Friday, June 24, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of June 26

Another view of downtown Detroit
Another week is soon approaching.  With the end of the month and the holiday weekend looming at the end of the week, it’ll be a mostly quiet seven days, but there will be couple of worthwhile events.  Also, there are interesting opportunities queuing up for the weeks after the holiday.  And, with the long warm evenings settling in, many of us will also have a chance to chat with neighbors about urbanism.  As always, it’s a great time to add your voice to the urbanist discussion.

Meetings this Week

Petaluma Planning Commission, Tuesday, June 28, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – This meeting has been noted in these weekly posts several times.  The meeting has finally arrived.

The Adobe Road Winery is seeking to establish a wine-making footprint in downtown Petaluma.  But the permitting and construction steps toward that goal will be long and slow.  To make the Adobe Road name more familiar in Petaluma as the bigger project creeps ahead, the winery is seeking approval for a tasting room in the Great Petaluma Mill, at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard and B Street.

While a wine tasting room may not seem urbanist, any land uses that pull people downtown, creating a sense of activity and place, are urbanist.  A wine tasting room meets that standard.

A.G. Spanos Companies, Thursday, June 30, 6:00pm, Petaluma Women’s Club, 518 B Street, Petaluma – Spanos has been working on a development plan for the land between Petaluma Boulevard North and the Petaluma River at the current terminus of Oak Street.  In February, Spanos offered a draft plan for public review.  They’ve taken the comments they received, along with the earlier comments from the Petaluma Planning Department, and revised the earlier plan.  The plan is now ready for renewed public review.

I worked for several years on a project previously proposed for the site, a project that eventually fell victim to the recession.  It’s a challenging site, but if done well can jumpstart walkable urbanism north of E. Washington Street, perhaps helping to connect downtown to the north river district by making the walkability impediment that is E. Washington Street seem less of a barrier.

Meetings Further Out

Petaluma Pedestrian/Bicycle Advisory Committee, Wednesday, July 6, 6:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The agenda for this meeting currently includes review of a residential project adjoining the proposed location for the Corona Road SMART station, the SMART bike parking study, a possible bike share program, and a Caltrans bike/ped plan.  Additionally, a request has been made to include the possible Petaluma Boulevard South road diet (see below).

Novato Design Review Commission, Wednesday, July 6, 7:30pm, Novato City Hall, 901 Sherman Avenue, Novato – A public workshop will be conducted on a proposed hotel at the corner of Redwood Boulevard and Wood Hollow Drive.  The site is far from downtown, but is only a thousand marginally walkable feet from the Atherton SMART station, giving it a faint tinge of possible urbanism.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, Monday,  July 11, 9:00am, Santa Rosa City Hall, 100 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa – SMART staff will introduce the proposals received for transit-oriented development on SMART-owned property adjoining the Downtown Santa Rosa station.

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.

Other Opportunities to Get Involved

Petaluma Boulevard South – Bikeable/walkable revisions to Petaluma Boulevard South recently flickered onto and off of the Petaluma City Council agenda.  A group of citizens was energized by the flicker and is organizing to ensure that the subject of calming Petaluma Boulevard South returns to the City Council with enough votes to approve it.

If you’re interested in advocating for improvements to Petaluma Boulevard South that will make the street more friendly for non-motorists and will allow better connectivity between the residential areas southwest of the street and the retail/recreational opportunities to the northeast, let me know.  I’ll get you in touch with the group, of which I’ll be a member.

Digging Deeper into Urbanism - Many readers attended three evening of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 last January in Santa Rosa.  They spoke about the theory of why suburbia often fails and the analysis that supports the theory.  Initial conversations are underway for a return visit by Marohn and Minicozzi to the North Bay later this year, a visit that may include time in Petaluma and other Sonoma County communities.

Petaluma was well-represented at the January meetings, but it was largely urbanists who were already familiar with the work of Marohn and Minicozzi.  If we organize properly, having the two of them visit Petaluma can be an opportunity to educate others who hold positions from which they can make a difference.

I’ll need folks to assist with organizational and fund-raising efforts.  Please let me know if you’re willing to lend a hand.

StrongTowns:  I usually reserve my comments about the urbanist organizations that I find worthy of membership fees to a year-end post.  But this is their membership week, I’m hopeful of Chuck Marohn visiting Petaluma later this year, and his staff asked nicely, so I’ll make an exception.

I don’t agree with everything that StrongTowns says, finding that they sometimes go too far in order to stir the pot.  But they begin conversations that need to happen and that’s an essential role.  I’m proud that they consider me within their Founding Circle and encourage all readers to consider joining StrongTowns.  If nothing else, this is the right time, with a StrongTowns visit looming, to begin reviewing the StrongTowns arguments.

