Sunday, August 28, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of August 28

Last week, I wrote that the number of public meetings with urbanist overtones seemed to be increasing as Labor Day approached.  I may have reached that conclusion too soon, with next week coming up nearly dry.  But perhaps fifth weeks of months are always deficient on meetings that are scheduled on a monthly basis.  And there are still a couple of meetings by which to get involved, along with some longer term opportunities on the horizon.

Meetings this Week

Cotati Design Review Committee, Monday, August 29, 4:30pm, Cotati City Hall, 201 West Sierra Avenue – With much of the surrounding land already occupied by medium-density single family homes and industrial land uses, Cotati will have little opportunity for transit-oriented development around the its new station on SMART rail line.  The Cotati Station Lofts and Apartments, about 1,000 feet away, will be the only TOD, at least in the near term.  (My first foray into home ownership, four decades ago, was a condo about 2,000 feet from a BART station.  I rarely used my car from Monday through Friday, so 1,000 feet isn’t far at all.)

Much of the project is already constructed, but some details are still being finalized, including consideration at this week’s Cotati Design Review Committee meeting.  The agenda is sketchy on details, but it might be interesting meeting for some to attend.

Windsor City Council and Planning Commission, Thursday, September 1, 6:00pm, Windsor Civic Center Council Chambers, 9291 Old Redwood Highway, Building 400 – As I first noted last week, the Windsor City Council and Planning Commission are conducting joint sessions to continue their consideration of the draft 2040 General Plan.  This week, they’ll focus on the transportation and mobility elements.  In the one meeting I attended, I found the discussion high-level and engaging, so encourage others to partake.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 12, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – The Petaluma Planning Commission recently rejected the site design for the proposed Marina Apartments on Lakeville Highway east of Highway 101.  The reasons cited were concerns over building massing and architecture, but disappointments were also expressed about the recent Council decision to relieve the applicant of a requirement to build a segment of multi-use path.

The applicant appealed the Planning Commission rejection.  The appeal will be heard by the City Council on September 12.  Although the primary focus will be the design of the building, it’s likely that the multi-use path will also be a subject of public comment.  Legally, the City Council could re-impose the multi-use path condition, although it’s unlikely barring a public outcry in support of the path.

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 19, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – Petaluma staff will return to the Council for approval to submit a grant application for street improvements.  To best conform to the standards of the granting agency, staff initially proposed a road diet for Petaluma Boulevard South.  The Council, in asking that the item be removed from the Council agenda back in June, asked staff to look at other possible street projects as possible subjects for the grant application.

The Petaluma Boulevard South road diet reportedly remains the preferred project for City staff, setting up a potentially interesting discussion when the matter returns to the Council agenda.

I’ve been working with a group of citizens who are passionate supporters of the Petaluma Boulevard South road diet and have been working toward ensuring that the road diet returns to the Council with a strong public endorsement.  If you wish to help with the effort, please email me.  There is a role for additional helping hands.

Joe Minicozzi Digs into the Municipal Finances of Urbanism, Week of September 26 (note date change), Multiple locations - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 this past January in Santa Rosa.  The two spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Plans are being firmed up for a return visit by Minicozzi about a month from now.

Meetings will be held in Santa Rosa and Windsor, with the possibility of a further meeting elsewhere in Sonoma County.  Details will be noted here as soon as available.

I encourage everyone to block out as much time as possible for Monday, September 26 through Wednesday, September 28, both to listen to Minicozzi and to build relationships with other North Bay urbanists.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increasing density around BART stations.

Lots of opportunities to get involved.  Please grab at least one and hopefully more.

When I next write, I won’t write.  Instead, I’ll turn this space over to an urban planner trained in bicycle transportation who will write about road diets and bicycles.  I had the same expectation a week ago, but I’ve been assured that it’ll work out this time.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Free-Range Kids: Part 1, Framing the Discussion

Children at play in Spokane
In my last post, I argued that warnings to be alert to children on back-to-school day were three months too late because more children are on the street during the summer.

But in the course of making that argument, I acknowledged that, regardless of the season, there are fewer children on the street than when I was young.  (Yeah, that probably makes me a curmudgeon, but sometimes even curmudgeons are accurate about the shortfalls of the modern world.)

This reduction in the numbering of roaming children is often described as the loss of “free-range kids”.

Over the years of attending urbanist conferences, I’ve heard several people tell similar stories of the multi-generational loss of childhood autonomy.  If I recall correctly, one of the speakers was Sarah Susanka of “Not So Big House” fame.  However, being unable at the moment to put my fingers on the exact details of Susanka’s or others’ stories, I’ll offer a composite of the stories I’ve heard.

When the speaker’s great-grandfather was a child, he was allowed to bicycle six miles, with sandwiches in a knapsack, to spend a day fishing.

The pond became off-limits to the next generation, but the speaker’s grandfather was still allowed to pedal into the township a couple of miles away to gather with friends.

The speaker’s father could only venture along the length of the road where the family lived.

And the speaker wasn’t allowed to leave the frontyard without parental supervision. 

I suspect that many readers can trace similarly reducing circles in their family histories.

In my case, my father would often tell the story of wandering his small hometown all day, playing with childhood friends and making his own lunch, while his mother ran the downtown soda fountain.  (In his later years, he also came to realize that the entire community had been watching over him.  Whenever he misbehaved, the story would be quickly relayed to his mother at the soda fountain, with judgment rendered before he could return with his side of the story.  He didn’t get away with much, but he felt protected.)

