Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Toronto urbanism

One of North America's best urban design writers is Christopher Hume, columnist for the Toronto Star. But I haven't been keeping up with his writing lately because for some reason the daily Toronto Star e-newsletter mostly ends up in my bulk e-mail. Some particularly good columns:

City needs to put its foot down
From the article:

Architecture is important, but planning is crucial. Though Toronto's known for second-rate design, our real problem is poor planning. Throughout the city there are examples, painful examples, of the lack of intelligent planning. The result is not just visual chaos, but a clear feeling that nothing adds up, that nothing makes sense, that the city consists of a growing number of disjointed projects.

-- City life makes big boxes go small or go home on how what matters most isn't building use, but building form, and includes a mention of a Canadian Tire "big box" store on the ground floor of a mixed use building as well as the mention of an Ikea showroom store having opened up on King Street.

-- Grocery chains develop a taste for urban living on the Sobey's Supermarket chain (and others) who are developing true urban grocery stores, smaller, offering smaller quantities, high quality interiors, and a great amount of prepared foods. Sobey's is the second largest supermarket chain in Canada. But they have actually figured out the necessity of offering an "Urban Fresh" sub-brand.

The Sobey's store that has opened in Edmonton, Alberta, featured in this blog entry "Revisiting Sobeys Urban Fresh," from the "Only Here for the Food" blog, has some great images of the quality store provided. The sit-in coffee shop/eat-in area is as attractive as a restaurant (much better than the Whole Foods on P Street NW in DC). (Photo from the OHftF blog.)

-- these two stories reiterate the point I make that urban places need to have appropriately sized urban government services vehicles... "Super-sized fire trucks a poor fit for city streets" and "For fire trucks, bigger isn't better."

--Let's find a better way to plan a city discusses broken planning processes. From the column:

Just as Crown attorneys and defence lawyers call their own friendly expert witnesses in an attempt to win the case at any cost, so developers and opponents hire their experts to bolster their argument, no matter how wrong. What follows can be self-serving if not outright false, but the process allows and encourages such behaviour.

It also favours the rich and powerful over the poor and weak.

In other words, both planning and the law are crude and clumsy ways to make critical decisions. They are systems that can turn even the most intelligent people into dupes and shills.

In the meantime, however, large numbers of professionals now depend for their prestige and livelihood on these antiquated and essentially barbaric processes. Lawyers, as well as psychiatrists, doctors, accountants, land use planners, architects and engineers are the only real winners. The rest of us are the losers.

No, we're not all sentenced to jail for crimes we didn't commit, but the communities we inhabit are slowly but surely being destroyed by a planning regime that doesn't work.

Yet the essence of the urban condition is compromise. Regardless of whatever else the city may be, it represents shared space. It turns all of us into neighbours and, therefore, demands that we learn to coexist.

Because this isn't always easy, dispute resolution mechanisms are crucial. But decision-making mechanisms are equally crucial; none more so than planning.

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State of Virginia Railroad Planning

I missed that Virginia is updating their state rail plan. This press release, "Commonwealth Transportation Board Sets Public Meetings for Statewide Rail Plan," from the Department of Rail and Public Transportation, listed the public meetings soliciting comments from the public, held during July. Comments were due last Monday...

This is the current plan.

And this is the new draft plan.

Councilmembers in Lynchburg and the Virginia First Cities Coalition object to the request for subsidies to be provided by localities, arguing that funding railroad passenger service is a state responsibility. See this article, "Council: Local government shouldn't pay for Va. rail expansion," and the follow up editorial "Mass Transit is the State's Responsibility" both from the Lynchburg News & Advance.

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Fastest dying cities in the U.S.

This report from Forbes Magazine, "America's Fastest-Dying Cities," demonstrates the value of a diversified economy and business leaders capable of innovation, change, and transformation.

Nation's 10 Fastest-Dying Cities

Buffalo, NY
Canton, OH
Charleston, W.VA
Cleveland, OH
Dayton, OH
Detroit, MI
Flint, MI
Scranton, PA
Springfield, MA
Youngstown, OH

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Two-way vs. one-way streets in Florida

The St. Petersburg Times reports, in "Some St. Pete one-way streets changing to two-way," about how St. Petersburg is turning one way streets back to two way streets, while Tampa isn't. From the article:

You might think this would not make much difference, but traffic engineers, urban planners and businesses say it does. The two kinds of streets do different jobs.

A one-way street is basically a traffic funnel designed to quickly and efficiently sweep cars through an area. Two-way streets tend to be better for businesses — they're slower and more inviting to pedestrians, generating more customers. Cars are less likely to barrel past shops and restaurants, and walkers are more likely to drop in.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Today in Railroad History

August 28, 1935.

Congress passes the Public Utility Holding Company Act. Heralded as a consumer protection milestone, it also gives utilities a quick method to drop their traction systems. This becomes one of the nails in the coffin of streetcar and interurban railroads in the U.S.

Similarly, an unintended consequence of breaking up the movie production companies, and their having to sell off their theaters, was the decline of the center city movie palace.

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Comments on Janette Sadik-Khan

She is the transportation commissioner in NYC. The New York Observer ran a little story, "Bloomberg’s Street Fighter: The relatively radical Janette Sadik-Khan has championed bike lanes and pedestrian plazas—but does the transportation commish move too fast?," on her.

Here are a couple of nice comments to the story that express very well the sentiments I try to express (not as well sometimes) about the difference between the center city, and Washington specifically, and suburbs.

Hugh Taylor:

"Radical" compared to what? London and Paris, among other great cities, are way in front of New York City when it comes to reclaiming street space for pedestrians, public space, buses and bicyclists. People flock to live here, and raise families here, precisely because they do not have to drive everywhere. Commissioner Sadik-Khan should be applauded for finally letting New York be New York instead of trying to make it a Houston or Atlanta. It's nice to see NYC government aspire to be a world leader instead of laggard.


Perhaps she is radical when compared to previous DOT commissioners, who were about 50 years behind the curve of transportation policy. As a global city, we should compare our policies to those in Paris, London, Tokyo, and Shanghai; not LA, Houston, and Atlanta.

Interestingly, unlike in DC, the NYC Department of Transportation does not have to go through a public participation and approval process to do projects.

And now I think that we need to make public space improvement a very central part of transportation planning, since it really is about the public space parts of the built environment.

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Pedestrian scramble in Toronto

also known as the Barnes Dance, named after the traffic engineer who coined the activity, Toronto is launching a pedestrian scramble intersection, where at one point in the signal cycle, all lights are red, and pedestrians can move in any direction. See "Green light for 'pedestrian scramble' " from the Toronto Globe & Mail.
Pedestrian Scramble/Barnes Dance
New multidirectional crosswalks were completed at the Yonge-Dundas intersection Wednesday as new signs waited to be unveiled. Today, the new priority is pedestrians. (Charla Jones/Globe and Mail)

From the article:

From behind a windshield, however, the change may not be so popular. It will mean much longer red lights for drivers to make way for this new 28-second, pedestrian-only phase in the traffic-light cycle. Currently, the longest wait at this intersection for drivers (those on Yonge Street) is 31 seconds. As of today, the longest wait for a green light will stretch to 57 seconds, and green lights for drivers will also be five to eight seconds shorter.

The scramble concept, long ago implemented in several other cities around the world, is also known as a "Barnes dance," after Henry Barnes, a traffic commissioner in Denver credited with coming up with the idea there in the 1950s and reportedly making pedestrians so happy they were "dancing in the streets."

However, here in safety-conscious Toronto, the preferred term is "pedestrian priority phase," said John Mende, the city's director of traffic infrastructure management.

This is being considered, selectively, in DC, where such crossing options were employed at certain intersections Downtown.

