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Posts from the "Development" Category

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Livable Streets or Tall Buildings? Cities Can Have Both

Chicago's 17-story Monadnock building provides pedestrians with an interesting architectural experience and retail amenities at their eye level, despite being almost 200 feet tall. Photo: ##http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monadnock_Building#mediaviewer/File:Monadnock_Building_East_Facade.jpg##Wikipedia##

Chicago’s 17-story Monadnock building provides pedestrians with an interesting architectural experience and retail amenities at their eye level, despite being almost 200 feet tall. Photo: Wikipedia

Kaid Benfield’s new blog post on density is getting a lot of buzz over at NRDC’s Switchboard blog. Benfield, a planner/lawyer/professor/writer who co-founded both LEED’s Neighborhood Development rating system and the Smart Growth America coalition, has some serious street cred when it comes to these matters. And on this one, he’s with Danish architect Jan Gehl, who says wonderful places are built at human-scale density — three to six stories.

Benfield’s low- to mid-rise ideal is a great fit for smaller cities and towns trying to become more walkable and less car-dependent. And in most of America, building walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods out of three story buildings would be vastly more dense than the typical low-slung, single-use development pattern that predominates today. But it won’t work everywhere.

With demographers expecting the U.S. population to grow by 100 million people over the next 35 years, we’re going to need to build smarter and more vertical. In some cities, housing is already maxed out and unreasonably expensive. In those places, building up is often the only way to go. Can taller buildings engage people on foot and work at street level? It can be done. Just ask a million and a half humans living in Manhattan, or the 600,000 residents of Vancouver, or the residents of other cities where street life and skyscrapers coexist.

Benfield allows that taller buildings can be designed well for pedestrians, but his enthusiasm is for density-without-height, not how to integrate height into the pedestrian environment. He cites a study by the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Green Lab that concluded neighborhoods with smaller and older buildings are more successful urban places than those with larger, newer buildings. They tend to have greater densities of both population and businesses and have higher Walk Scores and Transit Scores. And the street life in those older districts tends to continue later into the night. (Again, Manhattan might want to speak up here.)

I get it. I tend to like living in a neighborhood with the “eyes on the street” security and community spirit that comes from front porches and stoops. But there are probably a lot of factors at play in that study by the Trust aside from building size.

Preferences differ and not all neighborhoods are the same. “Eyes on the street” can come from simply having a sidewalk full of people — or from the lower stories of a tall building. Architects and designers who care about the pedestrian environment have figured out how to create streets and public spaces that attract people amid towering skyscrapers. Even the shadowy caverns of Lower Manhattan, built before zoning codes mandated building setbacks, appeal to some people — the area has been undergoing a residential boom for years.

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Talking Headways Podcast: Good Riddance, “Level of Service”

All the buzz right now is about Arlington, Virginia — the DC suburb has seen its population rise and its car traffic drop since the 1980s. How did they do it? It could be a lesson for Palo Alto, California, which is considering various growth proposals, including one that would invite greater density as long as it comes with no additional driving, carbon emissions, or water use.

Denser, more transit-oriented development would be a big win for Palo Alto, but ironically, California’s environmental law has long penalized projects like that for diminishing “level of service” for vehicle traffic. A new basketball stadium came to the rescue, however, and the state is poised to dump level of service as a metric to evaluate transportation and development projects. That change could potentially slow down highways like “level of service” used to slow down smart growth and transit projects. It’s a whole new world.

Check it all out on Talking Headways. Talk at us in the comments, subscribe on iTunes or Stitcher, or sign up for our RSS feed.

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Parking Craters Aren’t Just Ugly, They’re a Cancer on Your City’s Downtown

Downtown Hartford

Downtown Hartford’s Phoenix Building sits atop a moat of (what else?) parking. Photo: Brian Herzog, via Flickr

Streetsblog’s Parking Madness competition has highlighted the blight that results when large surface parking lots take over a city’s downtown. Even though Rochester, winner of 2014′s Golden Crater, certainly gains bragging rights, all of the competitors have something to worry about: Cumulatively, the past 50 years of building parking have had a debilitating effect on America’s downtowns.

Streetsblog recently spoke with Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about his research into how parking affects small cities’ downtowns. Most recently, McCahill and his co-authors have shown how policy makers’ preoccupation with parking not only hollows out city centers, it also decimates the downtown tax base.

