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

The New Town of Whitehall

Urban Design, Urban Planning
[Prologue: Yes, I know this is a bit too aspirational, maybe a touch over the top, but I wrote what I felt so it must be true to some degree… and admittedly, a bit of ego is involved as I had a small hand in the making of what I believe is a great place, The Town of Whitehall. This new Town, and its neighborhoods is being constructed today in New Castle County, Delaware, and is founded by Brian DiSabatino (development manager) and Rich Julian (builder), with the help of my former firm, PlaceMakers, Robert Gibbs, Steve Mouzon, Mike Watkins, and many others.]

Whitehall was envisioned eight years ago on a 2nd story corner design studio located in a historic brick building in downtown San Diego. It came from a rudimentary understanding that small town culture was dependent upon the conception of balancing nature with our daily needs. Instead of forming a single and isolate subdivision of housing or commercial strip center shops that disregarded the surrounding landscape’s natural setting, Whitehall was organized as a variety of streets, blocks, houses, shops, schools and squares set within the beautifully Delaware’s timbered countryside. The master plan illustrates how streets radiate deep into a neighborhood defined by streams and woodlands that becomes a transcendental experience when the fall colors turn.

(The first idea is on the left; the plan today is on the right)

For this vision to becoming a built reality, New Castle County’s conventional suburban subdivision development policies and zoning regulations were updated to offer an alternative to reflect this long-standing neighborhood-to-nature interdependence upon which the character of each neighborhood is complete. Whitehall’s neighborhoods are being built as a 3-dimensional form of our spiritual and material worth expressed. The town expresses our collective values in how we choose to live our daily lives. It’s dignified, it’s flexible, and it accommodates everyone. This is a choice. To live in a city, town or neighborhood is not an accident, but the result of a coherent vision that built old New Castle, and the newer Kentlands, and King Farm, Maryland.

Conceived in the long-standing tradition of town building as a series of neighborhoods that coalesce into a new town over time, the interactions of neighbors, residents, visitors, and those who are ‘just passing by’ will build both past memories and future expectations that will shape the town’s eventual ‘community character.’ The design team understood that this traditional place making pattern brings people together while also siting lightly on the local landscape. These traditional urban design tools were used in order to build upfront a comfortable ‘sense of place’ to be accentuated over time with specialty and civic buildings as citizens move in, engage, and shape their built environment to their collective values. It also respects the existing neighbors to the east and doesn’t impede on their choices and built expressions, and the new highway will provide access to the region in need of towns, and districts, and forests, and bays.

Yes, Whitehall is personal and it is yours. And it is your choice to live and prosper in close proximity to your neighbors, shops, schools, and nature. Your parents auto-oriented status quo is shifted back to being human-oriented by this purposefully natural living arrangement as we have been expected to just get in our cars and drive to and from our homes, shops, schools, squares and parks without question. This new/old arrangement of streets, squares and buildings within walking, biking, scootering, hop-scotching, strolling and driving questions status quo as you choose to make your home personal, which matters if you care enough to change conventional expectations of how you live your life.

(New Mixed-Use Building, Mike Watkins is the consulting Town Architect)

whitehall_mixed-use-copy

The place we live in, grow up in, remember, and the culture that is cultivated in these sorts of places matter to our lives. As where you choose to spend time, which is all we really have in this world, comes a tremendous cost and forms the heritage we leave behind. Whitehall has purposely turned the chaotic, drive-by, unfulfilling auto-oriented lifestyle around to offer a more connected, comfortable, and convivial neighborhood setting to make with it what you will. You can go to school, or a shop, as well as drift off into the woods. This is a recognizably different set of promises built on the idea that the quality of our lives hinges upon our free choice and not upon the fate of those before us.

And then yet you will find Whitehall.

[Epilog: Ok, I stole that last line from Makaha Sons of Ni’ihau (Mickey Ioane), Hawaii ’78 protest song, which is one of the greatest protest songs ever written about people’s feeling about sacred land. While not beloved yet, as it will take time for citizens to transfer its character from its initial ground breaking. Whitehall is in its essence a protest statement against not being coerced to spend our valuable time and money on things and places that mean nothing to us. Our endless miles of cars, highways, gas stations, parking lots, driveways, turnpikes, 7-11’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden, Starbucks, drive thru garbage food, etc…]

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)

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.

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!

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)

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.