Thursday, December 31

Miami 21 set to shape the city's future

View from Condo in the Brickell Neighborhood
I've spent the last week staying in downtown Miami and poking around the city. Miami has been in the national spotlight recently because of the the October adoption of the Miami 21 zoning code. After five years of public meetings, the City Council approved a new form-based code that encourages a walkable streetscape to replace the old system that strictly separated uses. Miami is the first big city in the U.S. to make this shift, but Denver and a few others are following closely behind.

Anthony Flint praised the Miami 21 code in the Boston Globe as a "blueprint for sustainable urban form," and many others in the planning community have expressed enthusiastic approval. Last spring, the U.S. Conference of Mayors presented Manny Diaz with an architectural award for Miami 21. Of course, certain elements have been watered down from the original intentions of DPZ, the planning firm leading the rewrite, especially the crucial issue of minimum parking standards around transit stops. However, most of the commenters I've come across think it's a step forward. Even the folks over at New Geography gave some words of approval, albeit couched in skepticism over its implementation.
"New Urbanism won this victory because there weren’t any compelling counter-arguments to their basic argument for urban hygiene. And Miami 21 comes at a time when the city has been egregiously abused at the hands of the free market; its citizens disenfranchised and suffering from an environment of ugliness, traffic and congestion."
Calle Ocho, the Main Street of Little Havana
Not surprisingly, the local reception has been more controversial. Neighborhood groups wanted less intensity, and developers wanted more intensity. Both claim to have been left out of the process. The local AIA chapter opposed the code, claiming it would stifle creativity and put a damper on "world class architecture." This makes a certain degree of sense considering that some mainstream architects have been among the most vocal critics of New Urbanism over the years. Supporters of Miami 21 thought the controversy had been successfuly navigated until the new mayor, who had been the sole opposing vote on Council, was able to pass a 3-month extension on the start date. The can of worms may be opened back up again.

My limited experience with walking around some neighborhoods of Miami revealed to me the need for such a code. The demand for walkable urban living was clearly evident in the recent condo boom, which still clearly has to grow into itself for a few more years. The Brickell neighborhood went from being mostly a financial district to housing over 17,000 people. Local bloggers tell of the dangers of walking in a city oriented around the automobile, but many are trying nonetheless.

The ground-floor urban fabric and pedestrian experience has yet to catch up to this market demand. It's interesting that the public focus during the Miami 21 seems to be mostly about building height restrictions, while the meat of the code deals with what happens on the street level. Some transit is in place, but many of the stops are fronted with empty lots, parking garages with no liner buildings, or stark office towers with little street presence. There seems to be very few mid-rise areas. The downtown is filled with tall buildings that abruptly transition into single-story dwellings throughout the rest of the city.

Whenever the next building boom kicks back in, the City of Miami should be well prepared to shape the new growth into a sustainable and attractive form. And the rest of us have an opportunity to see how it all takes shape.

Thursday, December 17

Public space doesn't matter until it matters

From the Greek Agora to the New England town hall, the public square has always been the place where urban society hashes out its politics and culture. Over the last several decades, the physical public spaces have gradually been chipped away and privatized. The quintessential Main Street has largely been replaced by the indoor mall, and then the lifestyle center. Panera bread and Starbucks have become the primary gathering places of community. The streets are no longer the place to hear and be heard.

There's nothing wrong with Starbucks or commercial establishments in general, but what happens to the activities that get in the way of commerce - the political expression, art and music, religious proclamation, soapbox speeches, private solicitations - all of the messy diversity inherent to democracy? As public as our new third places may feel, they still maintain the legal right to exclusion.

Two unrelated controversies from the Charlottesville area highlight the abiding need for enough truly public spaces in our communities.

