Monday, June 29, 2015

I’m Gonna Make My Own College List

During the 1970s, I couldn’t have told you what an urbanist was.  Perhaps someone who studied the gum stuck on the bottom of park benches.  Or maybe someone who documented the different types of sewer manhole lids.  I had no idea.

But I knew I loved living near the University of California campus in Berkeley.  Having most of my classes only a couple of blocks away.  Wandering the weirdness of Telegraph Avenue whenever I wished.  Ambling to the baseball field to do physics homework while watching the Golden Bears play a Pac-10 foe.  Finding a quiet place along Strawberry Creek to open a good book.

On nights when cooking ambitions were low, walking a block to the Chinese restaurant where I learned to love won ton soup.  After classes on Fridays, going with classmates to a pizza shop where the waitress knew us well enough to give us the slices of pizza and pitchers of beer that others had left unfinished.  (Hey, we were college students.)

One winter term, subscribing to the San Francisco Symphony with a roommate, riding BART to and from the old War Memorial Symphony Hall, and returning across the campus to our apartment in the late evening hours, enthralled by the fog-shrouded Campanile.

And leaving my car in the garage, untouched, for a week at a time.

I may not have known the term, but I was falling in love with the urban lifestyle.

Thus, when a reader posted a link to “The 50 Most Beautiful Urban College Campuses”, I followed the link with enthusiasm.  The Cal campus had to be near the top.  The list would be nonsense otherwise.

Reviewing the criteria, location in a city of at least 100,000 people, international acclaim, notable features, botanical gardens, and student enjoyment, I could see that the test was set up for Cal to excel.

Starting with #50, I began seeing old friends.  The University of the Pacific at #49, a fine campus with an intriguing history, even if its host city of Stockton has issues.

Harvard at #31, an academic powerhouse in a very walkable setting, although the range of architecture and landscaping doesn’t match the depth and texture of the Cal campus.

Vanderbilt at #16, another academic star with stellar architecture, although I find the campus too accommodating to cars, preferring the Cal layout where cars feel like the interlopers among the pedestrians and bicyclists.

Santa Clara at #14, with its rhythmic earth-toned buildings and vine-covered walkways.

The University of Washington at #11, with its soaring collegiate gothic buildings in brick and its setting along Lake Washington, a campus I learned to love during my years in Seattle.

Stanford at #3, which triggered the first bit of head-scratching.  A very walkable campus with exceptional architecture, but a place where too many students and faculty arrive by car to truly be considered an urban campus.  On the other hand, if Stanford is #3, then Cal had to be #1 or #2, right?

Wrong.  Cal was left off the list completely.  It was an egregious blunder.  The writer is lucky that the website on which he posts doesn’t allow comments.  I’m sure that many would have complained about their particular favorite being omitted, but none of the omissions would have been as absurd as Cal.

Luckily, I don’t need validation from an internet writer with a poor sense of quality control.  I have my memories of my time at Cal and my regular visits ever since.  Plus, I have the other urban campuses that I’ve had the good fortune to visit.  So I’ve begun to develop my own list of favorite urban schools.

Iowa State where I first realized the collegiate urbanism was a distinctive and stable type of urbanism.

The University of Pittsburgh with its soaring Cathedral of Learning.

West Virginia University with its grand Woodburn Hall, where the interface between the campus and the host city of Morgantown is complicated but likely enhanced by the steep West Virginia terrain.

Furthermore, I’ll be able to expand my collegiate urbanism exposure this summer.  Traveling with my regular summer traveling companions, seen wandering aimlessly in the Cathedral of Learning photo, we’ll tour the South, looking for minor league baseball, distinctive brewpubs, and good barbecue.  And, because they’re willing to humor me in the hours before beer is socially acceptable, we’ll even visit a few urban hotspots.

Even with its fatal flaw, the 50 Most Beautiful list suggests Tulane University in New Orleans, Rhodes College in Memphis, and Belmont College in Nashville, all of which are on travel route.  Also, a return visit to Vanderbilt seems reasonable.

If all goes well, I’ll have new college urbanism insights to share before the summer is over, while also being several steps closer to have my own Top Urban Campuses list.  I won’t promise that Cal will be in the top spot on that list, but it will be hard to displace the Berkeley campus.

(By the way, Newsweek also has a list of the 25 Most Desirable Urban Schools, a list in which Cal is rightfully included.)

In the course of recently writing about alternative locations for the second SMART station in Petaluma, I offered an unconventional possibility.  To my surprise, a few folks have rallied to support the idea.  I don’t think we’re anywhere near a critical mass, but I’ll again write about the idea in my next post to see how deep the support might be.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, June 26, 2015

Promoting a Diversity of Home Forms: An Anecdote

Over my last two posts, I’ve introduced the idea that neighborhoods with varying types of homes are more likely to thrive over the long term and then explained how and why we got away from that ideal over the past seventy years.

A reader noted counter examples to my thesis about the diversity of housing forms.  She specifically noted the Painted Ladies in San Francisco.

Her point is valid.  I’d add much of the Sunset District to her examples.  I’m not arguing that diversity of form is the sole, or even the primary, factor in long-term neighborhood stability.  Good architecture, historic interest, walkability, access to good schools, and many other factors also play roles.  My argument is only that if one normalizes for all the other factors, then a neighborhood of diverse housing forms will eventually outperform a neighborhood of look-alike homes, with a stronger reinvestment incentive being the reason for the success of diverse-form neighborhoods.

