tax revenues away from newly opened retail complexes in Petaluma.

As an urbanist, I’m also concerned about a casino or a shopping center on the tribal parcel, destinations that could be reached only by car and would constitute sprawl.  But I have another possibility to suggest, a possibility that could do more harm to Petaluma than either a casino or a retail center.

The Dry Creek’s land adjoins the tracks over which the SMART commuter rail will begin service next year.  The Dry Creek tribe could ask SMART for service to the parcel, a request to which SMART would likely accede if the proposal was structured well.  The tribe could then build a train station and an urbanist village on the slopes leading upward from the tracks, something like the urbanist village of Seaside built 35 years ago along the Gulf Coast and pictured above.

With a setting looking across the marshes of the Petaluma River toward the vineyard-covered hillsides to the east and with a freeway immediately adjoining when car travel is required, the tribal parcel is a potentially perfect site for urbanism.  And with a North Bay labor pool filling with younger adults less connected to their cars that any generation in nearly a century, the North Bay market seems primed for a community where walking, biking, and transit could form the bulk of daily travel.

As an urbanist, I should welcome this possibility, right?  Well, maybe, but only if other options fail to mature. Continue reading


Delivering folks at an awkward distance from an incipient wasteland

151101005 Business Park BuildingI’d like to write that it was the result of putting a high weight on geography when making employment decisions, but the reality is that I was lucky with office locations for much of my career.

For my first five years out of school, I worked near BART in downtown San Francisco.  My office was an older office building that had barely survived the 1906 earthquake.  My coworkers and I looked with consternation at the unrestrained joints during occasional temblors, but enjoyed riding BART to the Mission District for lunchtime burritos.

My next stop was near the top of a 1928 office tower overlooking the Puget Sound and the Pioneer Square historic district of Seattle.   The front door was about a block from a bus stop.

Next, it was onto a small Oregon town where my office was in a building that had begun life as a 1930s auto dealership, had been refurbished into character-filled offices, and was only a block from downtown and directly across from city hall.

Upon my return to California, I found myself in a ramshackle building of little character, since demolished, but close to city hall and downtown.

It was only for the last stop in my career that I failed to have a strong walkable urban flavor in my professional setting.  Instead, I was in the most unfortunate of all U.S. office settings, the business park.  I made the move voluntarily because it allowed me to put down deeper North Bay roots.  Plus, the building adjoined the urban growth boundary, so my office overlooked a pasture on the other side of the boundary.  And it was pleasant to have a lawn on which to have lunchtime barbecues.

But there is still something unnatural about working in a business park, with the disregard shown to pedestrians by inadequate sidewalks and the need to drive for nearly every task.  I wasn’t unhappy to put the business park in my rearview mirror.  And, with the increasing market preference for walkable settings and the environmental need for reduced reliance on cars, it’s likely that the future will similarly put business parks in the rearview mirror. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Making a difference – Parklet version

Parklet in Newark, New Jersey

Parklet in Newark, New Jersey

Parklets are small, sometimes temporary, uses of a parking space or two near an existing business, often akin to a sidewalk café but with a greater range of design possibilities.  The photo is a good example of a parklet.  It’s from the Better Block Newark website, which offers good insights on parklets.  Closer to Petaluma, the Greenbelt Alliance shares stories from a recent parklet event in Walnut Creek.

A few weeks back, I endorsed the concept of a parklet at Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern in Petaluma.  I envisioned a possibility that a parklet would complement Ray’s existing business and make the establishment an even more vital element of my neighborhood.

In my last post, I responded to those who had questions or concerns about the parklet idea.

And now it’s time to move on to the next step toward making Petaluma a parklet-friendly place.  And your help could be essential.

If sufficient interest can be generated, a group will be formed to write a draft parklet policy.  The draft would be presented to the City, with the hopes that the City would build from the volunteer effort to make a few edits and to adopt the policy.  A kick-off meeting for this possible parklet committee, which would be an offshoot of Petaluma Urban Chat, is scheduled for a few days hence. Continue reading