McCahill began his analysis as a University of Connecticut Ph.D. student in 2006, choosing to compare the postwar evolution of six small, built-up, relatively slow-growing cities: Arlington, Virginia; Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Lowell, Massachusetts; and New Haven, Connecticut. For each of these cities, McCahill and his collaborators, most frequently professor Norman Garrick, have gone far beyond the usual publicly available statistics and hand-measured the number of parking spaces (both on- and off-street) and the size of buildings from aerial photos.

The resulting analysis shows how three of these cities have diverged from the other three since the base year of 1960. Arlington, Berkeley, and Cambridge went against the postwar grain and chose a “parking-light” approach: emphasizing transportation demand management (TDM) measures, while de-emphasizing driving and in one case even penalizing parking construction. Hartford, Lowell, and New Haven chose a conventional approach, emphasizing that downtown development should provide “adequate” parking based upon standards of the time.

These two paths led these cities to very different outcomes, which McCahill has chronicled in a series of publications. Most recently, he co-authored two papers about how parking has affected the six downtowns’ urban fabric and their tax bases. Parking lots take a big bite out of the conventional cities’ tax bases, which could reap 25 percent more in downtown property taxes had they chosen a parking-light approach instead.

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Measuring the Shift Away From Car Ownership, City By City

A new analysis by Michael Andersen at Bike Portland helps illuminate how shifts in car ownership are playing out in different cities.

The majority of Portland's population growth consists of households with fewer cars than adults. Image: Bike Portland

Andersen reviewed Census data from 2005 and 2011. He found that households with less than one car per adult accounted for about 60 percent of Portland’s population growth. About one in four Portland households met this definition of “car-lite” in 2011, Andersen reports, compared to one in five households six years earlier.

Andersen looked at a few more cities to see whether car-lite households make up a growing share of the population.

In Austin, a more car-dependent city, not much has changed. About 13 percent of households are “car-lite,” and car-lite households account for 13 percent of the growth between 2005 and 2011. In Seattle, there’s been some movement, but not as much as in Portland: car-lite households make up 25 percent of the city overall while accounting for 37 percent of its recent growth. Meanwhile, walkable, transit-rich Boston is growing even less car-dependent: almost 70 percent of new households have fewer cars than adults, according to Andersen, compared to about half of the city’s overall population.

In Portland, Andersen notes, the real estate market is starting to react to the shift away from car-dependence — to build more walkable places and less parking. Is that going to be a trend in other American regions?

Well, car-lite households accounted for about 28 percent of America’s growth between 2005 and 2011 — double the overall national share of car-lite households.

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From Bust to Boom: Rental Housing Takes Off in Madison

Madison, Wisconsin, is on a building binge. Developers are constructing so much rental housing that market observers fear that the housing shortage could quickly turn into a glut. One thousand units were approved last year for large apartment complexes.

Madison is building 1,000 new rental units to satisfy the urban-living appetites of young professionals -- but experts warn they shouldn't ignore those who need affordable options. Photo: Gary Brink & Associates

There’s a reason behind all this building, according to an article in yesterday’s Isthmus: Young professionals, especially employees of the Madison-based software company Epic, are clamoring for downtown living and shunning the suburban development that characterized Madison-area building until recently.

With an eye toward Epic professionals, though, developers are almost exlusively building high-end apartments. Rents like $895 for a studio and $2,165 for a three-bedroom might sound like a bargain to our readers in New York, DC, and San Francisco, but in Madison, that’s a hefty chunk of change. Those prices risk forcing people to pay more than a third of their incomes on rent, which is ill-advised.

There’s an answer to that, says Nina Gruen, a market researcher and real estate strategist writing in the Urban Land Institute blog this week. All around the country, younger folks are flocking to rental housing — and not just the high-earning whiz kids. Their parents are finally kicking them out and they’re getting their own places (if they’re lucky, with the help of a little allowance Mom and Dad gave as a consolation prize). They prefer the vibrancy of the city to the sleepiness of the suburbs. They’re starting families later in life, so they’re happy with smaller digs.

“Since 2009, there has been a steady increase in multifamily construction,” Gruen writes, “climbing from 109,000 units in 2009 to 245,000 units in 2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.” People under 30 are a primary market for those new urban units.

