How do You See the City?

Urban Design, Urban Planning

I see every city for how it was built when it got rich. Economies move around, cities rise, fall, and some rise again, reinvent themselves, die off, or sit stagnate waiting for its revival. But, at some point every major city got really rich, and that’s when its public streets, parks, buildings, and private buildings set the bar/tone for the next century or so.

grayscale photo of high rise buildings

Photo by Ross Richardson on Pexels.com

For example, in San Diego, it got rich in the early 1950’s, when its population double as military R&D rose/located near its military installations. High wages, lots of jobs, and land for suburban growth with great state/fed spending on highways and our pending car culture. Spending its money during our mid-century modernist era has formed/shaped the context for the city of today and beyond.

It was a trip to Buffalo, and seeing its turn of the century opulence, that showed me how to ‘see’ a city.  Every great American architect of that time, Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmsted, were building in Buffalo at that time and it generated two Presidents. This view translates to seeing our old European cities, such as Venice and its well-preserved mid-millennium opulence still valuable today, as well as in seeing our Asian cities, such as ShenZhen and its booming wealth (with every architect in the world, Steven Holl, BIG, and Gensler working there), and so on…

Vancouver got rich as Hong Kong shifted hands from English to Chinese rule 20+ years ago. That era’s neo-conservative ‘free market’ architectural expression of almost urban, but not quite, townhouse wrap of a small footprint, single-core tower was urbanism-lite at time when suburbia ruled our west coast north American landscape. And, it was the right architectural form for transitioning from suburbia back to urbanism… but, its already dated and in transition again, and towards a more urban pattern.

assorted labeled signage

Photo by Arnie Chou on Pexels.com

This new era is beholden to the ‘got really rich’ era in Vancouver and will still be subservient to that context, which wasn’t true 20+ years earlier when that great flush of wealth easily overwhelmed its past and context. Meaning, the wealth generated today in Vancouver is simply the by-product of yesterday’s economic boom. Same with Venice and its tourist value today for preserving its past opulence.

We’re watching the political anxiety in the face of this urban shift playing out across the world as the last throes of that 80/90s neocon intellectual culture are desperately holding on to the last of their structured power. Those  neocons who are voraciously holding onto power today also hold the counterculture of the 1960s in great disdain as their political radicalism and animus against authority, custom, and tradition is rising and an obvious threat to the old leaders. I believe this disdain is one of the reasons for the angry, resentful, punitive political furry expressed in Washington, DC and beyond… because the neo-counterculture is being repeated by today’s younger generation but this time with their own value system/context.

The millennials are choosing to spend their money in cities that are getting rich right now. These are San Jose, Oklahoma City, and in rebound cities, such as Austin, Seattle, and maybe Detroit (an anomaly in this group of relatively ‘new’ towns as it got very rich in the 1940s and may keep its Art-Deco patterns) will be reshaped with their values. I’m looking forward to ‘seeing’ how these cities express themselves as they grow rich over the next decade (with Vancouver’s ubiquitous point towers with a townhouse wrap in mind).

“Do the Math!” How to Deal with Hot Housing Markets

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Transect-LA-nathan-dumlao-539610This innocuous quote from a recent Texas Monthly Magazine article (here) shows how easily it is to misunderstand the forces that shape a hot-hot housing market cities:

“”The problem, of course, is that this idealized urban lifestyle is out of reach for most. The culprits? “Student loan debt, wage stagnation, rising rents, insurance costs, and the lingering aftermath of the Great Recession, which many millennials ran right into at a key career stage,” – Jason Dorsey, President of the Center for Generational Kinetics, an Austin-based research and marketing strategy firm that tracks social trends among millennials and Generation Z.

Ok, so rents don’t rise when wages stagnate. This is because “the rent” is determined by:

Wages x Employment ÷ No. of Units Available = Market Rate Rents*

OK, so while this *equation is simple… the basic point is that the rents are rising in hot housing market cities because our growing upper class wages are booming while the number of units available are limited. Higher wages x higher employment in cities that constrain new development makes for hot markets and high rents.

With wages somewhat stagnating for the shrinking middle class, we understand that rich/middle/poor people want to live in nice /fun/safe places. And, everyone is willing pay more/compete for access to the ‘good life’ in a city that has great amenities, such as arts, parks, rivers (think Austin and Denver), nice weather, beaches, bays (think San Diego), and most importantly lots and lots of jobs with some or all of this stuff (think Bay Area, Seattle, and Los Angeles).

This competition is seen in San Diego, as our rent has historically been high for my entire life, with very little fluctuation in either good times or bad. A recent Federal Reserve paper stated the reason for this is attributed to rental rates being determined more by the level of amenities our neighborhood’s provide than merely by supply of housing.

This factor still fits with the simple equation above as those cities with the good life are too few and far between and those nice places are unwilling to build enough housing to meet market demand… as people continue to look for places to spend their valuable time and money. With that, one neighborhood will be expensive for a variety of reasons, and a similar neighborhood only a few miles away will be stagnant or declining, while still having the same physical access to beaches and bays… just not the economic access.

