Durable Growth

The shrinking role of retail in planning cities

Office over retail mixed-use in downtown Napa

Office over retail mixed-use in downtown Napa

In 1962, when I was a nine-year-old living in south Sacramento, Macy’s announced plans to build a store in downtown Sacramento.  It was big news for the adults in my world.  It was also big news for Sacramento, a point of new-found pride in a town that often thought of itself as falling short in comparisons with San Francisco and Los Angeles.

I wasn’t quite sure I knew what Macy’s was.  I doubt I’ve yet seen “Miracle on 34th Street”.  But I sensed the buzz of excitement about Macy’s coming to town.  Retail stores mattered.

I thought back on those days of innocence this week as word came out that Macy’s would close another 100 stores to instead focus on its internet businesses.

Macy’s isn’t a factor in most walkable urban districts, but the message still stands.  Retail stores are shrinking in importance and shrinking quickly.  And it’s not just the old-line department stores like Macy’s.

The failure of enclosed malls is well-known, with photos of derelict malls rivaling abandoned industrial plants as ruin porn.

Downtown retail is increasingly antique stores and boutiques rather the diapers and canned soup that make up daily shopping lists.

Many strip malls have storefronts lined with butcher paper and leasing signs out front.

The new generation of open malls, whether the conventional configuration with giant parking lots fronting on supersized strip malls or the downtown-emulating lifestyle centers, struggle to fill their space.

Even residential over retail mixed-used, the backbone of many walkable urbanist plans, often can’t find enough tenants to fill the retail space created. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Transportation

The cost of a car-oriented world: Suspended licenses don’t mean what they once did

140313005 Lakeville StreetToday, I’ll write about suspended drivers’ licenses.  It’s a topic that may seem unconnected to urbanism, but the linkages are surprisingly robust.

A few days ago, there was a major traffic accident on the freeway just north of my town.  It was a chain reaction that began when the driver of a car carrier, in a moment of inattention, hit the car in front of him.  Quickly, eight vehicles were involved.

Luckily, no one was killed, with the worst injury being a broken arm.  But the freeway, a major commute route, was closed for hours.  The cost in lost time was substantial.

A day later, it was announced by the Highway Patrol that the driver of the car carrier had a suspended license.  The outcry was predictable, with the public wondering how a driver with a suspended license had been employed and what should be done to keep him off the road.

Thirty years ago, those might have been good questions.  Today, not so much.

In California today, seventeen percent of all drivers are carrying suspended licenses.  Seventeen percent!  In the eight-vehicle pileup noted above, there is nearly a 75 percent that a second driver also had a suspended license.

The proliferation of suspended licenses has roots in the drivable suburban paradigm.  I’ll connect the dots below. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of August 21

130313006 Balshaw BridgeThe number of North Bay public meetings with urbanist overtones seems to be increasing as we approach Labor Day.  Hopefully this will portend a winter of paradigm shifting.  It’s time to get onboard and to begin making your voice heard.  Also, with issues such as municipal elections and the road diet in Petaluma looming, there are also chances for neighborhood outreach.  If you want to make a difference in the world, there are opportunities to do so.

Meetings this Week

Cotati Planning Commission and Rohnert Park Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Monday August 22, 5:30pm, City Council Chamber, Rohnert Park City Hall,  130 Avram Avenue – A few weeks back, I puzzled in this space about a joint meeting that had been scheduled and then cancelled involving public bodies of the adjoining cities of Cotati and Rohnert Park.  I couldn’t imagine what topic could have been of joint interest.  I now have my answer.  They would have assembled for a study session of the “Bicycle and Pedestrian Network Adjacent/Interconnected Facilities.”

And the previously canceled meeting has now been rescheduled for Monday.

Given the adjoining boundaries of the two cities and the moderately continuous land-use pattern, I think a joint study session is a great idea, applaud the two cities for their foresight, and encourage the interested members of the two communities to participate.

Petaluma Planning Commission, Tuesday, August 23, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street – I’m not sure I can truly characterize this as an urbanism issue, but I’m also not sure that it isn’t.  To buttress attendance, the downtown Petaluma movie theatre is asking permission to begin selling beer and wine to moviegoers.

The land-use entitlement angle is sufficiently complex that the Petaluma planning staff had to discourse at length before recommending approval. Continue reading


“Twenty is Plenty” is more than a clever rhyme

141107001 E Washington Street

The subject promised for today has been shoved aside in favor of a subject that abruptly gained urgency.

I’ve previously written about the “Twenty is Plenty” movement.  Adherents promote the argument that most vehicular speeds within towns should be limited to twenty miles per hour.  It’s a crusade that has gained a foothold in Europe, with some towns fully implementing the standard.