I didn’t have quite that much freedom as a child, but wasn’t far behind.  I often rode my bike to visit friends, even if it meant crossing a busy street.  And I recall being given a few dollars at age ten to bike three-quarters of a mile to buy a missing ingredient for dinner, an errand that also included buying a few baseball cards from a vending machine in front of the store.

Having no children, the story ends with me except to the extent I can observe the world around me.  And I can report never seeing a ten-year-old child ride up on a bicycle to buy groceries at the store in my neighborhood.  (Nor are baseball cards still sold in vending machines.)

The loss of free-range childhoods matters to urbanists because, along with children who never leave the house, an antithesis of free-range children is children who are driven everywhere.  Two major elements of urbanism are the sufficient closeness of the various needs of life such that walking and bicycling are the superior transportation options and streets that are balanced between drivers, pedestrians, and bicyclists such that the latter two feel safe.  Having Mom back an SUV out of a three-car garage to drive Junior to a play date a block and a half away works against both of those elements.

Furthermore, the lost of free-range childhoods should matter to all of us because childhood freedom to explore, whether ideas or surroundings, seems to correlate with greater creativity in adulthood.  With creativity being perhaps the most valuable commodity that U.S. offers to the global economy, anything that lessens creativity should be a cause for alarm.

Okay, if free-range kids are good on multiple levels, why have they become scarce?  Several reasons can be given, starting with increased attractions at home such as video games, better televisions, and the internet and over-estimated stranger danger.

But the reason I want to note today is enforcement of cultural norms.   Many citizens are willing to call authorities if they believe children are being given more freedom than appropriate, making parents timid in their parenting decisions.

Let me give another example from my own life.  From kindergarten through third grade, I attended an elementary school a half-mile from my home.  The walk was along a moderately-used local street.  A guard-assisted crossing of a collector street was also required.  There was little sidewalk, so most of the walk was on paved and unpaved shoulders.

My parents thought it was fine if I walked to school, but not on my own, at least for first grade.  So they set me up with a nearby third-grade girl.  The two of us walked together along the shoulder, a six-year-old and an eight-year-old, as cars drove past us.  (And yes, there was a certain thrill in showing up for first grade in the company of an older woman.)

My parents weren’t pushing the envelope and I don’t recall anyone ever questioning their judgment.  It was how things were in 1959.

It’s very different today.  A Washington, D.C. couple who believe in free-range kids have been investigated multiple times by the police and child services for allowed their ten-year-old and six-year-old to explore their neighborhood by themselves, including a recent incident during which the children were held in the back of a police cruiser for three hours.  

As the writer of the linked article in CityLab correctly notes, specific circumstances matter greatly.  Allowing a six-year-old to walk by himself to play in a neighborhood park with friends is very different than sending the same child for a quart of milk at a convenience store that has been robbed three times in recent weeks.

But our default has too become excessive caution and that mindset undermines our children and our cities.

It needn’t be this way.  The culture in Japan expects children to venture out on their own at a much younger age.  There is even a television show that films two- and three-year-olds heading out to complete their first family errands.

Even if the U.S. can’t fully emulate the Japanese model, we should at least ponder it.

This is a rich topic to which I’ll return as soon as possible.  But my next post will be another summary of upcoming opportunities to publicly espouse urbanism and that post will be followed by a discussion of road diets.  Lots of good stuff coming up.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Monday, August 22, 2016

Stay Alert for Youthful Users of the Street All Year Long

Harmar Elementary School
in Harmer, Ohio
I promised a guest writer today, an expert on road diets.  Unfortunately, he’s still hard at work on his post, so you’re instead stuck with me.  The road diet post, or hopefully two, will run next week.

But it’s okay that today’s authorship reverted to me because I have a topic about which I want to vent.

Most schools in my town reopened last week.  And, as seems to happen every year, many wrote warnings to drivers about being aware of children on their way to school.

Obviously, I’ll fully in support of not running over students.  But isn’t the warning mistimed?

I can’t speak to everyone’s youth, but let me share a fairly typical day from the summer between my sixth and seventh grade school years.

After a slow start to the day, usually cereal while watching morning reruns of “The Andy Griffith Show” and “The Dick Van Dyke Show”, I’d join a group of boys near the north end of my block for games played in the street and involving bat and ball.  We never had enough bodies for a full game of baseball, plus we had a grouchy neighbor who complained if we got too noisy, but we have a variety of alternatives with which to entertain ourselves until the early afternoon.

As the day got warmer, I’d often ride my bicycle to the nearby pool club, where I’d spend an hour or two hanging out and getting wet.

In the evening, after dinner, I’d sometimes join a different group of youths on the south end of my block for more street play, often a variant of softball that wasn’t high level, but was enough to keep me outside until the streetlights came on.

Now, compare that to my routine when school resumed.  Walk sleepily and sullenly to the corner to await a school bus.  Reverse in the afternoon, perhaps with less sleepiness.

Wouldn’t it have been ridiculous to warn drivers to be alert to my twice daily half-block walks during the school year while letting me play ball in the street and wander all over my neighborhood, on foot and on bicycle, all summer long with nary a warning to drivers?

Some will note that there are fewer children out and about on their own these days, with streetball games almost never seen.  They’re right on both points, which is a separate subject worthy of its own discussion, but I’ll also note that walking and bicycling to school are at historic lows, with many more students getting rides to school.

I know this will be only one data point, but I think it’s a good one.  My wife and I live on a moderately busy street.  Our home is nearly equidistant and within walking distance of three schools, a high school, junior high, and elementary school.  And we see more youths walking and bicycling during the summer than we do when school is in session.

