Monday, October 20, 2014

It’s Time to be Smart about Water, Not Politically Expedient

During recent candidate forums, several contenders for the Petaluma City Council suggested that the City consider a moratorium on building permits until the drought eases.  I’ll speculate that other North Bay cities are entertaining similar thoughts.

I support the need to respond to the drought.  The water shortfall is significant, may not slacken during the coming winter, and could be indicative of a systemic change.  But a blanket moratorium is the wrong tool for several reasons.

First, a moratorium without simultaneous regulatory adjustments is tantamount to considering the drought a normal and random element of the climate cycle, thereby supporting a position taken by climate change deniers.

I’m not saying that candidates who suggested a moratorium are climate change deniers.  I’m sure that few if any of them are within that camp.  But they’ve mistakenly offered a position that aligns with a key proposition put forth by deniers.

 (I won’t delve more deeply into a climate change discussion because I don’t want this post to be sidetracked into a discussion on the validity of the theory.  It’s a worthy topic, but not for today.)

Another problem with a blanket moratorium is that it doesn’t reposition our communities for when the drought may ease.  If we get enough rain to believe the drought is over and begin issuing new building permits without a change in the water use standards, we’d have wasted an opportunity to make our communities more resilient.

Lastly, we’re in a time when our communities should be evolving in responses to multiple challenges such as municipal finances and non-drought climate change issues.  A blanket moratorium, stopping all development, would impede our progress toward other goals.

Luckily, a better alternative can be conceived.  In place of the blanket moratorium suggested by the candidates, I propose a two-phase moratorium.  Initially, North Bay cities can impose a short-term moratorium on all building permits, but only for long enough to rework development standards to define water-smart standards for new or remodeled buildings.

Some will object that North Bay cities lack funds within current budgets, particularly if tax measures fail, to undertake code revisions.  The concern is legitimate, but Petaluma, and likely other cities, has a wealth of knowledgeable engineers and developers with water backgrounds, many of whom would probably be willing to offer their expertise toward writing new rules.  In fact, there may be an opportunity for regional code-revision cooperation.

Some effort by city staffs would still be required to incorporate the information into the zoning code, but it would be far less than if the staffs had to also develop the concepts without assistance.

Next, as the first moratorium expires and emergency revisions are made to the zoning code, a second moratorium would be imposed on projects that don’t meet the water-smart standards.  The duration on this latter moratorium would be indefinite, lasting until the city councils judge that the drought has ended.  If the more pessimistic projections on climate change are valid, the second moratorium may never be lifted.  Hopefully, that won’t be the case, but it’s a possibility.

The obvious direction in which these moratoriums would push residential development would be toward multi-family homes.  It’s easier to be water-smart without either a frontyard or a backyard.  And a move toward multi-family would likely include more housing in walkable urban settings, which I would applaud.

But single-family residential would still be possible.  I recently chatted with a North Bay single-family developer who is proposing use of a treatment system that would allow use of treated greywater from showers and washing machines for surface application.  (The greywater systems now used in a few locations around the North Bay only allow subsurface application.)

The developer estimated that he could save almost 20,000 gallons per home per year.  That would be 20,000 gallons of potable water that needn’t be treated and delivered and 20,000 gallons of greywater that needn’t be conveyed away for treatment at a municipal wastewater plant.

The system he proposes is in regular use in Europe and Australia, but unknown in the U.S.  It’s that kind of innovation and adoption that the proposed two-phase moratorium would foster.

Thanks to the Petaluma City Council candidates for raising the subject.  Now, let’s hone their idea and ensure that it best meet the needs of our communities.

Before closing, one other comment should be made.  The savings from requiring new or remodeled buildings to be more water-smart is worthwhile and, with the right technology, significant.  But those savings are dwarfed by the savings that could be achieved at existing homes and businesses.  Between retrofitted fixtures, changed landscaping patterns (my wife and I removed the last of our grass nearly ten years ago), and reduced consumption encouraged by more sharply tiered rates, water use at existing buildings can be sharply curtailed.

To fall into the trap of believing that we’ve imposed a moratorium and therefore solved the problem would be both wrong and harmful.  Instead, we must look into the mirror for the most important elements of water conservation.

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

Friday, October 17, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: The Cases For and Against Mobile Home Parks

For several years, I was on the board of a local Rebuilding Together affiliate, a non-profit organization that provides free home repairs for low-income homeowners.  Like most affiliates, our biggest event of the year was an April workday when several hundred local citizens volunteered a day of labor.

One year, a project captain invited a group of volunteers to her home for post-workday beverages.  I found myself in her kitchen, sipping a beer and chatting with a city councilmember who had worked on a project.