What Mr Dorsey fails to understand about Austin is that those few units available in the urban fun/nice hipster areas are being rented by those few Sci/Bio/IT-tech engineers who are in high demand and making significantly higher wages (+$200k/yr) than the regular blue and white collar workers ($60k/yr). This drives up the rent in those few high-demand neighborhoods. Austin, and all cities, needs more housing/jobs with nice stuff in more neighborhoods rather than having big money fight for those few amenity-filled neighborhoods scattered throughout most cities.

And with that I feel myself sliding into the displacement/social justice trap. As displacement is the nasty common side effect of gentrification (value increases). So, I’ll put this out there again for your consideration:

The most appropriate urban design response to social justice is to build towards social/enviro/economic (jobs/housing) stability. To be clear, I am not advocating for displacement, but I am advocating for some gentrification in economically static neighborhoods (such as more schools, parks, and market-rate development opportunities) and some economic stagnation (such as subsidized housing and rent control) in hot markets.

This brilliant study shows that all of San Francisco is an expensive because it is affluent with a growing population and no land easily available for development. And, building more housing would reduce rents as it adds supply to the inherent demand. But, if they built enough new housing to reduce prices it would significantly change the character of the city and its quality-of-life… so, urban design will make a huge difference in how San Francisco builds its future! Go Sonja Truss!

Ultimately, our big west coast cities currently flourishing on the tech industry (ironically born in San Jose suburban garages) will continue to be successful into the future as our nation’s constricting economy pushes well-educated, financed people into these nice cities. And, they’ll continue to spill out excess jobs into neighboring cities, towns, and transform conventional suburban tracks (which are still being built, btw) into more urban places (despite their fighting this urban shift). Again, urban design is necessary to move our cities into the future.

By the way… Seattle and Denver have stabilized rents by building more housing. And, a few years ago Denver changed their conventional zoning to a form-based code in anticipation of their 21st century development needs. Need I mention the value of urban design again?

Congress for the New Urbanism 26 – Savannah (and Magical Mystery Tour)

Urban Design, Urban Planning

From May 11 – 19th, I had the opportunity to speak at the 26th annual Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) in Savannah, Georgia. My 18th CNU (in a row), these are always valuable to me on a professional and personal level. This was a memorable experience spending time walking around Savannah’s squares and waterfront as well as touring mid-America before arriving on the eastern seaboard. The most memorable part of the week was actually a blur. My trip began with a frantic four-day bus tour from Memphis to Savannah. We visited and compared the ‘new towns’ Harbortown (MS), Providence (AL), Gorhams Bluff (AL), Serenbe (GA), Glenwood Park (GA), Nexton (SC), I’on (SC), and Habersham(SC), with the downtowns and Innovation Districts of Memphis, Chattanooga, Huntsville, Atlanta, Greenville, Charleston, Savannah.

TenesseeRiverValley

Gorham’s Bluff, Alabama

The most instructional places were in cities that imported the ‘new town’ housing types into its existing/older neighborhood pattern, which made for some real hits and misses. One of the biggest hits was the Southside neighborhood in Chattanooga.  An old grid of vacant buildings and a tight network of street with mature street trees had been revitalizing over the past 5-years using traditional ‘new town’ housing’s front porch, stoops, and forecourts, which fit comfortably. Vacant manufacturing buildings were expertly adapted into mixed-use and live-work units all sparked with the building of new school, Battle Academy.  The neighborhood is anchored by the now revitalized Chattanooga Choo-Choo historic rail station with a market hall that has great restaurants, bars, shops, and hotel.

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Southside Neighborhood, Chattanooga, TN

The second half the week spent at the Congress speaking on how-to design for a specific community character in neighborhoods and small towns, and my vertical ‘transect’ idea for big city downtowns.  Thanks to Kevin Klinkenberg and Eric Brown‘s hard work on the local host committee, more than 1,600 advocates for urbanism gathered to hear Jan Gehl, Andres Duany, and Peter Calthorpe speak on their latest work and perspectives. Based out of Washington, DC, CNU is an international nonprofit organization with over 3,000 members from major urban centers to historic small towns. And through 27 years of advocacy, CNU has changed the national conversation from a debate over sprawl to a discussion on how to reinvest in our cities and towns as Americans both young and old are demanding walkable lifestyles, the market for unique and green places is growing in every region.

Savannah is always an illuminating experience for a west coast urban designer. The city was originally designed to be a utopian community with its ubiquitous squares the by-product of lofty thinking. Places like this inspire me to aspire towards designing towards utopia for my local projects… if just to get one really nice park or plaza.

Savannah

Savannah, GA

As for the tour, in greater detail, I have to express my heartfelt gratitude to Nathan Norris, Laura Clemens, and Kate Duro (City Building Exchange Express) for hosting a memorable road trip. Jack Kerouac would of been burned out by this adventure. Plus, having the people we had to explain and tour us through each place was invaluable. Absolutely worth every dime as the tremendous effort to coordinate was obvious in the results, which is that I am still learning from it this week.

Below is my roman a’ clef notes version of the tour is as follows:

On our first night, Elvis and I walked through downtown Memphis with our feet 10-feet off of Beale under WC Handy’s watchful, all-knowing gaze. We knew that he knew that we knew. So, we went on tour the next morning.

Memphis, TN – HarborTown – Expertly assembled as a rough diamond found in the middle of the Mississippi. A great way to start a tour that would alternated between many older ‘new’ towns and several downtown infill projects. It set the tone perfectly as a stable, understandable, competently delivered new town in a place that was genuinely new. Drove away fearing what Jesus said about building on sand.