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Historic preservation as the leading urban revitalization strategy

is outlined in this story, "Tale of Two Neighborhoods," from Florida Trend, on two neighborhoods, one in Miami Beach, the other in Orlando, abstracted thusly:

Two Florida communities -- unlike demographically and geographically -- followed similar paths as they declined, then rose again over the past 50 years. Today, they face the same challenges going forward,"

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The public schools: decline vs. reform vs. change vs. improvement vs. transformation

Why haven't accreditation agencies gotten tougher with urban school systems? See, at the local level, including DC, schools were seen as sources of jobs and contracts and deals, not places of education. Outcomes didn't matter, deals and jobs mattered. This started with the first elected school board in the 1970s.

So the schools declined. Precipitously. But the local government, local populace didn't do much. People who could afford it sent their children to private schools. Or moved out of the city alltogether. In either case, it removed the people likely to advocate for improvement away from oversight of the local school system.

The rest of the people, for the most part, thought things were fine. And the connected people got their contracts. People in their hermetic bubble were content.

Too often, local governments can't muster the political will necessary for transformation (e.g., see the work of the Urban Education Reform study led by Clarence Stone).

That's why you may get state and/or federal involvement, because only with the involvement of a higher level of authority can the logjam be broken.

An Atlanta area school district just lost their accreditation, which is the first time a school district has been deaccredited in recent memory. See "Clayton County schools lose accreditation" from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. From the article:

This is the second time is five years SACS cited Clayton['s School Board] for micromanaging, abuse of power, conflict of interest and other unethical violations.

I wonder if the DC Public Schools is within the jurisdiction of SACS?

Now, instead of dealing with substantive management improvements, regularization of contracting, disconnecting the self-dealing, building a focus on outcomes, the current administration thinks the problem is the teachers. (And probably they are an issue as well.)

Anyway, there are some nice articles in some of the Extra editions of the Washington Post on school successes in other jurisdictions in the region. Why is it that those school systems can succeed without trying to break the Teachers Union? (Which in DC, is another broken institution, just like all the others. cf. _The Future Once Happened Here_.)

-- 'Proficient' Just Doesn't Cut It in Maryland, "Students Pushed To Be 'Advanced'" --
For a school with one of the most economically disadvantaged populations in Montgomery County, Highland Elementary in Silver Spring is remarkably competitive on standardized tests. (Various editions -- because the Post has reduced the news hole in the Extra section -- including Montgomery)

-- Success Story Stokes Hopes For New Year "As Flintstone Makes Gains, Expectations Rise Countywide" (Prince George's County Extra)

Instead of these kinds of articles being distributed within DC, we get editorials favoring Union busting, "More Pay for Good Teachers," and paying students to go to school, "Opening Day in the D.C. Classroom."

And see this piece on education reform by Nat Hentoff in the Village Voice, "Randi Weingarten and the National American Federation of Teachers: No Child Left Unhealed: To work, a public school must be active in students' lives before and after class."

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Paying students

Toy blocks
one of these days I'll get around to more writing about the terrible Post editorials on this and other education topics. Gary Imhoff in themail covers it well enough in the current issue.

I was thinking about this earlier today though and here is my thinking:

We all know the difference between deferred and immediate gratification. I always joked to unhappy co-workers that the reason you get paid to go to work is that it isn't fun.

Yes, for the most part, except for some nasty teachers here and there along the way, and my problems with math, I loved school.

I understood that it was part of my pathway to being an adult, and if I produced, I could go to college and then do even better.

I am the first to admit that being middle class gave me huge advantages in terms of this pathway.

But I think that if people believe that monetizing the school-going process is necessary in DC, it is because there is no upward pathway, no connection between learning, doing well in school, and eventually getting decently paying jobs. That school is completely disconnected from the success path, and therefore just like work, because sometimes it really isn't fun, your boss is a jerk, and so are some of your coworkers, the project is poorly defined, etc., you have to get paid to do it.

Pretty cynical and base if you ask me.
Flushing money down the toilet
City of Toronto image.


What does NIMBYism really tell us?

The essay, "The Social Functions of NIMBYism" from the Harvard Design Magazine is making the rounds. A person on the urbanists list made this point:

Does anyone else think this NIMBYism essay is a little dismissive? Isn't destroying someone's view or adding a skyscraper to a low-riseneighborhood legitimate reason for concern? Couldn't NIMBYism be thefallout from inadequate zoning or social policy?

My response:

If I get a phd in planning, one of my thoughts for a dissertation topic is rearticulating the profession around civic engagement, because land use issues are most likely to engage the average or typical citizen in local civic affairs.

But the issue then becomes why isn't civic engagement "working" now?

After all, as a result of the mistakes of urban renewal and the success of the anti-freeway and environmental movements, we have mandatory historic preservation and environmental reviews for undertakings involving federal funds. Many states and localities have comparable requirements. These processes require citizen involvement and participation. So shouldn't the ability to weigh in make the processes work?

It's pretty clear why things aren't working. Our methods of participatory and representative democracy are somewhat broken. (cf. _Empowered Participation_ by Fung, _Deepening Democracy_ by Wright and Fung, work by John Friedmann, etc.)

And a focus on computer-based participation systems and hired participation firms (such as America Speaks, an organization whose approach I really detest) provides the opportunity for greater participation, seemingly, but at a great cost--the loss of depth and substance in favor of glib "consultations" and "listening sessions" and "town meetings" and numbers of participants. More people participate sure, but there is little substance.

Many DC initiatives such as Mayor Williams' town meetings and the Office of Planning Strategic Neighborhood Action Plans get great write ups in the academic literature, but I think the reality of these processes was ignored while the writers were enamored with the processes and the intention, rather than the quality of the process and the outcomes.

There is an amazing book that teaches English as a Second Language by teaching about how to be involved in your community. When poking through it I thought (1) it sure would be a hard book for non-native speakers to deal with because of the level at which it is written and (2) we aren't doing this for everybody else anyway and we should.
Communicating Effectively in English
Textbook that teaches English as a Second Language, Communicating Effectively in English (1992), by Patricia A. Porter and Margaret Grant, then of San Francisco State University.

High school government courses should be also about learning about how to be engaged in our community, not just how a bill becomes law and the idealized version, not the reality of that unseemly and often dirty process.
How a bill becomes law

How a bill becomes law

THEN, combine broken democracy and civic engagement processes with the fact that for the most part people don't know the very basic foundations of what makes great places (choose your references, from _The City_ by Whyte, to Jane Jacobs, to the _Urban Design Compendium_ by English Partnerships to _Creating a Vibrant City Center_ by Cy Paumier to the essay on creating a walkable community by Dan Burden, and just about all of the work of the Project for Public Spaces, and of course, the absolutely stellar book, probably the best planning book since _Death and Life_, _Cities in Full_ by Steve Belmont), and the ideas behind the transect which helps structure decision-making on what building types are appropriate or inappropriate depending on the place.

(The transect is a key and important tool.)
Illustration from The House Book by Keith DuQuette (resized)
From Scott Doyon--Re: the depiction of urban environments in media directed at children, my six year old daughter recently brought home a book from her school library called The House Book by Keith DuQuette. Included in it, following a lot of nice traditional home illustrations, was the attached depiction of city to country. It's so good for what it is, I was surprised it didn't have a DPZ credit at the border. My daughter understood it immediately. There is hope.

H Street Connection
Suburban style developments in the core of the city of Washington, DC are a "transect violation." It's inappropriate to place car fronted buildings on urban streets in the core of center cities. Flickr photo by Inked78.

And that municipal government planning initiatives don't spend much time on the foundations, and they don't rank or order different objectives.

About 4 years ago, I commented to the then Ward transportation planner "why is it that with each planning iteration that citizens are involved in, our knowledge base, ways of participating, and outcomes don't improve?" I avered it was because of our not teaching best practices and principles and spending more time on developing quality process.