In most cases, a diversity of housing forms is accomplished by creating lots that aren’t intended for mass production by a single home-builder.  Instead, new lots can be targeted for individual sale to buyers who will design and construct homes to meet their specific needs.  This is as true for subdivisions of quarter-acre lots as for walkable streets intended for mixtures of urban housing.

Given that new developments without attached builders will eventually make communities better places, one might hope that city halls would encourage those types of developments.  In most cases, one would be wrong.  Because most voters don’t care, most city halls don’t care about the financial viability of the community eighty years hence.  Instead, the focus is solely on how the new homes will look on the day the builders drive away.  (Personally, I often hang out with folks who take the long view, but we get that we’re outside of the mainstream.)

To illustrate, I have an anecdote.

Many years, working in an unnamed North Bay city with city staff who will also remain unnamed, I had the dubious pleasure of being the engineer on a four-lot subdivision.  Given the small number of lots and the physical challenges of the site, the developer had decided that his best course wasn’t to build homes, but to create lots where buyers could implement their specific visions.  It was a strategy with which I concurred.

Working with a project manager who had been independently retained by the developer to manage the entitlement process, we found a reasonable physical solution to the site difficulties and prepared a map for city review.

In response city staff asked for architectural plans of the proposed homes.  I explained that these would be custom homes, so architectural plans would be prepared by individual lot owners at later dates.  Staff was unmoved and still wanted plans.  While I was formulating an argument to explain the unreasonableness of their request, the project manager, perhaps with a greater eye to his fees than to the good of the developer, agreed to hire an architect to do hypothetical home designs.

To be fair, the resulting home designs were good, quirky and individualistic.  I wasn’t happy that they were required and I grumbled every time I had to participate in the development of the hypothetical designs, but at least I was sure that the city staff would be satisfied.

They weren’t.

After reviewing the house plans, staff asked for color palettes.  As my eyebrows were moving toward my hairline, the project manager quickly agreed to assemble color palettes for each hypothetical house.

In our next meeting, staff asked about landscape plans, with particular regard to the wildfire concerns from the adjoining open land.  The concern was reasonable, so I suggested a condition of approval requiring each lot owner to conform to the wildfire setbacks and landscaping material standards of the local fire department.

City staff didn’t find my suggestion sufficient and asked for the setbacks to be mapped for the hypothetical house plans, with notes about non-flammable materials.  I pointed out that this approach would lock the current fire standards in place for the lots, while a condition of approval would allow future updated fire department standards to apply instead.  Staff was unmoved.  The project manager agreed to calculate the setbacks and to write the notes for my staff to add to the maps.

Next, city staff asked about roofing materials, still worried about fire risks.  Although composite roofs would have been acceptable, they preferred concrete tile.  I agreed that we could put hypothetical concrete tile roofs on the hypothetical houses.

A week later, one of the City people called me.  Because concrete tiles are heavier than other roofing materials, he needed the structural calculations for the houses.  The project manager wasn’t on the call, so I could let my full sarcasm reign.  “So, you want structural calculations for the hypothetical concrete roofs on hypothetical houses of hypothetical colors surrounded by hypothetical landscape materials installed to hypothetical setbacks?”  Perhaps not my most politically smart question ever, but it felt good.  The staff person, after a long pause, agreed that they probably didn’t need the calculations.

And that story is another reason why most contemporary subdivisions are “little boxes made of ticky-tacky”.  (Cue the music.)  It’s too darned hard to do otherwise.

To conclude the story, the small subdivision was eventually created, but the economy has collapsed upon itself by then.  The land remains native, free of any improvements, hypothetical or otherwise.  Probably just as well.

A reader and college professor from Georgia recently linked a post about the best urban college campuses.  The list is nonsense, but can nonetheless serve as a jump-off point to write about college urbanism and summer travel plans.  I’ll take that jump in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Housing Variety as a Path to Neighborhood Stability

In my last post, I introduced the idea that neighborhoods are more stable if the housing isn’t all of the same type.  I argued that homeowners are more willing to make investments in expansions, remodels, and even maintenance tasks such as painting if their chances of later recovering their costs aren’t inhibited by comparison with nearby homes that are nearly identical but unimproved.

Among the urbanist ideas I’ve introduced to people, the concept that neighborhoods need variety to thrive is the one that many find most puzzling.  Many have a mental image of 1990s subdivisions where they’ve always dreamed of living and where the rows of little differentiated stucco McMansions are doing just fine.

But twenty years is an inadequate time over which to judge the stability of a neighborhood.  I’ll instead ask those people to go back further in time and to consider two types of neighborhoods that co-exist in many towns.  The first is the neighborhoods that were built before 1930 and almost always include a variety of housing types.  The second is the neighborhoods that were built in the 1950s and late 1940s, in the first flush of the Levittown model for accommodating the post-World War II housing boom and are largely composed of what Malvina Reynolds called “little boxes made of ticky-tacky”.

In most towns, the older neighborhoods are doing just fine.  At any one time, a couple of the homes on a block might be showing their age, but then a young couple with energy or a older couple with savings will snap up the property and, with confidence in their investment, happily bring it up to match or to exceed the surrounding homes.  (Admittedly, the typical location of these neighborhoods in the more walkable parts of town is also a factor in their vitality.) 

My wife and I live in a house that was built in 1920 in a neighborhood that was developed in 1914 and observe that regeneration process constantly going on around us.