In the U.S., there has been less progress, but still some notable successes.  Although not all the way down to the target speed, New York City has dropped many street speed limits to twenty-five miles per hour in response to Twenty is Plenty supporters.  (Update: Hours after publishing this post, I came across news that Boston asked the state to allow them to adjust to a widespread twenty miles per hours.  The state allowed them to go with twenty-five miles per hour.)

It’s easy to think of the movement in an idealistic, bloodless way as creating better walkable places where cars are made less threatening.  But there is a real, flesh-and-blood public safety side to the concept.  I had a front row seat to observe that reality earlier today.

I was returning home, still feeling good about an extended lunch during which a companion and I hashed out strategies for the upcoming city council race.  I was driving on a major arterial in my town, at the far end of the road segment shown above.  There are two travel lanes in each direction, along with a center turn pocket.

As I approached a crosswalk often used by pedestrians, a long line of cars queued up to turn left partially blocked my view.  I couldn’t see if someone might be waiting to cross the street from the near left corner.

Consistent with the law and with common sense, I slowed to check.  Sure enough, there was a young family waiting to cross from left to right, a mother with an infant strapped to her chest, two toddlers being led by their hands, and a dog on a leash.  One of the toddlers was a blond girl of perhaps three. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Towns can overbuild more than infrastructure

Kannapolis City Hall

Kannapolis City Hall

In writing about the best moments from CNU 24, the annual gathering of urbanists held in Detroit earlier this year, I quoted Andres Duany on the role of public buildings, “Urbanist codes should cover residential, commercial, and office buildings, but not public buildings.  It’s in public buildings where architects should be free to depict the grandeur of civilization and civic life.”

It’s a lesson that Kannapolis, North Carolina seems to have taken to heart, perhaps too much so and definitively contrary to the urban planning approach espoused by Duany.

Petaluma City Hall

Petaluma City Hall

I’ll start with the backstory.  In the past few days, I’ve returned from an annual vacation I take with two old friends.  Every year, we pick a different region of the country to visit and then lay out a schedule of minor league ballgames to anchor our itinerary.  This year, our destination of choice was Appalachia, with ballgames in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

But evening ballgames aren’t enough to fill our days, so we’ve evolved into a daily routine of country breakfasts, brewpubs, and local sights.

We’re tolerant of each other’s personal interests, so the choice of local sights is usually driven by individual areas of fascination.  This year alone, we toured a pair of Revolutionary War battlegrounds, engaged in an extended conversation with a park ranger on the nuances of firing older artillery, peered through fences at the moldering remains of one of the largest textile mills in the country, and wandered through the Bristol Motor Speedway. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of August 14

130313006 Balshaw BridgeAs we move into the heart of August, the near-term opportunities for urbanist involvement at public meetings remain scarce, but the September calendar remains promising.  Also, with issues such as municipal elections and the road diet in Petaluma looming, there are chances for neighborhood outreach.  If you want to make a difference in the world, there are always opportunities to do so.

Meetings this Week

Friends of SMART, Wednesday, August 17, 11:30am – Friends of SMART is a citizens group that was instrumental in getting the SMART Train ballot measure passed and continues to fill an oversight role as SMART moves toward revenue service.  I’ve been involved with FoS for more than a year and find them a passionate group, focused on the role SMART can play in the North Bay and on what the next SMART-type rail expansion should be.

If anyone is interested in attending the FoS  Board meeting, let me know and I’ll arrange an invitation.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board, Wednesday, August 17, 1:30pm, 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Petaluma – The agenda for the SMART Board meeting still hasn’t been announced, but with the testing of the full schedule looming ever closer, to be closely followed by revenue service, the agenda will likely include items of urbanist interest.

Petaluma Recreation Music and Park Commission, Wednesday, August 17, 7:00pm, Petaluma Community Center, 320 N. McDowell Boulevard (Note: Not City Hall!) – Sunset Park is an odd little park, hiding in plain sight between the historic Silk Mill and Lakeville Street.  I suspect that many Petalumans don’t even realize that it’s a city park, but they’re wrong. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of August 7

130313006 Balshaw BridgeI returned yesterday from two weeks of travel, filled with enthusiasm to repopulate the event calendar below and to resume my efforts to create an ever larger cadre of urbanist advocates.

And then I checked the civic calendars for the North Bay cities near my town.  I found exactly zero meetings of urbanist interest next week.  Perhaps it’s the nature of early August, but it was disheartening.

Luckily, Petaluma Urban Chat is scheduled for next week.  Otherwise the near-term prospects are bleak, although there is a hope for more meetings as the month progresses.

Also, there are some intriguing September meetings to anticipate.