The first day of school warnings are a clichéd remnant of a time that never was.  They’re not a bad thing, but the more useful reminder is to be aware of all street users on foot and on bicycle year round.

Okay, grumble complete.

However, the grumble had the upside of broaching the fact that fewer children are using the streets on their own these days, a problem that many describe as the loss of free-range childhoods.  It’s the topic that’s important to urbanism and into which I’ll dig next time, while still awaiting the road diet posts.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, August 19, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of August 21

The number of North Bay public meetings with urbanist overtones seems to be increasing as we approach Labor Day.  Hopefully this will portend a winter of paradigm shifting.  It’s time to get onboard and to begin making your voice heard.  Also, with issues such as municipal elections and the road diet in Petaluma looming, there are also chances for neighborhood outreach.  If you want to make a difference in the world, there are opportunities to do so.

Meetings this Week

Cotati Planning Commission and Rohnert Park Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Monday August 22, 5:30pm, City Council Chamber, Rohnert Park City Hall,  130 Avram Avenue – A few weeks back, I puzzled in this space about a joint meeting that had been scheduled and then cancelled involving public bodies of the adjoining cities of Cotati and Rohnert Park.  I couldn’t imagine what topic could have been of joint interest.  I now have my answer.  They would have assembled for a study session of the “Bicycle and Pedestrian Network Adjacent/Interconnected Facilities.”

And the previously canceled meeting has now been rescheduled for Monday.

Given the adjoining boundaries of the two cities and the moderately continuous land-use pattern, I think a joint study session is a great idea, applaud the two cities for their foresight, and encourage the interested members of the two communities to participate.

Petaluma Planning Commission, Tuesday, August 23, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street – I’m not sure I can truly characterize this as an urbanism issue, but I’m also not sure that it isn’t.  To buttress attendance, the downtown Petaluma movie theatre is asking permission to begin selling beer and wine to moviegoers.

The land-use entitlement angle is sufficiently complex that the Petaluma planning staff had to discourse at length before recommending approval.

But I find the urbanist issues even more complex.  On one hand, I want the theatre to thrive because theatres can be important elements of downtowns, adding to sidewalk vitality.  On the other hand, I remain unconvinced that the ability to buy a beer will attract more patrons.  Also, movie theatres are a great place for youth to learn socialization away from parental oversight and I fear that adding alcohol to the mix, even if the youth aren’t the ones consuming, could be counterproductive to those learning experiences.

And on a personal level, I’m not eager to have more people climbing over me mid-movie to visit the restroom.

I’ll likely attend this meeting to see if I can find personal clarity.

Windsor City Council and Planning Commission, Tuesday, August 23, 5:30pm, Windsor Civic Center Council Chambers, 9291 Old Redwood Highway, Building 400 – Windsor, in a joint session of the City Council and Planning Commission, will continue their consideration of the draft 2040 General Plan.  This week, they’ll focus on the economic development and public facilities elements.

General plan study sessions will never be riveting experiences, but I attended the study session earlier this week on land use and community design and found it unexpectedly compelling.  Windsor has been more aggressive in adopting urbanist concepts than many North Bay cities and it shows in both the urban fabric around the civic complex and in the general discussion.

To be sure, there are still folks asking for down-zonings because they claim the market won’t support higher densities, but the down-zonings for which they’re asking are less extreme than similar requests in other communities and the tenor of the discussion seems more urban, and urbane, in tone.

This doesn’t mean that Windsor has reached financial stability through urbanism.  As a local urbanist assured me as I was taking my leave, Windsor still has a long ways to go.  But they’ve already reached a higher level of urbanism and a higher level of debate, both of which were enjoyable to observe.

I won’t make the meeting this coming week, but encourage others to attend who may need to have flagging urbanist spirits raised.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 12, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – The Petaluma Planning Commission recently rejected the site design for the proposed Marina Apartments on Lakeville Highway east of Highway 101.  The reason was concern over the building massing and architecture, but disappointments were also expressed about the recent Council decision to relieve the applicant of a requirement to build a segment of multi-use path.

The applicant appealed the Planning Commission rejection.  The appeal will be heard by the City Council on September 12.  Although the primary focus will be the design of the building, it’s likely that the multi-use path will also be a subject of public comment.  Legally, the City Council could re-impose the multi-use path condition, although it’s unlikely barring a public outcry in support of the path.

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 19, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – Petaluma staff will return to the Council for approval to submit a grant application for street improvements.  To best conform to the standards of the granting agency, staff initially proposed a road diet for Petaluma Boulevard South.  The Council, by directing that the item be removed from the Council agenda, effectively asked staff to look at other possible street projects as subjects for the possible grant application.

The Petaluma Boulevard South road diet reportedly remains the preferred project for City staff, setting up a potentially interesting discussion when the matter returns to the Council agenda on September 19.

I’ve been working with a group of citizens who are passionate supporters of the Petaluma Boulevard South road diet and have been working toward ensuring that the road diet returns to the Council with a strong public endorsement.  If you wish to help with the effort, please email me.  There is a role for additional helping hands.

Joe Minicozzi Digs into the Municipal Finances of Urbanism, Week of September 19, Multiple locations - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 this past January in Santa Rosa.  The two spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Conversations are underway for a return visit by Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year.

Exact dates and meeting locations are still being developed, but I encourage everyone to block out much of the week.  Minicozzi’s message could have profound consequences for North Bay cities.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increasing density around BART stations.