I pushed to have PPS and their place game/How to Turn A Place Around workshop used in the next iteration. I pushed hard, and they were included, by their efforts were crushed by the constraints put on by the Dept. of Transportation and they never did their normal citizen participation process.

Plus, municipal planning issues fail to lay out broad citywide objectives and work to make sure that these objectives are met in complementary and reciprocal ways when engaged in _neighborhood_ planning efforts.

And residents tend to be very focused on neighborhoods, what I often call "the tyranny of neighborhood parochialism."

Combine this with a lack of knowledge (especially on urban vs. suburban planning principles and design paradigms), broken civic engagement models, constrained planning processes, not to mention what can be over influence by certain interest groups and self-dealing, and yes, planning and land use and zoning and change or more importantly, transformation, becomes very difficult if not impossible.

A month or two ago, a blogger in DC asked for some references on how to promote transit oriented development. I responded that you can start promoting TOD by not using the term TOD, that what really matters to people is the qualities that support livability and great neighborhoods. Now it's easy, using that framework, to explain why TOD makes sense:

- better use of land
- in such a way that it reduces automobile trips significantly
- providing more ridership to transit allowing greater frequency of service
- provides more residents able to support neighborhood retail and other neighobrhood-based programs and services (including schools)
- adds property tax revenues to strapped municipal coffers
- and in the case of DC also adds income tax revenue
- and provides the opportunity to deliver a greater diversity of housing types able to meet the shelter needs of a greater diversity of people, types of households, and at a variety of income levels.

You don't have to use TOD as a term at all. And that's good, because too often people equate TOD with inappropriate density increases and riches for developers, and it becomes very difficult to discuss why TOD makes so much sense.

NiMBYism is in part of fear of change.

It should also be seen as an indicator of the failure of the planning profession (as well as the executive and legislative branches of government) to do its job properly within the context of a damaged polity with broken participation practices.

Note that another problem is that well-educated people, the kind of people who tend to have the time and interest enabling their involvement in land use planning issues, think they know everything already. I am learning, doing some facilitation here and there, in various neighborhood planning exercises, that it is very very very difficult to get people to sit back, consider and ponder. They want deliverables and they want them now. But incomplete consideration of issues can be a real problem, especially when planning initiatives and new projects end up being a once every 20+ year phenomenon.

That being said, I think that the planning principles document created by citizens in the West End area, a visioning exercise conducted by the Foggy Bottom Association and the Dupont Circle Citizens Association (with support of their local ANCs and the DC Library Renaissance Project) is pretty good. (Maybe because I led the sessions, maybe not. I did learn that I have a long way to go before I would call myself a good facilitator.)

Lately I have been mentioning in testimonies that the point of planning and zoning is to make better communities, to extend the livability of the city. So if the processes aren't yielding those kinds of outcomes, then we need to look inward as much as we look outward, to see why planning and zoning and development isn't making our communities better when it isn't, and why it succeeds when it does so, and then work to replicate and extend the successes.

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The real problem with "rebalancing" modes amongst automobiles and others

From this letter to the editor, "Arcola motorists should heed teen's message: Try transit," by John Fay of Wheaton, in the Gazette:

The problem for the people complaining about Arcola seems to be that they believe that roads are there to serve them first, no matter what the effect on the adjoining neighborhoods. Anything that slows down their driving from point A to point B is bad. What is in between those points is of no consequence to them: homes, schools, places of worship, children playing. "Just get out of my way" is their attitude. This holds true throughout the area, not just Arcola. Roads must be widened, intersections "improved," etc., "for me."

This letter is in response to a thread which began with this article, "Lobbying efforts lead to pedestrian safety features," about road narrowing and other actions taken in an area of Silver Spring after a 14 year old boy was hit by a car and killed while walking home from school.

And, I meant to blog about this op-ed, "Teen discovers joys of public transit" by Aaron Burger, a sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School, from last week's Gazette, but I never got around to it. Note that Arlington County Transportation has a teen advisory committee.

There has also been a very whacked discussion about school busing in DC, on the concerned4dcps yahoogroup. A couple of us think it is crazy to spend in excess of $2 million/year to move children short distances, say from Bunker Hill Elementary to Brookland Elementary for after-school programs (yes I know the traffic on Michigan Avenue is bad) for a variety of reasons.

Get crossing guards, escort the kids. Rather than having make-work "summer jobs for youth" why not create a "Teen Walking Ranger" program where high school students can have jobs as a kind of crossing guard and escort from the children from one school to another?

The millions of dollars to be spent on busing to move kids .6 mile, while suburban districts are starting to require that children walk to school for distances under 1 to 1.5 miles, is a waste, and could and should be spent on enrichment programs (art, reading, music teachers, etc.) rather than on buses, gasoline, maintenance, and drivers.

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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Now that's mixed use

The Gazette reports on library planning for Silver Spring, in "Adults, teens discuss wish list for library." According to the article:

The proposed library would be at the corner of Wayne Avenue and Fenton and Bonifant streets. The 66,000-square-foot site will most likely feature the multi-story library, affordable housing units and a station for the Purple Line, which is slated to run through the property.

A public transit station and a public library and... Impressive.

Meanwhile, DC just can't seem to figure out how to make mixed use, and the achievement of multiple objectives from one piece of property, a reality.

MontCo isn't perfect. They aren't putting a bicycle station in the Sarbanes Silver Spring "Transit" Center, although they are providing connections to bicycle trails.

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World news...

1. The mayor of Paris may run for the leadership of the Socialist Party in France. From the Independent, "Paris mayor to challenge Royal for leadership of divided Socialist Party":

An openly gay politician who has given Parisians free bikes-for-hire and fake beaches along the river Seine, M. Delanoë is seen by some Socialists as their best chance of breathing new life into the party.

There has been speculation that M. Delanoë would like to challenge M. Sarkozy for the presidency in 2012, but he and other Socialist leaders say it is much too early to talk about that. For now, the Socialists have been so engrossed in the leadership contest that they have failed to capitalise on M. Sarkozy's decline in popularity since late 2007. The President has launched dozens of reforms but voters have yet to see their purchasing power improve – the main concern according to the polls – and many are disappointed with him.

Potentially this is another way to show how to implement a new urban agenda, although European countries are much more oriented to pro-urbanism than we are in North America.
Velib at the Eiffel Tower

2. Also according to the Independent, in "Tequila sunset: The ethanol boom," due to the demand for corn for ethanol (which doesn't really provide much more energy than it costs to produce), Mexican farmers of the blue agave plant are switching to corn. That means less tequila.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008


All About Cities, in "Telecommuting is so ex-urban," lays out very well all the reasons why promotion of telecommuting is an exurban agenda item.

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Wacked planning (judges, etc.)

A man on a bicycle holds a flag protesting against off-road cars, in front of the parliament building in Bern
A man on a bicycle holds a flag protesting against off-road cars, in front of the parliament building in Bern August 25, 2008. Citizens are due to vote on an initiative that plans to ban the sale or purchase of vehicles with large engines, high petrol consumption and high emission of Co2 in Switzerland.REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (SWITZERLAND)

1. Streetsblog reports that today on NPR's "Talk of the Nation," that an activist who has delayed the implementation of the San Francisco Bicycle Master Plan because an environmental impact study wasn't done. His "opponent" is the deputy director of NYC's Transportation Alternatives, one of a group of great NYC local advocacy groups working to build a better city. See "Budnick v. Anderson on “Talk of the Nation” This Afternoon."

The story will be up after 6pm today here.

How can reducing the number of cars on the streets by providing more mobility options, and offering incentives for environmentally-optimal mobility be a bad thing?

2. Today's Baltimore Sun editorializes about a similar stupidity in Prince George's and Montgomery Counties, where local officials are saying that the environmental impact of a bicycle route parallel to the now under construction toll road, the Inter County Connector, is too great. See "Bikes should roll." So that they propose a 2.4 mile gap in the 18.8 mile length.