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

When I next publish, I’ll continue with a personal recounting of the best moments from CNU 24, the recently concluded annual meeting of the Congress for the New 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)

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

CNU 24: Best Moments, Part 1

Campus Martius Park in the heart of downtown Detroit
Since my return from CNU 24, the annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism recently concluded in Detroit, I’ve written about minor but inconvenient challenges of getting around town on foot and by transit and about a walk through the heart of downtown.  There is more that I can, should, and will share about the reality of Detroit in 2016, but now it’s time to sample the content of CNU 24.

I’ll begin my reporting with the first day of the congress.

In recent years, the first day has been presented in parallel tracks, one of which is called is called Urbanism 101 or the Core Sessions.  The target audience for the Core Sessions is first time attendees, with the goal providing a broad overview of urbanism for those whose prior introduction to urbanism might have been more limited.

However, the speakers lined up for the Core Sessions were among the leading lights of urbanism, making it hard for many, me included, to bypass the sessions.  The once-a-year chance to listen to Andres Duany, Jeff Speck, and Kaid Benfield holds too much attraction to be easily ignored.  Joe Minicozzi, who many in the North Bay heard speak on the finances of urbanism during the Urban Community Partnership meetings in Santa Rosa back in January, was also in the line-up

The first speaker on the first morning was Andres Duany, long-time partner in DPZ from Miami, an original signatory of the first Charter for the New Urbanism, and a seminal figure in the history of urbanism.  (As a local tie, DPZ was the firm that developed the form-based SmartCode, an alternative to zoning codes that better implements urbanism.  Petaluma was the first city in the country to adopt the SmartCode and Petaluma’s downtown continues to be governed by a later version.)

Many find Duany a little too proud of himself.  And I’ll admit there are times when his self-promotion can make me cringe.  But at the same time, I’ll argue that the role he has filled in the urbanist movement has required an outsized ego and that a self-effacing personality couldn’t have accomplished as much.  He was the man that the times required.

As a speaker, Duany is good at capturing complex ideas in compact nuggets, something like extended bon mots.  Some of his best follow below.

(Note: I wish I could offer direct quotes, but my stenography skills were never up to that task and have only declined over time.  So everything below, even when within quotations, is paraphrased to the best of my ability based on my notes.)

On why the Congress for the New Urbanism continues to attract many new members, but remains the same size: “Unlike other urbanist organizations, CNU makes the complex arguments about the entirety of the urbanism.  Those who want simpler answers, join CNU, sample the complexity, and then go to other organizations that focus on only one aspect of urbanism and therefore provide those simpler answers.”

On the relationship between urbanism and environmentalism: “The U.S. has a conflict with environmentalism that pits growth versus environmental protection.  Urbanism resolves that dispute by building cities that people love, limiting intrusions into the wilderness.”

On Donald Trump: “Trump represents a populism that CNU can’t ignore.”

On discomfort with developers and development: “The failure of suburbia led to a distrust of growth that urbanism must work to overcome.”

On the value of proximity: “At one time, there was value to proximity.  The automobile destroyed much of that value.  Urbanism works to restore it.”

Life-stage urbanism: “To be complete, urbanism must include provision for all life stages within walkable distances, from young adults seeking partners to families raising children to mature adults enjoying life successes to seniors need assistance.”

On the concern that promoting a walkable urban lifestyle means rejecting transportation technology:  “The Germans live in villages and still build Mercedes.”

I love these nuggets.  Every time I reread them, I find new insights and motivations.

My next post will cover upcoming opportunities for public involvement.  After that, I’ll return to quips and quotes from CNU 24.

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, June 20, 2016

CNU 24: Exploring Detroit

Broderick Tower and Peoplemover track
I love living in the North Bay.  Walkable downtowns.  Nice people.  Comfortable Mediterranean climate, at least until climate changes progresses further.

But living in the North Bay presents challenges when I attend the annual gatherings of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  The recent CNU 24 in Detroit was no different.

There are some fine urbanists in the North Bay.  To my pleasant surprise, there was a handful in Detroit.  We had a casual assembly during the CNU 24 closing party.

But there aren’t a lot of urbanists in the North Bay.  We may be only an hour from San Francisco and Oakland, two hours by transit, but personal obligations often make those journeys awkward or impossible.  As a result, I often feel starved for large gatherings of urbanists of differing perspectives where the intellectual ferment can be set at a rolling boil.  Exactly the kind of setting that CNUs provide.

At the same time, CNUs are held in interesting cities, the kind of cities that demand closer inspection.  In my four years of attending CNUs, I’ve been to Salt Lake City, Buffalo, Dallas, and now Detroit, each of which offered lessons to the inquiring and the observant.

All of which creates a series of dilemmas when reviewing a CNU schedule.  Do I listen to walkability expert Jeff Speck or do I go on a field trip to a neighborhood revitalization effort?  Do I attend the keynote address by cutting edge traffic planner Janette Sadik-Khan or do I join a walking tour of local parks?

