Wednesday, May 1, 2013

BART TOD: Stoops

In my last post, I wrote of touring transit-oriented developments (TODs) along the BART system.  A friend joined me in the travel.  Our goal was to gather insights that might be useful during the upcoming review of the proposed Petaluma Station Area plan by the Petaluma City Council.  In this post, I’ll dig deeper into some of the TOD design details, specifically the approach to stoops.

A few months ago, I wrote that a longstanding assumption about mixed-use TODs was breaking down.  Urbanists had long anticipated that the ground floor of most mixed-use structures could be retail.  However, changing consumer patterns have reduced the need for retail, with the result that less retail space is needed.  For many projects, the market is demanding that much of the first story be residential.

But the relationship between sidewalks and buildings is different if the use adjoining the sidewalk is residential instead of retail.  If the space is retail, having pedestrians peak inside is desirable.  It’s called window shopping and is a precursor to commercial activity.

If the space is residential, having pedestrians peak inside is undesirable.  It’s called voyeurism and is a precursor to criminal complaints.

Instead, residential space requires a perceived separation from the public space of a sidewalk.  In his book “Pockets Neighborhoods”, Ross Chapin writes about the need to create transitions with elements such as low fences, landscape buffers, and front porches.

But TODs typically don’t have as much room for transitions as pocket neighborhoods.  Creativity is required.  In the Petaluma Station Area plan, the consultant team offers a couple of transition suggestions for first story residential space.  They suggest small enclosed gardens.  And they suggest stoops, between the back of sidewalk and the front door.  (Depending on the other site conditions, stoops can also facilitate tuck-under parking at the rear of the residences.)

But there is drawback to either solution.  They require space that could otherwise be included in the square footage of the home.  One can argue that private gardens and/or stoops offer a sense of place that creates more value than mere square footage, but developers and lenders often disagree.

In the Petaluma Station Area, the owner of the land closest to the SMART station is already suggesting that the proposed promenade approaching the station is wider than necessary and can be narrowed to create more building space.  One could expect that stoops will be the next target.

With the background in mind, my friend and I noted the transitions at the BART TODs.  We were mostly disappointed.

The photo above is of a stoop at the Pleasant Hill TOD.  To be fair, there isn’t much need for stoops at the Pleasant Hill TOD.  Much of the ground floor space is dedicated to retail or other non-residential uses.  Only a few first story homes require separation from public sidewalks.

Which is a good thing because this stoop configuration has minimal effectiveness.  All it truly accomplishes is vertical separation, which is good, but not enough.  With the minimal horizontal separation, as soon as a resident exits the interior space, he is effectively in the public realm.  Nor does the configuration allow space for plants or other decoration that might enhance the separation.

But as mediocre as the Pleasant Hill solution was, the Richmond solutions were weaker.  The photo is of the first block leading away from the BART/Amtrak station.  The architecture differs on the two sides of the plaza leading away from the station.  To the left, small entry porches offer a minimal public/private separation, although even less than the Pleasant Hill solution.

But it is to the right that there is truly no public/private separation.  The unadorned front doors are perhaps a foot from the back of the sidewalks, creating an interaction that is likely uncomfortable on both sides of the door.  Residents probably must feel that they are an unacceptable part of the street life.  And pedestrians must feel as if they are intruding on private life.

In “Walkable City”, Jeff Speck writes that humans have a genetic disposition to prefer the boundary between woodland and savannah, where they can control the risks from either habitat.  In an urban setting, the genetic preference becomes a desire to occupy comfortable, well-framed sidewalks at the edge of the public realm

The Richmond solutions, particularly on the right side, take away that safe place.  On the sidewalk, pedestrians feel that they are encroaching on the homes.  But if they move into the plaza, then they lose the safety of the boundary.  It’s a solution that takes away any comfortable places.  The result is an underused plaza.

Fruitvale, with its full retail use of the first story, largely ducks the public/private problem.  But to the small extent it remains, it has been addressed elegantly, with Spanish-inspired steps leading from the plaza to the residential stories.

There are few immediate lessons for Petaluma from these stoop observations.  The Station Area consultant has already identified good solutions, which need only be retained when the plan is adopted.

Instead, the concern could be longer term.  When a developer proposes replacing the solutions in the Station Area plan with alternatives such as at Richmond, will a future City Council stand firmly by the plan?  Or will they yield to the political expediency that any development is better than no development?  Arguing firmly in favor of the design details in the Station Area plan could be a task for urbanists over the next two decades.

Scheduling Notes

Saturday, May 4, 11am – A small group will gather in Petaluma to take Jake’s Walk.  All are welcome.  Be at the corner of B and 10th Streets at 11am to participate.

Monday, May 6, 7pm – The Petaluma City Council will take up the Petaluma Station Area Plan.  The meeting will be in the Petaluma Council Chambers at 11 English Street.

Tuesday, May 14, 5:30pm – Petaluma Urban Chat will convene at the Aqus Café to continue the discussion of “Walkable City”.  All are welcome, whether or not they’ve read the book.

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


  1. Porches work too! Designs like this example from Philadelphia show how a porch both creates separation and a private public space--without sacrificing developable space on either the upper floors or in the basement. It's really an elegant solution.

    1. Steve, thanks for the comment. I completely agree about porches, especially when they're deep enough to act as living space. (The latter point is key to Ross Chapin.) Also, I think raising them above the sidewalk by several steps, as in your example, can be a key element. It becomes a combination stoop/porch.