How is it possible that a big highway is environmentally acceptable, and a bicycle path is not?

3. Goodspeed Update has an entry on the value of public participation to better land use and transportation planning, "Report Finds Public Participation Improves Policy." However, we have to agree that this is bounded, that obstreperous people don't ever intend to make things work.
An Egyptian bread vender rides his bicycle in a Cairo street, Egypt, Monday, Aug. 25, 2008. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

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(More un)intended consequences of economics and land use

Generally, industrial land uses can't afford to pay as much rent as higher value uses, although the needs are still important, and must be met somehow--production, distribution, and repair

But generally, it's easier to locate uses in industrial areas (the quest to relocate the so-called gay clubs excepted, see "NE Residents Fear Clubs Bill Would Create a 'Red-Light Zone" and"Relocated Adult Club Is Facing Shutdown in NE" from the Washington Post) and "Influential gay zoning official ousted" from the Blade) because there usually aren't resident groups to get worked up about the change. In fact, residential use, for the most part, is about the only use precluded from locating in industrially zoned districts.

One of the unintended (I hope) consequences of the public charter school movement is the location of many such facilities in industrial districts, pushing up the price of the space for other lower margin activities that don't enjoy capitation fees from the local government revenue stream. A number of charter schools are located on places like 8th Street NE, abutting the railroad tracks, or on Chillum Place NE. That means fewer light industrial and distribution businesses. Fewer options for innovative startup and incubation space.

And as more of this land is rezoned to allow for housing, there are even fewer places for industrially-oriented uses.

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Towards a New (federal) Urban Agenda

The urbanists list links to a blog entry from Grist on the environmental and energy policy folks involved in the Obama campaign, "Obama's energy and climate advisors." It's a list of heavy hitters, but not necessarily people oriented to significant transformation.

(Relatedly, Streetsblog reports that at the Rocky Mountain Roundtable conference, aligned with the Democratic National Convention, there was a workshop on funding transportation, featuring among others, the director of the NYC Department of Transportation. See "Sadik-Khan to Discuss Transpo Funding at the Democratic Convention.")

This shows the need for an alternative policy paper on what would be the ideal Federal Urban Agenda. It was suggested that John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee, now president of the Congress of New Urbanism, could join an Obama Administration. People like John Norquist would be great additions to the federal government, as probably would be any of the people at the Center for Neighborhood Technology, like Scott Bernstein or Jacky Grimshaw, who may well have some relationships with people in the Obama camp, since they are based in Chicago.

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development is really about affordable housing more than it is about urban revitalization, at least in terms of revitalization of vital places, rather than redevelopment.

The work done by John Prescott and the work by the equivalent UK agency far surpasses what is done at the national level here. The way that the UK has a form of national planning couldn't be adopted here, but just as the US Department of Commerce created model codes in the 1920s, which became the basis of the organization of local planning and building codes, a federal agency focused on "sustainabile land use and transportation" could put out PPG--"Planning Policy Guidance"--reports to shape the discourse and way of planning at the local level. And having allied organizations like the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment and English Partnerships makes for a better discourse, and provides a means to make better projects happen..

But the UK, in terms of selling it, or the narrative, or the touchpoint of what matters to people, focuses on community, calling the agency the Dept. of Communities and Local Government.

There are bits and pieces, of course the Smart Growth Office at EPA. The Dept. of Energy has a small smart growth unit and supports the development of alternative fuel technologies and renewable energy development.

The US Department of Transportation could have a far better focus on mobility other than than automobile, and the Federal Transit Administration needs an overhaul in terms of its support of fixed rail transit. Plus having a national passenger railroad plan, which I don't think we really have. And the gasoline excise tax and funding transit more generally.

Then there are relevant bits and pieces in other agencies including the Economic Development Administration of the Dept. of Commerce, not to mention its support, or almost lack thereof, of tourism. The flip side of promoting tourism is that it is about making better places and destination development (balanced against the problems of touristification), and doing that helps make places better for the people who live there.

Then there is the US Department of Agriculture, both in terms of promoting access to food and farmers and public markets, but also rural development. The USDA Extension Service is the foundation of the field of community development in the United States. I use many resources produced by various extension programs and their university affiliates, even if their target audience is supposedly rural. The University of Wisconsin Extension Service Center for Community Economic Development is one of the best resources out there in terms of community development. Plus, how about an urban agriculture and foodways agenda?

Then there is the US Department of Health and Human Services and the link between built environment and mobility and health, plus wellness issues, plus reorganizing how health and wellness services are delivered generally and within urban populations. (All About Cities makes an interesting point about automobility, air quality, and health effects, in "What the Olympics teach us about urban health" and today's Post has an interesting article about improving the delivery of health care services that has implications for urban populations, "Making Practices Perfect.")

And while there needs to be an assistance program with regard to getting schooling improved, I am not sure the federal "No Child Left Behind" initiative coordinated by the US Department of Education was the best way to go about it.

So I think there could be a great New Urban Agenda by the Democrats, although I don't think I see it yet...
Land use shapes economic and foreign policy, balance of payments, etc., because as long as we have an automobile-centric land use policy, the country needs lots of gasoline. As long as the country needs lots of gasoline, our foreign policy is beholden to oil.

A new land use paradigm that isn't dependent on oil has many benefits, from reduced energy consumption to greater disposable income on the part of households who don't need to spend as much (or no money) on cars. OTOH, it's not so good for the people dependent on the automobile manufacturing, servicing, and financing industries.

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Monday, August 25, 2008

Making great public spaces in DC

Surprisingly, for the most part, I consider the Downtown DC Business Improvement District a force for good, even if I think sometimes they overstate the case about the value of certain tax incentives or at what degree is the real truth about the role of the MCI Center in the revitalization of the east end of downtown, or their efforts and the fine line between bringing necessary attention to Downtown versus privatization of the public space and commodification.

Recently, they brought Fred Kent of the Project for Public Spaces in to conduct a placemaking workshop downtown, under the auspices of the BID. One of Councilmember Wells' staff members wrote about her experience, in the entry "Making Great Public Spaces" at the Tommy Wells Blog.

According to the entry, they invited many participants from various DC Government agencies (but not many advocates) to join in the training. Ironically, since about 2003 I have been suggesting to various DC Government employees and offices, including the old Neighborhood Action office, that they needed to go to this workshop, the "How to Turn a Place Around" training. They never did, because DCG doesn't pay for much training on the part of employees.

So I am glad that the BID did this. One of these years I would like to begin doing this workshop annually, in various neighborhoods in the city, to serve as a way for neighborhoods to work on "making their own plans" and neighborhood improvement projects, as well as a training ground for government employees and advocates from around the city, who can then take the lessons back to their own neighborhoods and organizations.

For another example of a PPS workshop in DC, relevant to Capitol Hill, see the blog entry "From Eastern Market Metro Plaza to Capitol Hill Town Square."

And see the article about Fred Kent and PPS, "Pride of Place," from Governing Magazine.


Market development vs. market disconnect

I didn't adequately explain "market development" in the earlier entry on cultural tourism. I won't go into it in great length. Suffice to say that market development is the process you have to go through to get people to buy your product. At that if what you are trying to sell is much different than what the reality is, or norms, you have to go to great and expensive lengths to convince potential customers of this.

An example is selling high-end arts products to low income demographics, or the value of a neighborhood shopping district as it is, rather than what it wants to be, or the local history value of DC vis-a-vis the world-wide attractiveness of the monuments and Smithsonian Museums and the National Gallery.

Another example of market disconnect is Whole Foods Markets trying to sell themselves to customers as a low cost option in supermarketing. I hate shopping there because it's so expensive. I prefer Giant, ethnic markets like PanAm International, or of course the Florida Market. Even DC area farmers markets seem very expensive compared to the Waverly Saturday Market or Baltimore Farmers Market in Baltimore. As long as Whole Foods sells cilantro for $1.68/bunch and it isn't organic--70 cents more than Giant, and $1.18 more than PanAm or the Florida Market, there is no way that they can claim that they are a low cost producer. Get over it. Market what you are. See "Grocers hype bargains to thrifty public" from the Baltimore Sun.

Now if you are trying to change your position in the marketplace, i.e. a commercial district like H Street NE, that's one thing. You change your position by adding new destinations attractive to your target audiences. Whole Foods isn't gonna start changing their product mix to compete with Shoppers Food Warehouse.

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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Computer and house Bliss

First the computer went down. The repair guy said it was the motherboard. Then other things. Still not fixed.

Was storing a computer for a friend and figured out that I could still use it to connect to the Internet at the very least, albeit without access to everything that is on the computer. Used it.

The DSL went down. Got it fixed. But then the substitute computer didn't connect to the Internet. Technician figures the Ethernet card got fried. (Maybe both problems derived from a lightening-related power surge?)

Still the original computer is unfixed.

Bought another yesterday. At the last minute, remembered to get a wireless router. (Still need to get the other computer back. And to get the stuff off the hard disk.)

Installed new computer. Plugged in the Ethernet cable and didn't even have to go through any guff (for once) to get the computer linked to the Internet via the DSL modem.

Set up the wireless router. Pretty simple process too. Didn't need to do any Verizon related stuff to get it to work either. (The wireless networks in the neighborhood are all security-enabled.)

So now I can use my laptop on my porch and to some extent in my yard (would have to move the router around due to building structure issues) and throughout the house although the speed of the connection varies considerably.

Have to deal with the photo issue. (I have about 1200 photos to get off memory disks and into the computer and eventually Flickr.)

Now I don't have to go to coffee shops in Takoma in order to connect to the Internet via my laptop -- Savory Cafe has wifi, Everyday Gourmet doesn't. Don't know about Mark's Kitchen. The Middle East Kitchen doesn't. Drifting Nomad across from Takoma Metro does but sometimes you need to ask them to reset it. The Takoma Library wifi didn't work the one time I tried to use it. I suppose I could have asked them to reset it but didn't figure people would know how. (The Panera Bread in Silver Spring has wifi but many people use it. It's difficult to get access to an electrical outlet so be prepared). Oh, the Peaches Kitchen Caribbean restaurant on 3rd Street NW also has wifi, but the one time I tried to use it it took more than an hour to connect... Still, it's great that they have it, and I like their food.

Note that my Manor Park neighborhood was covered in Thursday's Examiner: "Manor Park boasts 'front-porch culture,' block parties." I don't know about any block parties yet.

This week, the kitchen should finally be finished. We've made so many back and forth trips to Ikea that Suzanne doesn't want to go back. At the very least, she won't eat there. That means no Swedish meatballs. One day we had to go to two Ikeas, College Park, and Potomac Mills, to get the shelf cabinet we wanted, in a color that was being discontinued. Later we took 5 of the 6 pieces to be shortened by an inch--this is probably the only Ikea cabinet that is easily modifiable--so we could actually fit the kitchen cabinetry and dishwasher together, without having to take out some of the moulding.. Anyway, Ikea catalogs and the stores make installing a kitchen a lot easier than it is in reality. If you're not super-duper knowledgeable about fastening, levels, etc., you're likely to need help. It's attractive stuff though. I still like the Ligonberry Juice a lot.

Also, hopefully this week the Crane Diana sink that we bought, dating from 1951, should probably be usable. We haven't had a working bathroom sink since we moved in. It flummoxed the first plumber. The second plumber seems to be far better at problem solving and creativity than the first--and he's already fixed stuff that the first plumber screwed up at the cost of another $900 so far. And he was willing to talk to DEA Bath, experts in this type of sink, for tips and troubleshooting. So when the new valve comes--we've spent more money on new parts for the sink than the sink cost [$400]--on Wednesday, things should be set. Note that even though I am a preservationist, I do second guess myself on the sink. Maybe we should have bought a reproduction?

This just leads up to the "second phase" of home improvements. Many phases down the road is taking off the vinyl siding. We have reason to believe that the wood siding underneath is fine. We figure a good salesman and fashion got to the previous owner and she succumbed unnecessarily.

But I am still going to try (it will be difficult) to blog a bit less than I am known for. I really need to be finishing various projects, including a big one due next Monday (8 days away), and landing new consulting projects, not to mention doing various other things (which get mentioned in the blog towards when or after they are done since I learned if and when there is opposition that it's not a good idea to tip them off) that are community advocacy oriented, and focused towards reenergizing the Citizens Planning Coalition.


Heritage/historic preservation in DC

1. Donovan Rypkema, probably the best writer and speaker around on historic preservation issues, has a new blog, Heritage Strategies.

2. In it, one of his entries links to the group Global Urban Development, and their online magazine. The current issue is about "urban heritage strategies" and includes an article, "Cultural Heritage Tourism in Washington, DC: A Community-Based Model for Neighborhood Economic Development," by Kathy Smith, founder of the organization that is now called CulturalTourismDC.

Kathy Smith is one of the city's greats in terms of promoting local history and from her I truly learned the concept of "destination readiness." Still I don't fully agree with the article as I think the reality is that right now, the heritage trails are more about "community building" than they are about "local" or neighborhood economic development.

And I think DC has an almost unique problem compared to most other heritage tourism destinations. Most people nationally and globally define the "local" history of DC as being about the federal-national experience story, about the place of Washington as the National Capital of the United States. As a result, this creates a very difficult need for "market development" in terms of redefining the local story, the prevalent narrative, around local history rather than the national-federal story.

This is key, because most people who visit Washington are time-limited, and other than consuming the tourist entertainment experience of Georgetown or Alexandria, and to consume more of the local story they will need to extend the duration of their visit, which given the cost of travel, is less likely.

Furthermore, a neighborhood heritage trail, competing against the U.S. Capitol, the White House, the Monuments (Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, Vietnam, WWII, FDR), the National Mall, the Smithsonian Museums, and then the tourist night-time and weekend destinations of Alexandria, VA and Georgetown DC, has a tough job being interesting and relevant, especially because so much of the information on the heritage trail signs is about what once existed, but is no longer present, and therefore less interesting than places you can see, touch, and experience.

As you can imagine, I have written about this in the past, in these blog entries (among others):

-- Who DC? -- More about DC tourism
-- Cultural resources planning in DC: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king
-- Central Library Planning efforts and the City Museum, how about some learning from Augusta, Maine ... and Baltimore?
-- Tourism Marketing and DC
-- You (Don't) really like me--DC and its suburbs
-- More About DC Tourism Marketing

3. Speaking of great writing by Don Rypkema, there is his paper, "Planning the Future, Using the Past (Historic Preservation)," commissioned as a "vision" paper for the Comprehensive Plan revision process (2005-2006).

4. And I always refer people to his papers "Affordable Housing and Historic Preservation" and "The Economics of Historic Preservation" (which has variants with different titles).

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Saturday, August 23, 2008

Neighborhoods for sale...

The Chicago Tribune explores the development landscape in Chicago, in "Who calls the shots in your backyard? Not you." The answer is: Umm, the Growth Machine...

The Chicago Tribune has a great series running called "Neighborhoods for Sale."

Tribune investigation: Neighborhoods for sale

In an unprecedented investigation, the Tribune analyzed a decade of zoning changes to detail how real estate interests have funneled millions of dollars to the aldermen who dictate what can be built. The series has examined how aldermen ignore city planners and frustrated residents as they frequently permit new and bigger buildings that leave neighbors in their shadows.

Part 1: How cash, clout transform Chicago

Part 2: Community input an illusion

Part 3: A curious tale of two properties

Part 4: He zones. She sells. And it's legal.

Part 5: Who calls the shots in your backyard?

Complete coverage: Video, photos, more

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Eating the dirt of developers

As critical as I sound, there are some developers and architects for whom I have a great deal of respect, whether or not I agree with every aspect of every project they do. Still, there are some developers and their representatives who want to make as much money as possible with as little outlay as possible, with little concern for the lasting nature of the project and its impact on the built environment.

Given something I was working on yesterday (creating a model retail plan for a commercial district to use to shape the retail plan for a project within it, as an indirect submission to the Zoning Commission) this Dallas Observer article, "Eat My Dirt," with the explanatory subtitle "A builder's guide to skirting the zoning laws and making the city look goofy," seems particularly apt.

Developers and their agents often make representations that aren't supportable by facts. Generally, most claims employing the words "green," "affordable housing," "workforce housing," and "high quality retail" are often suspect. But there are few opportunities for pointed questioning of the claims.

Here it's not always that zoning laws are skirted, but that the zoning regulations don't demand very much. And often as not, the Office of Planning is prevented from really holding the feet of developers to the fire so that great projects can be obtained.

Another problem is that zoning regulations often allow greater height and density for lots than how the buildings and lots were developed decades ago. This sets up a disconnect and the pressure for demolition and the rebuilding (or expansion of extant buildings) of supersized monstrosities.

It doesn't help that the designs tend to be bad as well...

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My kind of civic leader

Park here
The first piece in the Washington Post, "L.B. Doggett Jr.; Parking Tycoon, Civic Leader," about the life of parking magnate Lloyd Doggett mentioned in passing:

1. "For decades, he was a force in preventing the District from building municipally owned parking garages and challenging private firms, a rarity for a large U.S. city."

Mr. Doggett, who also amassed a large portfolio of real estate interests, was a dominant business figure in the city under the old federally appointed District Commissioners system and during the emergence of elected leaders in the mid-1970s." ...

2. "He took over his family's parking business in the 1950s and began a large push into real estate. He bought old rowhouses, which he rented as rooming houses before razing them for parking lots."


Friday, August 22, 2008

David Byrne bicycle rack in NYC

(is a lot sexier than DC's standard bicycle rack). If you click through on the photo it links to a New York Times article about the David Byrne (you know, "Talking Heads") from a week or two ago.

DDOT bicycle rack

Streetsblog has a video on DC's SmartBikeDC bicycle sharing program

See "Streetfilms: DC Bike-Share Hits the Ground Rolling."

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Gihon Jordan, 58, traffic engineer (Philadelphia)

Philadelphia's famed traffic engineer died of colon cancer, according to this obituary from the Philadelphia Inquirer. Mr. Jordan understood that the city was about vitality and mobility, rather than moving cars along. From the article:

Mr. Jordan battled bureaucracy, and combined vision and common sense in his quest to make Philadelphia a better place. He was responsible for just about everything involving traffic in Center City, North and South Philadelphia, and the river wards. This included street signs, malfunctioning traffic signals and the closing of streets. But he also solved bigger problems. While scientifically designing and implementing convention-defying solutions, he earned a national reputation as an expert traffic calmer.

"I don't want to move vehicles around," Mr. Jordan said in a 1994 article in The Inquirer. "I want to move people around. Philadelphia was designed for the pedestrian, not for the car."

When he took over as traffic engineer for the city in 1993, Mr. Jordan worked to get more people to walk, bike and take mass transit.

Especially biking. Mr. Jordan, who never owned a car, was responsible for putting city policemen on bicycle patrols; he designed cross-state bike routes for the state Department of Transportation, and bike paths along the river drives and on city streets.

Imagine a traffic engineer who didn't own a car!

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Another World War II era poster


Is your trip necessary?

(You do think about this more when you walk, bicycle, or use public transit, especially when it's raining.)

Poster from the U.S. War Effort, 1941-1945


Repositioning the loser cruiser

For many many years, interest in green and environmental issues was the purview of the innovators and the early adopters. When even Walmart states that it is necessary to have an environmental agenda--from the AP story "Wal-Mart seeks depth in green promotions":

then you know that concern about the environment is now mainstream, and that green concerns can be a significant lever to work with people to truly change their behaviors.

Christopher sends us a link to "Green Machines" from the Pentagram blog about a campaign on "Green Patriotism" which ran on 60 Cleveland buses during the month of July.

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The City of Boston's Bike Friday program

A once/month workday ride sponsored by the City of Boston (August's ride was today), is written up in this Boston Globe article, "Bike Friday gives reporter a chance to try commute." From the article:

For one day, at least, I beat the cost of fuel and the guilt of contributing to rush hour: I finished the ride from Lexington to Boston last month on Bike Friday, a monthly event sponsored by the City of Boston as part of its Boston Bikes program to provide guided commutes-by-bike from the suburbs to Government Center.

A ride like this in the DC region would help jurisdictions begin planning more regionally. The Washington Area Bicyclist Association does. But most county and city Bicycle Master Plans end up missing some of the articulation issues that arise between jurisdictions and sometimes modes (i.e., subway and bus stations, many under the purview of WMATA, which doesn't have a bicycle and pedestrian programs coordinator).

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A cover story idea for the Washington Post Magazine

Catch this article from a couple weeks ago, "The Future of Crossing the Street," subtitled "Boston drivers are bad, but Boston pedestrians might be worse. Now some very smart people think they've got the answers to help everyone play nice on our roads."," the cover story for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine.

Now, maybe I am just an old fuddy duddy, but despite the points made in the recently published book Traffic that as long as the road is simplified, it's easy to make catastrophic driving mistakes (a similar point made a few years ago by Malcolm Gladwell in an article, "Wrong Turn," in the New Yorker from 2001), I have too many experiences with automobile drivers screaming at runners or bicyclists to believe all of a sudden that shared spaces can work.

However, I do think this can be done gradually. One place to start is with the widespread use of Belgian Block pavements on neighborhood-residential streets that experience a fair amount of traffic, or otherwise possess "racetrack" like tendencies favoring high speeds.

Other ways of dealing include the UK Road Witch project and the ideas of Portland's City Repair.

This report from the UK is also quite good, and made me rethink how I look at public spaces: Living Spaces: Cleaner, Safer, Greener and the companion website Cleaner Safer Greener Communities.
Note, today's letters to the editor did run a good one, countering the foolishness I wrote about yesterday. See " They're Everyone's Roads."


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Living in Washington...

Family Circus Cartoon for 08/14/2008


The perfect being the enemy of the good #2

Another example I meant to use in the previous entry is the new bikesharing program in DC. I have made some critical points about the relative slow pace of the implementation of the program (at least compared to Paris, which has thousands of bikes and hundreds of stations), not taking into consideration being accessible to visitors, and it being closed during overnight hours.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for proof of concept... From NBC4, courtesy of Will, "Smart bike in DC way more popular than anticipated."

Of course, typical government thinking is expressed in the piece, the possibility of closing membership after a certain point to reduce usage, rather than expansion of the program.

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The perfect being the enemy of the good

Wayfinding sign at Rhode Island Avenue and 12th Street NE by brooklandcdc.

