Durable Growth

Balancing tourism and urbanism

River Inn, Memphis, Tennessee

River Inn, Memphis, Tennessee

Last year, a group of Sonoma citizens put forth a ballot measure to limit downtown hotel development in their city.  I was generally supportive of their goal, but disliked how the measure was structured.

I feared that setting a maximum hotel size and prohibiting new hotel development until high occupancy rates were reached in the existing hotels were ill-conceived tools, sufficiently flawed that the goal of managing hotel growth might be undermined.  As a result, I argued against Ballot Measure B.  My position elicited a strong response among many readers, particularly on the Patch website.

The ballot measure failed by a small margin.

This year, a group of Healdsburg citizens is beginning to bang the same drum.   Thus far, their primary effort has been the use of a poll with uncertain statistical validity to encourage the City Council to adopt lodging restrictions, encouragement against which the Council is pushing back.  Because they’re still early in their process, the group hasn’t yet defined the tools that they’d propose, although they’ve suggested a hotel size restriction similar to the Sonoma measure.

Once again, I’m supportive of the goal of balancing lodging versus local residents in walkable settings.  I understand the attractiveness to tourists of walkable urban places.  When I travel, I love to stay in small hotels from where I can walk about, enjoying the local shops and non-chain restaurants.

However, I understand that it’s possible to love a place too much, that too many visitors can destroy the character which they came to enjoy.

A recent article in Salon focuses on this concern, with particular attention to Barcelona and Venice.  The writer differentiates between voyagers who bore deeply into the local culture, exploring nooks far from the established tourist paths and dining in restaurants where none of the waitstaff speaks English, and tourists who take photos of the best-known landmarks, buy t-shirts, and head back to their cruise ships.

I like to think that I’m closer to the voyager model in my travels, but acknowledge that even voyagers can change the character of a place if there are too many of them.

On the other hand, tourism can bring economic benefits.  The Salon article notes that tourism makes up 12 percent of the economy of Catalonia, the Spanish province that includes Barcelona.  And tourists can help sustain the downtown restaurants that the locals love.

So, how to balance the two sides of the debate, without using the tools proposed by the Sonoma citizens that I found defective?

Having pondered the question since the failure of Sonoma Ballot Measure B, I have an idea to propose.  (I also offered some thoughts when I wrote about Measure B.  This proposal supplants those thoughts.)  I won’t try to phrase my idea in the legal language that would be required for a true ballot measure.  I’ll just offer a lay version.  If it finds resonance anywhere, others can worry about getting the words right.

I’ll start by limiting my proposal to hotels in walkable locations, which I’ll define as locations within a block of a sidewalk that has an average daily pedestrian count of at least 1,000 people.  I don’t know if 1,000 is the best value, but it seems about right and equates to a peak hour pedestrian count of perhaps 100, or slightly little less than two pedestrians per minute.  Many downtown sidewalks have much higher pedestrian counts.

This limitation would exclude the chain motels by the freeway.  The hotels may have their own land use issues, but have little relationship to walkable urbanism so can be addressed by others.

Once a hotel is determined to be in a walkable setting, a map should be drawn, determining all city blocks that lie completely within a line drawn 2,000 feet of the hotel site.  Like the 1,000 pedestrians per hour, 2,000 feet is a guess, but seems reasonable.  A quarter-mile is considered an easy walk and a half-mile is the usual outer limit of walkable urbanism.  Two thousand feet is a balance.  Also, including only complete blocks avoids dealing with partial lots.

For all the blocks identified, the number of permitted residences and lodging units should be tabulated.  This could become a challenging mapping effort, but not unlike other efforts required during an entitlement process

Then, no hotel project would be permitted if the resulting total of lodging units would be more than 40 percent of the number of residential units.

Once again, 40 percent is a best guess.  Less than 30 percent would seem to leave economic potential untapped and more than 50 percent would risk swamping the locals in a sea of tourists.  If someone has data to support a different number, I’m interested.

In addition to finding a good balance between tourists and locals, this standard would also offer several incentives that could benefit the community.  Homes in walkable urban settings often have unpermitted secondary living units.  An example might be a basement apartment with plumbing that doesn’t meet code.  A potential hotel developer might be motivated to work with homeowners to bring unpermitted living units up to code.  For every five units that are made legal, another two rooms could be added to the hotel.

Also, a potential developer might be more willing to invest in downtown residential projects.  Or to add a floor of residential units to a hotel.

Non-hotel lodging businesses, such as Airbnb and VRBO, would also factor into this subject.  The topic of a recent spirited meeting in Petaluma, I support the regulation of non-hotel lodging units, including the identification of all units and the collection of transient occupancy taxes.   Those units should then count against the 40 percent standard, but with the expectation that a potential hotel developer could pay an Airbnb operator to cease operation in order to increase the hotel room count.

Also, as with the hotel restrictions, no new Airbnb or VRBO units would be allowed if the 40 percent standard would be exceeded.

Some may note that downtown hotels aren’t the only source of downtown visitors.  I agree that folks staying in the hotels by the freeway or making daytrips from nearby towns may overload downtown settings.  But with the possible exception of adjusting the 40 percent standard if the number of day visitors is huge, I’d argue that the day visitor issue is a different challenge and should be addressed separately.

Before closing, some may note that the standard doesn’t touch on the aesthetics of hotels.  I’m sympathetic to the concern that many hotels present blank facades that deaden pedestrian interest.  But the same can be true of theatres or office buildings.  Rather than addressing the concern is a piecemeal fashion, I’d suggest that a comprehensive approach to downtown aesthetics is appropriate.  But if the aesthetics can be mastered and unit count fits within the 40 percent standard, I don’t care if a hotel is 25 or 125 units.

Lastly, I should note that the standard proposed above doesn’t apply in all settings, particularly the downtowns of major cities where most travelers are business people.  The standard would be nonsense in the Financial District of San Francisco.  But it seems that a standard like this would fit in every North Bay city.

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

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

2 comments to Balancing tourism and urbanism

  • Always very nice to see someone name a number for what pedestrian volume is sufficient to consider a place walkable!

    I’ve only developed the ability to think about this stuff in terms of intersection counts, not screenline counts, but if the 1000 people are for both directions on each side of each street, that should translate to about 400 peak-hour crossings at intersections, which I agree is about the low end of an acceptable pedestrian volume for a commercial street. I think it takes about twice that to be really comfortable, and about half that is enough on a purely residential street.

    • Eric, thanks for the comment. I know that traffic studies are is generally based on intersections because those are the flow restrictions. For pedestrians, it made sense to me to look at sidewalks instead because that seems more tied to vitality. But obviously the two measures would be closely linked.

      In any case, I’ll admit that I was going on gut instinct, not technical knowledge. So your concurrence that my set point seems reasonable is much appreciated.