I assume the councilmember had worked on a mobile home because the discussion quickly turned to the role of mobile homes in our city.  His view was that mobile homes were a temporary aberration and that the long-term goal of the city should be to replace them with stick-built homes.  His principal argument was the longer life of well-maintained stick-built construction, although he also noted the horizontal spread of single-story mobile homes and the opportunity for more compact living with stick-built residences.

With that memory in mind, it was interesting to read the suggestion by Lisa Margonelli in Pacific Standard that mobile home parks might have an essential role in the housing future of all of us, particularly seniors.  She looks in depth at the Pismo Dunes mobile home park, near Pismo Beach, California.

Margonelli’s argument is that mobile home parks provide a low-cost alternative to other options, while also fostering a relationship between seniors, a supportive network that others have called a “naturally-occurring retirement community”.

I’ll use the dichotomy between the councilmember’s comments and Margonelli’s article as a starting point from which to write about the possible role of mobile home parks as senior communities and to conclude a series of posts I’ve written about urbanism and senior living.  I won’t forget urbanism and seniors and will find opportunities to add more insights on the subject, but will begin focusing elsewhere in my next post.

Margonelli makes a reasonable case for mobile homes, but I’ll add another point.  Mobile home parks encourage alternative transportation modes.  With narrow roads, frequent driveways, and a well-gridded layout, automobile drivers intuitively reduce their speed, often as low as 15 miles per hour, well below the 20 mile per hour threshold where the dominance of cars begins to wane.

Margonelli notes the use of golf carts in the Pismo Dunes, which can be a fine choice for seniors no longer capable of handling an auto.

I can add another transportation option.  A North Bay reader emailed me extolling her adult tricycle, noting the improved mobility which it has given her and including a photo of a Napa senior on a tricycle touring the damage on the morning after the recent earthquake.  An adult tricycle can be another fine alternative transportation choice within a mobile home park.

Also, walking within a mobile home park is often safer than walking on city streets.

Against the positives noted by Margonelli and by me, there is a legitimate list of concerns about mobile home parks as a housing solution, including some that touch upon the councilmember’s concerns.

Heading the list is construction quality.  Margonelli notes that quality of mobile homes has been improving.  She’s likely correct, but mobile homes still remain at the lower-end of the construction spectrum.  And it seems inevitable that they’ll remain at the lower-end.

During my time on the Rebuilding Together board, we often debated how much money to allocate toward mobile home repair.  Although we never went as far as another affiliate which limited mobile home repairs to one-third of their annual budget, we remained aware of the potential black hole of mobile home repairs.  Many years, we could have spent our entire budget on mobile homes and still left needs unmet.  Plus we found that repairs to stick-built construction were less likely to require return visits in future years.

Next, the density of most mobile home parks is insufficient to support urban uses such as stores or pubs.  (Margonelli notes that a grocery store is within walking distance of Pismo Dunes, but the store is beyond the boundary of the mobile home park and even then remains an anomaly.)  It’s the inherent nature of the single-story, non-shared-wall development to spread out, reducing the number of residents within walkable distance of businesses.

Furthermore, the nature of most mobile home parks is to be enclosed, with limited entry points and few opportunities for others to pass through a park enroute to other destinations.  But the nature of an effective urban community to be well-gridded, allowing efficient travel, which is essential for those on foot or bicycles.

Perhaps the only location is which mobile home parks don’t undermine an urban land-use configuration is where they back against any geographical feature that would have already precluded urban connections.  It’s not coincidental that Pismo Dunes backs up to an ocean beach or that many of the Petaluma mobile home parks adjoin a freeway.

But the biggest concern about mobile home parks, at least to me, is the social insulation.  I’ve been reading “The Filter Bubble” by Eli Pariser.  His thesis is that personalization of internet experiences, by which Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and others feed us articles consistent with what they’ve calculated to be our interest and values, undermines the free flow of objective information on which our democracy depends.

The internet personalization models against which he rails is evident in our every internet session.  In the last week, I’ve researched travel options in Ireland and senior living facilities in the North Bay.  Now, I can’t go anywhere on the internet without being bombarded by ads for Irish tour services and North Bay senior living options.  It feels both creepy and intrusive.

Similarly, I had a frequent commenter on Petaluma Patch who was continually offering links to anti-urbanism articles from obscure and credibility-challenged sources.  At first, I marveled at his misplaced diligence in finding these articles.

However, I came to realize that he had created a filter bubble in which the internet was feeding him anti-urban articles.  He had only to go on-line to have an article shoved in front of him which, with dubious fact and flawed logic, seemed to rebut something I had written.  And he then felt a need to accept the article as the truth and to share it.

It was a shame that the opportunity for the two of us to have a rational exchange of perspectives was undermined by the internet.