1. I have been meaning to write about the Brookland overhead utility wire issue, but Greater Greater Washington beat me to it in "Brookland energized over power lines."

a. It's true that it's better to have buried utility lines.

b. But it's costly.

c. DC is unusual compared to most jurisdictions because the cost of typical streetscape and sidewalk improvements _are not charged to individual property owners_.

d. But somehow this doesn't cover burial of utility lines, at least outside of the L'Enfant City, where it is mandated that street-side utility wires be buried underground.

e. So the reason that DDOT and the Office of Planning kept putting aside people's wishes for underground wiring on 12th Street is that many property owners would have to pony up a lot of money in a special assessment. (At least this is my understanding.) Much of 12th Street NE, though zoned commercial, is residential, making special assessments particularly onerous.

f. The DDOT streetscape plan came up with a nice framework for conceptualizing the commercial and residential aspects of 12th Street NE (current commercial area) and Monroe Street NE (future commercial area) in Brookland, preserving the primary residential parts, and focusing commercial intensity.

g. If the organization that I had worked for last year had been better situated internally and externally, we would have adopted that framework, and worked to educate people about why it made sense.

h. One of the problems with the 12th Street NE commercial district (besides the residents who are and the community organizations which are congenitally unable to work together and come to consensus, in addition to the dominant neighborhood narrative/trope, forged during the anti-freeway battles, that they can successfully agitate for what they want and fight off any development whatsoever) is that it is too disjoint. The Monroe to Otis part needs to connect up with the part closer to Michigan Avenue, which is anchored by the Yes Organic Market and the pathetic Kelly's Ellis Island restaurant.

i. So it does bother me that most of the Brookland activists don't favor comprehensive improvements in the zoning for 12th Street, which except for the two blocks between Monroe and Otis, is C1, which is very much car and on-site parking oriented.

j. The cost of burying the utility lines is probably relatively minimal though, given that the street will already be torn up, less than $1.5 million (based on the cost of utility burial in other cities that I have come across, such as for Lenoir, NC, however I imagine that the costs assessed by Pepco are much higher).

k. Note that outside of the L'Enfant City and Georgetown, street-side utilities aren't buried, although on some main routes such as Georgia Avenue NW, most utilities are provided to the Avenue via the rear of the street, from side streets.

l. But even with buried utility lines, and a quality streetscape, without the ability to forge a more coherent business district in spatial terms, along with "better" merchants and property owners able to leverage the improvements, Brookland commercial district won't improve.

m. Especially because the area has about 1/3 of the population it needs to support adequate neighborhood-serving retail and lacks the attractions necessary to attract customers from outside of the immediate neighborhood.

n. Restaurants in Brookland prove the point I make time and time again about the necessity of quality restaurants serving as anchors for neighborhood-based commercial district revitalization. Colonel Brooks Tavern is on-again, off-again. For the past 18 months + I think it has been very good, albeit more expensive than I would like to pay. But Kelly's declined precipitously. Cardinal's Nest has been a disaster, and the new BBQ place just doesn't know how to pull it together.

o. Meanwhile in Takoma/Takoma Park, the groups do know how to work together (for the most part, although maybe not on the Metro site redevelopment). They are working to revive and reopen the Takoma Theater, and two new restaurants are coming to the Takoma Park side of the commercial district, one owned by Gillian Clark (ex of Colorado Kitchen), the other an artisinal pizza place. Plus they have two decent restaurants already.

p. Maybe I should put up the slide presentation I created on the Brookland Main Street program on slideshare. It's pretty good if I say so myself and discusses niche development opportunities and has a rough "build out analysis" for 12th Street NE, identifying opportunities to improve the building stock, add retail options, and strengthen the streetscape and commercial district simultaneously.

q. I really can't write much more on my experiences in Brookland, other than I finally accepted that the perfect model or ideas in and of themselves aren't enough, that you have to have community support, and build the consensus required to effect change, otherwise you get nowhere.

r. cf. the introduction in the current issue of themail on why the school "reform" effort is likely to fail. Chancellor Rhee and Mayor Fenty don't have enough experience in planned change, innovation, and transformation to really understand how to bring it about. Instead, they think that everyone other than themselves and the closest members of their team are the problem.

Similarly in Brookland, residents and groups don't know how to "play well with others." Instead of saying to govt. people that they disagree, and here's why, they instead call on higher ups within specific agencies or City Council and demand that those people be fired. It makes it hard for those government agency workers to then turn around and advocate for Brookland.

Plus, knowing how the process works, the government agencies would rather put their efforts toward projects in other communities, because they can get more accomplished more quickly. (This is something else that the people in Brookland "taught me.")

Some of the worst and craziest community meetings I have ever experienced--other than two specific meetings in the H Street neighborhood--were in Brookland. It's one reason that I didn't want to live in Ward 5!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! and even though with trepidation we did look at some houses in Brookland instead we lucked out and found a jewel of an area in Ward 4 and now we are happily ensconced there. (In short, I'd rather eat at Ledo's Pizza or McDonald's on Georgia Avenue rather than go to Brookland.)

2. My pushing for best practices and high quality projects is frequently a sore point with colleagues who tell me to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. (That's my problem with the EYA project ArtsDistrict Hyattsville, which is good for what it is, but should be considered a transect violation from the standpoint of new urbanism. My making that point seems to have bumped me off the promotional e-list of the area's primary "new urbanism-smart growth" promotion organization.)

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Comprehensive Plans #2

The Comprehensive Plan process in DC has educated me somewhat about "gaps" in such plans.

One such gap is the difference between "economic development" and "building a local economy."

Another is the need for a capital improvements plan.

I was one of the people who advocated for an arts and culture plan. I should have been careful. I don't think that the relevant element in the Comprehensive Plan is much beyond a random collection of ideas and thoughts. When I complained about the lack of quality of the final product, see the Arts and Culture Element, to certain people in the arts community, my sense is that they were so happy to be acknowledged, that the quality or comprehensiveness of the element didn't matter to them so much.

My recent comments that the Recreation Center building and expansion plan for the DC Department of Parks and Recreation should have included planning for arts and culture needs is reinforced by planning underway in Fairfax County. The headline and subhead in this Post article from Fairfax Extra illustrates the point: "More Arts Centers Urged In County: Variety of Venues Needed, Panel Says."

The article calls for four expanded arts centers. Fairfax County is about 400 square miles and has a bit over 1 million in population. DC is 61 square miles and with 580,000+ residents, and many visitors.

Speaking of visitors, another missing element in the DC Comprehensive plan is on tourism-destination development and management.

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Intelligent design for great cities

Art deco styled Walgreen's Pharmacy, Oakland Avenue, Milwaukee
Milwaukee Department of City Development image. A new Walgreen's on Oakland Ave. was pushed by neighbors and the city to meet higher design standards. I will admit this is better than many of the new infill pharmacies constructed in DC by CVS and Rite Aid.

Is an article in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, forwarded to us by Nigel. From the article:

... Sometimes great design happens only when you insist on it.

A comprehensive vision of city development, coupled with high standards and aspirations, is the bedrock of a world-class city and the primary thrust of Milwaukee’s recent efforts to ensure a future that is architecturally, urbanistically and economically sound.

Milwaukee’s economic future depends on our continuing ability to recognize our assets, build upon them and pursue innovative solutions to some of our most pressing challenges. And behind every great city, including Milwaukee’s renaissance, is a great plan. ...

1. Finish the plan: Everywhere is important ...

2. Raise the bar: Everything is important ...

3. Thinking outside the box

My "only" criticism of the article and the focus by Milwaukee is a focus on what they think of as great design, but not necessarily great "urban design" and the quality of placemaking. The Calatrava building the article calls attention to isn't a great place, from an urban design and PPS "placemaking" standpoint. Note that the City of Milwaukee Comprehensive Plan doesn't have an urban design element. Any city comprehensive plan without an urban design element is likely to be seriously lacking.

A resource to begin to understand the primacy and importance of urban design is the article by Jan Gehl: Close Encounters with Buildings.

Note that DC has a decent comprehensive plan, maybe not great, but very good. the problem is that (1) the Urban Design element should be considered the foundational element, leading other elements, because the overall built form of the city and context is more important than how specific parcels are used (the DC Urban design element is very very good); and (2) the transportation element is weak.