Looking north
For the fourth year in a row, I don’t think I made the right decisions.  Or perhaps more accurately, for the fourth year in a row, I found a satisfying balance impossible to find.  To an eager learner, trying to partake of urbanism at a CNU is like trying to slake a thirst from a fire hose.  There is just too much good stuff, coming too quickly.

This year, I arrived a day early so I could take a field to Grand Rapids.  It was a well-organized, well-filled day that I’m pleased to have done.  But as CNU 24 moved toward its conclusion, I began feeling that I hadn’t really partaken of the Detroit experience, aside from dodging a few cars and watching as Peoplemover doors failed to open.


Woodward Avenue
Woodward Avenue
So I convinced myself that I could skip the Saturday morning plenary to take an extended walk through downtown Detroit with camera in hand.  Luckily, I was at a conference with folks who knew a fair bit about downtown Detroit, so advice on a walking route was easy to secure.  Take the Peoplemover to the north edge of downtown.  Walk down Woodward Avenue with a jog over to Griswold Street as I neared the Detroit River.  And then return to my hotel along Jefferson Street.

Before writing of the walk, I have a couple of preparatory notes.  First, the layout of downtown Detroit is unusual and remarkable.  Perhaps complex for cars, but full of closed vistas and charming shortcuts for pedestrians.

Municpal parking lot
The story is that newly appointed early 19th century territorial governor for Michigan was a fan of urban planning and had carefully studied L’Enfant’s design for Washington, D.C., which had in turn borrowed liberally from Paris.  Augustus Woodward arrived in Detroit to find that much of his post had been recently burned in a fire.  Given the unexpectedly blank slate, Woodward quickly put his avocation to use, creating a plan for downtown filled with diagonal, radial, and circumferential streets that has largely survived.

He was apparently so proud of his work that he named the principal street after himself.

With most Detroit maps dominated by the freeways and expressways that had a role in its plummet, it’s hard to find a graphic that adequately depicts Woodward’s plan, but this map comes close.  Woodward Avenue is the principal north-south street through the heart of the plan, the street that bisects the semi-circular park and continues toward the river.  This was the path for much of my walk.  (It is also the route for a streetcar that will soon begin service, an improvement that seems to meet a key civic need.)

Chrysler Building
Second, I’ll admit that I’m only a fair photographer and an even worse architectural student.  When pushed, I can differentiate between Gothic, Art Deco, and International, but many of the finer points elude me.  It’s not that I disrespect the profession.  I’ve seen enough aesthetically appealing, well-balanced, and functional architecture to appreciate the skill.  But architecture is one of many fields connected to urbanism which I’ve never had the time to study as deeply as I would wish.

With that background, let me begin my walk through downtown Detroit.

Upon exiting the Peoplemover, I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of the Peoplemover track and the renovated Broderick Tower, still blocking the morning sun on a day that would soon reach a humid 92 degrees.


Looking north up Woodward Avenue, the streetcar track construction and the final straggling buildings can be seen.  Beyond the buildings, the near void that characterizes much of Detroit soon takes hold.  (Let me take a chance here.  From left to right, Greek Revival, Art Deco, and Gothic Revival.  How did I do?)

Ford Building
Turning and heading down Woodward Avenue, I was surprised by how many buildings are in the more human scale of four to six stories, creating a feel very different from the canyons of New York City or San Francisco.  With the wide sidewalks, the setting and walkability were quite comfortable.  Of course, most downtowns feel more comfortable on Saturday mornings.

It’s not that Detroit doesn’t have tall buildings, but many are on streets a block or two from Woodward, allowing Woodward to function as a grand boulevard.

Guardian Building lobby


Heading down Woodward, I found myself oddly discomfited by a municipal parking lot in which the stubs of the columns of a former building had been left in place.  I can’t guess why, if demolition included severing the columns, the cuts were done three feet above grade rather than twelve inches under.  Perhaps someone thought the remaining stubs would recall the glory of Detroit.  I found them more redolent of the fall.
Guardian Building lobby

Guardian Building lobby
Turning toward Griswold, past a fully-stocked bike-share station, I came across the Chrysler and Ford Buildings within a block of each other, still massive reminders of what made and unmade Detroit.

A block further way was the reason I’d been told to take Griswold, the lobby of the Guardian Building.  I don’t know what to call the architectural style, perhaps Art Deco with a Native American color scheme?  Regardless, it’s a dramatic space that is securely and irrevocably of its time.

Monument to Joe Louis
Reaching W. Jefferson Avenue, I spied the monument to Joe Louis, a black forearm and fist, suspended from a slender pyramid.  Some have questioned the absence of a boxing glove, wondering if the sculpture was meant to evoke something of the black power salute.  (Recall that Tommie Smith and John Carlos unveiled the salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics, an event that came within a few votes of being held in Detroit.)