Fun stuff coming up, with lots of opportunities to get involved.  Please grab at least one and hopefully more.

When I next write, I won’t write.  Instead, I’ll turn this space over to an urban planner trained in bicycle transportation who will write about road diets and bicycles.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Shrinking Role of Retail in Planning Cities

Office over retail mixed-use in downtown Napa
In 1962, when I was a nine-year-old living in south Sacramento, Macy’s announced plans to build a store in downtown Sacramento.  It was big news for the adults in my world.  It was also big news for Sacramento, a point of new-found pride in a town that often thought of itself as falling short in comparisons with San Francisco and Los Angeles.

I wasn’t quite sure I knew what Macy’s was.  I doubt I’ve yet seen “Miracle on 34th Street”.  But I sensed the buzz of excitement about Macy’s coming to town.  Retail stores mattered.

I thought back on those days of innocence this week as word came out that Macy’s would close another 100 stores to instead focus on its internet businesses.

Macy’s isn’t a factor in most walkable urban districts, but the message still stands.  Retail stores are shrinking in importance and shrinking quickly.  And it’s not just the old-line department stores like Macy’s.

The failure of enclosed malls is well-known, with photos of derelict malls rivaling abandoned industrial plants as ruin porn.

Downtown retail is increasingly antique stores and boutiques rather the diapers and canned soup that make up daily shopping lists.

Many strip malls have storefronts lined with butcher paper and leasing signs out front.

The new generation of open malls, whether the conventional configuration with giant parking lots fronting on supersized strip malls or the downtown-emulating lifestyle centers, struggle to fill their space.

Even residential over retail mixed-used, the backbone of many walkable urbanist plans, often can’t find enough tenants to fill the retail space created.

We needn’t like this direction, much as many bemoaned the abrupt loss of a great number of newspapers a few years back.  But lamenting the shrinking role of retail won’t make a difference, just as it didn’t with the newspaper downward spiral.

Instead, our role is to accept the inevitability of the change and to adjust to it.  (Earlier this week, I listened as the Windsor City Council and Planning Commission debated whether to give developers the option to substitute horizontal mixed-use for vertical.  I agreed with those who argued to hold firm on vertical, but at the same time wondered if they weren’t fighting over a corpse.)

Petaluma had the dual good fortune of updating their downtown development code just as the slide in retail was becoming evident and of having a far-sighted planning firm, Opticos Design, doing the update.  As a result, the amount of required sidewalk retail was reduced to levels that will hopefully be more consistent with future demand.

The reduction of sidewalk retail has urban design implications.  Although a level of pedestrian interest must be maintained to promote walkability, with interest being one of Jeff Speck’s four keys to walkability, the relationship between the sidewalk and a home is fundamentally different than between a sidewalk and a store.  (Long ago, I noted some examples at BART TOD projects.)  Opticos understood this and gave good design direction in the Station Area Masterplan.

Macy’s isn’t coming back nor is the number of local bookstores likely to rebound.  The future will belong to those who quickly accept this new reality and adjust their planning to accommodate it.

When I next write, it will be to offer my weekly list of opportunities to get involved in the public advocacy for urbanism.  As fall creeps closer, the list is beginning to grow.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Cost of a Car-Oriented World: Suspended Licenses Don't Mean What They Once Did

Today, I’ll write about suspended drivers’ licenses.  It’s a topic that may seem unconnected to urbanism, but the linkages are surprisingly robust.

A few days ago, there was a major traffic accident on the freeway just north of my town.  It was a chain reaction that began when the driver of a car carrier, in a moment of inattention, hit the car in front of him.  Quickly, eight vehicles were involved.

Luckily, no one was killed, with the worst injury being a broken arm.  But the freeway, a major commute route, was closed for hours.  The cost in lost time was substantial.

A day later, it was announced by the Highway Patrol that the driver of the car carrier had a suspended license.  The outcry was predictable, with the public wondering how a driver with a suspended license had been employed and what should be done to keep him off the road.

Thirty years ago, those might have been good questions.  Today, not so much.

In California today, seventeen percent of all drivers are carrying suspended licenses.  Seventeen percent!  In the eight-vehicle pileup noted above, there is nearly a 75 percent that a second driver also had a suspended license.

The proliferation of suspended licenses has roots in the drivable suburban paradigm.  I’ll connect the dots below.

As I’ve written many times, drivable suburbia was a theoretical experiment imposed on the U.S. in the halcyon days of economic growth following World War II, an experiment that soon ran into financial trouble.  The planners who had initiated the experiment recognized the failure and began to argue to abandon it, but the public, enthralled by single-family homes on large lots and wide boulevards, refused to let go.

As the public then became disenchanted with the costs of drivable suburbia, and began looking for villains everywhere except in the mirror, their eyes soon lit upon government and its assumed inefficiencies.   Eager to stop the presumed malefactor, property tax limitations soon began to proliferate.  In California, it was Proposition 13.  In other states, different names applied.

With property taxes constrained to less than the amount required to sustain the land-use pattern, policy-makers looked elsewhere for revenue.  (Over the years, a few office-holders pointed to the underlying problem of land-use and other costs of the modern world, but those troublemakers were soon flushed from public life.)  The citizenry quickly sniffed out attempts to bypass the intent of property tax limitation and imposed further measures limiting many other taxes and fees. But one item that wasn’t constrained was traffic fines.