Urbanism combats the personalization trend on the internet.  I love the idea of a CEO and a mail clerk talking in the elevator of an apartment building where both live, each if one is in a penthouse when the other is in a micro-apartment.  Similarly, I like watching various demographic segments chatting in a downtown pub. 

My personal hell would be to live among folks who are like me and who think as I do.  Even as I age, I want to live among people who offer new and thought-provoking perspectives.  We already offer too few of these opportunities and mobile home parks, by their very nature, are part of the deficiency.

Summing it up, while Margonelli makes a reasonable case for mobile home parks, I favor the position of the councilmember.  As a housing solution, particularly as we move toward a more urban world, we can and should do better than mobile home parks.

By the way, nothing here is intended to disparage the residents of mobile home parks nor to criticize the choice of people who find enjoyment in their mobile homes.  Instead, it is to castigate the rest of us for creating a world in which mobile homes, with all their deficiencies, are the only option for many folks.

In my next post, I’ll write about water conservation.  Candidates for the Petaluma City Council have been talking about a moratorium on building permits while the drought persists.  I applaud the concern, but will argue that another approach would be more appropriate.

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

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: Getting Around on Foot

A theme of this election season has been strategic decision-making around the varying approval thresholds for different forms of tax measures.  Is it better to seek a general tax measure, which requires only 50 percent plus one for approval, even if it means battling skepticism about how the revenues will be spent?   Or is better to specify the uses of the revenue, even though that would bump the approval standard to two-thirds when the electorate might not be able to muster a two-thirds majority over whether the sun will rise in the east tomorrow?

Or perhaps the 55 percent rule will apply, although that option is limited to certain types of school bond measures.  (If someone wants a legal summary of the various California approval standards, the Legislative Analyst’s Office provides one here.  The flowchart is nicely done.)

Also, during my years in Oregon, I watched the double-majority standard in action, a rule that was so perverse in its unintended consequences that the voters finally repealed it in 2008.

But what if I wrote that there was a type of infrastructure for which 100 percent voter approval was required?  It may seem surprising, but it’s nonetheless true.  In large areas of our cities and towns, sidewalk upkeep, and therefore walkability, requires 100 percent participation from property owners.

In a carryover from English common law, California homeowners are responsible for the repair and maintenance of the sidewalks in front of their homes.  Originally, English landowners were responsible for the entire roadway.  The government eventually, in the interest of commerce, assumed street repair, but the takeover didn’t progress far enough to include the sidewalks.

(The original road maintenance obligation is one reason why English towns and early American towns are often characterized by multi-story common-wall houses on narrow lots.  The narrow lots reduced the repair obligation.  Coincidentally, the narrow lots also helped communities satisfy Jeff Speck’s “interest” and “usefulness” elements of walkability.  It was only when government took over road upkeep that the lots of the middle-class began sprawling sideways, which also undermined walkability.)

There may be sidewalks, such as in the downtown retail areas, where a city has assumed sidewalk maintenance to preserve commercial activity, but most sidewalks remain the responsibility of the adjoining homeowner.  As a result, as any property liability expert will avow, California homeowners also remain responsible for any personal damages that result from poor sidewalk conditions.

However, even the threat of lawsuits isn’t always sufficient to motivate sidewalk repairs.  With stagnant middle-class wages, the need to save for college educations and retirement, and the desire for the newest electronic toy, sidewalk repairs often fall far down household priority lists, below the point at which funds are exhausted.

In the recently-developed parts of a town, the sidewalks constructed as part of the initial development typically remain in good condition.  But nearly every block in the more mature areas of a town will have a stretch or two where the footing is too treacherous for 80-year-old grandmothers to walk to the store. 

Even if a neighborhood is lucky enough to have a Ray’s Delicatessen and Tavern a block away, that destination, which should be the hallmark of a walkable neighborhood, may still require a car trip by the less foot-sure residents of the neighborhood.  And the only immediate solution is the impossible expectation that all property owners promptly attend to deteriorating sidewalks, the 100 percent standard I noted above.

Nor is complete neighborhood concurrence fully adequate to support walkability.  In many older neighborhoods, street repairs have often included lifts of asphalt that have raised the centerline elevation by six inches or more, without changing gutter line elevation, resulting in the frequently-seen humped street cross-section.

Even if a mobility-limited pedestrian is lucky enough to encounter an intersection which has been retrofitted with handicap ramps at their mandated 8.3 percent slope, the pedestrian may be faced with grades of 12 percent or more to cross the street.  The only solution to hump-backed street is full reconstruction, a task well beyond the financial capability of most towns.

To highlight the absurdity, my wife and I were recently sitting in our Petaluma parlor when a man in an electrical wheelchair rode by.   A few minutes later, he returned.  Both times, he was in the street, not on the sidewalk.  In a town that disgruntled drivers have dubbed the Pothole Capital of California, wheelchair users still find it safer to ride in the streets than on the sidewalks.  That should give pause.