And Gruen has some ideas for how to build for the kicked-out-of-their-parents’-basement subset of the millennial generation – which she dubs the “echo boomers” — as opposed to the well-heeled software professionals. She says they’re looking for small studios — as in, 250 square feet — or else they want to share a two-bedroom among three or four people. They don’t care so much about closet space but a fast internet connection is essential. They prefer flexible, open space to formal entertaining areas, and they’re happy to share party rooms, bike storage, and fitness facilities with other renters. And Gruen gets into details others gloss over: “Multifamily rentals that permit dogs ought to consider including outdoor dog washes in order to avoid clogged sinks from dog hair.”

The moral of the story is this: Whether we’re talking about software engineers or coffee slingers, young people want to live in cities. After years of housing shortages and skyrocketing rents, supply is finally beginning to catch up to demand.

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Housing Market Study: Idahoans Demanding Walkable Urbanism

People in Idaho, Montana, and Colorado want to live in walkable places. That’s the finding of a recent housing market study by Sonoran Institute, a group that supports conservation and community development in the American West.

Homes in Boise's walkable neighborhoods sold for 45 percent more than those in sprawling places, according to a recent study. Image: Planning.org

The institute examined thousands of home sales around six cities in those three states since 2009. Only about 16 percent of the housing in the six regions studied was characterized as walkable, and researchers found that dwellings in walkable areas sold for an 18.5 percent premium over those sited among sprawl.

The discrepancy was even more pronounced around Boise, where homes in walkable neighborhoods sold for 45 percent more than those in disconnected areas, the Idaho Stateman reports.

“The (study results) would lead you to think there’s a lot of demand that isn’t being met in Boise,” Randy Carpenter, director of the Sonoran Institute, told the Statesman.

The increasing preference for walkability and mixed-use development among Americans has been well documented, and this study shows it’s not isolated to major urban areas on the coasts.

The study also included a survey portion. Among those surveyed, 90 percent said it was important to live in a place where they could walk to other destinations in the community, like schools, parks, and shops. Moreover, 62 percent said they would be willing to trade some lot size at home for access to parks, trails, and recreation.

Experts from the Sonoran Institute say they think their findings are applicable to the West as a whole.

“More and more people want convenience, they want to walk, and they want neighborhoods with character,” said Clark Anderson, Sonoran’s Colorado program director. “In a lot of towns these qualities are hard to find outside of a few small, historic neighborhoods. So it’s sort of an untapped opportunity.”

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International Funders Shift Investments Toward Sustainable Transportation

Traffic congestion, air pollution, and lack of mobility disproportionately harm the poor in the developing world when transportation investments favor automobiles. Photo: Owni

If you think the United States is doing a bad job shifting toward sustainable transportation, take a look at the developing world. The places with the most to lose from auto-oriented development are doubling down on it — to the enormous detriment of their citizens, especially the poorest.

The number of cars in the world is expect to grow as much as 375 percent by 2050. Road fatalities in low- and middle-income countries are expected to rise by 80 percent just over the next eight years, with pedestrians, cyclists, and other vulnerable users making up about half those deaths. Harmful air pollutants that already cause 1.3 million premature deaths each year, mostly in developing and middle-income countries, will rise. And carbon dioxide emissions from transport could grow 300 percent over 2005 levels by 2050 — with most of the growth, again, coming from the developing world.

The energy consumed by the transportation sector globally more than doubled between 1970 and 2005. Source: Worldwatch Institute.

Michael Replogle and Colin Hughes warn of these dire outcomes in their article on sustainable transportation for the 2012 State of the World report, published by the Worldwatch Institute. While international climate change agreements have historically overlooked the transportation sector, the authors note some promising changes afoot as international development banks seek to add transit projects to their portfolios.

Replogle and Hughes frame transportation policy in terms of both sustainability and equity. The urban poor lose out disproportionately when car-oriented infrastructure dominates, they note, since the lack of affordable transportation forces them “to choose between low incomes in informal sector employment close to affordable housing and higher-wage jobs that force them to spend a large share of their income and hours each day commuting.”

Compounding the inequity, fossil fuel subsidies disproportionately allocate public funds to the wealthy, the authors report: “The International Energy Agency estimates that only eight percent of the $409 billion that the world spent in 2010 to subsidize fossil fuel consumption (about half of which is used for transport) went to the poorest 20 percent of the population.”

Unfortunately, say Replogle and Hughes, international agreements on poverty reduction and climate change have largely ignored transportation. Even the Agenda 21 agreement, a bogeyman among far-right cranks, included “no targets, goals, commitments, or other forms of accountability” for sustainable transport.

