Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Like a Trick Birthday Candle, an Old Urbanism Debate Flickers Back to Life

This story has its roots in the days when I was just beginning to grasp urbanism.  It’s a story about which I’ve offered details here and there during the history of this blog, although the full story can wait until the unlikely day when I write my memoirs.  But there are always more aspects to consider.  Today, I’ll give another glimpse into those long-ago days.

It was in late 1989 when I became the consulting engineer for a 1,600-acre resort-type project on the western side of Bend, Oregon.  Among other team members were two principals with an architectural/planning firm who had ideas far ahead of their time.  They proposed, and the developer accepted, a land plan that included a moderately dense and walkable core, much of it comprised of multi-story residential over streetfront retail.  The clubhouses for two golf courses and the shuttle pickup for the nearby ski resort were within the walkable core.

The spread of home sites away from the core and throughout the large development site kept the overall concept from being considered fully walkable, but the plan was nonetheless unusually walkable for its time and I was pleased to be a member of the team.

As the one of the few team members located in Bend, it fell to me to help shepherd the project through the entitlement process.  The first step was the rezoning of the site into a newly created zone that would facilitate a combination of vertically-mixed, single-family residential, and recreational uses.

The rezoning effort started well, with limited concerns from either City staff or the public.  But the brakes were suddenly applied when the application reached the planning commission.  The commission refused to make a decision on the application, instead continuing it on several occasions as public concerns grew.

Among the leading skeptics was the mayor.  He had measured the area of the proposed walkable core, found it roughly the same as the current downtown, and raised the alarm that the project, by building a second downtown, would undermine the finances of the existing downtown.

It seemed a curious position for the mayor to take as the city had in recent years approved two large covered malls on the north end of town, each of which was comparable in size to downtown.  But the walkability of the proposed core somewhat made this project different than the malls, at least to the mayor.

I was sure he was wrong.  But I lacked the facts and arguments to convince him of that, which was a shame because I was in a unique position to debate with him.  We played on the same softball team, with the mayor manning shortstop and me holding down third base.  For six innings every week, we stood 35 feet apart, with plenty of opportunities for me to educate him on the beneficial nature of walkable urbanism.  But I didn’t know how to close the deal.

In the end, my lack of a sales pitch didn’t make a difference.  With the project still lingering at the planning commission, a forest fire ripped through the site.  Two days after the fire, I rode in a private plane to survey the damage.  It was painful to see the ashes and blackened tree trunks where the walkable core had been planned.

The bigger project died the night of the fire.  A smaller project was proposed for a corner of the property, a development that kept me engaged for the next ten years.  But I still missed the walkable core that had been lost to the fire.

Eventually, years after I’d moved to the North Bay, much of the burned land was developed into a pair of golf courses and extremely low density housing.  The golf courses and home sites are magnificent, as shown in the photos here, with the volcanic terrain providing a surprising reasonable simulation of the Scottish links land where golf was born but, except for the few golfers who still carry their bags, there were no walkability anywhere.

Ironically, Bend had a second chance to embrace a walkable core outside of the downtown, one that grabbed with more enthusiasm.  A former mill site south of downtown was acquired by a developer who incorporated the mill buildings into a walkable retail development.  Personally, I think the district is too trendy and oriented to national chains, lacks a residential component to create a truly urban experience, and fails to capture the personality of Central Oregon, but I’m still pleased that it exists.

And the Mill District doesn’t seem to have harmed the downtown at all, with the two offering complementary experiences and people flowing back and forth between the two.

Given the chances over the last 25 years, in Central Oregon and elsewhere, to see the impact of new walkable development on established downtowns, I expected that the arguments made by the shortstop-playing mayor had been long abandoned.

My expectation was wrong.  And it was proved wrong here in the North Bay.

The Cloverdale City Council recently approved revisions to the plan for a proposed equestrian resort on the edge of their town.  The vote was 4-1, with the holdout being Mayor Mary Ann Brigham who was concerned about the impact of the walkable commercial in the development on the existing downtown.

In her words, as reported by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.  “The cream in this town is very limited.  We still have to protect the downtown core. It is going to affect the downtown businesses.  It perplexes me — we still expect downtown businesses to thrive, but keep hitting them over and over.”

It’s ironic.  Twenty-five years later, I know how to argue against the points she’s making.  But I see little chance of her and me I lacing up our spikes and taking our positions on the left side of the infield where I could do my lobbying.  I can’t speak to the mayor’s willingness to keep her glove down as a hot grounder approaches, but I know that my achy knees would rebel at six innings on the hard infield dirt and my shoulder would make a throw from the hot corner look like a dying quail.

So here is where I must make my stand.

“Madame Mayor, I applaud your commitment to the financial vitality of your downtown.  I would love to see other mayors show the same passion.

“But I think you’re wrong about the relationship between walkable downtowns and walkable retail districts elsewhere in the city.  I find that walkability, wherever it occurs, builds a love of walkable settings and make downtowns more vibrant.

“To me, walkable districts are much like bookstores.  A second bookstore doesn’t take business away from the first bookstore, but builds a culture of book appreciation that benefits the first store.

“Rather than opposing the retail component of the resort, I ask you to work hard to make the new retail district as walkable as possible.  And to seek good connections, whether by bike or by transit, between the new district and your downtown.

“I think you’ll be pleased by the results.”

The City of Burlingame recently acquired a town crier.  I find it a fun little effort, but can’t seriously recommend town criers to any North Bay city.  But the concept highlights the problem of alerting citizens to the truly important things happening in their communities.  When I next write, I have an idea to offer.  It’s almost undoubtedly unworkable, but perhaps it will trigger ingenuity in others.

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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