Memphis, TN – Uptown Infill – Tried to take a picture of Elvis’ high school but my thumb got in the way. Seeing Harbortown housing placed in a mindless grid showed how mindless the grid can be.

Memphis, TN – CrossTown/Midtown – Had never seen such a thing. Cutting the atriums was brilliant and I still cannot fully conceptualize what a Vertical T6 Village in the midst of historic T4/T3 General sub-urban housing means… Amazing adaptive reuse and couldn’t conceive of seeing another on in my life (only to march across Atlanta later on the tour and be completely dumbfounded again).

memphiscrosstownconcourse.jpg

The Memphis Surprise…

Memphis, TN – The Edge / Medical District – All I could think of was how to bottle up and sell Tommy Pacello’s can-do spirit. Inspiring, and a dynamo that any city would be fortunate to have. Speaking of big personalities, Elvis appreciated being back in Sun Studios again after a long layoff.

MemphisSunStudio
Huntsville, AL – Downtown Huntsville – Its downtown director, Carl Perkins, is having fun, you can really see it. However, that spring at the foot of the downtown hillside thoroughly impressed this SoCal desert tortoise most. Again, never seen anything like that before.

HuntsvilleSpring

Downtown Huntsville, AL

Huntsville, AL – Village of Providence – Expertly executed. A lot of housing taming a former arterial. Solid. And, I appreciated Laura’s passionate perspective on its harm to downtown, but see these old New Towns as successful Trojan Horses as what happened out in the woods wouldn’t of been allowed to happen in broad daylight at that time. We were decidedly a Suburban Nation with everyone defining themselves by their own Pink Cadillac.

ProvidenceUrbanism

The Village of Providence, AL

Pisgah, AL – Gorham’s Bluff – A great lunch with a tremendous view!
Chattanooga, TN – Waterfront – Put on my blue suede shoes and took a long, hot walk.
Chattanooga, TN – Innovation District – Great mix of new mid-rise, missing-middle infill housing and shops.

Chattanooga, TN –  Southside – Again, TND quality housing + missing middle townhouses and live work quarters, set in a mindless grid. But, with the compactness lacking in Uptown Memphis it felt more livable. Appreciated listening to Bob McNutt, Director of Real Estate, describe this place and the Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise nonprofit housing organization dedicated to Building a Better Chattanooga. 
Chattahoochee Hills, GA – Serenbe – The Smartest Sprawl I’ve ever seen… Stunning details, smartly promoting compact growth in one spot in the city, but have no idea what this will be in 100 years.

Ion

Serenbe, GA

Atlanta, GA – Glenwood Park – Expert infill. Also stunning details but accessible to anyone wanting to live in a great neighborhood is a big city. 
Atlanta, GA – Krog City Market*/Inman Park/Beltline***/Ponce City Market – The Sears monolith as a retail/parking catalyst was amazing too. Great deal to learn from in this urban context. The rails-to-trails parkway works amazing well to provide amenity to high density. The parks, market halls, different housing types, adaptive reuse, it was all so beautiful… until I started to sweat. Back on the bus, quick!

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Ponces Market, Atlanta, GA

Greenville, SC – Downtown Greenville – Surprise as a form of delight… A nice Main Street, with Americana confederate forces giving off bad vibes on one end and a river park on the other end mindful of the Beltline… Amazing! Again, great density with great amenity. The last leg of Main Street over the riverpark was more worth the drive through Columbia, SC. 

GreenvilleMainStreet

The Greenville Surprize

Summerville, SC – Nexton – I completely agree with Rick Hall that the production builders are getting it! I liked it. Yes, parks and streets were oversized, but that’s the… Next Urbanism.
Mt Pleasant, SC – I’On – Honestly, looking forward to what Jason King of Dover Kohl has planned for its remodeled downtown plaza (no curbs, no lawn). The canals/quarry lakes were marvelous.
Charleston SC – Downtown Charleston – The real deal banana peel historical American city. Touring that very old family house with Cary Grant’s friend was a real highlight. Drinking a scotch, sitting in a smoking room, looking at firearms from every major American conflict while staring at oil paintings of beautiful family matriarchs with Elvis was a sublime American moment. Would love to have spent several days there. Then, Elvis left the building (bus). And I was wore out at this point.

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Charleston, SC

Beaufort, SC – Habersham – The attached buildings were immaculate. The town center kept my attention and I appreciated spending time sitting with iced drinks at this point too. 

Afterward: The place that has continued to resonate with me is Memphis. I feel like our American soul lives in there. I wanted to see the MLK Jr. Civil Rights Museum, Graceland, and Tupelo. The old, new, historic, future, and that wild Crosstown Commons still swirl in my mind. Savannah too. Beyond that, comparing infill with new towns directly, back-to-back was marvelous and illuminating (Ok, don’t tell, but Elvis was Trent Claughton, Carl Perkins was Chad Emerson, and I am the SoCal desert tortoise).

A Vertical Transect / Context Elevated

Urban Design

I’ve been fussing around with a context-sensitive/form-based code for more urban neighborhoods for several years now. I’ve worked on creating many codes for small towns (San Marcos, CA and TX), new towns (Whitehall in New Castle County, Delaware), sections of mid-sized cities (El Paso) across the county, and downtown San Diego. And, it’s here in San Diego that I see the need to craft a code for tall buildings that better reflects our 21st century context.