The first case is a clash between the ideals of free speech and private property. The congressional representative for Virginia's 5th district, democrat Tom Perriello, has an office near the downtown of Charlottesville. On several occasions, large groups of protesters (yes, tea party) have stood outside his office to make themselves heard. However, since the parking lot is technically private property, and nearby businesses have been impacted by the crowds, the protesters are being required by the landowner to stand 100 feet from the office on the public sidewalk. They have been threatened with a trespassing violation.

The Rutherford Institute, a national civil liberties advocacy group, has publicly asked Perriello to move to a place where he can be petitioned more easily. Founder John W. Whitehead wrote in a letter:

"Unfortunately, it is your choice of office location that has hindered the ability of citizens to effectively communicate concerning issues of the utmost importance to you, Congress and the people of the Commonwealth of Virginia."
Local conservative talk show host Rob Schilling asks for the same thing:
"will the Congressman relocate his office to a “public” site so as not to abridge his constituents’ access to him and his staff?"
But where might this "public" place be?

The second story is less thorny legally, but still important. As we all know, the Salvation Army has a tradition of soliciting for the poor during the holiday season outside of shopping centers. What we tend to forget is that this all happens under the good graces of the property owners of the shopping centers. A few stores in the Charlottesville area have begun to bar the bell-ringers from their property, under the grounds that it disturbs their customers. The space along the walkways that has appeared public all along suddenly becomes obviously not. The local Salvation Army has claimed to take a $22,000 hit as a result.

Charlottesville actually fares better than most places in it's vital public spaces. The car-free downtown mall hosts every variety of speech or musical talent year round and even reserves a special wall to encourage political expression. And, health care debates aside, this era in our country does not happen to be one of extraordinary political tumult. If some people in contemporary Charlottesville are even struggling to be heard, what does it mean for those towns and cities that have long since sold off and moved away from their only public squares.

Friday, December 11

30-second tour of San Diego

My thoughtful wife brought a whole roll full of "the kinds of pictures you would take" back from San Diego with her.

The automatically scaling images are an experiment. I'm not so sure they work.

The San Diego Trolley is a light rail line started in 1980. It has since grown to become the fifth most popular system in the country.

This fountain in Balboa Park seems to be a pretty active public space. I like the waterway running along the side of the path.

The entrance into the Gas Lamp district just draws you in to all of the activity.

Wednesday, December 9

Eminent domain and the scale of development

The incredibly thorny legal issue of Fifth Amendment takings is back in the spotlight. The U.S. Supreme Court is mulling over the value of beachfront property in Florida, and another very different takings case was decided by a New York appeals court against Columbia University. The University wanted to use eminent domain to acquire a few hold-out properties that were in the way of a campus expansion. The court had a problem with the procedure used to determine that the neighborhood was blighted, and thus struck down the prior condemnation of the properties.

Legal questions aside, David Sucher, of City Comforts Blog, has a fascinating response to the Columbia "loss." He's not so sure it's a loss:

"There is an urban design element to this issue which should not be ignored. All that happens (if this decision is upheld) is that Columbia may not be able to build a "campus." It can certainly build on the rest of the land it has already purchased, (much of it however I assume under threat of condemnation which may be a biter pill for those who sold "voluntarily.") It could build on those parcels as if it was just any other property owner.

Yes, the overall feel would not be of a traditional isolated walled tree-shaded “campus.” It would be much more urban with non-university buildings along the current street grid etc etc. Columbia's building would be interspersed with non-univeristy structures. In fact if the City were smart it would require Columbia to build mixed-use structures so that in appropriate locations there would be commercial uses along the street and Columbia's buildings would be integrated into the neighborhood. That should have been the style of development from the start; there would have been no eminent domain dispute and it have been a much better and safer (in many ways) urban design solution.

Unfortunately most institutional developers think in terms of a nice clean tabula rasa campus and not how the space they need can fit with an existing city. That’s a pity.

In this case Columbia is held hostage to its view that the way to satisfy its space needs (which I do not dispute) is in the form of a “campus” which reads as separate from the surrounding neighborhood. If Columbia could get rid of that antiquated notion it could be under construction immediately as it owns a great deal of land.