To that speculation, I’d add that the fist is palm down when the more normal boxing position would have the palm facing sideways.  With the pyramid support, it does appear that the fist is being staged, prior to being raised into a vertical position.  However, the sculptor never confirmed or denied this interpretation.

Buildings along W. Jefferson Street
As I headed back to my hotel to cool off and to prepare to return to the regular sessions of CNU 24, I took a final look back at the buildings at Jefferson and Woodward, with the Guardian Building to the right.  There was still much, much more to be seen and learned in Detroit, but it was a good walk.

When I next write, it will be to begin offering the best quotes from the sessions I attended.

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, June 17, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Get Involved during the Week of June 19

Theatre district of London
Another week is nearly upon us, with yet more chances to publicly advocate for urbanist-oriented solutions.  It’d be a great week to get involved.

UPDATE – See Community Separators meeting on Thursday, June 23.

Meetings this Week

Rohnert Park Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Monday, June 20, 5:30pm, Rohnert Park City Hall, Conference Room 2A, 130 Avram Avenue, Rohnert Park – The BPAC will consider the ongoing construction of the SMART multi-use path and the potential for a bike-share program, along with parking and sharrow  design decisions.

Petaluma City Council, Monday, June 20, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The Council will consider appointments to several bodies, including the Planning Commission and the Pedestrian Bike Advisory, bodies that can facilitate or impede urbanist concepts.  It takes a real geek to watch as Council appointments are made.  I’ll be there.

Sonoma County Planning Commission, Thursday, June 23, 1:05pm, 575 Administration Drive, Room 102A, Santa Rosa – The Planning Commissioners will consider the questions of both the renewal of the current Community Separators and the possible additions to the Separators.  It’s a worthy topic.  I wish I was able to attend.

Meetings Further Out

Petaluma Planning Commission, Tuesday, June 28, 7:00pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The Adobe Road Winery is seeking to establish a wine-making footprint in downtown Petaluma.  But the permitting and construction steps toward that goal will be long and slow.  To make the Adobe Road name more familiar in Petaluma as the bigger project creeps ahead, the winery is seeking approval for a tasting room in the Great Petaluma Mill, at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard and B Street.

Petaluma has long been perceived as on the fringe of the Sonoma County wine scene, although the pending approval of a Petaluma Gap appellation could change that perception.  The proposed tasting room, to my knowledge only the second winery-branded tasting room in downtown Petaluma, would be another step on Petaluma’s path to the wine mainstream.

While a wine tasting room on its surface may not be urbanist, any land uses that pull people downtown, creating a sense of activity and place, is urbanist.  A wine tasting room meets that standard.

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit, Monday,  July 11, 9:00am, Santa Rosa City Hall, 100 Santa Rosa Ave, Santa Rosa – SMART staff will introduce the proposals received for transit-oriented development on the SMART-owned parcels adjoining the Downtown Santa Rosa station.

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.

Other Opportunities to Get Involved

Petaluma Boulevard South – Bikeable/walkable revisions to Petaluma Boulevard South recently flickered onto and off of the Petaluma City Council agenda.  A group of citizens was energized by the flicker and is organizing to bring the subject of calming Petaluma Boulevard South back to the City Council with enough votes to approve it.

If you’re interested in advocating for improvements to Petaluma Boulevard South that will make the street more friendly for non-motorists and will allow better connectivity between the residential areas southwest of the street and the retail/recreational opportunities to the northeast, let me know.  I’ll get you in touch with the forming group, of which I’ll be a member.

Urbanist Visitors:  Many readers attended a series of talks by Chuck Marohn of StrongTowns and Joe Minicozzi of Urban3 last January in Santa Rosa.  They spoke about the theory of why sprawl often fails and the numbers that support the theory.  Initial conversations are underway for a return visit by Marohn and Minicozzi later this year, a visit that may include time in Petaluma along with other Sonoma County communities.

Petaluma was well-represented at the January meetings, but it was largely urbanists who were already familiar with the work of Marohn and Minicozzi.  If we organize properly, having them visit Petaluma might be an opportunity to educate others who hold positions from which they can make a difference.

I’ll need folks to help with organizational and fund-raising efforts.  Please let me know if you’re willing to lend a hand.

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

When I next publish, I’ll continue telling of my experiences with CNU 24, specifically the built environment of Detroit.

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, June 16, 2016

CNU 24: Getting Around Detroit

Downtown Detroit and the Detroit River
Being newly returned from the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism, CNU 24, I have pages of notes to review, with the goals of extracting the best quotes and stories to share and also of reminding myself about the subjects into which I should dig more deeply.

But CNUs are more than four days of chatting with other urbanists and listening to speakers expound, often eloquently, on topics of city-building interest.  It’s also spending the better part of a week living in a city and learning its quirks.  Not having visited Detroit since 1999, I was particularly interested to wander about the city that has become the focus of much debate about the functions and failures of cities.