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The Greenwashing of Sprawl

"The Lakes of Orange" advertises itself as Ohio's first green-certified residential community, but it is a sprawling mess. Photo: Lakes of Orange

Twenty-eight miles southeast of Cleveland, there is a development that bills itself as “Ohio’s FIRST Green Certified Residential Community.” According to the developer, The Lakes of Orange “offers a rare, one-of-kind opportunity to build and live in a green and sustainable environment.”

“Reserve your place in eco-history today,” its website implores. “We are accepting lot reservations now; lot sizes range from ¼ acre to ¾ acre.”

“Eco-friendly developments” whose marketing materials read like a contradiction in terms — they can be found on the outskirts of almost every metro area. Check out the Saxony in the distant Indianapolis ‘burbs — a “new urban” development advertising both its walkability and “ample parking.” Or how about The Bridgelands in Texas, which says it plans to build a “bustling town center, right next to the proposed Grand Parkway” — the mega-highway project it is depending on to lure residents from Houston, 30 miles away.

Ah, working in the exurbs. How green! Photo: Saxony--Indiana

I guess it’s hard to blame developers. As mounting evidence shows Americans are beginning to favor more walkable urban environments, the motivation to greenwash sprawl is clear.

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Mixed-Use Development Delivers Huge Public Returns Compared to Sprawl

Graphic: Planetizen

Walkable development pays — that’s the conclusion of a study recently outlined in Planetizen. For cities and towns facing tight budgets — just about everywhere in the United States right now — the smart way to boost tax revenue is to encourage mixed-use, walkable development, as the above graphic amply illustrates.

The for-profit development company Public Interest Projects (PIP) reports that urbanism produces much more tax revenue for localities than sprawl. Analyzing tax data around Asheville, North Carolina, the research team found that downtowns — places with the most places to shop per acre — often subsidize the more suburban parts of the community. In places like Asheville, mixed-use developments offered up to eight times (or more) the tax revenue per acre of a Super Walmart.

Former PIP employee Joseph Minicozzi, now a principal with for-profit development firm Urban3, tells Planetizen readers that many cities are approaching development from the wrong frame of mind (emphasis added):

Our mistake has been looking at the overall value of a development project rather than its per unit productivity. Especially relevant in these times of limited public means, every city should be thinking long and hard about encouraging, and not accidentally discouraging, the property tax bonus that comes with mixed-use urbanism. Put simply, density gets far more bang for its buck.

He concludes that public policies that encourage low-density development urgently need to be reformed:

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When “Old and Blighted” Development Beats “Shiny and New” Suburbanism

There are plenty of hidden costs to auto-oriented development: increased levels of air and water pollution, safety risks posed to pedestrians and cyclists. But as Strong Towns Blog points out, some costs are hardly hidden at all.

The authors of the comprehensive plan for Brainerd, Minnesota (pop: 13,590) probably thought they had a great idea: Take the properties along busy Highway 210 in the east part of town, an assortment of run-down or vacant storefronts, and encourage their replacement by “highway-oriented businesses.” The plan bases this strategy on the idea that “having a strong highway commercial area… provides for a healthy downtown.”

“The problem,” writes Charles Marohn of Strong Towns, “is that ‘strong’ and ‘highway commercial’ are – in almost all cases – mutually exclusive terms.” Furthermore, the “fast food restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations and other auto-oriented businesses“ promoted by the comprehensive plan are actually worth less to the city than the marginal establishments that are there already.

Marohn compares the “old and blighted” development on one block — the kind of development the town would like to get rid of — to the “shiny and new” development down the street, a fast food joint with lots of surface parking:

The eleven old and blighted lots [above left] — some of the most undesirable commercial property in the city — arranged in the traditional development pattern along the incompatible, major arterial of Highway 210 have a combined tax base of $1,136,500.

To compare, the Taco John’s property [above right] — the one that is not only shiny and new but configured precisely as the city of Brainerd desires the old and blighted properties to someday be — has a total valuation of only $803,200.

At its nastiest and most decrepit, fighting the negative auto traffic speeding by and the absence of pedestrian connectivity, lacking all natural advantage from the neighboring land uses that would ideally accompany a traditional neighborhood design, the old and blighted traditional commercial block still outperforms the new, auto-oriented development by 41%. [emphasis his]

The city is shrinking its own tax base by encouraging businesses to turn their backs on traditional Main Streets in favor of busy arterial highways. A cheaper way to maximize these parcels’ value, according to Marohn, would be to restore connectivity to the nearby residential area.