This overview on the reality of sidewalk maintenance is part of my ongoing discussion about urbanism and senior living.  There is a strong case that seniors can live richer, fuller lives in a walkable urban setting.  But sometimes those downtown residential locations are a block or two from the social opportunities that can enrich a senior life, a distance in which the sidewalks may be in disrepair.

And for seniors who have been relegated to the suburbs by a lack of downtown options or the difficulty of selling suburban homes for an adequate price to fund retirement, good sidewalks can be essential to reaching the occasional neighborhood store or the bus stop from which downtown can be reached.

There are no easy fixes to the sidewalk repair deficiency.  We could impose fines on homeowners who are delinquent with their repairs, but that seems draconian.  We could do government repair on more sidewalks, but that would require more tax revenues.  (Even within the many tax measures on the November ballot, sidewalk repairs are barely more than a rounding error.)   Or we could build communities where the ratio of people to linear foot of sidewalk is pushed upward, making it easier to build a consensus for sidewalk upkeep.  I favor the last.

In any case, it’s ironic that we can build systems that, with the touch of a key fob, give seniors extra time to cross busy streets, but we can’t find a way to maintain the concrete to get them to the street crossing.

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

(Disclaimer: I have a sidewalk in front of my home that is beginning to crack because of a tree root.  It isn’t yet a big trip hazard, but is heading that way.  Repair is scheduled for spring.)

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Tuesday Evening of Civic Involvement

This coming Tuesday evening will offer two opportunities for involvement in the Petaluma community.  Those willing to commit an extended chunk of time can be informed, and perhaps also entertained, from 5:30 until 9:30

Petaluma Urban Chat: The monthly meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat will fall on the Tuesday the 14th this month.  As always, the meeting will convene at 5:30pm at the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma.

This month’s meeting will feature a discussion of Measure Q on the Petaluma ballot, the proposed one percent sales tax bump, the revenues from which the current City Council anticipates directing toward deferred infrastructure repairs, the needs of the emergency services departments, and the Rainier Connector

City Council candidate Dave King has accepted an invitation to join Urban Chat to discuss his views on the measure.

To set the stage for the Tuesday discussion, it’s interesting, and also confounding, to look at the positions that have been taken on Measure Q versus positions on the Rainier Connector.

All of the City Council candidates, including the mayoral candidates, express support for the Rainier Connector.  Some also support Measure Q because of the funding that it would provide for the Connector.  But others oppose Measure Q because the funding commitment isn’t sufficiently committed to the Rainier Connector.  If elected, they promise to put forth another, stronger ballot measure at a future date.

On the other hand, all the self-identified urbanists with whom I’ve spoken oppose the Rainier Connector.  Many, including me, acknowledge that it would make Petaluma a better place, but balk at the price tag, arguing that there are better uses for the money.  As a result, many urbanists oppose Measure Q because of the funding that it provides toward the Connector.  But others, again including me, support Measure Q because the other municipal needs are sufficiently dire that it would be wrong to subject the City to further financial distress.

About the only apparent conclusion that can be drawn from that intertwined spaghetti of opinions is that none of the City Council candidates are urbanists.  And I don’t believe that even that conclusion is valid.

I can’t promise that a frank discussion, even with the thoughts of Dave King, will bring clarity to the issue, but perhaps it can cut a bit of the fog.

Regular attendees know that the 5:30 start time tends to be bit soft, with some attendees still in line to secure beverages when the minute hand points straight down.  But for this month, we will start promptly at the designated time.   King has another obligation to which he must depart at 6:15, so those who don’t have a beverage in front of them at 5:30 will be asked to wait until King departs.

As always, everyone is welcome.  New attendees are particularly encouraged to join us.

Planning Commission: Immediately after the Urban Chat meeting, the Petaluma Planning Commission will convene at City Hall.  The agenda item likely to attract the greatest controversy is the proposed modifications to the Zoning Code and SMART Code to permit and to regulate rentals of private homes within mixed-use and residential neighborhoods, the types of rentals generally described as “AirBnB”.

(Disclaimer: I’ve never stayed in an AirBnB rental, but once spent several nights in a VRBO rental home.  I secured the home for an extended family getaway, but most of the participants came down ill in the days before we gathered, so there were only two of us rattling around in a big house overlooking the North California surf.  To the best of my recollection, we didn’t make enough noise to disturb the neighbors.  Also, I had earlier found rental flats in both London and Venice through Craigslist.)