So, before I get to the content of CNU 24, I’ll write about my experiences as a visitor to Detroit.  Today, my topic will be mobility, both as a pedestrian and a transit rider.

Crossing the Street:  I was slow in making my reservations for CNU 24.  As a result, all of the hotel rooms set aside for attendees had been claimed by the time I began making plans.  After casting about, I found an acceptable hotel near the other end of downtown from most of the conference venues, but connected to the center of CNU activity by the Detroit Peoplemover, about which I’ll write below.

I arrived in Detroit on a Monday night, two days before the conference was to officially open.  I was there early to partake in a bus tour elsewhere in the state, which is another story I’ll eventually share.  Being in town early and at a distance from where I might bump into other early arrivals, I had a free evening.  After a day of flying, I was also hungry.

I have an aversion to hotel dining rooms, but Yelp quickly came to rescue, alerting me to a brewpub directly across the street.  It seemed a perfect solution.  I tidied up, headed downstairs, charged out the front door, spotted the brewpub no more than 100 yards away, and then came to a halt.  There was an eight-lane high-speed arterial between me and the brewpub.  And there was no crosswalk, at least not a direct crosswalk.

To walk to the brewpub, one had to cross the side street, then the arterial, and then back across the side street.  A total of three signal crossings to get to a front door that was no more than a long pitching wedge from where I stood.  There can be intersections where omitting a crosswalk is caused by legitimate site constraints.  But this one seemed solely the result of prioritizing drivers over pedestrians.

Wait, did I write three signal crossings?  Make that four.  The arterial was eight lanes wide, with a similarly wide median.  The lane count can be seen in the photo above.  And the same traffic engineer who had omitted the crosswalk also decided that cars shouldn’t wait for pedestrians to cross eight lanes of traffic plus the median, so timed the cycles such that walkers had to stop on the median.  So now four signal cycles were required to cross the street.  Four complete cycles as my hunger grew worse.

Except that four didn’t quite work out either. The second crossing of the side street adjoins a right turn only lane heading into a tunnel under the Detroit River.  As I waited for the light to turn green, drivers began making right turns on red in front of me.  It was a perfectly legal traffic motion.  But the turning cars gave momentum to the queued cars and when the light turned green, they kept on turning.  Fifteen cars and a city bus turned in front of me as I waited for someone to give me the right-of-way that was mine.  When the lane was finally empty, the light was again red.

So that was five signal cycles for a pedestrian to walk a hundred yards from a hotel to a brewpub.  Not much walkable urbanism in that equation.

Trying It Again:  The food and especially the beer were good enough that I returned to the brewpub twice more during the week.  Both times, I made the trek in four signal cycles, but both outings were still eventful.

The first time, I had to skip away from two cars that began slowing making the right turns without looking for pedestrians, one driven by a pair of young ladies flirting with a guy on the sidewalk and the other driven by someone absorbed in a cell phone call.

The second time, I left the brewpub to find myself fighting upstream through a sidewalk full of excitedly chattering folks.  A police officer told me to make my way quickly because beers and punches were beginning to be thrown.  I took her advice.

At least at this intersection, walking the sidewalks of Detroit was inefficient and eventful.

Transit Training: A truism among transit managers is that getting a new rider to take a first trip is one of the biggest challenges.  Even as a fan of transit, I concur that the first trip can be a source of trepidation.  Learning how to pay the fare, deciphering the route map, and knowing where to stand to catch the right train are all sources of uncertainty.

My schedule required me to catch the Peoplemover early Tuesday morning to the hotel where I would board my tour.   So I decided to take a trial run Monday evening to learn the system.  The plan worked out fine, with the only surprise being that the loop was recently reversed to run clockwise after years of running counterclockwise, so I was determinedly looking for a train in one direction only to have it sneak up behind me.

I finished the outing comfortable with the Peoplemover, an outdated but functional rail system that runs autonomous two-car trains around a loop of perhaps three miles through downtown Detroit.  A total loop takes perhaps twelve minutes, so having two trains running gives a headway of about six minutes.  It could have been a component of an efficient transit system if it connected to transit hubs.  Unfortunately, those transit hubs were never built, although Detroit is finally taking steps in that direction.

With my first trip complete, I looked forward with confidence to my Tuesday morning outing.  Perhaps too much confidence.

I hopped on the first train Tuesday morning, with my destination station firmly in my head.  As the train pulled into the station, I noted the location of the hotel where I would catch the tour about a block away.  I stepped to the doors, ready to complete my trip.  And the doors didn’t open.  As the only passenger on an autonomous train, there was no one to whom to complain.  A pair of would-be passengers looked back at me through the door, but seemed impassive.  Perhaps early morning door malfunctions were common.