Indeed, in many communities, the concern isn’t the upkeep of the pre-1930 developments, but how to keep the pace of gentrification under control.

Conversely, the 1940s and 1950s neighborhoods, even if still mostly neat and tidy, aren’t showing the same robustness.  Perhaps the only improvements being made are the conversions of garages into spare bedrooms, modifications that are often illegal and will need to be unwound before the homes can be sold.  Nor are buyers with energy or deep pockets attracted to invest in those neighborhoods.  The neighborhoods may still be reasonable places to live, but they’re not progressing in a good direction.

And there is no reason to argue that the 1990s developments that some may admire aren’t on the same glide path, fifty years further out from the same crash landing, as the 1940s subdivisions which we now find unappealing.

There are ways to build more differentiated subdivisions, but first let’s look at why we moved from the 1920s model of land development to the 1950s model.

There were several factors that came together in the years immediately following World War II.  First, there was pent-up demand after the economic malaise of the 1930s and the commitment of all resources toward the military during the war years.  The generation of returning soldiers eager to resume their lives also added to the pressure for housing.

Furthermore, several economic reforms of the 1930s, including tax deduction for mortgage interest, which had only modest effect when first implemented, became significant drivers for new housing after the war.

To meet the new demand, builders found ways to apply the assembly line model pioneered by Henry Ford to the home-building business.  But assembly lines work best when the output is nearly identical, so there were financial reasons for homes to look alike.

Lastly, we began asking more of developers, a progression that continues today.  While a developer a century ago might have gotten by with a two-inch water main (good luck in the case of fire) and an expectation that the homebuilder would install a septic system at his own cost, we now require developers to build water systems capable of suppressing fires, to connect to municipal sewer systems, to bury all electrical, gas, and communication lines, and to contribute to the cost of infrastructure improvements elsewhere in the community.

Developers have shown that they can still make a profit with the greater requirements, but a primary strategy employed to stay profitable is to build homes efficiently and to sell them quickly, both of which require homes that are similar in style and details.  (A secret of housing development is that absorption rate is critical to profitability.  Holding a built home, or even an improved lot, for several years can wring all profit out of the development effort.  So building and marketing homes to a limited demographic segment that can be targeted effectively is a proven financial strategy.)

Obviously, I’m not suggesting that we should return to the days of two-inch water mains and septic fields because they would result in better neighborhoods for our ancestors.  But at the same time we should recognize that putting more financial demands on developers results in “little boxes made of ticky-tacky”.  If that isn’t the built environment we wish to leave to our children, it’s incumbent on us to change the rules.

(While it’s true that some developers try to ignore the incentives that we’re inadvertently created and to build projects that they think will better meet community needs, but for many it’s only a path to bankruptcy.  Whether building homes, toaster ovens, or toothpicks, employing suboptimal strategies is rarely a path to financial success.  Smarter regulation, not reliance on benevolence, is the only reasonable path to better outcomes.)

So, how do we incentivize better outcomes?  I’ll offer three possibilities, although none of them are easy or universally applicable.

First, the Pittsburgh reader who asked the question that triggered this topic writes that he grew up in a neighborhood that was a builders’ showcase of 55 years ago.  The lots were improved and individual builders were then solicited to build their best homes in exchange for marketing benefits.  The reader confirms that the neighborhood has stood up well over time, better than other nearby monolithic neighborhoods.

Second, in his book “The Last Harvest”, Witold Rybczynski tells of a greenfield development near Philadelphia where the local authorities required a certain number of the homes to be built by a home builder other than the developer.  The goal was to broaden the demographic span of the project.  But facilitating an agreement between the builders wasn’t easy.  Early in the process, the intention was to have three builders for the project, but when the third builder opted out, unhappy with his prospects in the deal, and no replacement could be found, the authorities let the development proceed with only two builders.

Lastly, smaller projects help.  Twenty homes of similar style and vintage have a less stultifying effect than two hundred similar homes.  But our entitlement processes actually encourage larger projects.  The costs of conforming to local regulations and CEQA aren’t proportional to project size.  The two-hundred-home development would have less than ten times the entitlement cost of the twenty-home development, so the larger project has lower entitlement costs per home and therefore more potential profit.

The same problem applies to more walkable urban projects.  Economies of scale in both entitlement and construction argue for ten-acre walkable projects, even if long-term city financial health argues for ten one-acre projects.

Over fifty years ago, Jane Jacobs made her case for “fine-grained development”.  She was absolutely right, but we’ve only moved away from her ideal in the years since she expressed it.

A few years back, I was involved in an entitlement process that showed the difficulties of trying to break the monolithic mold.  Next time, I’ll tell the story.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, June 22, 2015

One Way to Put a Neighborhood on the Skids

I’ve previously told two stories about an evening tour through Pittsburgh this past spring.  The driver was an old friend who had grown up there.  The evening began with a pub chat that led to insights about the costs to run a city.  Later in the evening, my friend and I strolled through a plaza I likened to Middle Earth.

My friend had put together a good route.  But our time was limited.  The sun sets early during April evenings in eastern Pennsylvania.  My friend showed me places that made me wish I had a week to kick around the city, riding the new subway, checking out the museums, wandering the college campuses, and enjoying the neighborhoods undergoing an urban rebirth.

But that extended visit must await another trip.  For now, I’ll conclude my thoughts on the Pittsburgh visit with my best answer to a question that my friend posed, a question that has been haunting my urbanist thoughts since then.