Over a century ago, Louis Sullivan, HH Richardson and others rebuilt Chicago after its fire using the new construction technology that steel brought to building. That combination of steel and fire led to the creation of the tower as a new building type. Being without precedent then, these neo-classical, romanesque, and gothic revivalist smartly relied upon the classical column structure to design towers with a base, shaft, and cornice.

TopMiddleBase

Base/Base, Shaft/Middle, Top/Cornice. 

Today this classical configuration still seen in the now ubiquitous Vancouver Point Tower Model.

SD Vancouver Model

The Vancouver Point Tower as Applied in San Diego. Image: Me

Today, after 100-plus years of building these classically arranged towers a vertical context exist. And, we’ve worked very hard since the 60’s modernist crescendo to get tower construction at the street level to be humane (see this old blog on the topic).  I first got the idea from Jan Gehl’s book, Cities for People, and these great diagrams.

This new context is based on the following transect zones: Human connectivity is the primary objective in the street zone (floors 1 – 6), which transitions up to the facing blocks (floors 3 – 12), up again towards the surrounding city views levels (floors 9 – 20), and finally at the regional vistas (above 20 floors). These four context zones have differing design responses to consider as the now the building can reach down toward street rather than always soaring to the sky.

 

VerticalContext_2

As applied to a Vancouver Point Tower in downtown San Diego. Image: Me

The following diagram was an initial study into how to use the SmartCode template to regulate more urban buildings where their fronts/back, below/above, and middle zones could be designed in context to cultivate urban living that is human oriented rather than mechanical elevator-oriented. What do you think?

3D Urbanism 1st Draft

Borrowing from the SmartCode, a Context-Sensitive Code for 3-Dimensional Urbanism

And, we are continuing to study this approach that lends itself to coding for a specific San Diego model and moves beyond the Vancouver point-tower lite urban model.

VerticalContextIMAGES

Precedent Images Attempting to Define a San Diego Architectural Vernacular for Towers

And, finally, just because I drew it… here’s another inspiration for getting towers’ grounded into its context, a metaphor if you will.

TowerMetaphor

I drew it so I put in my blog… otherwise it’s not much to look at. Image: Me

I would appreciate any comments as this is an idea that’s still under construction. Cheers!

Economic Stability is an Urban Design Response to Social Justice

San Diego, Urban Design, Urban Planning

Times they are a’changing.

We all hear that the New Urbanism has a gentrification/displacement perception problem in big city discussions. One of New Urbanism’s revolution was in shifting the 60s/70s planning by numbers approaches to city issues towards a design-oriented solutions. And, our anti-modernist stance in the ‘90s led us to advocating for aspirational design approaches to city making problems. We figured out how to fit the new into the older ‘community character’ at all scales and everyone wants mixed-use, walkable, pedestrian-oriented solutions today. However, this approach brings up two contemporary problems.

First, community character is code for a long-standing NIMBY argument against anything new. Second, ‘good design’ is perceived as expensive by reactionary YIMBY movements who advocate for density/housing-at-all-costs and towers in a park are cool again (in fairness, SF’s YIMBYs advocate for FBCs and better). The Tactical Urbanism’s hay bale, traffic cone, and wood palette aesthetic is now ubiquitous in design mags/schools, as Less is again… more.

The value of Lean Urbanism’s “Making Small Possible” is its city-building ramifications as we wrestle with Social Equity today (We went through the enviro in the 60s-80s and economics in the 90s/00s). Making Small Possible serves to balance the two sides of economic equilibrium (the good times side and the bad times side).

The Big Idea
The appropriate urban design response to Social Justice and Economic issues is to build towards Social and Economic Stability.

The Context
The economic market vacillates in value at the neighborhood and lot scale. It ranges from disinvested (value at the neighborhood and lot scale are leaving), to static (balanced/stable values at both scales), to invested (values at the neighborhood and lot scale are rising). While neighborhood and lot values are linked, depending on a variety of factors, in San Diego lots have inherently high land values that combine to raise neighborhood values. The dynamic between neighborhood values and lot value differ throughout the nation by city/region.

As equitable city builders, we strive to mollify hot markets by adding affordable/attainable housing at the lot scale to take advantage of their high valued neighborhood, and invigorate fallen markets with new housing value at the lot scale to bump up their overall neighborhood’s value (raising comps lot by lot until the neighborhood is perceived as valuable). Equilibrium is the goal as static/balanced neighborhoods can carefully add neighborhood value (such as ped/bike/transit improvements) as well as lot values (granny flats, additions). An issue I’ve let slip by is that I haven’t thoroughly planned for neighborhoods cycling through these levels as investing in poorer neighborhoods too robustly displaces residents as gentrification makes monied buyers move quickly to shift a disinvested or static neighborhood into a hot market. I forget that it is not in the developers best interest to lower the rent or build cheaper housing… that’s the city’s job (see apartment rents dropping right now as developers did their feeding frenzy thing again).

The Problem
Individual, piecemeal projects that add subsidized housing to disinvested neighborhoods provides too little value added at the lot and neighborhood scale. Every new project at the lot scale must purposely add value in disinvested areas at both the lot and neighborhood scale, as well as allowing for neighborhood-scale projects that add value. On the other hand, projects that add ‘luxury’ housing to a hot market only serves to make it hotter. Hot markets need more smaller, less valuable housing at the lot scale to add enough supply to stabilize demand in a valuable neighborhood. And, the city should not allow for neighborhood-scale projects in a hot market.

City zoning can only serve to supply housing to the market, but only if that market shows profit margins. Meaning, its limited in its ability to provide attainable housing to middle class citizens. The market serves the high income families and the Fed/State/local subsidies provide for defined Affordable Housing renters. City/State/Fed plans, discretionary entitlement processes, housing/transit programs, tax credits/abatements, land trusts, and other subsidy mechanisms to influence markets are in our tool box to address middle class shifts.

The Opportunity
Rather than waiting for the city/developer to build a neighborhood-scale silver bullet to raise lot values, disinvested neighborhoods are in need of new development at the lot level that provides ‘comps’ and tenant leases that banks can use to lend money to many local projects as opposed to spending money on a singular project every few years. Making Small Possible does this explicitly.

San Diego is unique in its land values being very high throughout the region. This inherent value should be leveraged neighborhood-by-neighborhood through educate/train, borrow, and build value at the lot scale that raises the neighborhood’s value with each new intervention. And, development, construction, and building trades is a tremendous economic vehicle in San Diego. Having locals enter this market creates jobs and local investment while educating our youth to compete for San Diego’s tremendous wealth of high-tech jobs luring people from all over the world.

A contemporary social equity issue, disinvested neighborhoods in San Diego are where our local, regional, and international immigrants begin to (re)build their lives. We know this is an American topic in our toxic national political dialog. NU-ists understand that the place where we live in, grow up in, remember, and the culture that is cultivated matters. As we choose to spend time, which is all we really have in this world, comes a tremendous cost and forms the heritage we leave behind.

New and Lean Urbanism is extremely well-positioned to turn our chaotic, drive-by, unfulfilling SoCal auto-oriented lifestyle around to offer a more connected, comfortable, and convivial neighborhoods with the tools to raise/lower values at the lot scale. The value of mixed-use and walkable urbanism at the neighborhood-scale is built on the idea that the quality of our lives hinges upon our free choice and not upon the fate of those who came before us. Truly, a new urbanism.

The Approach
First, introduce and train locals to understand the local community building elements and processes at the lot level. Assist locals in navigating building process through a variety of public/private partnerships (such as banks and unions) who gain from more people entering the development and construction trades industry. The more lot level housing add supply to high-demand cities (I call this Beach Density in San Diego).

Second, precisely build mixed-use, walkable urbanism catalytic projects in disinvested neighborhoods that bring more resources to raise the neighborhood’s value. This second step is already in place except for the idea to make this easier in disinvested neighborhoods and harder in invested neighborhoods. Making Small Possible is the big idea as lot level housing builds social equity throughout the city (I call these Climate Action Zones in San Diego).

This begins with defining the neighborhood with its identifiable place-based elements (core, centers, edges). Collaborate with locals to determine a vision, then codify that vision, and then take strategic actions to implement the vision (New Urbanism). Revisit outcomes every 1, 5, and 10 years to adjust the vision, coding and implementation as needed. During the vision/coding process set up measurable outcomes to be monitored and used to cultivate more partnerships and local activity.

The Tools
Introduce and educate through Incremental Developer Boot Camps locally in partnership with the Congress for the New Urbanism, local Urban Land Institute, Building Industry Association, Carpenters Union, Bankers Expos, and beyond. These Make Small Possible (Lean Urbanism). Use these events to recruit risk-oblivious builders and help them build towards the communities expectations and memories of its neighborhood (this is how to build towards a specific community character, but don’t tell the millennials). Visioning efforts to build towards that neighborhood’s shared intent are make through intensive consecutive-day workshops with as many stakeholders involved in short time frame to make and act upon commitments, champions, and compromises (charrette). Move towards working with political/municipalities to legally enable these strategies over the long-term (form-based codes) while allowing more tactical/temporary interventions to test/measure ideas before fully committing all resources to a bigger investment idea (Tactical Urbanism). Entities such as LISC, NeighborWorks, Community Housing Works, and other CDFI entities are great partners for this approach (CNU is capable of such).

The Results
Measurable outcomes that indicate success and lessons learned (See Denver’s rental market success here). And, ultimately, a neighborhood that has moved from disinvestment towards a more static/stable market place to compete for development at the local and regional scale while guarding against national and international scale developments that behaves in a manner that doesn’t obliterate a neighborhood’s memories and expectations. By Making Small Possible, middle class housing is finally built in our nation’s Top 50 cities.

Any thoughts? Silly thinking? Which points have any merit?

Top 10 Zoning Hacks to Fix San Diego

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

San Diego has historically struggled with implementing our progressive mixed-use policies found in our General Plan (City of Villages) and Community Plan documents. In 2017, I see San Diego’s most obvious city-building needs as the tremendous need to build new attainable and affordable housing on our transit corridors. And, to focus on initiating the necessary mode shift from auto-centric to people-centric places.

