Monday, July 04, 2005

Albemarle County Goes to Town

Albemarle Place is a New Urbanist's dream - "a mixed-use, neo-traditional community that will attract high quality retailers, residents and economic development interests to its "New Main Street" environment," is how its designers describe its master plan.

Work on the project - with 1.9 million square feet of leasable space, 780 apartments and a 150-room hotel - could start by year's end, says the Daily Progress. Developer Frank Cox and county planners have traded compliments about how the project meshes with the county's 'Neighborhood Model' zoning.

And look at the location - the project is tucked right against the city limits at the intersection of Route 29 and Hydraulic Road. Isn't this just what other counties ought to be doing - leveraging the economic strength of an urban core?


At 9:22 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Despite my public arguments with E.M. Risse, I don't have any particular gripe with New Urban Development, and I'm sure it is appropriate in the right setting. I'm not familiar with the area, but Hydraulic road, adjacent to the current urban area might be a good spot.

But Albemarle's Neighborhood model zoning is not so much a zoning ordinance as a collection of platitudes. It suffers the same deficits I have pointed out in EMR's writing: It is internally inconsistent, promises too much for what it is, and makes claims that are not justified.

I believe it is a good thing to have zoning ordinances that represent a set of guidelines or goals rather than a set of ridged "Ye Shall's". Even better if the ordinance, like Albemarle's provides visual clues as to what is desired.

This is particularly hard for me to say, because the "Neighborhood Model" zoning contains what appear to be many good ideas, on the surface, yet it left me feeling vaguely uneasy in it's intellectual clarity.

At the moment, I can't get the web page to come up, so please excuse me if my arguments are as vague and unfocused as I claim the neighborhood model to be: I am working from memory.

I'm going to try to examine a few of the arguments from the website. In one case they talked about the idea of visual containment and human scale. The argument was that narrower streets and buildings closer to the street added visual interest, as in European cities with Portugal as an example. One of the benefits claimed for narrower streets was less runoff, and and examples were shown, of a townhouse neighborhood, a Portuguese town with very narrow streets, and a typical suburban neighborhood with wide streets and large front lawns.

I won't claim that some suburban streets have no character, but the example chosen seemed to me to be particularly unflattering. Not all suburban streets are so banal.

The argument was combined with arguments for containing the space use for parking, and the idea of walk able neighborhoods. One argument was that walk able neighborhoods required increased density and mixed use in order to create sufficient destinations that are walk able.

No argument here.

But the arguments for limiting parking, consisted of using on-street parking (to limit traffic speeds), parking behind the buildings, shared parking, and lower parking space requirements for commercial and apartment complexes.

None of these plans limit the need for parking.

There are X number of cars in the U. S. and at any given time most of them are not in use. They will need a place to sit until they are used. Planning both narrower streets and on-street parking in order to limit traffic speeds is an invitation for more congestion. In fact, one of the photographs seemed to show a delivery truck double-parked!

None of the ideas for reducing parking actually reduced the need for parking; they only made it more inconvenient, more dangerous, and less available. This is a prescription for increasing congestion.

Having said that, I never understood the usual shopping center parking plan. To my way of thinking we need to put the park back in parking lot. The circumferential road should be at the perimeter, not at the storefront. Parking lots should have copious trees for shade, and wide walkways to the stores, without the need to sprint across the storefront roadway. Parking lots should be public gathering places in their own right, because they are the modern day equivalent of the backyard fence or central commons.

We have allowed commercial parking places to be commercial assets, without requiring them to be the social assets they could represent.

At the same time, planning narrower streets and increased density (with parking behind the buildings) is a recipe for increasing runoff, not decreasing it. Whether intentional or not, the photographs conveyed an impression directly opposite of the written arguments. Requiring parking behind the stores (as in a local plan) merely changes a strip mall into two strip malls facing opposite directions.

The banal street offered as an example clearly had more open land to absorb runoff than the townhouse development offered as an alternative.

Environmental groups like the Chesapeake Bay Foundation claim that development above 15% of impervious coverage impairs stream values. Then they turn around and argue for more density in order to preserve "Prime Farmland". At the same time they claim there is no land crisis for housing. Frankly, it makes my head spin, and I am an environmental scientist, by training.

As for walk able neighborhoods, the plan offered (part of) Charlottesville as an example. It amounted to a number of walk able neighborhoods with substantial street and road improvement required to support them. Overall, there was no evidence that these walk able neighborhoods would reduce traffic. In addition, on of the ideas was that one neighborhood could afford to be larger, based on the availability of (yet to be developed or paid for) premium rail transit.

I have to stop, due to thunderstorms, but maybe you get the idea: this plan, while it contains some good ideas, is nonsense overall.

At 9:18 AM, Blogger Bob Burke said...

I think the reason retailers like those big asphalt lots in front of their stores is 1) for the Xmas season, and 2) so that shoppers driving by will see immediately that there's room and won't hesitate for a second to drive in. Americans apparently hate to search for a parking space.

Let me toss out a slightly scandalous point on parking. Mixed-used projects won't really do much for traffic unless some people who work there also decide to live there, right? And for some the incentive to do so will have to be to avoid the miserable hunt for a parking space. So how does creating ample parking encourage people to get out of their cars? There, I've said it: isn't a little suffering a good thing?

The hardship factor in changing development patterns came up recently when I was working on a story about the proposed HOT lanes on I-95. Boosters of the Fredericksburg region have for several years been trying to lure new businesses by saying 'our residents hate their long commutes to D.C. so much that they'll work for you for a lot less money.'

So now come the HOT lanes, which would act like a straw from metro D.C. to suck workers from Fredericksburg into businesses in the urban core. And the marketing strategy evaporates.

At 11:26 AM, Anonymous Paul said...

Ray - this cracked me up: "I have to stop, due to thunderstorms, but maybe you get the idea: this plan, while it contains some good ideas, is nonsense overall."

At 12:01 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

"Boosters of the Fredericksburg region have for several years been trying to lure new businesses by saying 'our residents hate their long commutes to D.C. so much that they'll work for you for a lot less money.'" Exactly what I have been saying, we need more jobs in the burbs, for which I got roundly roasted buy EMR. (OK F'burg is not a burb, maybe)

The city generates more money, but it also requires more money, and eventually it creates it's own incentives to leave at the same time F'burg boosters are having success. Then we wonder what causes sprawl.

Still, it seems to me that hardship is a strange way to promote something.

The Xmas season is a very large chunk of retailers annual business, so there is probably some merit to your argument that it is a driver in causing those vast expanses of parking lot.

At the same time, parking is a major driver in the cost of putting up a shopping center, whether rural or urban. The cost of landing urban settings means that parking structures are practical, but in less urban settings they are not.

It might be that all the parking for those max days does not have to be paved: it could be gravel with grass growing through, like the seldom used parking area at my house.

My point was that that vast expanse of parking ought to be broken up with pedestrian amenities so that the hardship of walking wouldn't be a hardship. This would increase the cost of parking, of course, and limit the number and kind of stores that could afford it, resulting in less sprawl, and more enjoyable sprawl where it occurs.

The pedestrian oriented plan shown as an example for part of Charllotesville resulted in a number of communities (five, I think) that were only a quarter mile in radius. One neighborhood near the train station was assumed to have a half mile radius because people would walk farther to the train. But where does the train in C'ville go?

In order to link these walkable communities, the plan envisioned major road and street reconstruction. As a result it wasn't at all clear that less roads were required than in the "bad" cul de sac example shown. Nowhere did the argument address the fact that people prefer (and will pay more for) cul-de-sacs precisely because they limit traffic flow. Isn't that what traffic calming is all about?

We would need thousands of these quarter-mile walkable communities and they would have to be linked by roads. While people who live in these mixed communities might live and shop there, they would still have the option to take their activities elsewhere, and free market competition pretty much guarantees that they will.

The neighborhood model shows a picture of a quaint little Scottish town, surrounded by green space. You would need thousands of towns that size to solve the housing needs in Fairfax, but you haven't got room in Fairfax, so you will have to put those little walkable towns someplace else, call it sprawl if you will.

Otherwise, in order to accomodate denser development and maintain some semblance of sanity, you need more open spaces and parks. It seems to me that all you have done is trade private recreational space (your yard) for public recreational space, which needs more public funding and you probably have to make an appointment to use it.

When I see people drive to the local grocery, they park as near possible to the door. When I put a forty pound ball of twine in the baler, I don't carry it from the my workshop to the baler, let alone from the store. It rides to the baler in a truck or tractor bucket.

Last week three of us were in a hotel near the Baltimore light rail, but we drove to town so we would have a place to lock up our laptops after work. Just because a community is walkable or has transit doesn't mean it is practical.

The website shows a suburban street scene and what it might look like with narrower streets, street trees, and sidewalks. On inspection the "after" picture is a visual fraud. By using bigger houses and fewer houses the street appears more homey, but it is not an apple to apples comparison. Anyway, studies have shown that sidewalks reduce the value of your home (I didn't believe it either.)

How do you have narrower streets and still accomodate behemoth buses for that public transit network? Do narrower streets really cause less environmental "damage" as claimed, or do they just make more room for other streets and alleys?

Here's a quote that made me laugh: "Steep terrain for example, can make pedestrian paths a sensible alternative to excessive
roadcuts." Is our aging society supposed to be mountain goats, packing in our groceries?

Here is another: "The
elements of building height,
setback, yards, architecture, and
spatial enclosure all contribute to
the appearance and function of a
place." This is on the same page as two pictures which show the "advantages" of having no setbacks, like garbage trucks directly under your bedroom window at 6AM.

Reducing runoff is a fine goal. Maybe. But if you make narrower streets, higher density, add an alley and move parking to the back, how can you then turn around a claim you are reducing runoff?

Every year I mow up a few rocks that weren't in my pasture last year. That is because of erosion that is occuring even on heavily vegetated pasture. When I look around at the erosion that occurs on our unpaved rural roads it makes the little silt control fences on construction sites seem ridiculous. Considering the only 5% of our land area is urbanized and the vast remainder of runoff is entirely uncontrolled, are we making too much of a problem out of a natural event?

Probably not, considering what has happened to the Potomac and Chesapeake, but using it as an argument to support one form of building over another probably suggests we need more research and less hype.

Shared parking? What does that mean?

And finally this quote

"Under many zoning ordinances, large-lot single- family houses are built in one area, small-lot single family houses are generally built in another area, duplexes and townhouses are in a separate area, and apartments are separate from all three of these
other housing types. This practice separates different age groups and income levels in a
community and it often separates generations within families, as they require specialized housing
at different points in a lifetime. By contrast, many
traditional American neighborhoods and towns provide a mix of housing types within close proximity, often next door."

Those traditional neighborhoods were probably built before the advent of zoning. Sounds like an argument to eliminate zoning to me.

When I was in Baltimore last week you could look around and see old neighborhoods that had many of the attributes cited in the plan, neighborhoods that were once friendly and vibrant, and are now run down crack-house slums. A community takes more than a good zoning ordinance.


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