BridgePlaza

Overpassing the Value of Public Space

Public Space, Urban Design

Caltrans does not restrict the right of free speech with handheld banners, but attaching flags or banners is not allowed,” a Caltrans-Spokesman told the San Jose Mercury News. He added, “We are concerned that people waving handheld banners could cause driver distraction — putting their safety or that of the motoring public at risk.

Today, we have prioritized the ‘motoring public’ over all other aspects of public life.

Our failure to cultivate the value and quality of our public spaces and public life is found in this picture of protesters and political advocates on a freeway overpass. Our cities are made up of public buildings, streets, squares and private lots, blocks and buildings. But when people want to be heard, seen, and get their message out to as many people as possible, they now gather on freeway bridge overpasses… for its on the freeways where everyone else can be found today, and not on our public street corners and squares.

Public assembly, free speech, and protests are cornerstones of American society. Our history includes the creation of National Parks and grand public spaces, such as Central Park, Golden Gate, and Balboa Park. They were created by us to, among other things, excercise our inalienable right to free speech and assembly. And, we continue to express our values in public and innovative ways as seen in the Occupy Wall Street protests, vile Trump rallies, and New York’s High Line success. These events are reflective of how our civilization grows and transitions over time.

We collectively expect access to public space in order to communicate with the bureaucracy running the machinery of our nation, state and city. We also know we must endeavor to protect these rights, as well as the spaces where these rights are exercised; Neither of which is easy.

In San Diego, our historic downtown ‘Speakers Corner’ is now long forgotten as 5th & E Street was the scene of great civil unrest a century ago. And, today’s homelessness explosion in our city has disturbed our relationship with public spaces. And, now our public parks and plazas are security patrolled, well-programmed, and require permits to use.

We also expect them to be animated with attractions to hold our limited attention spans or they’re considered ‘boring.’ As Camillo Sitte wrote over a century ago that, “In former times the open spaces—streets and plazas—were designed to have an enclosed character for a definite effect. Today we normally begin by parceling out building sites, and whatever is left over is turned into streets and plazas.” And, admittedly so, these stand-alone left over space ‘parks’ are too often inadequate and in need of bells and whistles to attract the ‘motoring public’ from far flung suburbs.

When I see people expressing their views on freeway overpasses, I see our civilization under duress or at least in transition – from gathering in the square to holding signs on an overpass bridge. These are one-way statements and this type of conversation does not facilitate a dialog and understanding. Sadly, this illustrates how far we’ve receded from what urban design guru Leon Krier teaches, “The architecture of the city and public space is a matter of common concern to the same degree as laws and language – they are the foundation of civility and civilization.”

Downtown Block

Design Thinking…

Urban Design, Urban Planning

It has taken me years to learn that no matter how many times I draw my little comic pictures, which I’ve been doodling since I was a kid, I am not an artist. Limited by well-honed procrastination techniques (see this blog), my design technique is to ‘craft’ images by any media/means necessary to express my design ideas. Understanding that I’m a craftsman has made it easier for me to convey my ‘design thinking’ to others. The following is my design process… for better or worse!

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My cartoons sketches, as good as they will ever get, are unlike Geoff Dyer‘s drawings, as I continue to learn how to move from cartoon to a publishable illustration.

The duality of life… life/death, sun/moon, light/dark, man/woman, formal/informal, yen/yang, etc… is an inherent basis for my design approach.

As Viennese architect Camillo Sitte wrote in 1889, the distinction of these dual powers is found in the Temporal realm (political) and the Spiritual (religious) realm. These require distinctive public centers, such as the Public Forum/Agora, Market Hall, Temple/Church Square, and Manor Palaces/City Halls. Leon Krier further identifies that our neighborhoods (res Civitas), and their resulting character, are defined by a public realm (the street, square, and civic buildings – res publica) in relationship to our private realm (blocks, yards and building – res economica). And, Andres Duany’s brilliant planning and design tool, the Transect, distinguishes the gradations between nature and the urban core. These truisms set the context or parametric for how I begin to design a place.

The duality of designing places begins with the assembly of two components. The first is man-made geometry (the circle, square, and triangle are not found in nature), and the second is crafting these shapes towards a specific location’s cultural values. Geometry equates to the project’s spiritual aspiration and higher purpose. When applied to a local culture’s memory and expectation it provides the design an emotion or accent. How ‘local’ you apply these shapes shifts the design from either a more formal classical pattern or towards a more local vernacular or dialect.

The story told by the above language is the design’s ‘Controlling Purpose,’ (per Frederick Law Olmsted), ‘High Concept,’ (per J Mays), or ‘What’s the Big Idea!‘ (per Frank Wolden). And then everything else plays a supporting role to the big rational idea. This is when the project moves from diagrams towards design.