Here is another way to look at it: do you want Columbia’s expansion to feel like a Robert Moses “campus?” or a Jane Jacobs “neighborhood?"
Last month the City of New London, Connecticut experienced one of the liabilities of an all-or-nothing urban renewal approach. As an economic development strategy, 8-years ago the city courted the Pfizer Corporation with a brand new office park and plans for surrounding hotels and condominiums. Now the Pfizer Corporation is pulling out and leaving behind the shell of an office park and the still undeveloped land around it. The use of eminent domain from the outset launched the City into the landmark Kelo v. New London Supreme Court case. And they won. Or did they?

The problem with large-scale "tabula rasa" development is that it lacks resilience. One piece falls out and it all comes crashing down. How many communities have bent over backwards for a huge-footprint Walmart or Target, only to be left with the discarded carcass of a building a decade later? Building the kind of neighborhood Sucher is talking about may be a more complicated investment, one not well supported by government policies or the structure of financial institutions, but the long-term payback makes it worth it.

Monday, December 7

Dreaming about magic highways

This blog has been mostly irony-free since the very beginning, and now the storehouse of pent-up sarcasm and glibness is about to break out. Sorry in advance.

Commenter Andrew sent a link to this 1958 Disney promo video, the Magic Highway. I've watched the Futurama video (part 1 and part 2), made for the 1939 World's Fair by GM, but the Magic Highway is surely the reductio ad absurdum of American motoring idealism. It descends one more notch into self-parody every minute it goes on, but it's obviously dead serious and coincides closely with the start of our nation's real era of highway-building.

Watch the whole thing, but my favorite part is the family suburban commute around minute three. Once mother and son are safely transported to the shopping center, father drives into a highway elevator and is conveyed directly to his high-rise office.

"From his private parking space, father will probably have to walk to his desk."
Because having to walk is like eating molten lava.

Ok ... leaving aside the question of the possibilities of technological progress, this vision is not even internally logically consistent. There are no acres of parking lots, no roadway congestion whatsoever. People's muscles have not atrophied, and their waistlines are still oddly thin. The family unit is still intact, even though the entire world is oriented around hyper-individualized convenience. Nobody seems to drive right off the side of the guardrail-free elevated motorways. Energy is infinite and omnipresent, presumably transmitted through the air. Land and materials are infinite, having no pre-existing value. Unless, that is, we conquer cause and effect in the future ...

Why am I picking on a 1950's utopia? Surely only the most ardent highway enthusiast still hold on to this dream. The reason is that the utopias of culture matter, especially the most far-fetched. Even if they are not achieved, what we get is a landing somewhere along the trajectory toward this goal. The vision predicted,
"the shape of our cities will change as expanded highway transportation decentralizes our population centers into vast urban areas."
That's what happened.

In this vision, nature is depicted as exclusively an impediment to human flourishing and economic development.
"In one sweep a giant road-builder changes rough ground into a wide finished highway."
An atomic reactor "makes molehills out of mountains." That's the guiding principle that has stuck.

Finally, the good being pursued here is the fully privatized life, as compartmentalized as possible from messy and unpredictable interventions from other people.

Wednesday, December 2

Overheard in a coffeeshop

Standing in line in a coffeeshop in downtown Fredericksburg, Virginia, I overheard two women, presumably fairly well-off, having a conversation behind me.

So, do you live downtown?
“No, I live out in Spotsylvania County.”
Really? So do we, but our house is way to big for us, especially after the children have left.
“Yeah, we feel the same way. A few years ago we actually moved into a 3-bedroom house right down the road from us just because it was smaller.”
We’d love to move too, but I don’t know how to downsize and stay in the same neighborhood. The people are what make the place, you know.”
While this is purely anecdotal, my eavesdropping made me wonder how many people are out there like this – folks who make their housing decisions based on relationships or social standing and merely tolerate having to live in a large house with a large lawn because they perceive this as the only option available to them.