The result was predictable.   The amounts of traffic fines soon grew, in many cases outstripping the ability of lower-income folks to pay.  And that non-payment became a further source of revenue with various penalties, fees, and license restrictions attached until rules were in place such that a $300 speeding ticket could soon became a $1,000 debt and a suspended license, both of which were swords hanging over the financial security of lower-income homes.

But that’s only part of the story.  The drivable suburban model also resulted in many homes, including the homes of low-income families, being built in places where daily tasks couldn’t be easily accomplished on foot or bike and where the density was too low for transit to work.  So a resident in one of those homes, in order to reach work with the hope of someday being able to pay the accumulating fines, had to ignore any license suspensions in order to reach work or, as in the case of the car carrier driver, to work at all.

It’s hard to imagine a more perverse scenario than one in which people are forced into their cars and then threatened with bankruptcy and jail time as the inescapable consequences of driving miscues, many of which are relatively minor.

But it’s the scenario that we created and have continued to perpetuate.

And even then there is one more aspect of the problem to be noted.  In communities dominated by low-income households, the percent of residents with pending arrest warrants, many related to unpaid traffic fines, can become staggering.  In Ferguson, Missouri at the time of the unrest, some estimate that over 75 percent of the residents had pending arrest warrants, a fact that had to increase the anger shown during the long nights of confrontation.

So the recent flare-up of antagonism between police and non-white communities has some of its roots in the financial failure of suburbia and the desperate attempt to find funds to prop up the failed experiment.

I recently had someone suggest to me that the problem could be avoided if people would just drive within the law.  If the epidemic of suspended licenses was due to DUI arrests, I’d agree.  But only 15 percent of suspended licenses are the result of DUIs.  The remainder are the result of more minor offenses, speeding, expired tags, rolling through stop signs, of which many of us are regularly guilty.  The difference is some of us can pay the fine, considering it an inconvenience, while others are pushed into a hole leading to ever larger fines, suspended licenses, and the threat of an arrest.  

In the aftermath of Ferguson, the depth of the problem with traffic fines was recognized and many states, including California, implemented programs to lift license suspensions.  They were laudable efforts, but backsliding is inevitable.  The only real solution is to admit the failure of suburbia and to return our communities to a more financially sustainable model in which we needn’t threaten ruin to households that dare to drive a car even when a car is necessary to survive.

It wouldn’t be an easy transition, but the time is long past for us to commit to it.

When I next write, I’ll look at some news from the world of retail that has implications for urbanism.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, August 12, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of August 14

As we move into the heart of August, the near-term opportunities for urbanist involvement at public meetings remain scarce, but the September calendar remains promising.  Also, with issues such as municipal elections and the road diet in Petaluma looming, there are chances for neighborhood outreach.  If you want to make a difference in the world, there are always opportunities to do so.

Meetings this Week

Friends of SMART, Wednesday, August 17, 11:30am – Friends of SMART is a citizens group that was instrumental in getting the SMART Train ballot measure passed and continues to fill an oversight role as SMART moves toward revenue service.  I’ve been involved with FoS for more than a year and find them a passionate group, focused on the role SMART can play in the North Bay and on what the next SMART-type rail expansion should be.

If anyone is interested in attending the FoS  Board meeting, let me know and I’ll arrange an invitation.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board, Wednesday, August 17, 1:30pm, 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Petaluma – The agenda for the SMART Board meeting still hasn’t been announced, but with the testing of the full schedule looming ever closer, to be closely followed by revenue service, the agenda will likely include items of urbanist interest.

Petaluma Recreation Music and Park Commission, Wednesday, August 17, 7:00pm, Petaluma Community Center, 320 N. McDowell Boulevard (Note: Not City Hall!) - Sunset Park is an odd little park, hiding in plain sight between the historic Silk Mill and Lakeville Street.  I suspect that many Petalumans don’t even realize that it’s a city park, but they’re wrong.

Furthermore, the park has an upcoming opportunity to take a bigger role in civic life.  As a part of the retasking of the Silk Mill into a hotel, the developer is proposing revisions to Sunset Park.  Should the park serve as the frontyard of the hotel, as a neighborhood park for the children living in the nearby homes, as a waystation for bicyclists traveling Lakeville, or as some combination of the three?

That will be the question in front of the Recreation Music and Park Commission Wednesday evening.  If you have an opinion, please come and share.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 12, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – The Petaluma Planning Commission recently rejected the site design for the proposed Marina Apartments on Lakeville Highway east of Highway 101.  The reason was concern over the building massing and architecture, but disappointments were also expressed about the recent Council decision to relieve the applicant of a requirement to build a segment of multi-use path.

The applicant appealed the Planning Commission rejection.  The appeal will be heard by the City Council on September 12.  Although the primary focus will be the design of the building, it’s likely that the multi-use path will also be a subject of public comment.  Legally, the City Council could re-impose the multi-use path condition, although it’s unlikely barring a major public outcry in support of the path.

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 19, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – Petaluma staff will return to the Council for approval to submit a grant application for street improvements.  To best conform to the standards of the granting agency, staff initially proposed a road diet for Petaluma Boulevard South.  The Council, by directing that the item be removed from the Council agenda, effectively asked staff to look at other possible street projects as subjects for the possible grant application.

The Petaluma Boulevard South road diet reportedly remains the preferred project for City staff, setting up a potentially interesting discussion when the matter returns to the Council agenda on September 19.

I’ve been working with a group of citizens who are passionate supporters of the Petaluma Boulevard South road diet and have been working toward ensuring that the road diet returns to the Council with a strong public endorsement.