It is well known that San Diego is in desperate need for more easily built by-right housing to alleviate the housing crunch happening today. We know this needs to be located on our strip commercial corridors lacking any housing today, of which we have miles and miles available for relatively easy retrofit. We also know that we need transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities to make this new housing fit in our older, more established urban neighborhoods and strip corridors. And we need predictable implementation tools to be coordinated, such as our on-going zoning updates matching funded transit projects, in order to get this new housing built.

For example, in the North Park Community Plan update, the 46% increase in housing ‘programs’ takes an arduous and unpredictable discretionary permit process (appealable to the city council and therefore very political) to be approved. This needs to be fixed immediately as the public weighed in and said, “build on this corridor.” In addition, the public weighed in and said, “We want to address Climate Change.” When these collective voices are expressed, we need to make it so…

In the spirit of getting it done, the following image is a list of my Top 10 Zoning Hacks to get us closer to solving our greatest needs in 2017:

Microsoft Word - Top10Fix-It-First.docx

Striking a More Sustainable Balance

Urban Design, Urban Planning

The following are my thoughts on the ethics of good community planning that serves the public interest:

For many years now, Not-In-My-Backyard (NIMBY) opposition has stymied new projects and development via vocal and protracted public processes. These few individuals group together out of fear of change to stop improvements that would benefit the larger community. This phenomena has become such a deep ethical issue in our nation that the White House recently issued a Housing Development Toolkit (see here) to assist municipalities in taking action to enable new development in the face of this long-standing NIMBY opposition.

Design vs. process?

The role of community planning is to expertly guide both municipal and private development clients through land use decisions that build safer, stronger and more sustainable places. The planning and design tools we use to achieve this include comprehensive plans, policy documents, regulatory codes, master planning, community visioning, and urban design plans.

These techniques also must include public-engagement tools to educate and foster collaboration with key stakeholders in local communities to build the political will necessary to drive new development or redevelopment forward. Ultimately, our profession provides expert guidance to enhance the overall livability of cities, towns, and other places.

The ‘livability’ of a place, according to city planner and author Bruce Appleyard, a professor at San Diego State University, in a 2014 article in Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, is best understood as an individual’s ability to readily access opportunities to improve a citizen’s personal quality of life for living, working, playing, shopping, learning, worshiping, resting, and moving within his or her city, town, or neighborhood.

Ethical challenges

However, community planners face an ethical challenge in balancing these individual self-interests with the collective needs and interests of those many other individuals who comprise a given community, such as artists, the elderly, professionals, and even social clubs. The profession’s ethical principles, established by the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP), state, “The planning process must continuously pursue and faithfully serve the public interest.”

To add complexity to this balancing act, community planners also have to plan for these collective interests in terms of scale, time, and intensity. An example of balancing these challenges is revealed in planning for mobility, such as main streets, transit corridors, and bicycle lanes, as one’s personal travel inherently touches the private lives of many others along that public path. Our municipal clients, for instance, typically are concerned with the safety, air quality, noise pollution, congestion and economic viability of public thoroughfares, while our private clients tend to express concerns with safety, maintenance, time, and accessibility.

The pursuit of happiness

The definition of livability given above by Dr. Appleyard (i.e., people’s access to opportunities for the pursuit of improvements to their quality of life) is based on the pursuit-of-happiness clause in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Couple this with AICP’s code of ethics, and we can begin to think of planning for livability as a tool to justify a basic American right that can be used, for example, to build transit-oriented development (TOD) that provides an accessible mobility option that serves the greater public.

Today’s TOD development pattern is based on long-standing, traditional mixed-use, walkable villages and neighborhoods that have become cities over time. Mobility supports urbanism. The number and types of individual mobility options, from commuter rail, light-rail, streetcar and bus, to jitney, shared car, private car, bicycle and walking, determines the intensity of a given neighborhood or city and its ability to scale up or down over time.

Think of the mobility options New York City offers as opposed to San Diego. While the example above focused on mobility, community planners – seen as stewards of shaping the places we live our daily lives – also must focus as much attention on issues such as housing, jobs, parks, and services. Measuring this balance between individual specificity and collective inclusiveness is at the heart of planning for ethical livability. And, this greater common good versus the individual wishes dialog happens in every city, town, or neighborhood. It is our profession’s purpose to guide this dialog towards building more livable and sustainable places for everyone.

Design vs. process?

I agree with famed new urbanist Andres Duany, who promotes giving equal value to both design principles and public process as keys to successfully navigating this balancing act. He says that relying only on design principles that have gone untested by local public participation is coercive and lacking authority. Meanwhile, relying solely on a public process without a basis in design principles lacks structure and a credible outcome. These are important because design principles guide individuals and groups toward decisions, and the process provides the structure through which these decisions and compromises can be made.

The benefits created by balancing the rights of all people with smaller groups
are found in increasing the opportunities for everyone to improve the quality of their lives. Cities that enable new development to meet collective needs and interests, particularly since adequate housing development reduces mismatches among housing, jobs, and infrastructure spending, will find themselves in a better position to compete in the contemporary economy.