As a child I enjoyed drawing. As a New Urbanist, my design aspiration is beauty, to improve the quality of people’s lives, and connect us with places that we feel good in. This agrees with Aristotle who summarized every principle of city building with: “A city should be a built to give its inhabitants security and happiness.”

I agree with JMay’s that beauty is revealed in the further refinement of proportion (scale/intensity), line (flow), and shape (form)… in that order of importance.

A correct proportion is determined by the project’s aspiration, role, and character as expressed in a locale’s memory and expectations. The line leads the project’s ‘flow’ and the form/shape expands from the line (See Renzo’s image below). A favorite quote on lines from ‘The Education of Henry Adams‘ is: “He knew the artistic standard was the illusion of his own mind; that English disorder approached nearer the truth, if truth existed, than French measure or Italian line, or German logic.”

California Academy of Sciences

Renzo Piano’s Big Idea and line for the California Academy of Sciences Building (Image from Gordon Chong Partners)

Calfiornia Academy of Sciences Building

From Big Idea to a Public Building that Reflected the cultural values of San Francisco at that moment in time (Image from Gordon Chong Partners)

Following this yen/yang big picture thread, Leon Krier once said, “All it takes is just one wiggle…” to make a tremendous difference in making a great place within a monotonous grid of US west city streets. Leon tends to lean towards a less formal ‘flow,’ much like my other design hero Geoff Dyer. And, I understand that I lean towards a more formal ‘flow’ starting with a grid pattern and deviating only stubbornly during the public charrette.

Vernacular Classic Urbanism

Krier’s diagrams shows less ordered (vernacular) and more ordered (classical) design patterns

Another helpful design tip came from Andres Duany, who encouraged me with, “Don’t get in the way of the flow,” and allow the local context to tame my classically ordered street patterns.  And finally, Liz Plater-Zyberk, Andres’ partner, wrote that ‘Urbanism is the tension between two buildings,” as that tension gives ‘life’ to these two forms. Indeed.

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The Line, profile pattern of buildings, led to the pattern of Shapes/Forms. (Civic Innovation Lab project w/David Saborio)

ECB&30thAH

Its not Smart Growth… It’s Called Avoiding a Housing Crisis

Climate Action Plan, San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

(First printed in here on March 1, 2016)

California’s Bay Area housing disaster tells Southern Californians that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is both an irrational and irresponsible response. We are faced with deciding to have more neighbors or pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure. The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers.

I believe answers to meet San Diego’s housing demand are found in the following two-tier approach:

The first tier is a baseline ‘Beach Density,’ which I’ve written about here. An existing housing model found in our older, traditional beach neighborhoods that fills our need for the ‘missing middle’ types of housing. This model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, the entire city can enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle that this Beach Model provides us.

The second tier is more precisely located ‘Climate Action Zones.’ Per its recently adopted Climate Action Plan, the city of San Diego is required to take actions to “Implement transit-oriented development within Transit Priority Areas,” and to “[a]chieve better walkability and transit-supportive densities by locating a majority of all new residential development within Transit Priority Areas.” In combination with the Beach Density’s baseline housing bump, these Climate Action Zones are intended to achieve our city’s legally binding Climate Action Plan within a reasonable timeline.1 We cannot expect the city to complete it all at once, but it can accommodate for an urban acupunctural approach… pin pricks at key points to make great change.

These ‘zones’ will require updated and new city policies, including community plan updates, to facilitate increases of land use intensity near our region’s transit investments. Fortunately, we have one of our nation’s first and best Transit-Oriented Development (TOD) guidelines written by planning guru Peter Calthrope in 1992 that have sat neatly on a shelf in the city’s Planning Department over these many years, having been emasculated by our currently suburban and convoluted parking regulations. We should dust these off, as they’ve been proven throughout the world – as well as Portland – to increase transit ridership. In addition, we should manage our off-street parking and simplify one space per unit to permit transit, walking, and biking to be as advantageous as driving.

SD GP Map Before

City of San Diego Plan Before Climate Action Zones

A ‘tower’ in San Diego is a building over 7 stories, and are only appropriate in one or two areas beyond downtown. However, 4 – 6 stories have been built in our old streetcar neighborhoods since their founding 100 years ago, as this height is a ‘walk up’ and appropriate in ‘walkable’ neighborhoods. Climate Action Zones should be located on the 4 to 8 blocks (600 feet radius) around primary intersections with cross-street transit service, currently built as 60’s era gas stations, drive-thrus, and strip centers.