As my friend told the story (and he is encouraged to correct me in the comments below if I’ve made too many misstatements), in his youth he and his brother would often spend summer Saturdays with their grandparents in an urban neighborhood a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh.  One of their parents would drop the boys at the nearby high school where the pool was open to the public.  (I saw the high school.  It remains a dignified presence that adds value to its surroundings.)

After a swim, the boys would walk a couple of blocks to their grandparents’ house.  From there, the grandparents would take them shopping, on foot, in the retail area that served the neighborhood.  With a bit of cash slipped to them by the grandparents, the boys could even make a purchase or two.  It was a comfortable urban experience that left my friend with memories he still treasures.

After telling me the story, my friend drove down the street where his grandparents had lived.  The row house that had been their home was gone, razed along with all but one of its fellow row houses. Most of the rubble had been hauled away, but some remained and was gradually being covered by the creeping vegetation on the now vacant lots.

Nor were there healthy buildings on the opposing side of the street.  Many of the doors into what appeared to have light manufacturing plants were covered in plywood, graffiti was everywhere, and there were few signs of economic activity.  The few people to be seen also seemed burdened with despair.

My friend then showed me a parallel street only a short block away.  Although the small single-family homes seemed of the same vintage as the first street, these homes were nicely maintained and showed pride of ownership.  It wasn’t an upper-end neighborhood, but it seemed friendly, comfortable, and stable.  It gave a very different feeling from the first street.

My friend then posed a question.  Why had the two streets evolved in such dramatically directions?

The simple and most truthful answer is I don’t know.  An evening drive-by couldn’t begin to provide the facts to understand the history.  Perhaps there had been a fire that started the first neighborhood on a decline that couldn’t be arrested.

Or perhaps many of the homeowners had worked in the same Pittsburgh factory, a factory that had become a victim of Pittsburgh’s difficult years, and the resulting widespread unemployment had undermined the neighborhood.

Or perhaps crime, particularly the drug trade, had gotten its hands around the throat of the first neighborhood with a grip that had strangled the life from the street.

Any of those was possible.

But I offered another possibility, one that I’ve often noted as I’ve looked with a critical eye at land development practices.  The first neighborhood was monolithic, from the now mostly departed row houses on one side of the street to the plain brick walls of light industry on the other.  The second neighborhood was more differentiated.  Although the homes all seemed to date from a similar era, they seemed to have been constructed by multiple builders.  The sizes, architectural styles, and footprints had a pleasant variation.  Each home had its own character.

Something happens when homes have little differentiation.  They’re all compared to each other.  Their values are expected to track each other.  Perhaps one home was trashed by former homeowners while another homeowner has done an extensive kitchen and bathroom remodel.  But appraisers rarely incorporate the full value of the differing conditions, lenders won’t loan on the difference, and buyers are loathe to invest in the difference for fear that they won’t later find a buyer willing to pay for the difference.

If a homeowner’s long-range financial planning includes extracting the value of improvements made to a home, then the homeowner is disincentivized from making improvements.  And if all the neighbors are disincentivized from doing periodic updates, then the only possible direction for the neighborhood is downhill.

I certainly don’t know if the monolithic nature of the first neighborhood was the reason for its decline.  There’s a good chance that it was something else that I couldn’t discern from a car window.  But the possibility I offer is consistent with the facts I could see and has impacted other neighborhoods elsewhere.

This effect on neighborhood stability has numerous implications on urban and suburban neighborhoods.  I’ll explore some of those in my next post.

(Given our expedited progress on our Pittsburgh tour, I wasn’t able to collect any photos of the two neighborhoods, but have found photos from my archives of North Bay neighborhoods that illustrated greater and lesser degrees of differentiation.)

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Cost of Doing Municipal Business

It began, as many good stories do, with a conversation over a beer.

During a recent trip to Pittsburgh, a friend, who a short time before had returned to the Steel City after a number of years in the North Bay, offered to give me a tour of his hometown.  (This was the same evening that included a visit to a downtown plaza that I likened to a scene from “The Lord of the Rings.”)

The friend began the evening with a walk about Sewickley, a village near his current home.  He thought that I would find the village charming, an expectation in which he was largely correct.  Tidy streets, interesting storefronts, even a few well-swept alleys for less mainstream businesses.  It was a quite comfortable place.  (All of the photos are of Sewickley.)

Of course, I could still make the criticisms that I would make of most suburban villages in the U.S.  The rail line that had allowed Sewickley to begin life as a summer retreat from the coal and steel fumes of Pittsburgh was long gone, replaced by a reliance on private autos.  Most of the downtown stores were single story, so there were few opportunities for walkable downtown living.  And, with a couple of apartment house exceptions, large lot single-family homes seemed to jarringly abut the downtown.  Middle housing was a largely missing element.

But Sewickley was still a charming, if imperfect place.  (To tie it back to the North Bay, I’d say it’s like Healdsburg without the recent growth spurt or Sonoma without the weekend throngs of tourists.   Looking at the entire Bay Area, Orinda seems a reasonable comparison.)

Our initial amble complete, my friend steered us to a small restaurant a short block from the main street.  We sat at the bar, ordered beverages, and began to chat with the owner and bartender about Sewickley.