But DC does a piss-poor job in terms of demanding excellence in urban design generally and design specifically. The design quality of city government funded and/or produced buildings is pretty plebian.

DC should have design guidelines for all parts of the city, not just areas designated historic locally (under the purview of the DC Historic Preservation Review Board) or the Federal Interest area (National Capital Planning Commission, Commission on Fine Arts). Although the federal bodies don't seem all that focused on context either these days, and the CFA seems to think boxy glass buildings are all the rage.



I don't have the heart to watch the tv show "Intervention," but we all know about the idea of enabling bad behavior, that by supporting it, other people in the addict's life are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

In other words, don't give more drugs to a drug abuser, money, etc. Or don't give more alcohol to alcoholics, etc.

So why should we willingly give more oil to addicts?

For base political reasons, I am resigned to the Democrats caving on drilling expansion into areas previously off limits. Sure Bob Herbert of the New York Times, in "An Empty Promise" is likely right that the amount of new oil recovered in this manner will be minimal --

200,000 barrells/day is equal to 4.4 million gallons of gasoline. As of March 2005, the daily consumption was 320,500,000 gallons/day. (Consumption is down.) This is equal to a tad more than 1% of daily consumption.

Given the rampant increase in demand in Asia, this likely will have no significant impact.

But it does give politicians the ability to show that they are "responsive."

What I wish that Democrats would do, although it could be political suicide, is tie a willingness to expand drilling to gasoline excise tax increases and increased funding for public transit and railroad expansion.

Otherwise no expanded drilling.

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Understanding the judgment of newspaper editors

More than 10 years ago there was a whiny article in the Style section of the Post about how hard it is for men to urinate when the power goes out. I mean, if you don't want to stain the wall by the toilet, sit down!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (Similarly, a column by Courtland Milloy maybe 15 years ago excused public urination as a rural custom brought to the city by people who migrated from the South.)

I, reading the aforementioned newspaper on the toilet (sitting down), wondered what possessed the editors to run such a worthless story. Similarly, I felt the same about some feature in the Washington Post Magazine a few years later, seemingly about vacationing in Charleston, SC, but really about the narcissism of the author and her family, who didn't spend much time in Charleston at all, but in their expensive vacation rental.

So today I wonder about the judgement of the editor of the letters to the editor. I don't have a problem with people writing exceptionally stupid letters. My problem is that the letters are printed. I thought that the editorial page had an "obligation" to ensure that the pieces published are factually correct.

1. This letter, "Why Do Bicyclists Dice With Death?," by Tom Arundel, whines that bicyclists ride on the road and expresses the shock experienced by the author when he helpfully yelled out the window at the bicyclist he encountered, to suggest that he ride on the nearby off-road trail, that the bicyclist didn't respond positively.

WTF privileges drivers so that they believe that they are empowered to scream at people on the road who aren't necessarily driving cars? (Not that they don't yell at other drivers as well.)

We bicyclists could in turn yell at all drivers, couldn't we? Bicycles predated automobiles... and roads were first built for bicyclists not cars. (Note that when I drive a car I don't yell at bicyclists.)

b. The problem by the way is that recreational (bicycle) trails are designed for recreational bicyclists, not purposeful riders who bicycle as their primary mode of transportation.

2. Today's letter by Anne Patterson of Potomac Falls, "Sharing the Road But Not the Load," asserts that automobile drivers pay for the entire cost of the road infrastructure. While numbers do vary, the number that I use is that 50% of the cost of roads are paid for not by gasoline excise fees, tolls, and registration fees, but general funds.

My source is this paper: Improving Efficiency and Equity in Transportation Finance. Other papers, including by the Texas State Department of Transportation state the percentage amount of subsidy, depending on the road, can be much higher. Recently I saw a paper (maybe cited in Washcycle) that stated that non-drivers, particularly bicyclists, actually provide a much greater subsidy to drivers than drivers provide to non-drivers, as far as road costs are concerned.

W(hy)tf is an unknowledgeable Anne Patterson privileged with a letter to the editor published in the Washington Post when she clearly "knows not of what she speaks"?
For fun check out this other paper by Martin Wachs: A Dozen Reasons for Raising Gasoline Taxes.

Since the Post only allows one letter per author per six months, I hate to waste my potential allotment on correcting clear errors of understanding that the Post editors should correct at the outset of deciding on whether or not to run a particular letter.

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Tuesday, August 19, 2008

NYT mobility op-eds

The New York Times ran three op-eds on mobility in the Sunday Week in Review section. One, "No Parking, Ever" was by Hope Cohen of the Center for Rethinking Development, which is affiliated with the conservative Manhattan Institute. While I think that the MI does a lot of good work that I really do appreciate, her pro-car op-ed isn't one that I support. She criticized most rebalancing efforts (Providing more support to bus riders, walkers, and transit users) as unreasonable slowing of cars.

Jeffrey Zupan of the Regional Plan Association's piece, "Give That Bus a Makeover," made the point that improvements in bus service will lead to greater usage.

From my "The revised revised People's Transportation Plan/2008 Transit-Transportation Wish List":

20. Improve the bus service. I say do this before thinking about streetcars. We need to make bus service exciting and sexy, in order to boost transit use. I recommend better marketing and wayfinding systems, better bus shelters (coming) and waiting stations, and probably sexier buses, which to my way of thinking, would be double deckers, on routes that could accommodate them. Double deckers are 40 feet long, and more maneuverable than 60 foot articulated buses.
Victoria BC Transit, Enviro 500 double decker bus
Double decker bus in Victoria, BC. Photo by Bill Wong.

21. Create intra-neighborhood transit (bus) services so that people can get to and from local services, commercial districts, schools, libraries, and to and from transit stations without having to drive. This includes delivery services of "freight" such as groceries. In my transportation and land use paper, I call this "tertiary" service (based on the Arlington model of the primary and secondary transit network, see their transportation plan). And it's not like we don't have a form of this now, at least within the city. Most neighborhoods have access to some bus service, although many people may not use it because it is circutuitous or because they feel that the bus service is beneath them.

22. I don't believe that transit needs to be free, but make intra-neighborhood bus service free. Many clamor for such. But cost isn't the biggest barrier to using transit. And places like Portland have the Fareless Square--funded in part by their transit withholding tax. But I think that equity issues make a downtown oriented fareless square somewhat unfair as the biggest beneficiaries would be the people with jobs downtown, who tend to not be those with the greatest need.
Portland City Center and Fareless Square
However, I suggest that the intra-neighborhood transit services (tertiary transit network) suggested in the previous section should be free. I estimate this would cost $30 to $40 million annually. Also see this blog entry: An idea for free public transit within DC.

23. Dump what I call political bus service. Many of the shuttles suggested have anemic ridership, and are offered in response to plaintive cries from businesspeople, but don't have an adequate justification from a transportation ridership perspective.

This includes the Adams-Morgan Link, the N22 linking Union Station, Eastern Market, and the Navy Yard, and the forthcoming H Street shuttle service, which will not only not be only at night, duplicating service on one of the highest service bus lines in the city, it will have an insane routing, wasting 3 miles and time going from the end of H Street to the Benning Road subway station, instead of doubling back to Union Station, or to the Eastern Market station.
Adams Morgan - U Street Link bus sign
Flickr photo by Techne.

We have limited resources. Let's use these resources widely.

24. Improve all "transit waiting environments" in the city. (See the report from Ohio: Transit waiting environments.) DC's bus shelter program is only for bus shelters. It doesn't impact WMATA bus shelters, and it doesn't impact bus stops that don't have bus shelters.

Sub-standard bus stops communicate to people that transit isn't valued. Bus Stop waiting areas

Bus stop sign
Bus stop, 900 block of Monroe Street NE.

David Rakoff's piece on walking, "Walk This Way," doesn't say much of import (although my gf says for the most part I am too serious--some of you might find it "funny" which is the intent).