SD GP Map AFTER

San Diego Development Potential with Climate Action Zones

Data shows that the majority of trips within 600 feet of a transit station are made by transit, bike or foot. These zones would permit mixed-use, up to 7 stories/90 feet tall max, using our TOD guidelines that allow for shared parking ratios with limited Community Plan conformance reviews in order to ensure transition steps to protect neighbors. Rather than waiting to build another Rancho del Rancho on our suburban periphery, these retrofitted intersections will be the focus of new development for the next 15-years. Successful case studies include Salt Lake’s Commuter, Light Rail (LRT), and Streetcar corridor economic engine, Dallas’s new LRT stations and Klyde Warren Park and Historic Streetcar value explosion, and Denver’s new infill coding success.

It is untenable to keep century old urban communities from change. But we know change brings fear to local citizens, which is why this two-tier approach makes very clear that new housing can fit comfortably within our current lifestyle if we explicitly plan for what we need using San Diego proven models. Finally, we have to plan for the change we want in order to fix our infrastructure, add public spaces, and to continue to be relevant to working economies by providing attainable housing, accessible transportation, and our unique outdoor lifestyle.

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An Archive of Blogs… (this title has that ‘Led Zeppelin’ or ‘Jumbo Shrimp’ feel to it)

Social Media, Urban Design, Urban Planning

My former company, PlaceMakers, has a great blog site and wealth of blogs archived to mine a wealth of urban design, community buildings, and innovative ideas from. They fortunately keep my old blogs on their database that can be found here.

They are also recirculating a very good idea Scott Doyon played with from a comment I made in an earlier blog on ‘PlaceShaking vs. PlaceMaking.’ It can be found here and think its relevant to our smaller steps to city making and how we get things done in the 21st century. Check them out, they do great work and I’m looking forward to their new plaza in Downtown Las Cruces grand opening soon. Cheers!

NolenBroadwayVision

A collaborative approach to fixing North Park’s few problems

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

North Park Community Plan Update – We Can Do Better by Working Together

By Howard Blackson and Don Leichtling

North Park is one of San Diego’s finest communities. It has many distinctive neighborhoods, with most containing block after block of beautiful bungalows of all varieties. It contains award winning schools, and every quarter-mile or so, neighborhood centers that contain great restaurants, small shops, brew pubs, and corner markets.  Hipsters, elderly, and families with kids love living in North Park because it is already both walkable and diverse.

Historic North Park also has its share of problems because of its age, but now changes are occurring to make it even better because North Park is now one of San Diego’s most desirable places to live.  The City has earmarked funds for the long awaited new urban park behind the North Park theater, SANDAG has begun design of major new bicycle friendly routes, MTS has just finished building Rapid Bus lanes with stations along El Cajon Boulevard (ECB), and new joint-use park facilities are also being developed with local schools.

The City has also spent the past six years investing in a much-needed update to its 1986 North Park Community Plan in an effort to fix some of these problems. The community plan is a policy document intended to provide clear direction for the next steps to make our larger goals come to life.  We think the following recommendation are better approaches in achieving the goals stated in the Community Plan Update, which are with our clarifications in [Brackets]:

  • A diversity of housing types with varying levels of affordability;
  • Businesses that contribute to the vitality and growth of the community in harmony with [their nearby] residential neighborhoods;
  • A circulation system that offers safe, multi-modal access between jobs, shopping, recreation, businesses, schools, and residential neighborhoods;
  • A [safe] community that is a center for creativity and enriched by public art;
  • Employment and mixed-use centers that allow North Park residents to work where they live through the attraction of new businesses and higher paying jobs;
  • A high level of public facilities that not only meet the needs of the community, but serve to enhance community identity [and improve the quality of life for everyone];
  • A community that fosters the expansion of [healthy] recreational opportunities through traditional and innovative ways [that guarantees equal access for all];
  • Open space resources that are managed, maintained [or enhanced as density is added];
  • Sustainable residential neighborhoods and business districts;
  • Cultural and historic resources that are respected and preserved through historic designations and adaptive re-use [whose numbers continue to grow as North Park’s housing stock ages]. 

Our Areas of Concern

On El Cajon Boulevard (ECB) high-speed traffic, along with the hookers, new and old drive-thru restaurant’s and older, dilapidated single story commercial buildings have been problematic for 50+ years. These elements have slowed the revitalization of this major transit corridor through North Park.  Many believe that now is the time to build upon the median upgrades and high speed transit improvements have been recently installed.

On University Avenue, the long vacant Woolworths building is a constant reminder of what San Diego’s first thriving shopping district once was.  In the late 1950’s, developers disinvested in North Park’s business district and poured their money into new commercial areas first in Mission Valley and then at almost every new freeway interchange north of it, as ever more people used cars to go shopping.