The whole AirBnB controversy irritates me.  If we hadn’t collectively and wrongly turned our backs on urbanism, I don’t believe there would even be an AirBnB controversy.  Instead, there would be clusters of mixed-use multi-family dwellings near walkable cores.  Individual owners within those buildings might still wish to rent their homes on a daily or weekly basis, but that would be an issue for the homeowners association to address, not the entire city.  Besides, adding another further people to busy urban sidewalks would be barely noticeable.

And if enough rental rooms were available near the walkable core, I doubt there would be a market for rentals in the more distant residential-only neighborhoods, except for properties with special settings or views.

But we did turn away from urbanism, those buildings that should logically contain the AirBnB units of today don’t exist, and now we must decide what to do about AirBnB.

So, urbanism has little to offer us on the AirBnB subject except a severe tsk-tsk-tsk.  Instead, we’re left on our own to sort out the balance of private property rights versus the rights of neighbors to the peaceful enjoyment of their own homes.

With that grumpy preamble, I find the City staff to have done a credible job in balancing the multiple objectives.

Homeowners who wish to rent out all or part of their homes would pay an initial fee, annual renewal fee, and transient occupancy taxes to the city.

Neighbors would be notified of intended rental operations.  Although they wouldn’t be able to oppose the permits, their complaints about operations would be grounds for revocation or non-renewal of permits.

Even though the City doubts their ability to enforce them on a regular basis, maximum occupancy standards would be set so that non-compliance can be considered in actions against property owners.

Minimum parking standards would be imposed on the rental operations, although limited use of street parking would be allowed.  Any excess need for street parking would be subject to a land-use action which the neighbors could oppose.

The entire City staff report can be found here.  I find it well-written and reasonable.  Although I certainly understand the concerns of the neighbors, many of which can found here and here.

But my final test is the hypothetical question of how I would feel if the proposed regulations were to affect my neighborhood.

I don’t know of any AirBnB rentals that have been proposed near my house, but I don’t think I’d mind a few AirBnB renters sharing my sidewalks.  (Indeed, there are a couple of neighbors whom I’d happily trade for overnight renters.)  It’s a fun little neighborhood.  If I was visiting Petaluma, it’s the kind of neighborhood in which I’d enjoy resting my head, second only to staying closer to downtown.

Regarding my Tuesday evening, I’ll definitely attend the Urban Chat meeting.  I’ll try to also attend the Planning Commission meeting, although other obligations may interfere.

In my next post, I’ll return to the topic of urbanism and seniors, tackling the question of walkability and other non-motorized options for seniors.

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

Friday, October 10, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: After the Driver’s License is Gone

A few years ago, my wife and I sat down one evening to continue planning our retirement.  Our goal was to decide upon a town in which we wished to spend our later years.

Like any couple, our desires didn’t fully align.  We had different visions of what would be important to us in retirement.

Nor, until our later-in-life marriage, had our lives been spent in the similar communities.  Although we both grew up near Sacramento, I’d lived 18 years in the Pacific Northwest, while she’d spent most of her adult life in California cities from Redding to Laguna Niguel, so we brought different visions of the good life to our conversation.

But we worked through our differences and reached a mutually acceptable conclusion.  We wanted to live in a place just like Petaluma, but with a Nordstrom and a transit system that would allow me to ride to and from a Cal basketball game, even if the game went into triple overtime.  (Exactly what city met that definition remained an open question.)

In our focus on transit, we were foreshadowing the concerns of an increasing number of seniors.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about the intersection of urbanism and senior living.  As should have been expected, I’m enthusiastically supportive of creating more options for downtown senior life.

But I’ve also been considering the lives of seniors who would benefit from urban life but can’t utilize that option because of the absence of suitable urban destinations or because of market finances holding them in suburbia.  Today, I’ll write about the effect of decreasing mobility on those seniors and about possible solutions.

Eventually, assuming we live long enough, we’ll all lose our driver’s licenses.  (Paraphrasing Maurice Chevalier, “It isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.”)

But with so much of American life dependent on the automobile, the loss of that mobility can be life-changing.  As Pete Lehner writes for the Natural Resources Defense Council, seniors who find themselves stranded by loss of their licenses are less likely to keep medical appointments, less likely to see old friends and more likely to show signs of depression.

Lehner also points out that the number of seniors, and therefore post-driving seniors, has been and will continue to grow rapidly.

Lehner notes that transit is one solution to the senior mobility problem, but cites the low priority often given to transit funding.  He cites Wisconsin where the ratio of road to transit funding is nearly 100 to 1.

As a member of the Petaluma Transit Advisory Committee, I can confirm that transit funding is limited.  The $88 million price being bandied about for the Rainier Connection would be enough to fund Petaluma Transit for thirty years.