Why Design Matters, San Diego! North Park Community Plan Update Issues

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

For the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve been working on the North Park Community Plan Update for the North Park Community Planning Group, and here at the end it simply is not achieving the goals the community set out to accomplish when the project started 8 years ago. The three issues I have with the North Park Community Plan Update (CPU) are:

1) Any up zoning beyond our 1986 plan that enables 2016 mixed-use, walkable urbanism on Transit Corridors necessitates an expensive + time consuming Planned Development Permit/Process 4. We wanted to focus, encourage, and make easy new development on El Cajon Blvd – ECB;

2) Dismissal of requested Historic District Designations in older bungalow neighborhoods that need/want the discretionary review mentioned above for ECB as local ‘preservationist’ agreed to this compromise as we intended to give additional protections and make it harder to bungalow neighborhoods, and;

3) 1960s city-wide zoning replaces 1986 local zoning and both still enable new single-story/use drive thrus (new Starbucks, Wendy’s, Sonic as examples) on ECB by-right and easier than vertical mixed-use buildings (this shift was a big deal to build more housing and shops in NP).

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New mixed-use housing… a full lot OFF University Avenue (a Main Street)

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New development on El Cajon Boulevard… again note the drive up chain food with urban housing a full lot OFF the main boulevard. This is the predominate pattern.

I will post my PEIR issues at a later date…

So, Community Plans are only used to review discretionary process as zoning does the heavy lifting to build San Diego. You have a zoning designation on your lot now and to change that takes discretionary review. So, status quo has been maintained and all of the new policies written into the CPU are only reviewed on those few projects requesting changes. The problem is we have now made new development on ECB more difficult than new development in our bungalow neighborhoods.

It is important to know that San Diego zoning does not have to be in conformance with its policies b/c we are a Charter City. This makes our City of Villages big idea near impossible to Implement. And, we didn’t upgrade/change any of our zoning from 1986 all we have essentially maintain status quo with this CPU.

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Existing Zoning on University Avenue and 30th Street, the Village ‘Center’ of North Park.

All of our zoning is based on 1960s suburban community building tools and is built on segregating Land Uses from each other (Residential/Commercial/Industrial) and is difficult to use to build mixed-use, walkable urbanism (think about the difference in vertical mixed use in older east coast cities versus in newer southwest cities).

The best example of how our single-use zoning doesn’t implement the type of contemporary city we want is found near one of our obvious Transit Village Centers at University and 30th Street. This could be either the next great place or Another PB or College bar scene.

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Existing Commercial Buildings, some historic, most just stucco boxes. My Grandmother worked the Woolworth building in the center and lived three blocks away.

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Existing Residential buildings, with many historic bungalows here and more just off image.

Today, our best vertical mixed-use walkable building’s are a half-block off University (La Boheim, You’ve Got Mail, New Senior Housing, and Parking Garage) b/c University is zoned heavy commercial and the neighborhood behind is zoned heavy residential. But planners knew that a transition was needed, so they made very flexible zones to allow either commercial or residential or some of both… which put our best urban buildings closer to historic homes than ON the transit corridor. Almost every new building is OFF the night street (crazee burger, CWH on Texas & Howard) b/c of this vert good mistake.

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Our recent and best new mixed-use, 4-6 story buildings are all just OFF University Avenue, and deeper into the historic neighborhood, making local NIMBY opposition more heated.

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This is what have and are continuing to build today…

How to fix this?  Well, it is too late to fix in the Community Plan Update, but the Land Development Code is updated annually and zoning is the key to success anyway. So, I recommend using a Zoning Overlay, or a Place-Based, Form-Based, context-sensitive zoning tool to achieve the overall density within 600-feet of major transit station areas to shift or mode of transportation from predominately autos to walking, biking, riding transit, and cars. Here is what the results could deliver:

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More housing/jobs bang for our transit buck and all ON University Avenue, staying out of the neighborhoods that’ll add housing with state-mandated  Accessory Units (Granny Flats)

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Place-Types identified and coded accordingly: Core – I / Center – II / Edge A – III / Edge B – IV / Historic  – H/ Civic Space – P / Residential – V

Why Design Matters, San Diego! The Cabrillo Bridge + Plaza de Panama

Public Space, San Diego, Urban Design

Way back in 2010 I asked the City of San Diego Planning Commission, “Why screw up the bridge to fix the plaza?” Six years later it still rings true as it makes very little sense to significantly alter/change one of San Diego’s best places, the Cabrillo Bridge, in order to remove the few cars now flowing through the now beloved Plaza de Panama. Back then, the project passed our city council amidst volatile debate and subsequently failed a court challenge. Very few cried its demise. Mayor Sanders and beloved philantropist Dr. Irwin Jacobs walked away from their “all-or-nothing pedestrian-oriented plaza Centennial Plan” that consisted of an auto-oriented ‘by-pass bridge’ appendage off the Cabrillo Bridge that funneled traffic into a 200-car parking garage. However, last year the lawsuit was overturned and the exact same project was quietly resurrected by new Mayor Falconer.

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A ‘World’s Fair’ with the same design intent as Chicago’s White City and London’s Crystal Palace.

Three years ago, a group of us assisted Mayor Filner (curse his name) to design a temporary pedestrian plaza that has been a clear success (for 60 plus years it was a parking lot for 57 cars).  It was a ‘tactical urbanist‘ approach to test and measure success before investing in such a dramatic change in its character from a parking lot into the plaza it was designed to be. We had to be mindful of local institutions fear of losing customers (all have since had record breaking years) who would want to park in front of their museums as well as the Uptown Planning Group not wanting people to park in their community if the bridge was closed to all traffic. The plaza sits on an isolated mesa and as design icon Leon Krier noted, the plaza core needs traffic to bring people to it as nobody lives in easy walking distance, which makes it very different from European city plazas in the center of town (Plaza San Marco in Venice, Piazza Navona in Rome, and Rittenhouse Square in Philly).