Joe Minicozzi Digs into the Municipal Finances of Urbanism, Week of September 19, Multiple locations - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 this past January in Santa Rosa.  The two spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Conversations are underway for a return visit by Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year.

Exact dates and meeting locations are still being developed, but I encourage everyone to block out much of the week.  Minicozzi’s message could have profound consequences for North Bay cities.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increasing density around BART stations.

Even with the paucity of opportunities in the coming week, there are still lots of opportunities to get involved.  Please grab at least one and hopefully more.

When I next write, I’ll revisit the connection between suspended drivers’ licenses and urbanism.  It may seem an odd link, but it’s very real.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

“Twenty is Plenty” is More than a Clever Rhyme

The subject promised for today has been shoved aside in favor of a subject that abruptly gained urgency.

I’ve previously written about the “Twenty is Plenty” movement.  Adherents promote the argument that most vehicular speeds within towns should be limited to twenty miles per hour.  It’s a crusade that has gained a foothold in Europe, with some towns fully implementing the standard.

In the U.S., there has been less progress, but still some notable successes.  Although not all the way down to the target speed, New York City has dropped many street speed limits to twenty-five miles per hour in response to Twenty is Plenty supporters.  (Update: Hours after publishing this post, I came across news that Boston asked the state to allow them to adjust to a widespread twenty miles per hours.  The state allowed them to go with twenty-five miles per hour.)

It’s easy to think of the movement in an idealistic, bloodless way as creating better walkable places where cars are made less threatening.  But there is a real, flesh-and-blood public safety side to the concept.  I had a front row seat to observe that reality earlier today.

I was returning home, still feeling good about an extended lunch during which a companion and I hashed out strategies for the upcoming city council race.  I was driving on a major arterial in my town, at the far end of the road segment shown above.  There are two travel lanes in each direction, along with a center turn pocket.

As I approached a crosswalk often used by pedestrians, a long line of cars queued up to turn left partially blocked my view.  I couldn’t see if someone might be waiting to cross the street from the near left corner.

Consistent with the law and with common sense, I slowed to check.  Sure enough, there was a young family waiting to cross from left to right, a mother with an infant strapped to her chest, two toddlers being led by their hands, and a dog on a leash.  One of the toddlers was a blond girl of perhaps three.

Seeing me stop and with no traffic in the opposing direction, the mother began to lead her family across.  As she neared my car, I looked in my right hand mirror.  A car was quickly coming up in the right lane, above the speed limit, without visibility of the family on foot, and with no apparent intention to stop.

My options were limited.  In the seconds that were available, I had no way to attract the attention of the other driver.  I considered waving at the mother from my front seat, but wasn’t sure she’d see me through the windshield in the early afternoon sun.  So l defaulted to the only remaining option and leaned on my horn.

The mother looked up in puzzlement and pulled back slightly on her children’s hands as a dusty blue Ford Focus sped through the crosswalk, perhaps three feet from the little girl.

I’m not sure my actions made the difference.  It’s possible that the child would have been still been missed, although by a lesser margin, if I hadn’t spotted the onrushing car and hit my horn.  Regardless, the situation was all too real and I’m still shaken hours later.

At this point, many would facilely note the need to remain alert to pedestrians and think they’ve done all they can.  That response is useless.

To begin, the driver probably doesn’t read this blog or any other materials promoting traffic safety.  And even in the unlikely event that he does come across these words, I doubt he’ll see himself in the story told being told.  Based on how he continued to drive above the speed limit as he sped away, I don’t think he ever saw the little girl, even as she flashed by his driver’s side window.

Also, although the actions of this particular driver were beyond the pale, we all make mistakes.  Perhaps an engrossing conversation with a passenger keeps a driver from picking up the clues that pedestrians might be present.  And even at the posted speed limit of twenty-five miles per hour, the results can still be disastrous.

No solution is perfect, but the best approach is a system of changes to streets, including narrower lane widths, bulb-outs, and other traffic calming changes, that would pull traffic speeds down to twenty miles per hour.  Not only are pedestrians struck at lower speeds markedly more likely to survive, but drivers have more time to react to visual clues and to avert accidents.

Some will note that California state law doesn’t allow arterials to have speed limits of twenty miles per hour and that the city doesn’t have the resources to make the street modifications to slow traffic.  To which I can only reply that they haven’t seen a smiling toddler, happily tugging at her mother’s hand in one moment and nearly tossed into the air by a speeding car in the next.  Once that image has been seared into memory, impediments like state law and diminished municipal coffers seem less important.

Twenty is Plenty may be difficult to implement, but the alternative is even harder.

P.S. Through the vagaries of traffic flow, the blue Ford Focus was stopped by a traffic light a few blocks further ahead.  Although I couldn’t get close enough to see the face of the driver, I was able to get a license plate number.  I’ll forward it shortly to the local police, along with this story.

When I next write, I’ll update my list of upcoming chances for community involvement toward the furtherance of urbanism.  Perhaps there will be a chance to argue for Twenty is Plenty.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Towns Can Overbuild More than Infrastructure

Kannapolis City Hall
In writing about the best moments from CNU 24, the annual gathering of urbanists held in Detroit earlier this year, I quoted Andres Duany on the role of public buildings, “Urbanist codes should cover residential, commercial, and office buildings, but not public buildings.  It’s in public buildings where architects should be free to depict the grandeur of civilization and civic life.”

Petaluma City Hall
It’s a lesson that Kannapolis, North Carolina seems to have taken to heart, perhaps too much so and definitively contrary to the urban planning approach espoused by Duany.