After a thirty-second pause, the train moved on, the doors never having opened.  I quickly recalibrated, disembarked at the next station and found my way to the hotel in plenty of time.  But it took me several days to again trust the Peoplemover, which isn’t the way to build ridership.  However, the system never let me down again.  Indeed, it was integral to the success of my time in Detroit.

So walkability and transit had their small Detroit failures, much like most cities.  Perhaps Detroit isn’t a unlike the rest of the country as many would argue.  Lessons were being learned.

When I next write, I’ll return to the theme of becoming active North Bay urbanists, again listing opportunities to get publicly involved.

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, June 13, 2016

Taking the Next Step - Opportunities to Make a Difference during the Week of June 12

Walkability in the Soho District of London
I’ve returned from CNU 24, the annual gathering of the Congress for the New Urbanism.  As always, the conference was inspirational and motivational.  I’ve come back flush with new connections, eager to broach new ideas, and primed to suggest new initiatives.

But it’d be a strategic mistake for me to step too far too quickly.  Given its often narrow base within North Bay politics, urbanism can’t be implemented in broad strokes.  Instead, urbanists must edge toward the inevitable tipping point with persistent incremental steps, finding pivotal moments to weigh in with urbanist perspectives on issues that have already found their way onto North Bay agendas.

Thus, my weekly summary of upcoming meetings and other opportunities with urbanist angles follows below.  Perhaps because we’re moving into summer, it’s a light week, but hopefully readers will find something that stirs them to action.

Upcoming Meetings

MTC/ABAG, Monday, June 13, 6:00pm, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa – This is the Sonoma County edition of a series of meetings that have been seeking input into the Bay Area 2040 plan on growth scenarios and resulting transportation funding strategies.   I attended the Marin County meeting and, having another meeting on the same evening, will pass on this one.  But I suggest that anyone with an interest in growth and transportation in the North Bay make time to learn how MTC and ABAG have framed the issues.

Petaluma Planning Commission, Tuesday, June 14, 7:00pm (see update below), Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – The Adobe Road Winery is seeking to establish a wine-making footprint in downtown Petaluma.  But the permitting and construction steps toward that goal will be long and slow.  To make the Adobe Road name more familiar in Petaluma as the bigger project creeps ahead, the winery is seeking approval for a tasting room in the Great Petaluma Mill, at the corner of Petaluma Boulevard and B Street.

Petaluma has long been perceived as on the fringe of the Sonoma County wine scene, although the pending approval of a Petaluma Gap appellation could change that perception.  The proposed tasting room, to my knowledge only the second winery-branded tasting room in downtown Petaluma, would be another step on Petaluma’s path to the wine mainstream.

While a wine tasting room on its surface may not be urbanist, any land uses that pull people downtown, creating a sense of activity and place, is urbanist.  A wine tasting room meets that standard.

I have a pair of earlier obligations on my calendar for the evening, but will attend the hearing if time permits.

(Update – Due to a notification error, Petaluma Planning has deferred this hearing to Tuesday, June 28.)

Sonoma Marin Area Rail Transit Board, Wednesday, June 15, 1:30pm, 5401 Old Redwood Highway, Petaluma – Despite what was said during the June 1 meeting, a further discussion on Clipper isn’t on the SMART Board agenda.  Indeed, there is nothing of apparent urbanist interest on the agenda.  But with the launch of revenue service only months away, there may still be value in attending to listen to public and Board comments.

Petaluma Tree Advisory Committee, Wednesday, June 15, 3:30pm, Petaluma City Hall, 11 English Street, Petaluma – Although the topic is likely beyond their purview, an interesting subject is on the Tree Committee agenda as a result of a letter from a citizen.  The missive notes the conflict between the street tree planting encouraged by the City years ago and the sidewalk damage now resulting from the roots.  The writer asks for City assistance with sidewalk repair to avoid tree removal by financially-constrained homeowners.

(As a sidenote, I know that the current City list of approved street trees specifically avoids trees known to damage sidewalks.  But I don’t know if the same was true when the trees noted by letter writer were planted.)

The letter frames a conundrum of our contemporary world.  As either a city or as homeowners, we don’t have the resources to fix the sidewalks, largely as a result of the cost burdens resulting from the drivable suburban paradigm.  But retaining the trees is essential for urbanism because traffic is slowed by the constraining influence of trees and shade from trees are both essential elements of the walkability needed for urbanism.

The choice becomes digging deep, probably through tax increases, to repair the sidewalks so the trees can be retained or felling the trees and continuing along the path toward drivable suburbia that will impoverish us by other means.

It’s a Hobbesian choice that should be considered at the highest levels of city government, which isn’t the Tree Committee, but it may still be interesting to watch how the Tree Committee handles it.