However, I’m unsure than any amount of transit funding can solve the problem of senior mobility in cities configured like Petaluma.  The sprawling nature of many subdivisions makes it impossible to design routes that will provide good transit access to most folks while still providing timely services for those trying to keep appointments or arrive at jobs on time. Drivable suburbia is a deep wound to the independence of seniors and transit can only be a small bandage.

But there are alternatives.  Writing in City Lab, Paul Supawanich suggests that peer-to-peer ride-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, can also play a role.

Supawanich muses that the rides required by seniors might not occur with the same times or destinations typically served by the peer-to-peer drivers and suggests that small stipends might be needed to ensure that enough drivers are available to meet the demand.  However, he guesses that stipends plus fares would have a lower cost that alternatives such as taxis or transit vans.

 Lastly, Liza Barth in Consumer Reports writes of a modified peer-to-peer ride-sharing concept for seniors that predates Uber and Lyft.  After her young son was injured in 1995 by an older driver whose license should have been previously revoked, Katherine Freund began to look for alternatives to senior driving.

She created a community ride-share company, ITN America, that operates in thirty locations across the country.

While similar to Uber and Lyft, ITN has several key differences, in addition to its focus on seniors.  For one, many riders enroll by giving their cars to ITN in exchange for credits that can be used for rides.  For another, many of the drivers are young seniors, reinforcing the concept of peer-to-peer.  Lastly, many of the drivers aren’t paid in money, but instead get credits that they can use in their later years.

Are Uber or ITN perfect solutions to senior mobility?  Not really.  I’d still rather live in a place where I can walk a block and catch a streetcar that’ll run all night.  But they help address some of the mobility shortfall for seniors and it’s good that they exist.

Next time, I’ll step away from urbanism and seniors for a post.  Instead, I’ll write about a couple of interesting meetings that will occur in Petaluma next week.

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

(Note: For those concerned, or perhaps hopeful, that I’ll be leaving Petaluma based on my comments above about a retirement destination, that won’t happen.   Since the conversation with my wife, various life changes have happened, including greater community involvement and more family members moving to Petaluma, so we’re in the North Bay for the duration.  Although I still miss a good transit connection between here and Berkeley.)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: Shedding the Extra Bedrooms

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the intersection of urbanism and senior living.  Thus far, I’ve largely focused on the forms that senior living can take in urban settings and the steps needed to encourage downtown senior options.

But I’ve also written that many seniors, even if they find walkable urban life appealing, are nonetheless stuck in drivable suburbia because there are few suitable urban options or because they can’t sell their current homes at a price adequate to support a move downtown.

Today, I’ll begin writing about how to bring touches of urbanism to those living their final years in drivable suburbia.

I don’t recall the speaker, but there was a particularly insightful moment on the subject of senior living at CNU 22, the most recent annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  The speaker was digging into the statistics showing that many seniors prefer to “age in place”.

The aging in place sentiment is generally understood to mean that seniors wish to remain in the homes where they raised their families.  This understanding has launched many businesses focused on modifying homes with grab bars, providing essential in-home services, and otherwise facilitating seniors remaining in their long-time homes.

But as the speaker dug more deeply into the statistics, he found that many seniors weren’t necessarily thinking about the homes as the “places” where they insisted on “aging”.  Instead, they didn’t want to leave behind the neighbors with whom they had long friendships, the coffee shops where they spent Saturday mornings, or the butchers who cut their Christmas prime ribs.  Perhaps not all, but many seniors no longer cared about the five bedrooms and quarter-acre of grass where they’d raised their families.  They didn’t want to leave their neighborhoods.   Their neighborhood was their “place”.

Of course, in the American version of land use, there are rarely alternative homes within large-lot single-family neighborhoods that are suited to the elder years, so it’s not surprising that the seniors were unable to express their preference for neighborhood over home.  But it’s nonetheless a preference that should be recognized.

Of course, the problem with the preference is home size.  Even if seniors no longer have an interest in dusting and vacuuming 2,500 square feet of house, most neighborhoods don’t offer reasonable alternatives.

However, there are people trying to rectify that deficiency.  In classrooms at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, students are looking for ways to more gracefully accommodate aging.  One idea is to construct duplexes configured so the second unit can be rented out in the early years of marriage, occupied during the child-rearing decades, and then again rented out during the later years of life.

On a similar track, Witold Rybczynski wrote in his book “City Life” about his role in developing Grow Homes, narrow, shared-wall homes that are sold with the upper floors open and unfinished.  The intended buyers are young married couples who can divide and finish the upper stories to suit as their families grow and their specific needs become evident.

Of course, Grow Homes, as their name implies, are more suited to expanding families, but the flexibility to reinvent the upper stories can also meet senior needs, from convalescent rooms to apartments for caretakers to living accommodations for other seniors, creating a “naturally-occurring retirement community” or NORC as I described in a recent post.

Although not widespread, with most of the 10,000 units near Montreal where they were invented, Grow Homes have received wide acclaim.

Also in “City Life”, Rybczynski wrote about the town of Mariemont, Ohio, where the walkable core includes apartments suitable for young couples, small-lot single-family homes for child-rearing, and eldercare facilities, all of which combine into a place where one can live an entire life.  (Before someone else offers this fact, I’ll note that Mariemont was originally intended as whites-only, proving only that our forebearers were better at urban planning than at social justice.)

Accessory Dwelling Units (ADUs), commonly called “granny flats”, can also widen the range of housing options in a suburban neighborhood.  Whether stand-alone units adjoining primary houses or additions to existing homes, such as flats above garages, ADUs can provide a place where empty-nesters can make more suitable homes for their later years.  I’ve heard of seniors who have moved into a newly-added ADU and then rented their former homes to a young family.  (Personally, I once spent 18 months living comfortably in an ADU over a garage in a suburban neighborhood.)

The biggest impediment to ADUs is often impact fees.  Much like small downtown units, as described in my previous post, ADUs can have impact fees that exceed their true impacts, as unenlightened cities try desperately to balance books teetering precariously from the failed suburban experiment.

Lastly, I’ll refer back to an idea I offered in the spring, about reconfiguring under-used neighborhood parks to add, among other elements, small blocks of residential apartments.  At the time, my goal was to raise resources to make the parks more relevant to contemporary life, but a side effect would be creating places for elders, who no longer want their outsized homes, to remain in their long-time neighborhoods.

Adding smaller residential units to a suburban neighborhood doesn’t make it urban.  But it’s one small step in the right direction.  Having defined that step, I’ll write in my next post about adding non-driving mobility to suburbia.

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

Monday, October 6, 2014

Urbanism and Senior Living: Making Downtown Options Happen

In recent posts, I’ve been writing about how walkable urban settings can be good places to live one’s later years.  Most recently, I offered a few insights about senior lifestyles that might find a home in downtowns.

It’s a subject of both general and personal interest to me.  I think having more seniors living downtown will make our downtowns and our cities healthier.  Also, I’m currently assisting a family member in a search for a new senior living situation.  I’m disappointed that there aren’t more urban options for her to consider.

Lastly, I know that there is a time when my wife and I will need alternative housing.  By then, I’m hopeful that more urban options will be open to us.  In thinking about my octogenarian self, I can conceive few prospects more pleasant than the possibility of walking to a hardware store to complete a small household repair or ambling to a bookstore to spend an hour browsing the options.  (Yes, I’m confident that printed books will still exist when I’m in my eighties.)

So, the topic for today is how to facilitate more downtown senior living options.

The path to more downtown senior living options is largely the same as the path to more downtown living options for all demographic sections.  And regular readers know the litany of urbanism obstacles that I often cite.  Gasoline prices that don’t include all environmental and geopolitical costs, so effectively subsidize life at the urban fringe.  Road maintenance costs that aren’t distributed according to actual road usage.  Construction liability law and mortgage practices that make downtown development more difficult.  And many more.

But rather than returning to an abstract description of obstacles to urbanism, I’ll recount an example of a failed senior living project with which I was quite familiar.  To me, it provides a wealth of insights about how cities can do better.

This account below is simplified.  It would take far too long to cover all the nuances.  Nor do I choose to provide the location of the project or the municipality, mostly to avoid arguing over the details.  But the outline of the story is accurate and the lessons to be drawn are valid.

A developer owned an attractive parcel of land, near a viable and active downtown.  The existing pedestrian route between the parcel and downtown wasn’t pleasant, but the city had a plan for a boulevard with wide sidewalks that new residents could use to reach downtown.  The developer, working together with the intended developer of an adjoining parcel, agreed to pay for much of the boulevard construction costs.

In addition to boulevard, the city plan called for a second street to be built within the project site, extending the urban street grid and giving motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists more routes from which to choose.  And the boulevard would include a strong transit component, adding further to senior mobility options.

The developer planned for 200 residential units above sidewalk storefronts.  Eighty units were to be in a senior living facility. Nor did the developer choose to pay affordable housing fees, instead folding affordable housing into his project, side-by-side with market rate housing.

Having a mixture of seniors and others living in the new development was key to urbanism for at least three reasons.  First, it provided a range of sidewalks users, extending the daily period of urban vitality.

Second, it provided a mix of customers, leading the sidewalk businesses to more robust business models.  A café that served lunches to seniors at midday had to also please the 9-to-5 folks looking for an evening meal.

Lastly, it would provide a residential option for families split by old age.  One spouse could live in a senior facility, receiving needed assistance with daily life, while a devoted but healthier spouse could retain an independent life in a small apartment across the street.

I thought the proposal was exceptional.  The city appeared to agree and offered to help facilitate the project.  First, they agreed to help secure the land rights for the boulevard, some of which were still privately held.  Second, in exchange for a concession by the developer on a related land-use issue, they agreed to an expedited entitlement process as permitted under state law.  

And then, it all came unwound.  After a year of delay, and long after the developer’s concession had been banked, the city withdrew their promise of expedited entitlement.

After an unexpected staff shakeup, the city ceased assisting with land acquisition for the boulevard.  Relieved of the city’s jawboning, one property owner promptly increased his asking price by a factor of fifty.  The land was never acquired.

After having previously set reduced impact fees for urban development, the city reversed direction and adopted a new fee schedule that more than doubled the impact fees on the project.

As project finances worsened, the developer suggested the city take a role in the boulevard construction, but the city’s resources were committed to supporting drivable development.

And then the city missed the deadline for a key entitlement step, thereby violating state law and delaying the project several more months.

Nor were lenders enamored of the mixed-use model, particularly the senior housing component, noting that the project fell outside of their lending experience.

Lastly, the economy softened, further undermining finances that were already precarious.  Eventually the project faltered and then failed.  The developer had funded his entitlement expenses by mortgaging the property, so the bank assumed ownership.

In the years since the foreclosure, several buyers have approached the bank.  But none have wanted to resurrect the previous project.  Instead, they approached the city with various alternatives for eliminating the boulevard, dropping the transit, and converting the entire project into senior housing without the sidewalk retail, effectively transforming the site into a standard drivable suburban senior facility that happened to be a few blocks from downtown, but without a real connection to downtown.

To their credit, the city has thus far refused to consider the changes.  But the only result is that the property remains vacant, a reminder of a failed plan to strengthen the urban core and to bring seniors into a walkable setting.

There are many lessons that can be drawn from this story.  The most obvious one is that opportunities must be grabbed.  There seemed to be a city attitude that this project was one of many that would be offered and that the city needn’t make an effort to facilitate the project or even to comply with commitments that they had made.  The assumption was badly wrong, especially considering the senior living element, and deprived the community of a project that would have filled a need.

But the lesson on which I’ll focus today is impact fees.  I expect that most are familiar with the impact fee concept.  They are fees charged for various types of community infrastructure, streets, wastewater treatment, schools, parks, etc., that are set so that the infrastructure can be expanded to serve the new residents.

The general concept of impact fees is unassailable.  It would be unfair if new homes didn’t bear a fair share of the cost of their services.

But there can be a couple of flaws in the calculation of impact fees.  First, the solutions to current deficiencies are often be folded into impact fees, even though the problems must be addressed even if no further homes are ever built.  This is a deceit into which most communities fall, largely because Prop 13 has limited other funding options.  Faced with municipal needs that can’t otherwise be funded, decision-makers find a way to squint and to fold costs into impact fees that shouldn’t be there.

Second is the question of the allocation of impact fees across different types of development.  Let’s consider two residential units, a 3,500 square-foot single-family home on the urban fringe, located on a quarter-acre lot and likely occupied by a family of five, and a 400 square-foot independent living market-rate apartment in an urban core, likely occupied by a senior past the age of driving or a new college graduate trying to get by with a bicycle and transit.

What should be the relative impact fees for the two examples?  My intuition is the smaller urban apartment should have impact fees that are perhaps 30 percent of the large suburban home.  Others may intuit somewhat differently, but I expect that my judgment is within the range that others may set.

But for many cities, the impact fees for the downtown unit are 80 percent or more of the fees for the suburban home.  And cities are usually unwilling to adjust the fees, even when the unreasonableness of the fees is noted.

In essence, urban development is providing a subsidy for suburban development.  And most cities are content with that subsidy because of a prevailing belief that housing starts drive economic progress.

Of course, there are three problems with that belief.  After seventy years of following that model, our cities are teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.  Also, if a development form is so essential, why does it need a subsidy?  Lastly, what is the solution to the environmental issues posed by forcing everyone into cars?   Nonetheless, the belief persists and impedes urban development.

I could run further afield with this subject, but shouldn’t.  I’ve already claimed enough of your attention.  I’ll bring this back to the barn with the two key lessons I’ve tried to impart.  If we want seniors living in downtown, which I endorse heartily, we need to enthusiastically support development proposals that incorporate senior living.  Second chances may not come.  Also, we need to push cities to ensure that they’re not using urban development to subsidize drivable suburban development.

Next time, I’ll begin tackling the other half of the senior living question, how to bring beneficial elements of urbanism to seniors who remain in drivable suburban settings, either because they can’t sell their home for the price they need to live comfortably elsewhere or because their downtown offers few residential options.

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