The conversation eventually turned to property taxes.  The barkeep told a story of friends who had recently moved from Sewickley because of the tax burden.  As he told the story, the family had retired the mortgage on a home assessed at $800,000, but were still facing a monthly property tax bill of $1,300.  With college expenses for their children nearing, they decided that they couldn’t afford to stay in town, so sold the house and relocated outside of the city limits.

As my friend and I walked back to his car, it dawned on me that the facts added up to an interesting data point.  Long-time readers know that I have a theory about California’s 1978 Proposition 13.  I’ve argued that the “tax revolt”, although generally described as a campaign against government waste, was more accurately a rejection of the costs of maintaining the sprawling land-use pattern that we had adopted.

I’ve argued that, had Howard Jarvis been less judgmental, this reality could have been obvious and we could have begun remediation.  Instead, we capped property taxes, continued sprawling, and moved onward to a world of potholes and failing waterlines, with no municipal funds to address the problems.

So the bar chat gave me a data point to see what it costs to run a small city where there was no arbitrary cap on property taxes, where the only cost constraint was what the citizens were willing to tax themselves annually, as expressed through their elected representatives.  

Luckily, the numbers were easy to calculate while walking.  $1,300 per month times 12 months equals $15,600 per year.  For an $800,000 assessment, that would be a tax rate of 1.95 percent, a startling difference from the 1 percent cap under Proposition 13.

I could stop here, having made what many might find a sound point.  But I trust that the more discerning readers would have been capable of poking several holes in my simple analysis.

I’m not going to try to plug every hole.  After all, this is a blog post, not a master’s thesis.  But I can plug a few.

Who trusts a barkeep?:  To be a successful bartender requires a number of skills, but storytelling veracity isn’t one of them.  A story may have already have already been enhanced before it reaches the barkeep’s ears and then edging the facts up even further makes for better bar conversation, which leads to better tips.

Luckily, Sewickley property tax rates can be confirmed on-line.  (Rather than the percentages usually noted in California, Pennsylvania uses millage, or tenths of cents per dollars of assessed value.  But millage can be converted to a percentage by moving a decimal point.)

The most recently updated Sewickley tax rates are 4.73 mills for Allegheny County (2015), 6.5 mills for the Borough of Sewickley (2015), and 17.1548 mills for the Quaker Valley School District (2014).  Adding these gives 28.3848 mills, or 2.8348 percent.  Unexpectedly, the story told by the bartender actually understated the tax rate.

Don’t property values also matter?: Vendors and public employees don’t get paid in millage rates; they get paid in dollars, which are millage rates times assessed value.  So home values matter just as much as millage.

To avoid the bias of a single realty firm which might focus on a particular segment of the market, I checked the Zillow webpage for Sewickley.  The median home value for Sewickley seems to be about $250,000, which is perhaps half of the North Bay median value of close to $500,000.  (It seems the barkeep’s friends, with their $800,000 home, were in the upper echelon of the Sewickley’s demographics.)

So the combined Sewickley tax rate, which is applied to homes of half the value, would be equivalent to a tax rate of perhaps 1.4 percent on the more expensive North Bay homes, closer to the 1 percent cap in Propostion 13, but still a significant difference.

Does a cap rate equal an average rate?: That’s the last hole to patch.  Proposition calls for a 1 percent cap on the total property bills, except for a few incremental taxes that are allowed to exceed the cap, but it also sets a maximum rate at which taxes can increase year to year.  With the rapid run-ups in California real estate values, many homes are taxed well below the 1 percent cap.

(The variance from the cap is specifically true of businesses, where a business that owns a building can be sold without triggering a Proposition 13 adjustment because the building continues to be owned by the business.  If the political will is ever built to change Proposition 13, the drafting error in how businesses are treated is likely where the revisions would begin.)

In addition to businesses, it’s likely that any home that has been held since 2003 or before is taxed below the 1 percent cap.  I don’t know of any analysis that computes the average California property tax rate, but I’ll guess something around 0.8 percent.

And that’s where I’ll call a halt.  I haven’t fully rectified all the apples versus oranges possibilities, but I’ve moved in that direction.  A place that continues to fund the actual municipal costs required for a tidy, well-maintained community needs the California equivalent of a 1.4 percent tax rate, while California taxes itself at about 0.8 percent.  If you want to measure that depth of the pothole in front of your house, that’s one good measuring stick.

And where does urbanism fit into this story?  Very simply, a walkable urban community is less expensive to service per dollar of assessed value.  An urban community wouldn’t solve the property tax shortfall, but it’d be a step in the right direction.

It’s fun to see where a casual conversation over a beer can lead.

I have one more insight to share from my evening tour of Pittsburgh.  It’s about how some neighborhoods age differently from others.  I’ll share in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Building Islands of Urbanism

While concluding my recent cogitations on the alternative SMART station site for Petaluma, I offered some thoughts about the future of urban growth.

I suggested that (1) if a city has grown outward to a firm urban growth boundary, (2) if the city has also grown upwards to conform to a reasonable development transect, and (3) if the demand for housing nonetheless remains high, then the next solution could be to create well-bounded pockets of urbanism at a distance from the city, far enough away for the new communities to have separate identities, but close enough for transit connections to the original city to be effective.

In the earlier post, I recounted an anecdote about proposing that type of development for Tolay Lake Park southeast of Petaluma.  In a subsequent email exchange with a North Bay architect, I acknowledged that a more likely location for development springing outwards from Petaluma would be around the existing west county communities of Valley Ford or Bloomfield, or perhaps around the Coast Guard training center in Two Rock.