In the 1960s and into the early 1980s, developers started to build Huffman 6 unit buildings or “six-packs”, where once there were single-family homes.  These were the cheapest form of then market rate housing at the time but they lowered the quality of North Parks building stock through, because they added housing units without any infrastructure, appropriate parking or Quality of Life (QOL) improvements.

Huffman

(Image of Huffman 6-Pack by Howard Blackson)

Our Simple Approach

In order to clearly articulate to developers, residents, business owners and decision-makers what the community plan intends to do, we recommend a simple but effective approach:

  • Protect and build upon the best elements of each neighborhood within North Park;
  • Design better ways to fix our worst problems, instead of leaving it up to chance;
  • Make sure that all the new projects connect to the best neighborhood elements in ways that fulfill our community’s values and goals.

Our Recommendations 

1. Expedite designation of potential historic resources. The goals of the Community Plan Update state the community’s intent to protect its wonderful historic resources, the Burlingame Historic District, the North Park Theater, the iconic green water tower as well as the many blocks of soon to be historic bungalows as outlined in the plan’s historic district designation. This will ensure that all new development protects these identified resources, while providing the maximum amount of much needed Low and Low-Moderate additional housing and other business resources. The plan’s historic district designation is being updated at this time and needs to spell out clearer policies, such as expedited historic designations processes for those areas identified as being potential new historic districts, which will increase North Parks attraction to San Diego’s visitors. (See the Draft Community Plan Land Use and Historic Preservation Elements for reference linked here)

Burlingame

(Image of Burlingame Historic District by Howard Blackson)

2. Build upon the new Rapid Bus transit route along ECB to provide a more active multi-modal circulation system. We need to expeditiously link North Park with job centers in Mission Valley, Downtown, Sorrento Valley, and our neighboring communities.  We support new bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure first. These systems are spelled out in the plan’s Circulation Element, but must it must be explicitly linked to create new value for more high quality development projects. (See Mobility Element)

3. Our worst problems are found in 60’s-era auto centered drive thru restaurants, haphazard buildings located nearer to historic bungalow blocks rather than on our main streets, and a limited housing supply for rent restricted Low and Low-Moderate income people which includes the young and old alike. A better way to fix these problems is to state that we should retrofit El Cajon Boulevard first.  At key well-connected intersections, we should encourage 6-stories or less mixed-use buildings. These buildings can add both long term rent restricted Low and Low-Moderate housing plus some market rate “attainable” housing while providing new employment and business opportunities for all.

Since 1986, El Cajon Boulevard’s zoning has been 109 dwelling units per acre [du/ac] with unlimited height and has failed to encourage mixed use development as we continue to build new drive-thru restaurants. To shift the development pattern from the current “auto-oriented strip commercial” to a better mixed-use transit supported pattern, the ECB corridor should be clearly identified in the plan’s Land Use element with 145 dwelling units per acre with an 80-foot height limit on lots located on the property fronting ECB with a ‘Community Review’ process, while at the same time, requiring set backs from and stepping down to its alley, so as to not create a linear walls looming over its neighbors across the alley (see diagrams below). Because this new development is located where the community gets the most value for new development’s location, a more predictable city entitlement ‘Process 3’ should be used to focus it here while at the same time making it more difficult to occur in the stable historic residential blocks. (See Land Use and Urban Design Elements)

NP_CPU_ECB_SectionNP_CPU_ECB_Axon

(Diagrams of how new buildings should step down towards neighboring homes by Howard Blackson)

Focus new development along ECB, over the next 20+ years, with enhanced design standards that will also protect the adjacent residential neighborhoods from the building height transition along ECB.  This will connect not only the new housing, jobs, and shops to the rest of North Park’s great neighborhoods but also to our parks, other new future transit public investments, and public improvements. Likewise, new development on University Avenue, Park Boulevard, Adams Avenue, 30th Street north of University Ave. and Texas Street will need to make use of similar scaled down transition rules, that relate to lot size and road widths as found in the plan’s Urban Design Element. This emphasis on transition rules is concurrent with the community’s many already and soon to be historic districts in the areas north and south of ECB and south of University Avenue as listed in the Historic Preservation Element being updated now. (See Land Use, Mobility, Urban Design and Implementation Elements)

YouGotMail

(Image of building stepping up towards neighboring homes by Don Leichtling)

4. Redeveloping former strip centers like El Cajon Boulevard is now a successful national trend. A similar transition between building patterns and scale is needed to replace the most rundown of our auto-oriented Huffman six-pack apartments, clustered in the blocks between El Cajon Boulevard and University Avenue.  Because this is an innovative approach the entire city can learn from, the replacement of selected Huffman’s needs to have wide spread public support with clear design policies and standards that allow North Park to test and measure proposed outcomes prior to enabling across-the-board retrofits. Most of these buildings are scattered haphazardly and we must test new retrofit approaches in order to avoid repeating past mistakes, mostly due to added density without amenity.  Most North Park’s residents will support ‘Quality Density’ improvements benefiting everyone equally, rather than just adding more Density in certain areas. We recommend any increase in density comes with design standards and a high-level ‘Community Review’ Process 4 with a 1 to 3 years ‘testing’ period statement. (See Land Use and Urban Design Elements)

5. Make managed parking areas less difficult to create, more flexible to share, and easier to find since parking is a concern always cited. “Hunt-and-peck” parking is becoming more and more difficult, especially in older neighborhoods whose homes have undersized turn-of-the-century garages and that are located near popular night-time businesses. This is especially important to all those who, for whatever reason, are not able to walk long distances or ride a bike.  Having access to parking ensures better access to North Park.  Having different parking management plans for the business corridors (ie. El Cajon Boulevard and University Ave) while at the same time protecting the residential properties located within walking distance to the business districts is imperative to the plan. Of great importance similar to historic district preservation and focusing new development on ECB, the Mobility Element must explicitly allow neighborhoods adjacent to business districts the ability to designate managed parking areas as a top priority (See Mobility Element, section 3.5.)

We realize that the new NP Community Plan is a living document that needs our continued scrutiny, adaptations, and support to achieve our collective goals.  Now after several years of draft plans and many late night meetings, all these issues are now being outlined in multiple Community Plan Elements listed above, and they will be finalized over the upcoming weeks.  In order we may together plan the best possible future for our neighborhood, we have collaborated on these recommendations in hopes of helping both preservationists and urbanists understand and support these conclusions, which we feel best address North Park’s most pressing problems.

(Mr. Don Leichtling is a local preservationist and whom I appreciate debating on ways to improve our local community. I want to thank Don for collaborating with me on these recommendations)

DowntownDogs

Urban Acupuncture – Homelessness

San Diego, Urban Planning

Homeless Americans are not illegal refugees to be incarcerated and deported. While a criminal element has easily exploited our homeless poor’s predicament, they too are being supported by our current haphazard hand-out response to our homeless economic issue. Fortunately, homelessness doesn’t directly affect a majority of San Diegans, but these citizens are in desperate need of an alert and immediate response from those of us able to help.

In our neighborhoods, seeing people sleeping or living on our streets is painful. It is a reminder of our need both small-scale built form response as well as a large-scale health and human services responses to the too visible problem in our city. Doing a little as possible to date has only exacerbated the issue and we now having linger ramifications that bring out both the best and worse in us.

For 2016, I recommend the City of San Diego enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with various Homeless advocacy groups to allow the public facilities necessary to provide basic human services in the public street’s right-of-way, such as portable restrooms, bathing and shelter facilities. This MOU is similar to the agreements the city has with utility companies to allow for electrical boxes to sit permanently in our sidewalks, and would legally allow parking spaces and street frontages to be utilized for transitioning homeless people to more dignified living arrangements faster. This is similar to how we treat our refugees of natural disasters, such as New Orleans after Katrina and New Jersey after Sandy.

This simple paper agreement is intended to transform our first response to homelessness from a being crime into a humanitarian effort in order to get our people off the streets and into homes in a streamlined and morally responsive rather than combative manner.

BeachDensity

Beach Density

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

San Diego’s Missing Middle

The Bay Area’s housing disaster tells San Diegans that our housing crisis will only get worse and doing nothing is not an option. We have to decide whether we want more neighbors or to pay more taxes as we desperately need money to fix our city’s crumbling infrastructure.  The conundrum is that we despise taxes and the mere mention of ‘density’ polarizes any discussion into either demands for no new growth or building tall towers. Fortunately, we have a housing model that fills the ‘missing middle’ that more responsibly grows our city.

San Diego’s beach areas are home to our most vehemently defended neighborhoods. It’s healthy, outdoor-oriented lifestyle, when coupled with parking constraints, begs people to walk and ride bikes year ‘round. Our beach density model is essentially a residence or shop with three (3) to five (5) units on each lot that are no more than two (2) to three (3) stories tall. All of these homes and businesses are mixed together every few blocks or so. While housing prices are very high in the beach areas, this is mostly due to its finite land availability and layers of regulatory constraints, but those are lessons to be learned. Our beach density’s real value to the rest of San Diego is found in its mixed-use walkable urbanism pattern/model that creates more housing and economic development opportunities.

SouthMission

South Mission Beach’s Gentle Density (Image Creative Commons)

The best places to test this middle ground housing model would be any neighborhood in and around our existing Urbanized Areas. Such as, Southeast San Diego, Golden Hill, South Park and along our major corridors, such as El Cajon Boulevard, University Avenue, and Bay Park, City Heights, and the cities of La Mesa, Lemon Grove, and National City.  Hurtles to allowing for this gentle uptick in housing would primarily be our citizen’s natural ‘fear-of-change’ reflex, which is why using a local model makes sense (as opposed to an imported Portland or Vancouver model). This is somewhat due to our quality of life being ‘precariously’ high, as our home values are a major part of our personal wealth. Therefore, we are very leery of any change that may affect any of that value. 

Another issue will be found in unbundling the many layers of inconsistent development rules and regulations. Today’s zoning rules are based on a 1960’s suburbia building model while Pacific, Mission, and Ocean Beach areas were built in the pre-zoning traditional neighborhood era. In addition, outdated traffic calculations are still in use to measure and mitigate for new housing wrongfully giving us suburban infrastructure facilities and financing estimates. Finally, we would need SANDAG to allocate meaningful funding of pedestrian and bicycle facilities to improve our sidewalks, street trees, lighting, bike lanes, cycle tracks, and transit stops.

The benefits of urbanizing ‘elegantly’ are more urban housing choices with healthier lifestyles that lead to less demand for new suburban housing in the back country, and a spreading-of-the-wealth as local land owners will build most of these units, as opposed to international developers, ensuring that rents are recirculated within our economy. With average lot sizes in traditional San Diego neighborhoods ranging from 5,000 to 6,800 square feet, five (5) units on these lots on a typical lot would support regional transit service, neighborhood scale shops, restaurants, and professional office. And, assurances in maintaining the beloved character of mixed-use walkable places will be found in making any deviations from more precise zoning rules impossible.

Our city is in desperate need for ‘attainable’ housing and our beach density model provides the most fitting solution. By allowing every lot in San Diego’s urbanized areas to have up to five (5) units’ by-right, we have the opportunity to solve for our critical housing and infrastructure financing deficiencies without dramatically altering our city’s character. Ultimately, we can all enjoy and benefit from our healthy, outdoor lifestyle the beach model provides us.

4 Square - 3

2.1.2 - 5

2.2.1 - 3

Wide Variety of Design in a Narrow Range to Respect Neighbors Privacy (Images by David Saborio)

UPDATE (12.28.2015): How to Allow for Beach Densities:

  • Eliminate off-street parking minimums (Transit/Bike/Walk);
  • Eliminate minimum lots sizes and minimum lot dimensions;
  • Up-zone any parcel that allows a single family house to 2-5 units;
  • Covert per unit development impact fees to per SF impact fees and eliminate development impact fees in the places where you want development;
  • Take Main Street back from the State DOT. (increased revenues from getting on-street parking back and taming the overly wide arterial will more than cover the increased maintenance costs);
  • Amend your adopted fire code (zero lot line for sideyard setbacks);
  • Adopt City of San Diego endorsed NACTO Street standards;
  • Allow for self-certification by Licensed Architects. Building permit issued by the Architect with required notification of the municipality to keep the assessor’s records current.
NUFFCrawford

On the Perception of Safety, Density, and Other Voice of San Diego Articles… Plus a New Urban Film Fest!

Urban Design

Last week I wrote this article on Urban Design and our sense of safety and place that was well read.

And, a few months ago I wrote this article on density that is in this blog somewhere else, but I wanted to let Voice of San Diego know that I appreciated their willingness to let me share my professional perspective on how to make San Diego a great city.

And, this week is the New Urban Film Festival at the ACME Theater in Hollywood. Tomorrow is our CNU-California Chapter Annual Meeting and Award presentations. Last year, City of Santa Monica City Manager Rick Cole won our annual Paul Crawford Award. This year, we awarded it to Sustainable Transportation Guru, Jeffrey Tumlin, and honored the work of the Local Governments Commission. Hope some of you can join us tomorrow for the presentation. Cheers!

Balancing competing public and private interests (image unattributed, sorry)

“San Diego Urban Planning !”… now go wash your mouth out with soap.

Urban Design, Urban Planning

“A fundamental aspect of planning…is the disjuncture between individual rationality and collective rationality. […] In certain situations, individual preferences aggregated to a societal level produce illogical or undesirable outcomes, including rubber-necking delays on highways and hockey players’ reluctance to wear helmets. In such situations, if the group made a decision as a whole, it would be far different from the sum of the individual decisions of the members. In a market-oriented economy, planning’s reason for being is fundamentally tied to this disjunction between individual rationality and collective rationality.* 

Isn’t that the role of planning in governing our cities, mediating short-term, long-term, and emergency decisions? Having a plan limits and manages risk in the market place by providing the vision, codes, and certainty to the legal entitlement process and economic responses to building the city. City building innovations and managing their risk set the baseline economic value for the market to respond to. Managing these elements is our city’s planning department’s policy and regulatory responsibility.

However, because creating a vision and then coding that vision is an iterative public and political process, the collective preference is usually at odds with the individual… be it the “no-change neighbor” or the “starry-eyed developer.” In the end, the built results illustrate the values of what our ‘group decision.’ We can drive along Harbor Drive to see the results of what San Diego collectively values over time (hotels, convention center, baseball parks, and other economic silver bullets).

I’ve previously written about Urban Design and Planning’s precarious position between a rock and a hard place in the City of San Diego here. After coffee last week with Michael Stepner, FAIA, FAICP, we came to the conclusion that San Diego’s planning history is actually a culture of trying to “get out of the way”. Our city leadership will support planning in good times, but then we are just as supportive of throwing it out in bad times. Mike‘s opinion was formed by seeing several iterations of its rise and demise over his award-winning career.

Stepner Experiencing a Re-Organization of Planning (image: MStepner)

Stepner Experiencing a Re-Organization of Planning (image: MStepner)

My opinion of our planning-as-little-as-possible approach is formed by empirical observation and review of San Diego’s historical planning documents, and their negative connotations. Kevin Lynch and Donald Appleyard gave us, A Temporary Paradise?, with its title illustrating that San Diego is missing its opportunity to take advantage of our cultural and natural assets (canyons, border, bay). Plus, we started planning in 1908 with John Nolen stating upfront, “Notwithstanding its advantages of situation, climate, and scenery, San Diego is to-day neither interesting nor beautiful. Its city plan is not thoughtful, but on the contrary, ignorant and wasteful.” I get it.

We are still having a hard time with planning today as needed Community Plan Updates go through referendums and delays. Transit-Station Areas plans turn into protesting mobs fearful of 60-foot tall ‘towers of terror!’ And, add in the fact that two nationally-recognized urban planning / smart growth gurus, Bill Fulton and Bill Anderson, were un-ceremonially relieved of their planning director’s duties, its time for cultural shift of planning expectations here. That said, I am very fond of local planner, Jeff Murphy, and am pleased he accepted the director position this week.

Canadian planning director rock stars, Brent Toderian (Vancouver) and Jennifer Kasmit (Toronto), both recently stated that “Planning Directors need to be truth tellers.” Telling the truth builds trust, and it is trust that is lacking between San Diego and its professional planners. Our profession has historically been vilified as consultants to evil developers, administrators of wasteful regulations, and stooges for unjust political agendas. I get it. 

Part of our cultural problem with planning is that in good economic times, San Diego historically tends to value planning as a tool to slow or mollify development spikes. For when money is flowing, it floods our city. And, in bad times, we eliminated planning for it then gets in the way of continues to slows any new building, because thats how it had been used before the sudden crash. 

Therefore, we need to learn how to use planning as tool to guide our city buildings, and providing public services as well as limit private investment risks, in both good times and bad. This change will take a cultural shift, and it takes time cultivate culture. The following points are how I think we can start this shift:

REALLY LEARN FROM DOWNTOWN

No, I do not mean scatter downtown’s high-design residential towers across the city (we tried that 40 years ago and it got us the 30-foot height limit along the coast). I mean review the tools that changed its culture from a 9-to-5 business district into mixed-use, more walkable urbanity. The tools were a carefully localized zoning tool (its PDO), a defensible environmental document, and a predictable permitting process.

Throughout the rest of San Diego, we have a problem with implementing our big policy documents (General Plan, Community Plans, TOD Guidelines, Climate Action Plan) because we then treat everything at zoning/regulation level with a one-size-fits-all approach. One of downtown’s best lessons is the value of detailed plans and planning at the neighborhood scale. As a matter of fact, today’s Community Plan updates are replacing local PDOs that need to be updated for new city-wide zoning. Downtown should teach us to avoid this approach and try to localize our rules to better limit conflicts between neighbors over details such as how new buildings face onto the street and backs up its neighbor, and the character of that street, from Main Streets to quiet residential streets.

Streets are for cars, people, bikes, shops, homes...

Streets are for cars, people, bikes, shops, homes…

LEADERSHIP NEEDS TO KNOW BEST PLANNING PRACTICES

We need our leadership to discuss where we are going with our city planned. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Today, we rely too much on our short-term political leadership to move projects from idea to building permit. And, without enough capacity to equitably provide the same attention to everyone, only a few get this excellent service.

Mr. Stepner reminded me that former Mayoral icon, Pete Wilson, set broad goals and used his professional staff to do their best duty of care to make the right decisions. These decisions use to be based on best practices and national models modified to the local context. Somehow we’ve lost that trust. I recommend our local professional and advocacy groups shift from preaching the choir to directly engaging local political leadership in lectures, workshops, and presentations on best practices from around the world (but don’t lose your 501c3 status).

PLANNING NEEDS TO KNOW BEST PLANNING PRACTICES

Ok, San Diego, we’ve got 1980 suburbia down… We know how to designated the use of a building, disclose its impacts on the environment, measure its Average Daily Trips, calculate the financing needed to build a new traffic signal at the intersection down the street these new trips will drive through, and collect Development Impact Fees for a future park that is expensive to build. While this system works well in a new residential pod out in Rancho del Rancho, it is impossible to use in our older, urban neighborhoods. This partially why our new policy goals mentioned above are difficult to implement. We’re using 20th century tools, such as land-use based zoning, to build a 21st century city. There are 21st century planning tools, such as context-sensitive, form-based, and place-based zoning tools and street typologies, available to make connections between policy and getting the places we want built. 

In our market-oriented economy, we must shift our reluctance to plan towards being a tool that bridges our city’s ongoing disjunction between an individual’s wants and our collective needs.

*National ACIP Examination Preparation Course Guidebook, 2000

Well, this one didn't quite get it right...

“Just Get the Ground Floor Right…” Modernisms Last Stand

Urban Design, Urban Planning

It was Luxembourg’s Leon Krier whose transformative polemic in the 1970’s and 80’s shaped America’s New Urbanism of the 90’s and 00’s and our reformation of traditional mixed-use, walkable, urbanism today. I’ve watched my city take baby steps from outlawed urbanism (’60s single-use zoning), to downtown sub-urbanism (’80s drive-thru Jiffy Lubes), to ‘safer’ Vancouver urbanism (’00s single point towers surrounded by suburban townhouses). And, over these 40 years this one truth has been drummed into our downtown urban design consciousness, “just get the ground floor right” and everything else will be fine.

Leon Krier's Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

Leon Krier’s Studies of Traditional Urban Patterns has Decidedly Influenced our Cities of Today (Image Courtesy of LKrier)

So, we’ve stopped clipping the traditional, walkable, grid with new freeway off/on ramps. We are returning fast, one-way streets leading to those freeways into more humane, shopping promenades. We’ve added streetcars, jitneys, car and bike share stations, and protected bike lanes to help us get around. Small parks, plazas, and parklets spout up in vacant lots and street corners to slow us down and smell the coffee and craft beer. We are seriously endeavoring to repair our urban street pattern with infill redevelopment projects filling in and firming up our street walls as this interface supports the vitality and exhilaration of being downtown.

With this 2-dimensional base being well laid, downtown agencies are successfully getting new developers to build their 3-dimensional building’s ground floors in a more humane manner. The market supports this trend and every project’s ground floor has clear window shopfronts, and detailed transoms and awnings have returned with restrained signage, public restrooms, and shops spilling out onto the sidewalk. And nobody dares to dispute getting this first ground floor layer right. The 2D traditional urban street pattern has crept up to shape the 3D base of new architectural design… again, in a more traditional, humane manner.

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana - Rick Caruso)

New Ground Floors that Work (Americana by Rick Caruso)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal ('39 Expo Futurama)

Rebuked Modernist Ground Floor Ideal (’39 Expo Futurama – Wikipedia Image)

And, here is where we find the last bastion of of the modernist architecture… fighting for survival in the materials, shapes, forms, and style of the building’s upper floors. Garish, look-at-me architecture still reigns in this narrow 25 to 140 feet range above the ground floor.

Seen This Proposed for Your Downtown Yet?

Seen One of These Proposed for Your Downtown Yet? (Image: LA Streetsblog)

I find it interesting that modernism has evolved from being a very big idea, to its ubiquitous mid-century development standard, to its now marginalized position between the ground floor and roofline. I completely agree with Witold Rybczynski that modernist architecture fits best in a natural setting, as well with Leon when it sits in juxtaposition to traditional architecture and urbanism.

Bilbao's Big Idea Wasn't,

Bilbao’s Big Idea Wasn’t, “Hire a Starchitect!” It was Learning How to Architecturally Tune a Place to Create Visual and Cultural Complexity! (Image Unattributed)

John Nolen, San Diego’s original urban planner, once wrote in 1907 that city planning finds, “A place for everything, with everything in its place.”  Having been tested and vetted over three generations, maybe modernist architecture has finally found its appropriate place in our everyday life… within a very narrow range pushed as far away from people as possible.

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)

Good Riddance! (Image by HBlackson)