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7/8th of Plaza was re-opened to pedestrians, replacing 57 parking spaces, but still allowing cars and trams to flow through 1/8th of the plaza to pick up/drop off.

 

The Problem

The new by-pass project looks like any other auto-oriented grade-seperated off-ramp leading to a parking garage between Sabre Springs and Riverside. The design is an after thought, breaking the flow of one of the world’s best designed places found in San Diego (the other might be the Salk Institute).

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Rick Engineering and Civitas Design for the Auto By-Pass + Parking Garage (on right)

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I’m not sure what to write here… except that this is exceptionally underwhelming.

My concern is that the poorly conceived, traffic engineering focussed space that will scar our Panama Exposition core as every other building, street, plaza, park space and parking space in it was executed with tremendous design acumen over a century ago for our pleasure. What will be beloved about this new appendage a 100 years from today. It appears we are honoring our cultural heritage with what will now be two new dreary parking garages (the other is between the Botanical building and the zoo) and a ‘by-pass’ that diverts people away from intended beauty and into an enclosed parking lot.

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Okay, a bit dated, but so are the issues at hand.

Unfortunately, San Diego has again forgotten what, Bertram Goodue, and George and Hamilton Marston knew: Building towards social and cultural value always equates to economic value while the converse is not always as true. Point is, we need to design in ways to celebrate, exhaust, express our local cultural values… maybe the by-pass does this?

I understand the construction documents are currently under review in the city’s Development Services Department, so this is essentially a moot point. I’ll go on as an explanation for posterity purposes, and thank you for continuing to read this…

The Original Big Idea

In my century old edition of Carleton Winslow’s, The Architecture and the Gardens of the San Diego Exposition, master architect,  Bertram Goodhue, clearly explains Panama Exposition’s big design idea. His metaphor was to give visitors to San Diego a virtual tour of traveling across the Atlantic Ocean (The Cabrillo Bridge); Through the Panama Canal where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans collide (California Quadrangle and its California Tower as a beacon); Up the Mexican Rivera coastline (the Spanish Arcades), and finally; A majestic arrival at a new California Arcadia (The Plaza de Panama)… all set in a ‘garden!’

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Goodhue had a darn good idea, executed it well, and let everyone experience what the Panama Canal means to San Diego and its beautiful, well-designed future!

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The View of the By-Pass Bridge area as conceived by Goodhue. These buildings are suppose to be in a garden setting, and not a parking lot.

 

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The two reclining figures represent the Atlantic and Pacific oceans with the waves colliding at the Panama Canal in the center.

Three Better Design Options:

1. Shared Street: Keep everything as is… and rather than build more auto-oriented facilities (by-pass bridge + 200 space parking garage), a more  austere solution would be to make the street a ‘shared space,’ and keep the traffic flow to minimum speed of bikes and pedestrians with valet drop off, in order to access and enhance – rather than alter – San Diego’s greatest civic space. Everyone wins, even the parking garage can be built, and the cars/trams will behave even better, while continuing to deliver people directly to and from the institutions, and it only takes the cost of a sign. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer plan say the traffic today is dangerous. This would improve that for essentially $250 dollars (the cost of five signs).

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We already have these in San Diego (at the Mouth of the mighty San Diego River).

2. Use the Existing By-Pass to the Existing Parking Garage: Irving Gill, another great designer, already built an arcade portal that links to the north that needs just one short connection to access existing streets and an existing subterranean parking structure. Add 200 parking units (one deck) to the existing structure, make that one connection, and viola! A well-designed By-Pass that drops the elderly and patrons direction in front of the Theaters. Supporters of the Sanders/Faulconer Plan say they want the access/parking for the theaters and the core… this is closer, cheaper, faster. (Post-script: Heard the Quince Street off-ramp could be a better solution for this access point and should be discussed)

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Two ways to access a parking deck and maintain the integrity of Goodhue’s masterful design: Through the Gill’s driveway or up from Quince Street)

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See Irving Gill’s one-way By-Pass arch there on the left? Just signage and paint and its better designed than the engineering Sabre Springs off-ramp.

3. How about a Beautifully Designed Bridge: Propose a new addition that carefully and thoughtfully adds dignity, value, and delight to visitors biking, walking, tramming, or driving to visit the Panama Exposition Grounds. Simply host a design competition. Ask the best in the world to give their best ideas, be bold and transparent to San Diegans about the value of the place that we all love and care for! I have never understood why a world-class design competition has been avoided from the beginning and this project being handled in this ‘my-way-or-no-way’ manner?

The design issue is, beyond its mindless deconstruction of the Nationally Registered Historic Cabrillo Bridge, the banal by-pass bridge in a sea of beauty that purposely impedes the flow of Goodie’s original design idea while adding nothing to the culture and heritage of San Diego’s most recognized jewel. Well, now we can hope for the best as we have zero assurances the best is being considered a century after our forefathers delivered such for our benefit.

 

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Think this Bridge is Important to our Heritage? “Its more than a Bridge…”