Novato Planning Commission, Wednesday, June 15, 7:30pm, Novato City Hall, 901 Sherman Avenue, Novato – The Novato Design Review Commission will take up a proposed senior living facility on South Novato Boulevard.  The site is on a four-lane arterial, flanked by a pair of churches, and is therefore of little interest to urbanists.

Further, I’m sure that the proposed developer, Oakmont Senior Living, will do a fine job with the architecture.  I recently toured an Oakmont facility and found it light, airy, and comfortable.

But I’ve included the meeting to raise a point.  When I’m in need of senior housing, I don’t want to be put in a building fronting on a four-lane arterial and flanked by churches.  I want to be in a place where I can walk to a pub, theatre, hardware store, and bus stop.  I want to be downtown.  I regret that we don’t give the seniors of today that choice and will push whenever possible for more downtown senior living facilities so they exist when I need them.

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.  I’m planning on attending.

Other Involvement Opportunities

Petaluma Boulevard South – When I last issued this calendar, I noted how bikeable/walkable revisions to Petaluma Boulevard South had flickered onto and off of the Petaluma City Council agenda.  I’m still trying to discover the background of the passing mention.

However, a group of citizens was energized by the brief flicker and is organizing to bring the subject of calming Petaluma Boulevard South back to the City Council, hopefully with enough votes to support it.

If you’re interested in advocating for improvements to Petaluma Boulevard South that will make the street more friendly for non-motorists and will allow better connectivity between the residential areas southwest of the street and the retail/recreational opportunities to the northeast, let me know.  I’ll get you in touch with the forming group, of which I’ll be a member.

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

When I next publish, I’ll begin telling of my experiences with CNU 24.  I’ll start with a few of my mobility experiences in the city.

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, June 10, 2016

Link-Fest: Detroit

Detroit skyline (from Dreamstime)
I’m still in Detroit, soaking up the lessons that the Motor City can give because any city that believes what happened to Detroit can’t possibly happen to it doesn’t understand how the world works.  Ugly fates are always lurking near those who don’t learn from history.  History may not repeat itself, but it can certainly rhyme.

To keep you on the Detroit learning curve along with me, I’ve collected a tidy set of links about the Motor City.  Enjoy.  And learn.

Quick Overview: The New York Times provides a compact quintet of articles on the reasons behind the fall, including over-reliance on a single industry, race relations, too many mayors with dubious ethics, lack of a transit system that melded the city and its people, and the impact of poverty.

If for no other reason, you need to click on the link for the photo of the Michigan Theatre.  In a single shot, it shows much of how and where Detroit went wrong.  (And please note how, even in the most glamorous parking lot in Michigan, one driver ignores the striping.)

Longer Overview: National Geographic offers a more expansive trilogy on the current state of Detroit, from a look at the people to a tour of residential neighborhoods to the prospects for recovery.  The highlight is a quote from one subject, “You can’t save Detroit.  You gotta be Detroit”, a sentiment that applies in some way to most cities.

The Best Seat to Watch the Changes: CityLab introduces readers to a mailman who, after nearly three decades on the job, is able to provide particularly insightful observations about how the city has changed from decade to decade and from block to block.  He’s sufficiently personable that a movie-maker to trying to assemble a film around his perspective.

Picking Up Where Park Department Stops: A Detroit entrepreneur saw a chance to make a difference and organized a loose group of lawn mowers and other landscapers who gather once a week to maintain a park that falls beyond the limited resources of the city.

What is Art Worth?: CityLab describes how Detroit worked to preserve its art collection, even as many suggested it be sold to cover municipal debt.  Writer Kriston Capps suggests that a similar decision may face Greece as it struggles with national debt.

How to Buy a Home in a City without Property Values: My shocking statistic of the week is that, of all the homes sold in Detroit during 2014, only 13 percent used mortgages as part of the financing.  My wife, who spent much of her career in mortgages, assures me that the equivalent number in California would be 95 percent or more.

The problem in Detroit is that mortgages are generally available only for homes in good repair.  And few homes in Detroit meet that standard.

Recognizing the problem and the desire to build a new generation of homeowners, the City is developing a mortgage program to loan the full purchase price of the house plus another $75,000 for repairs, while also assuming some of the risk if the house doesn’t increase in value to the amount of the mortgage.

It’s a desperate measure, but it’s also desperate times.

Relish the links.  And think about lessons that can be applied elsewhere.

By the time I next write, I’ll have returned from Detroit.  I’ll tabulate an updated calendar of North Bay opportunities for urbanist-slanted public involvement.

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, June 8, 2016

Detroit: Reading List

Detroit skyline (from Dreamstime)
In my previous post, I wrote about my personal draft history of the fall of Detroit.  I also noted that I’d established and partially completed a Detroit reading list before traveling to CNU 24 in the Motor City.  Today, I’ll give pocket reviews of the books read, partially read, and still to be read.


“Detroit: An American Autopsy” by Charlie LeDuff: I started here because this was the key point I wanted to study.  Why had Detroit died, or at least gone into a profound and startling decline?  After all, that is what “autopsy” means, right?

Well, apparently not to LeDuff or his editor.  Although imminently readable, the book is about the dysfunction within Detroit after the fall.  The images are often haunting and the book remains worth reading, but it’s more a study of decomposition than an autopsy.

“A Detroit Anthology” edited by Anna Clark: Like any anthology, this volume has high points and low points.  But some of the high points will long remain in my memory, affecting my view of Detroit.  Perhaps the most poignant was a memoir by a young African-American girl who made the gradual acquaintance of a white boy, new to her neighborhood and of roughly her age.

Their growing friendship wasn’t demonstrative, but quietly comfortable until the day the boy arrived, apparently newly educated on race relations, deliberately urinated on her porch, and disappeared from her life.

There is much of Detroit and of life in that story.

“Once a Great City: A Detroit Story” by David Maraniss: Perhaps it’s because I’m partial to well-told popular histories, but this is the book that I’d recommend above the others, at least thus far.

Maraniss tells the story of Detroit in a single year, 1963, although he slightly stretches his margins to include the loss by fire of the principal Detroit tourist attraction in fall 1962 and the arrival of LBJ in spring 1964, enroute to giving his “Great Society” speech at the University of Michigan.

The image is the of manufacturing power and political importance of Detroit in 1963, a year in which the city came within a few votes of securing the 1968 Summer Olympics, contrasted with the cracks that were beginning to appear, especially to those who know how the story will end.  If there was a movie genre of urbanist horror, in which a placid city is about to be bloodily murdered by a monster the audience knows to be lurking in the closet, Detroit in 1963 would be a great plot.

To me, the most significant transitional moment was a civil rights march organized in the summer of 1963 by a coalition initiated by Reverend C.L. Franklin, father of Aretha.  The march was intended as a contrast to the civil rights marches in the South that summer that often ended in confrontation.

Franklin insisted on the inclusion of whites who had been supportive of the civil rights movement, particularly Walther Reuther, the president of the United Auto Workers, who had provided the funds to release Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Birmingham jail earlier in the year.  Reuther eventually walked close to King in the march.

In the gathering after the fully peaceful march, King gave the first draft of his “I Have a Dream” speech, a speech that was recorded by Motown founder Berry Gordy.

There is much of Detroit’s history that intersected on the day of the march.

But the peacefulness of the march masked underlying problems.  In the months after the march, Franklin was gradually displaced from his leadership role by those less willing to recognized non-black friends like Reuther.  Meanwhile, Franklin’s congregation had only recently found a home after their long-time church was demolished to make way for a freeway, a common occurrence in the Detroit of the 1960s.  And four years later, Detroit erupted in race riots that many describe as the moment that Detroit began its slide.

“Once a Great City” is highly recommended.

“Lost Detroit: Stories behind the Motor City’s Majestic Ruins” by Dan Austin: I know that ruin porn is offensive to many, particularly those whose lives were derailed by the same forces that created the ruins.

But “Lost Detroit” really isn’t ruin porn.  For one, the photos aren’t as good as the best ruin porn.  More importantly, the book isn’t about the artistic interest of the ruins but about the stories before the ruins, the histories of the buildings that were lost to the dysfunction that claimed Detroit.

Having already read “Once a Great City”, some of the buildings felt like old friends.  Cass Tech, the first college prep high school in Detroit and a success story for many years, was one.  Having read of the prominent place Cass Tech held in 1963 Detroit, alma mater to Diana Ross among many others, it was difficult to see the state of dishevelment to which it had been reduced before its demolition.

“Detroit: A Biography” by Scott Martelle: The author uses “biography” rather than “history” to allow himself the freedom to pick out a particular thread from the full city history.  The thread Martelle chooses is race relations.  He does a reasonable job and I agree with many of his conclusions, but I give the edge to “Once a Great City” as being less obvious in its effort to narrow its focus and more able to capture the full panoply of the city.

“The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Post-War Detroit” by Thomas Sugrue: The most erudite of the books on my reading list, the book comes highly recommended but intimidating.  A hundred pages of notes at the end of volume never portend a comfortable read.  It will accompany me to Detroit, where I hope to at least make a dent.

“The Virgin Suicides” by Jeffrey Eugenides: Having found value elsewhere from the reading of fiction closely tied to a city, I asked readers for a Detroit recommendation as I assembled my reading list.  A long-time follower recommended “The Virgin Suicides”.  Having often been given good advice by the reader, I secured a copy and broke it open after buckling my seatbelt on the airplane.

Even with the reading I’ve consumed, the reading I will consume, and the time I’m spending in Detroit, the city remains a fascinating tale on many levels.   If anyone has further reading recommendations to make, please do so.

Next time I write, I’ll share some links about Detroit.  There are many good ones out there.

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