In essence, I was proposing islands of urbanism surrounded by land that would remain in its native or agricultural state.

Thus, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Amsterdam was following exactly that path, down to a literal interpretation of “islands”.

Finding that new sites for residential development on the mainland were too far away to be effectively integrated into the metropolis, Amsterdam turned its attention to the adjoining Lake Ijmeer.  The resulting plan, which is now being implemented, calls for ten new islands to be constructed in the lake, all of which would be well-filled with residential development and connected to the core of Amsterdam by tram.  (The photo is of the early development on the lake and is from the linked City Labs article on the project.)

 I think the concept is inspired and will be eager for updates.

But that doesn’t mean that I’d propose it for the Bay Area.  As much as I love the redevelopment proposed for Treasure Island and expect that it will be an exceptional place to live, I don’t think that it would possible to replicate the filling of Treasure Island today.  One, I’m not sure that it would be a good idea environmentally.  Two, even if an environmentally sound concept could be conceived, I doubt it could be approved through the CEQA process, where even good ideas often go to die.

But even if the concept of actual islands may not have application to the Bay Area, the concept of well-defined compact new communities of moderate density remains a valid model.  We may still be years away from truly needing those new communities, but that means that we can watch and learn from the Amsterdam experience.  I’m intrigued by the idea of “islands” of urbanism surrounded by farm land.

Next time, I’ll write of a data point on the financial viability of cities across which I first stumbled while chatting with the barkeep in a suburban Pittsburgh pub.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, June 15, 2015

Stuck in the Middle with Few

I recently had a week that highlighted a paradox I’ve created for myself.  My conundrum sheds light on an issue that affects urbanism, so I think it’s worthy of discussion.

First, I met with a developer who had a potential interest in folding me into his project team.  I knew something about his site and believed in the potential of the district, so was interested in the possibility, even though I hadn’t yet seen his particular plan.

But the developer was aware of my urbanist leanings and my community involvement.  Those activities made him uncomfortable.

Much of our conversation bounced between his expectation that I would unequivocally support his project and my rejoinder that I would unequivocally support any project that made Petaluma a better place.  We concluded our discussion somewhere short of a meeting of the minds.  He and I continue to chat.  He may yet decide to include me.  I hope he does because I think I can help him and the community, but I’m not losing any sleep over the outcome.

About the same time, I was chatting with a local citizens’ advocacy group.  They had their teeth into an issue that was of interest to me.  I didn’t expect that the group and I would have the same congruency of interests on every subject, but our overall goals were largely aligned and making common cause on this particular issue seemed reasonable.

But then I got wind that some in the group were hesitant to work with me because I was known to consort with developers.

So, within just a few days, I had a developer cast a dubious eye at me because I was too community-centric and a community group cast a similarly dubious eye at me because I was too developer-centric.

In a world that many believe is already too polarized, we seem to be adding new types of polarity.

Which is a shame because it doesn’t help us make the North Bay a better place.  I firmly believe that we need to be talking more, not less.

Those of you who have been reading here for awhile know the points that I might now make to elaborate my point.  The need to understand the real world constraints on developers.  The fact that zoning codes often don’t present the true desires of the community.  The need to incorporate concerns about climate change and municipal finances into our land use patterns.  The desires of the market place.

But those of you who have been reading here for awhile already know the litany.  And those of you haven’t can hang out for awhile and wait for the issues to come past again.  So I’ll adjourn at this point and encourage you to proceed with your day.

To be clear, I’m not complaining about being potentially ostracized by both ends of the land-use spectrum.  To use an inside joke from the world of land use, I know I’m in the midst of a self-created difficulty.  Yes, I’d like developers to believe that I can bring value to their projects.  And yes, I’d like community groups to believe that I have the best interests of the community at heart.

But what I really want is to awake in the morning with the belief that I’m doing the best I can for current and future residents of the North Bay.  And as long as I pass that test, which I do, I can’t be too concerned about the other stuff.

Instead, all I can do is to keep humming to myself.

Well I don't know why I came here tonight,
I got the feeling that something ain't right.


While recently philosophizing on the issues raised by the alternative Petaluma SMART station, I suggested that the creation of new, separated communities would be a logical result of an urbanist world.  Effectively, I was proposing islands of urbanism surrounded by natural environment.

To my surprise, I learned that Amsterdam had already embarked on a literal interpretation of the concept that I was proposing.  I’ll explain in my next post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Friday, June 12, 2015

It Ain’t My Dream

Small change in plans today.  In place of the subject I’d intended, I’ll build off my last post and mock another commercial.  (It’s like fishing in a barrel.)  The taunting will be mercifully short, which will give me the opportunity to announce some administrative good news about this blog without imposing unreasonably on your attention span.

Not My Dream: Even to myself, I seem unnaturally irritable on this point, but a recent Chevrolet commercial really gets under my skin.  The nails on chalkboard moment (if you’re under 35, you may not get that idiom, but my generation certainly does) comes shortly before the end.  After various ways of touting the onboard wifi feature, one of the “real people, not actors” says “That’s the dream, to have wifi in the car.”

I know that it’s easy to ridicule folks who engage in casual hyperbole.  I once took a two week vacation with a guy who described every meal we consumed and every golf course we played as the best ever.  By the end of day ten, we were all sniggering at him behind our fingers.