Meetings this Week

Petaluma Urban Chat, Wednesday, August 10, 7:00pm, Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets, Petaluma – Petaluma Urban Chat meets monthly to discuss land use activities in Petaluma and to consider  strategies to make North Bay cities resilient, environmentally sustainable, and financially stable.  At the upcoming meeting, ongoing urbanist issues in Petaluma will be discussed, such as the road diet that has been proposed for Petaluma Boulevard South.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 12, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – The Petaluma Planning Commission recently rejected the site design for the proposed Marina Apartments on Lakeville Highway east of Highway 101.  The reason was concern over the building massing and architecture, but disappointments were also expressed about the recent Council decision to relieve the applicant of a condition of approval to build a segment of multi-use path. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Another look at my hometown: A snail would move quicker

Downtown Carmichael

Downtown Carmichael

I’ve previously written a couple of times about my hometown of Carmichael, near Sacramento.  Once I noted its supposed turn to urbanism that, while laudable, seemed wrongly focused.  Later, I bade it farewell as my mother sold the family home and moved away.

But hometowns, even those that are the antithesis of walkable urbanism, can set their hooks deep.  I continued to wonder about what was happening there.  And I never got around to unsubscribing from the emails about upcoming projects.

It was the emails that got me to digging more deeply.  It seemed that there had been remarkably little residential development proposed.  So I searched all the 2016 agendas for the Carmichael Community Planning Advisory Council.  In the first nearly seven months of 2016, exactly two projects had been brought forward.

On March 16, an applicant asked about a 48-unit condominium complex.  Then, on July 20, an applicant asked about splitting one lot into two.

In seven months, that would be 49 new residences or about 115 new residents.  For a community of almost 62,000 people, the growth rate would be 0.3 percent.  And that growth rate assumes that both projects proceed, an assumption that’s often wrong.  If the condominium project fails, the growth rate drops to almost zero.

For a community that is far closer to the urban core than many other Sacramento suburbs, has a light-rail system at its north edge, and is served by a bus system that could be stronger but still meets commuting needs, that’s a pathetic growth rate, especially for a place that has expressed a desire to become more urban. Continue reading

Durable Growth

Taking the next step – Opportunities to get involved during the week of July 31

130313006 Balshaw BridgeI’m traveling this week, so my research for the calendar below was close to non-existent.  But both of the meetings in Petaluma could be interesting.  And if readers know of any North Bay meetings that I’ve missed, please add them in the comments.

I’ll repopulate the calendar upon my return in a few days.

Meetings this Week

Petaluma Pedestrian Bicycle Advisory Committee, Wednesday, August 3, 6:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – From what I know of the likely agenda items, the urbanist angles will be limited.  But the conversation about non-auto transportation is often interesting regardless.  (Note: I serve on this committee, but will still be traveling when it convenes.)

Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, Thursday, August 4, 4:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The Transit Advisory Committee will consider the final draft of the Short-Range Transit Plan, a document required  from all Bay Area transit agencies by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.  After nine months of work, the plan will be given a final review and likely passed onto the City Council for their approval.  But there will be time between the Committee meeting and the Council meeting for final edits, so the public is encouraged to participate.  (Note: I’ll chair this meeting after returning from travels only hours before.)

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increased density occurring around BART stations. Continue reading

Durable Growth, Government, Transportation

Perusing the Grand Jury report

County courthouse in Tennessee

County courthouse in Tennessee

The local newspaper recently included the final 2015-16 report from the Sonoma County Civil Grand Jury.  I’m not an expert on grand jury reports, with my interest normally limited to a hope that my name isn’t somewhere in the report.  However, this report seemed nicely structured and written.  Concise, to the point, and not wandering too far afield in a muckraking scavenger hunt.

The Grand Jury noted seven local concerns.  It’s insightful to consider those concerns from an urbanist perspective.

Maintenance funds for County roads are lacking – The inability of government to cover the costs of infrastructure maintenance and other government functions is at the top of most “Why urbanism?” lists, up there with climate change.

Affordable housing is in a continual crisis – Although not often noted, the cost of transportation can approach the cost of housing for low income families.  And yet affordable housing is frequently built on sites where cars are essential, many times ensuring that the families in affordable housing will continue to lose financial ground.

One solution is to put affordable housing in places where walkability, bikeability, and transit are reasonable options, such as near downtowns.

But the better solution to make more of the community into places where walkability, bikeability, and transit are reasonable options, including current affordable housing developments.   This solution is the central goal of walkable urbanism.

The Law Library is in financial trouble – The proposed solution requires additional funds from the County, the same County that is already struggling to find resources to maintain infrastructure and other services because of the cost of suburbia.

Retirement benefits for the County Public Library are underfunded – Yet another financial concern for a County government that already has too many because of the costs of suburbia.

The County should be doing a better job of overseeing Special Districts – See above. Continue reading