I’ll start with the backstory.  In the past few days, I’ve returned from an annual vacation I take with two old friends.  Every year, we pick a different region of the country to visit and then lay out a schedule of minor league ballgames to anchor our itinerary.  This year, our destination of choice was Appalachia, with ballgames in Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

But evening ballgames aren’t enough to fill our days, so we’ve evolved into a daily routine of country breakfasts, brewpubs, and local sights.

We’re tolerant of each other’s personal interests, so the choice of local sights is usually driven by individual areas of fascination.  This year alone, we toured a pair of Revolutionary War battlegrounds, engaged in an extended conversation with a park ranger on the nuances of firing older artillery, peered through fences at the moldering remains of one of the largest textile mills in the country, and wandered through the Bristol Motor Speedway.

Because of my interests, we take regular tours of downtown cores and nearby environs, looking for evidence of walkability and sidewalk vitality, often in vain.

Thus, we found ourselves about a week ago driving through downtown Kannapolis, North Carolina, 30 miles northeast of Charlotte.  We were in town for an evening ballgame between the Charlestown RiverDogs and the Kannapolis Intimidators.  (If you need to look up the origin of the latter team nickname, you’re not a NASCAR fan.  Heck, I’m not a NASCAR fan and I knew it.)

There were a few Kannapolis few blocks that I liked, with shoulder-to-shoulder buildings tight to the back of sidewalk, but otherwise the development pattern was sparse with the result that even that walkable portion of downtown was devoid of activity.  (The high heat and humidity of a summer afternoon in North Carolina could have also played a role.)

Having seen what we could of walkable urbanism in Kannapolis, we were about to turn around when we came across the first of four incongruously large Greek Revival buildings, seemingly plopped down at random on open land a few blocks beyond downtown.  The first three were research buildings for the University of North Carolina.  The fourth was the Kannapolis City Hall.

Later research found that all four had been based to some extent of the largesse of an heir to the Fieldcrest Cannon (think towels) fortune.  The buildings occupied the site of the former Fieldcrest Cannon textile mill.

As we stopped and considered the four massive and seemingly out-of-place buildings, my feelings were mixed.

To begin, considering solely the buildings, I liked the architecture.  It was solid and predictable, lacking whimsy, but felt comfortable in a paternal, steadfast way.

But I strongly questioned the siting of the buildings, particularly for a city hall.  UNC might have good reasons for large buildings remote from the already thin urban fabric.  But I didn’t think it was how city halls should be sited.  To go back to Duany’s words, if a city hall is to “depict the grandeur of civilization and civic life”, it must be located where people come across it on a daily basis, not on the straggling outskirts of town.

But even more than the siting, I questioned the size of the city hall.  I don’t claim to know the architectural programming for the building, but I know that it serves a town with a population of 44,000.  Compare it to the city hall that serves my town with a population of 59,000.  (Both are pictured above.)

Admittedly, I don’t find much merit in the architecture of my town’s city hall, which always struck me as the result of a city council giving a charity commission to a down-on-his-luck elementary school architect.  Also, there are several administrative functions, including water department, transit, advance planning, economic development, and police, that my town spins off to other locations, but may be housed within the Kannapolis structure.

But even if all those functions were moved downtown and attached to the current city hall in my town, it still wouldn’t come close to the Kannapolis City Hall in size.  And that’s before considering that my town has 15,000 more residents than Kannapolis.

Overall, the feeling was that Kannapolis, using the largesse of the Fieldcrest Cannon heir as a springboard, had built more structure than they truly needed and perhaps more that they could afford to maintain.  StrongTowns often writes about communities that are seduced by capital infusions from higher levels of government or developers to build or to accept ownership of more infrastructure than they can afford to maintain.  It would seem that the same phenomenon could be true for municipal buildings, with the Kannapolis city hall as an example.

And then there’s the $30 million cost of the structure, or almost $700 per resident in a town where I’d guess $700 per person is considered real money, as it is in most places.  Perhaps Kannapolis was in dire needs of new facilities and some expenditure was essential, but $30 million seems excessive in a time when many cities, overburdened by infrastructure, are struggling to remain financially afloat, a fate that may soon come calling on Kannapolis

Also, the city hall siting undermines a goal being pursued by the city, the laudable goal of revitalizing downtown.  The city is acquiring downtown properties with the goal of repositioning them to create a more active urban core, a path that I wish more cities could find a way to follow.  Putting the city hall in that urban core should have been an element of that plan, but somehow wasn’t.

In our short visit, there was no opportunity to chat with municipal officials or local citizens, but I can’t imagine any explanation that would make the siting or size of the new city hall rational.  I departed disheartened.

Before closing, I’ll give a further flavor of our baseball travels relative to the Kannapolis experience.  One member of the traveling party admitted to being spooked by the new buildings.  If felt to him as the buildings had been dropped haphazardly by aliens, aliens who might still be hanging out nearby.  He was eager to move on.

Another traveler had long acknowledged a fear of clowns, especially ones that appear unexpectedly.

Thus, I could joke for the remainder of the trip about clowns popping out from behind the columns on outsized porticos and be assured of having both of my traveling companions shudder.  It made the last few days of travel quite enjoyable.

When I next write, my subject will be the critical mass for walkable urbanism.  Two articles have recently crossed my desk that touch upon the struggles of isolated projects that are otherwise touted as walkably urban.  To me, the role of critical mass should be obvious to the informed observer, but many seem to miss the point.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Friday, August 5, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of August 7

I returned yesterday from two weeks of travel, filled with enthusiasm to repopulate the event calendar below and to resume my efforts to create an ever larger cadre of urbanist advocates.