But somehow the ‘”That’s the dream, …” comment still seems a new level of irritating inanity.  How about instead dreaming of a world where we can walk to a transit stop and quit driving bloated SUVs?  A world where we can began to slow the progress of climate change?  A world where our cities can become more financially solvent?

I understand that wifi can be a useful feature in a car, perhaps for the kids to watch a backseat video while on the long drive to grandma’s or perhaps for a spouse to recheck a shopping list while on Saturday morning chores.  But is it “the dream”?  No, it’s not.  Or at least it shouldn’t be.

(Note: The car in the photo most assuredly does not have wifi.)

Freedom to Comment: This update pertains only to the readers who read me on my home site,  If you follow me on Vibrant Bay Area or Petaluma Patch, you’re done.  Go have a productive day.  Or email me about commercials that you find to have an irritating anti-urbanist slant.  Your choice.

A concern expressed by many on the Blogspot site is the difficulty in commenting.  Some folks have been readily allowed to comment without obstacle.  Others have gone through all sorts of gyrations and still have their comments rejected.  Some have emailed me about the difficulty.  I’ve offered a few tricks that seemed to work for others, but the problems lingered.

And then, while deep in the bowels of Blogspot looking for the answer to a different question, I found a page I hadn’t previously visited.  On that page, I learned that comments were restricted to “Registered Users”.  I don’t even know what Registered Users means.  I’ve had plenty of folks comment who seemed unworthy of being registered anywhere.  And I certainly don’t know who input the Registered Users restriction.  Perhaps it’s the Blogspot default.  But I assume that registration hurdle is where the commenting problem has laid.

I immediately changed the setting to All.  Admittedly, if I start receiving lots of comments about making a zillion dollars a week while sitting at home during the coming economic crash, I may need to rethink the setting.   But for right now, I expect that everyone can comment.

If you’ve previously had comments rejected by my website, please try again, even if only to say hello.

Having apparently solved one website problem, I’ll continue wandering in the bowels of Blogspot over the next few weeks.  If you notice changes that make your reading experience better, or worse, let me know.  I aim to please, even if not as quickly as I’d like.

Next time, I’ll return to the subject I’d planned for this post, a recent experience of being doubly shunned for my land-use views.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

There are Better Ways to Be Kind

A television commercial recently caught my eye.  And not in a good way.

An elderly woman is trapped in the middle of a four-lane street.  An SUV stops to let her finish crossing.  But when the driver realizes that other drivers are still passing through the intersection, he pulls forward, hops out, and escorts the woman to the curb.

The Dignity Health commercial ends with the tag line “Hello humankindness “, supposedly leaving us feeling warm and fuzzy about what fine people we can be.

Well, not so fast.

By my tally, twelve cars and two city buses pass through the intersection while the woman is stranded.  With the law and common decency requiring vehicles to stop for safe pedestrian crossings, it seems a remarkably poor example of “humankindness”.

And to go even further, isn’t there something unkind about forcing the woman to cross the busy street in the first place?

How about if we instead define “humankindness” to include the building of neighborhoods where senior citizens of limited mobility don’t need to cross four-lane streets to do daily shopping?  Or if we at least include traffic calming on four-lane streets so the vehicular speed are slowed, making respect for crosswalks more likely?  That seems a better standard of “humankindness”.

Of course, more walkable destinations and slower traffic speeds are both part of the urbanist toolkit.  I must be hanging out with kind people.

The other question is how the Dignity Health public relations department, advertising firm, and management team all failed to notice the absence of kindness in most of the drivers in the commercial.  It seems a poor showing for a hospital operator that brags of being a not-for-profit public-benefit corporation.  After seventy years of sprawl, too many of us have become inured to its manifestations.  And that’s too bad.

(There are two other commercials in the Humankindess campaign, one about saving a whale shark from a fishing net and the other about saving a dog from a flood control channel.  It’s interesting that all three must be saved from an aspect of our built world.  Although I’m unsure how to feel about sharks, dogs, and little old ladies being placed on the same level.)

Next time, I’ll write about a recent week in which I found myself doubly shunned.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

Monday, June 8, 2015

On the Coherency of Transects and Urban Growth Boundaries - Part Four

With this post, I’ll close my far-flung cogitations on the alternative location for the second SMART station in Petaluma and the conclusions to which my thinking led me.

I fear I may have confused a few readers by the way I connected the dots in my head.  It seemed logical to me, but know that I don’t always think like other people.  Today, I’ll try to smooth over any rough patches in my logical progressions.

(When I was a student at Cal, I took a class on the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky.  I was enroute to becoming the first civil engineering graduate in Cal history to complete the liberal arts requirement, normally met with lower division classes in American history or political science, with upper division classes on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

For my class term paper, I tried to compare and contrast Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov and Nietzsche’s Superman.  It was a worthy topic, but I didn’t have the chops for it.  In one particular tortured section, the professor, a Nobel Laureate in poetry, wrote in the margin “I have no idea what you’re saying.”  So if I lost you somewhere during my preceding posts, you have my apologies and the knowledge that you’re in good company.)

To recap where I’ve been, I introduced the alternative location for the second station and why it would solve dual problems for SMART, delved into the regulatory constraints on the alternative location, and described the insights about urban growth boundaries and transects to which the contemplations  took me.

To me, the most important conclusion is that urban growth boundaries, the limit beyond which cities may not expand, and transects, the urbanist theory by which cities progress logically from wilderness to urban cores, are fully complementary, the coherency to which the title refers.  The declining leg of transects, as the uses transition through lower density development to agricultural uses is exactly where the urban growth boundary should be.

