Friday, April 27, 2012


A goal of this blog is informing readers about how land use decisions are made.  The complex process of working through zoning codes, financial feasibility, neighborhood issues, and marketplace absorption.  In my own way, I try to present these topics as well as I can.

But there are folks who do it much better than me.  A few days ago, I had the opportunity to participate in an event with some of them.

UrbanPlan, a land use educational tool, was developed about a decade ago by a team that included the Urban Land Institute (ULI), University of California, and others.  Throughout the country, ULI District Councils and committed professionals continue to offer it.  High school students are presented with an urban planning problem.  In a fictitious city, a district has suffered through a long decline, punctuated by a fire, and is now in need of redevelopment.  The students are given a Request for Proposal (RFP) asking them to develop an approach to the need.

The problem is appropriately complex.  The district includes a structure on National Historic Register.  Another building has been claimed by a nearby church as an ad hoc houseless shelter.   The church is asking that a homeless shelter become part of the redevelopment.  There is a neighborhood group opposed to affordable housing.  Nearby youths are asking for a skateboard park.  And the neighborhood is in desperate need of a grocery store.

The RFP presents letters from the interested neighborhood and describes the types of buildings that may be used.  High-rise luxury condominiums, mid-rise office buildings, neighborhood retail, podium apartments, etc.

Teams of five students must develop a proposed land use configuration that finds compromises between the competing demands, while also reimbursing the city for the cost of parcel assembly and generating a sufficient rate of return that investment capital can be attracted.

During the development of their proposed solutions, the teams are twice visited by land use professionals who ask tough questions, forcing the students to defend their visions or to adjust their perspectives.  When I’ve done that role in past years, I’ve often asked students to look around their own communities for examples of the land uses that they’re proposing, drawing a connection between their own lives and the UrbanPlan problem.

At the end of three weeks, the teams present their solutions to a mock City Council who interviews the teams and selects the best proposal.

My role was on the City Council for McClatchy High School in Sacramento.  As I’ve done in other years, I adopted the role of advocate for the homeless shelter.  This year, all the teams choose not to include the shelter within their project.  Instead, under the terms of the problem, they gave the City a million dollars toward building a new shelter elsewhere in the city.

At each presentation, I challenged the team about their decision on the homeless shelter.  When they described the shelter as “a blighting influence” or “an unsafe presence”, I noted that the City would have to put the shelter elsewhere and asked how we were supposed to justify imposing an “unsafe, blighting influence” on another neighborhood.  I wasn’t trying to antagonize them, but to alert them to the implications that their decisions and their words would have in the real world.

I love the City Council role and have agreed to do it again at Berkeley High in June.

UrbanPlan is a well-structured tool for teaching students about land use.  Perhaps the best benchmarks of its success are the students who were motivated to take urban planning classes in college and then to embark on careers in the field.  Near the end of my City Council duties at McClatchy High, a young man joined us in the classroom.  He’d been a part of the first UrbanPlan class at McClatchy, had gone on to major in urban planning in college, and was now working for the City of Sacramento in long range planning.

For more information on UrbanPlan, you can read this.  And I highly recommend this video.  It’s an UrbanPlan introduction for high school teachers.

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Before closing, I have a couple of administrative notes.

As previously described, the Petaluma Station Area Plan Citizens Advisory Council met a few days ago for the initial presentation of the draft Petaluma Station Area Plan.  The committee will meet on roughly a monthly basis for the next few months.  The technical reports, Sections 3 through 7, are considered essentially complete.  So the committee will meet once to offer comments on Sections 2 and 8 and then meet two more times on the SmartCode revisions in the Appendix.  If you have any comments to offer or have questions about the process, please plan on attending the meetings.  I’ll pass along the dates and times as soon as they’re announced.  Or you can email me with your comments or questions.

Also, this blog passed another milestone this week.  After needing 42 blog posts to reach 1,000 total pageviews, the counter passed 2,000 on the 65th blog post.  (This tally only counts the readers who visit my website.  It’s likely that many more read these posts on Petaluma Patch or the New Futures Network.)   Thanks for your continuing and apparently growing readership.

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

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