And then I checked the civic calendars for the North Bay cities near my town.  I found exactly zero meetings of urbanist interest next week.  Perhaps it’s the nature of early August, but it was disheartening.

Luckily, Petaluma Urban Chat is scheduled for next week.  Otherwise the near-term prospects are bleak, although there is a hope for more meetings as the month progresses.

Also, there are some intriguing September meetings to anticipate.

Meetings this Week

Petaluma Urban Chat, Wednesday, August 10, 7:00pm, Aqus Café, 2nd and H Streets, Petaluma - Petaluma Urban Chat meets monthly to discuss land use activities in Petaluma and to consider  strategies to make North Bay cities resilient, environmentally sustainable, and financially stable.  At the upcoming meeting, ongoing urbanist issues in Petaluma will be discussed, such as the road diet that has been proposed for Petaluma Boulevard South.

Meetings in the Weeks and Months to Follow

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 12, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street – The Petaluma Planning Commission recently rejected the site design for the proposed Marina Apartments on Lakeville Highway east of Highway 101.  The reason was concern over the building massing and architecture, but disappointments were also expressed about the recent Council decision to relieve the applicant of a condition of approval to build a segment of multi-use path.

The applicant appealed the Planning Commission rejection.  The appeal will be heard by the City Council on September 12.  Although the primary focus will be the design of the building, it’s likely that the multi-use path will be the subject of public comment.  Legally, the City Council could re-impose the multi-use path condition, but I consider that unlikely.

Petaluma City Council, Monday, September 19, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 111 English Street –
Petaluma staff will soon return to the Council for approval to submit a grant application for street improvements.  To best conform to the standards of the granting agency, staff initially proposed a road diet for Petaluma Boulevard South.  The Council, by directing that the item be removed from the Council agenda, effectively asked staff to look at other possible street projects as targets for the possible grant application.

The Petaluma Boulevard South road diet reportedly remains the preferred project for City staff, setting up a potentially interesting discussion when the subject returns to the Council agenda on September 19.

I’ve been working with a group of citizens who are passionate supporters of the Petaluma Boulevard South road diet and have been working toward ensuring that the road diet returns to the Council with a strong public endorsement.

Joe Minicozzi Digs into the Municipal Finances of Urbanism, Week of September 19, Multiple locations - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 this past January in Santa Rosa.  The two spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the data that supports the theory.  Conversations are underway for a return visit by Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year.

Exact dates and meeting locations are still being developed, but I encourage everyone to block out much of the week.  Minicozzi’s message could have profound consequences for North Bay cities.

Rail~Volution, October 10-12, Hyatt Regency, San Francisco – The leading conference on the use of rail for community building is coming to San Francisco this fall.  The coming role of SMART in the North Bay will surely be discussed, as will the increasing density around BART stations.

Even with the paucity of opportunities in the coming week, there are still lots of opportunities to get involved.  Please grab at least one and hopefully more.

Next time, I’ll share some thoughts about the physical size and presence of city halls.  While traveling, I came across a city hall that I need to share.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Another Look at My Hometown: A Snail Would Move Quicker

Downtown Carmichael
I’ve previously written a couple of times about my hometown of Carmichael, near Sacramento.  Once I noted its supposed turn to urbanism that, while laudable, seemed wrongly focused.  Later, I bade it farewell as my mother sold the family home and moved away.

 But hometowns, even those that are the antithesis of walkable urbanism, can set their hooks deep.  I continued to wonder about what was happening there.  And I never got around to unsubscribing from the emails about upcoming projects.

It was the emails that got me to digging more deeply.  It seemed that there had been remarkably little residential development proposed.  So I searched all the 2016 agendas for the Carmichael Community Planning Advisory Council.  In the first nearly seven months of 2016, exactly two projects had been brought forward.

On March 16, an applicant asked about a 48-unit condominium complex.  Then, on July 20, an applicant asked about splitting one lot into two.

In seven months, that would be 49 new residences or about 115 new residents.  For a community of almost 62,000 people, the growth rate would be 0.3 percent.  And that growth rate assumes that both projects proceed, an assumption that’s often wrong.  If the condominium project fails, the growth rate drops to almost zero.

For a community that is far closer to the urban core than many other Sacramento suburbs, has a light-rail system at its north edge, and is served by a bus system that could be stronger but still meets commuting needs, that’s a pathetic growth rate, especially for a place that has expressed a desire to become more urban.

Even the condo project, which might be seen as a sign of hope, really isn’t.  It’s miles from the suggested urban core and a short block away from a five-lane arterial.  The only services available to pedestrians are auto shops, a tattoo parlor, a smoke shop, and Tap Plastics, none of which meet anyone’s daily needs, at least anyone I know.

Some will suggest that the market won’t support walkable urbanism in my hometown or that developers haven’t chosen to provide it.  But the problem goes deeper.  Most places have people eager to live in walkable settings.  And developers are always happy to build places that people want.  But the transition from drivable suburban to walkable urban is never easy.  The government must be an active, participatory partner in turning away from seventy years of mistakes and starting to create better places.  I don’t think my hometown has yet grasped that.

It’s hard to sever ties with a hometown.  I’m sure I’ll keep looking back, even if I cringe every time.

By the time I next write, I’ll have returned from traveling and will update a full calendar of upcoming opportunities for urbanist advocacy.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)