Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Embracing Interesting Times

Many years ago, I belonged to a golf club in a Central Oregon town.  The course had a solid pedigree, with the layout for the first nine holes having been done by famed Northwest golf architect Chandler Egan.

But the course hadn’t been maintained well over the years.  The grass had been mowed and the bunkers raked, but the long-term needs had been neglected.  As is typical of golf courses, even in semi-arid places like Central Oregon, trees had grown, altering the strategic elements planned by the architect.  What had once been a tight driving hole became a hole for which the only reasonable play was a long iron off the tee.  The risk-reward balance had toppled sideways.

Most of the membership understood that the course had slipped.  The board made plans for a major remodel, one that would restrict golf play for more than a year.  As nine holes and then the other nine holes were remodeled, the members could only play the open nine, plus a few makeshift holes that the maintenance staff would create in waste areas.

Most of the membership accepted the trade-off, finding the prospects of a better course to be worth more than the loss of a golf season.

But there were some, largely the elderly members of the club, who objected.  They argued that, at their age, they had only a few golf seasons remaining to them.  They contended that it would be more fair to wait until their generation was gone before undertaking the remodel.

Even setting aside the fact that this was the generation largely responsible for the decline of the course, it was a flawed argument.  If the board waited until the current geriatric golfers had passed away, there would be a new group of seniors making the same argument.  There would never be a right time to upgrade the golf course.

Although I was among the younger members, I could empathize with the older golfers.  I was the engineer for a new golf course being planned on the other side of town.  Within a couple of years, I’d be moving my membership to the new course.  Much like the older golfers, I’d lose a golf season in exchange for only a short time of play on the remodeled course.

Nonetheless, I believed in the concept of the greater good.  The golf course remodel was needed for the coming generations of club members, whose benefits outweighed the inconveniences to a few of us.  Along with the majority, I voted for the remodel and the work began.

This story offers an urbanism lesson.  Urbanist development often disrupts the pattern and rhythm of existing neighborhoods.  Many neighbors object to that disruption, arguing that they deserve to live out their lifetimes with their neighborhoods as they’ve known and loved them.  The neighbors of the Maria Drive Apartments in Petaluma, a project I described in my previous post, are only the most recent among of many examples.

Those who are discomfited by the approach of urbanism may offer arguments about privacy, protecting existing businesses, traffic, or noise, often making valid points, but the underlying argument for many is a simple “Leave us alone.”

As I was with the senior golfers at the Oregon golf club, I can sympathize.  But the concept of the greater good still applies.  Sometimes we must accept changes to our comfortable status quo for the good of the community.

This isn’t to say that every mixed-use or higher density project is a good idea.  Some are clunkers.  But, for the long-term good of the community, it’s necessary to be open to the idea that sometimes neighborhoods must be disrupted.

This brings me around to the phrase “May you live in interesting times.”  (This phrase is often, although probably inaccurately, known as the Chinese curse.)  The underlying assumption behind the curse is that most of us would prefer to live in placid times.

At least for myself, I don’t believe that the assumption is true.  I don’t wish to live through a major war.  But neither would I want to live in a completely uneventful time.  I’m happy to be alive as we come to grips with the how our land use patterns must change to protect the climate and to better live within our means.  And I’m thrilled to be taking part in the conversation.

I embrace interesting times, as long as they aren’t too interesting.  I hope that others will come to feel the same, even if the nature of those interesting times is the conversion of a long-time neighborhood into a more urbanist configuration.


My last post, on the proposed Maria Drive Apartments, ran longer than I had expected.  In my rush to bring it to a belated conclusion, I omitted a couple of points that I had intended to make.  I’ll make the tardy insertions below.

Unit Count:  A primary objection by the neighbors to the project as currently proposed is the unit count.  They believed that 144 units would bring too much traffic to the existing streets.  The City Council directed the developer to consider a lesser unit count.

When the developer returned to the Council, he complied with other Council requests, but argued that 144 units were essential for financial feasibility.  The Council accepted his response and approved the project at 144 units.

Against that backdrop, I’ll argue that the unit count should have been greater than 144.  Subject to a detailed site plan, I’ll suggest that a density of 40 to 50 units per acre is reasonable for the site.  For a 5.85 acre parcel, that results in a unit count of 225 to 300.  Let’s call it 250.  And added to that number would be a few retail or office spaces.

However, 250 would be an ultimate unit count, including the redevelopment of parking fields that may become superfluous over time.  At initial construction, again subject to review of a detailed site plan, perhaps 160 to 175 units would be appropriate.  And for reasons noted below, the traffic generation for these units might be similar to the traffic projected for the 144 units now proposed.

There are at least two reasons that a greater unit count might be necessary.  First, walkable urban development works best when the uses are sufficiently close that walking is more convenient than driving.  To reach that threshold, density is required.  Second, a more urbanist configuration would likely be more expensive for the developer.  Additional units may be required for financial feasibility.

Unit size: When I suggest a more urbanist focus for the site, one of my targets is the owner description of the project as “luxury apartments”.  I understand why developers prefer to constrain projects within a narrow demographic band.  It simplifies construction and leasing.

But the sorting that results from the narrow demographic target has at least two undesirable effects.  First, it reinforces the “us versus them” mentality that already pervades too much of our world.  Second, it removes some of the fine-grain that Jane Jacobs argued was necessary for periodic regeneration.

Therefore, I’d prefer that the Maria Drive apartments include a broader range of housing options, perhaps even including a few micro-units.  As a benefit to the neighbors, the smaller units, especially the micro-units, would generate less traffic than the larger units.

If we create a place where attorneys use the same dumpsters as gardeners and where the children of accountants play with the children of laborers, we just might be building a better world.

Update: As anticipated, on Monday evening the Petaluma City Council gave the continued go-ahead to the project as currently proposed.  Four Councilmembers endorsed the project at the currently proposed density.  Two others suggested that a lower density would be preferred.  None argued for a more intense, urbanist configuration.  The lesson of embracing interesting times is still underway.

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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