The only caveat is the urban growth boundaries must remain fixed, or nearly so, over time.  A city that conforms to the theory of transects would have appropriate uses at its boundaries, perhaps low-density residential, development-supported agriculture, large natural parks, or even improvements such as community airports or multi-field sports complexes.

To move an urban growth boundary beyond these uses, allowing apartment buildings or strip malls on the far side, would result in an incoherent, difficult to serve community.  The fact that we’ve built communities in this way for seventy years doesn’t mean we should continue to do so.

This summing up leaves three lingering questions to address before I close.

Why did city building of the past not need urban growth boundaries?:  San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and New Orleans.  These are all fascinating places that we love to visit.  But they grew during an era when no one spoke of urban growth boundaries or transects.  Why do we now need tools of which the city builders of the past knew nothing and yet succeeded well?

The answer is the automobile.  The great cities we enjoy today reached their near final form when people moved about on foot, on horseback, or by common conveyance.  Those means of transport limited how far people could reasonably travel, so cities remains relatively compact, a feature that we continue to find attractive.

If San Francisco hadn’t been settled until after the car was commonplace, it would likely look very different.  More freeways and wide streets to enable people to leave quickly after work.  More chain stores.  Less population.

Indeed, I suggest that if the Bay Area hadn’t been settled until after the advent of the automobile, San Francisco wouldn’t be the dominant city.  Instead, that distinction would have gone to Oakland or San Jose for their easier access to the suburbs of Hayward, Fremont, Morgan Hill, and Gilroy.

With no disrespect to either Oakland or San Jose, both of which have places I enjoy, I’m happier living in a Bay Area where San Francisco is the dominant city.

To a large extent, planning tools such as urban growth boundaries and transects are little more an attempt to recreate the development patterns that existed before the automobile.  And maybe even to improve on what early city builders accomplished.

What happens when a city is complete but development pressure remains?: What if a city is logically bounded by physical barriers such as rivers, bays, and steep hillsides or by appropriate man-made limits such as airports and golf courses such that future development would bust the transect?  And what if the same city has bumped up the transects to create an appropriate number of urban centers and urban cores, but is still experiencing development pressure, perhaps because its form is successfully attracting the creative class?  What then?

To me, this is where the garden city fits.  New villages or towns can be encouraged a few miles from the city.  But the new places must be compact places, with strong transit connections to the larger city.  People who prefer fewer lights at night or perhaps a lower housing cost could live in the new places, but still be convenient to urban life.

This idea may seem far-fetched, but I actually proposed something much like it a few years back.  Sonoma County acquired Today Lake, a dry lake bed and productive farm in the hills a few miles southeast of Petaluma.

Shortly after the acquisition, my wife and I attended a fall festival at Tolay Lake.  At the time, County planners were still trying to develop a vision for the place, so were asking people to join an email list.

I eagerly signed up and even more eagerly filled in the comment section with my thought that Tolay Lake could be a small village, perhaps something like Seaside, Florida, populated by park employees, workers at a small model farm, shopkeepers to meet the needs of the residents, writers and artists who would enjoy the quietude, and perhaps a few weekenders also.  Cars could be discouraged, with a frequent bus connection to Petaluma.

I impatiently waited to see if my thoughts would make the email newsletter.  I never found out.  I wasn’t even put on the email list.  It can be tough to be out in front of the curve.

Where does the second SMART station belong?: If the alternative location for the second SMART station is a poor solution, what then?  What other sites remain?

I’ve looked at the rail alignment through Petaluma.  There aren’t many other reasonable places for a second train station.

I understand there was once consideration of placing the second station by the proposed River Front project, near the 101 overcrossing of Lakeville Street.  However, that site is too close to the downtown station.  I could see a location along the proposed Rainier Connector, but that option is likely more than a decade away.  The Corona Road location made sense, but SMART may have poisoned that well with their acquisition strategy.

And that leaves one location I can see, a location that a reader first pointed out to me.  There is a currently vacant parcel along North McDowell Boulevard a short distance north of Corona Road.  It has good rail frontage.  It’s a little smaller than the Corona Road site, but could still accommodate a fair number of cars.

The only problem is that the site is currently proposed as the parking lot for the successful pub at the Lagunitas Brewery.  A parking lot that is needed to address the current problem of patrons crossing McDowell Boulevard to reach the pub.

To my mind, the only way that the parcel can be freed up for use as the SMART station is if aggressive traffic calming is implemented on McDowell.  If traffic be slowed to 25 mph, then pedestrian safety would improve and the street parking on the opposite side could continue to serve the Lagunitas pub.

It would be a very urbanist solution.  But it would solve a lot of problems.  And, as another reader has pointed out, urbanist pioneer Peter Calthorpe long ago sketched up an urbanist community on the opposing side of the tracks.  Although that project would require moving the urban growth boundary, violating a principle that I elucidated above, the proximity of housing, train station, successful pub, and McDowell bus corridor is a compelling urbanist vision.

And the reason I’m here is to point out the urbanist solutions.

Okay, having thrown a lot of words at train stations, transects, etc, I’m ready to take a breath.  Perhaps the readers feel the same.  The next post will pick apart a recent ad that was intended to make us feel good, but falls short on urbanist grounds.  It’s such an easy target that the post will be short.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (