Monthly Archives: November 2013

More Town Center Parking?

By Dom Nozzi

In the late 1990s, I was asked about my thoughts regarding the proposal to add more parking in the Gainesville FL town center (via a parking garage).

I pointed out that in my opinion, many mistakenly believe that the health of the town center is determined by having “sufficient” parking in the town center. Such thinking fails to understand that too much town center parking is one of the most effective recipes for killing the vibrancy and health of a town center. And nearly all town centers already have way too much parking, despite the near universal (and false) belief that the town center has too little parking, and needs more.

With too much parking, there will be that much less reason for people to visit (or live in) the town center. If the town center has attractive features (an arts fest, a critical mass of restaurants and bars, cultural activities), people will quickly and relatively easily figure out a way to get to the town center.

The risk for most town centers is that those seeking to improve it will suboptimize on parking (i.e., put all of its eggs in the “parking” basket to the detriment of other essential objectives) and reduce the number of features that would make the town center an attractor. Cities like Buffalo and Houston, for example, have plenty of town center parking. But now that most of the town center of these two cities is surface parking, who the hell wants to go there? Or live there?

An astonishing irony in all of this was that an allegedly “pro-business,” “pro-free enterprise” elected city commissioner for Gainesville opposed wrapping the first floor of the proposed new parking garage with retail StauntonParking 2businesses. He wanted the garage to be designed for nothing except parking cars.

Excuse me?

We pour millions of dollars of public subsidies into making suburban motorists happy, and do away with an opportunity to get more bang from our public buck by creating business opportunities in such a public welfare building???

This from a “pro-business” person?

I was not totally opposed to the new garage. Parking garages are much preferable for a town center than surface parking lots, as less of the very scarce town center land needs to be deadened per parking space (because the spaces are stacked), and the opportunity to wrap the garage with retail is certainly better than the surface parking lot that is normally unable to provide such a benefit. In addition, a well-designed parking garage can make new, high-density residential and retail development more feasible. Most town centers desperately need more housing and retail vibrancy.

________________________________________

50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

https://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

http://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

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Gainesville Florida Joins Many Cities in Promoting Suburban Sprawl

By Dom Nozzi

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I wrote the following essay at 4 a.m. in 2005, “inspired” by my rage after being woken up, once again, to the infuriating sound of a vacuum truck vacuuming the large asphalt parking lot in a nearby shopping center. The vacuuming had been an on-going outrage that the City of Gainesville was unwilling to address.

What are the primary causes of “suburban sprawl”? In general, it is recognized that widespread ownership of cars, abundant free parking and free-to-use roads, combined with the construction and widening of urban highways, the footloose nature of employers, the desire for larger yards for children to play in, and rising incomes, have been important influences that have led people to flee the city.

In Gainesville in 2005, it was commonly pointed out that the flight from in-town neighborhoods in recent years was driven primarily by two problems: (1) A high crime rate (or at least a perception of a high rate); and (2) Poor quality public schools.

Unfortunately, five additional problems had emerged in Gainesville and a great many other communities in America — factors that are probably most noticeable in neighborhoods near the town center. Problems that mostly originated from service tasks that originate in the town center. Problems that I believe are influencing people living in or near the town center to “pull up the stakes” and move out to sprawlsville.

1. The Vacuum Truck. At a frequency of three or four times each week back in 2005 (I do not know if this assault on nighttime peace and quiet continues to this day), I was awakened sometime between midnight and 4 a.m. on a regular basis by the high-pitched whine of a vacuum truck. The truck was hired by shopping centers in and near the town center to vacuum their enormous asphalt parking lots. This work — akin to the sound of a dentists’ drill — usually lasted about 30 minutes, but can sometimes go on for over an hour.

Part of the problem was the Gainesville noise ordinance, which I had written a few years earlier in my role as a town planner for Gainesville. To deal with the problem of officers not having a noise meter or not being trained to use one during a violation, I inserted a “plainly audible” rule, that allows a “reasonable person” (such as an officer) to determine, by listening, that the noise is plainly disturbing from a distance in excess of 200 feet. Unfortunately, despite this standard being upheld around the country, a Florida court had recently rejected it.

A second problem was that the vacuum truck produced a high-pitched whine that, while annoying, probably did not exceed the decibel limits in the ordinance. The remedy was to amend the ordinance to establish “octave band” limits used by a number of other cities. What this would mean, however, is more expensive meters would be needed, and more training for our officers.

Unlike in the relatively open, dispersed land use patterns found in sprawl locations, those living in or near town centers tend to be so near other homes, shops and services that noise pollution is much more of a problem. The utter inability of Gainesville and many other American cities to control the unbearable, on-going noise bombardment of vacuum trucks into nearby neighborhoods, then, is a guarantee that the flight to sprawlsville will continue at its high rate.

2. The Malathion Truck. Each summer, I dreaded the “hissing sound” when I lived in my in-town neighborhood in Gainesville. It was a sound that forced me to leap to my feet, dash to the windows, and shut them before The Malathion Truck passed by — invading the outdoor and indoor air with a sickly-sweet smell of the Malathion pesticide. Among other things, I was forced to frantically shut the windows because the spray gave me headaches.

I realize the truck is used to try to kill mosquitoes, but I have an environmental science degree, which gives me the knowledge that if we want to control mosquitoes, such spraying is about as effective as spraying water vapor.

I’m concerned that spraying might make the mosquito problem worse over time, since it could be harmful to the critters in our neighborhood that naturally feed on mosquitoes.

Again, unlike in the dispersed, outlying sprawl neighborhood locations, those of us living in or near town centers tend to be much more likely to be inflicted with toxic pesticides sprayed into the air we breath. (remember the old adage: “The solution to pollution is dilution”?). The practice of Gainesville to engage in frequent spraying of toxins into the relatively confined spaces of town center neighborhoods is, again a guarantee that many will be chased to sprawlsville.

3. The Banner Planes. Each fall, during the college football season, Gainesville’s in-town neighborhoods are frequently treated to the loud, low-flying sound of the “banner planes” — planes dragging large advertisements over the thousands of fans at the UF football stadium during games. Loud, flying billboards on a Saturday afternoon inflict terrible noise pollution into town center neighborhoods on each and every football weekend.

The City of Gainesville is not allowed to regulate planes, due to federal law. The result, once more, is another reason to relocate to the relatively quiet sprawl locations.

4. Emergency Vehicle Sirens. Living near a town center in an enormous number of American cities, one is given the impression that she or he is living in a war-torn area, given how often in-town neighborhoods are treated to the shriek of emergency vehicle sirens racing down the town center streets (where a “hub” for emergency services tends to be located). In cities lacking in elected leadership, this problem is particularly severe, as the elected officials don’t have the courage or the wisdom to control their emergency service providers. Gainesville, like so many American communities, has lacked leadership for decades, so it was no surprise to me that friends and family visiting Gainesville would often point out to me that the sirens in Gainesville were much more noticeable than in any other city they had visited or lived in.

I’ve heard of one city that informed its fire and police supervisors that they need to ease up on the sirens in the middle of the night between intersections, since there are so few cars on the road at those times, and the supervisors complied. I’ve not heard that this particular city has suffered from an epidemic of babies dying in burning buildings, regular traffic accidents, or widespread burglaries, as a result of that effective policy to control the exponential growth in out-of-control emergency vehicle sirens.

How many people in Gainesville, consciously or unconsciously, relocated out of a town center residence because they found the screaming discomfort of rampaging fire trucks to be intolerable?

5. The Police Helicopter. When I lived in Gainesville, the city police department and county sheriff jointly purchased a law enforcement helicopter. Like the banner planes, it was loud and low-flying. Unlike the banner planes, it was often used late at night, and frequently used an Sussex_police_helicopterinvasive searchlight to scan areas. The helicopter would sometimes circle for what seemed like an endless amount of time. Fortunately, the helicopter problem has apparently subsided over time.

Like the emergency vehicle sirens, police helicopters tend to be much more frequent in the town center skies than in outlying areas of a community. Escaping the Big Brother helicopter is, of course, commonly achieved by moving to the hinterlands.

Am I Being Thin-Skinned?

Could it be that I am just a hyper-sensitive, thin-skinned person when it comes to these five items? I don’t believe so. On a number of occasions during my time in Gainesville, I had people tell me that they noticed these problems to be significantly less noticeable in cities much, much larger. I also had a number of people over the years complain to me about the vacuum truck, the banner planes, the Malathion Truck, and the police helicopter.

Due to the enormous number and scale of benefits I enjoy by living centrally, I am committed to living in town center neighborhoods, so these problems have not chased me away from living in such locations. But I wonder how many of my neighbors have left because of these growing nuisances…

Are these problems inherent for those that live in town center neighborhoods — problems that people should expect as part of the ambient conditions of living in such a central location? Again, I don’t believe so. I believe that it is possible for a healthy downtown to function without such an excessive amount of vacuum trucks, relentless sirens, banner planes, helicopters, and Malathion trucks. It has been successfully done in nearly all healthy cities over the course of human history. We got by without such things in the past, and did quite nicely. Why is it not possible now?

Until some of these problems are resolved, cities such as Gainesville will continue to see people fleeing in-town residences for the perceived peace and quiet of sprawlsville. If we are truly committed to sustainability, infill, and compact development, I believe we should do what we have an obligation to find the leadership to reduce the nuisances I’ve summarized above.

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My memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab 50 Years Memoir CoverHardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

https://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

http://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

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Parking Garages and Leadership

By Dom Nozzi

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When I was a senior planner for Gainesville, Florida, I had the extreme misfortune one day of walking into the planning director’s office to observe a discussion by our city commission at their regular Monday meeting. At this meeting, the commission was discussing a (predictable) funding shortfall for the parking garage being proposed to serve the new county courthouse, and the design of this garage.

I was intensely interested in the design of the garage, as the city commission had recently adopted land development regulations I had written that provided parking garage design requirements.campus_square_garage

Over the years, I had become amused and, at times, horrified by the extreme lack of knowledge or leadership by nearly all of the city commissioners in Gainesville. The commission meetings were painful to watch, given the tragic ignorance of their deliberations. In sum, it had become pure, unadulterated torture to listen to a commission meeting for more than a few seconds.

Given the utter contempt I had come to feel for the commission, during my 20 years as a town planner for Gainesville (and despite the commission often addressing topics I was highly interested in or professionally involved with), I had attended or watched only four or five city commission meetings. And that tiny handful only because my planner job occasionally required me to make a presentation to the city commission.

Despite my better instincts, then, I decided to watch what would surely be another in a long line of commission silliness, largely because a presentation was being made by the consultant designing the garage — a consultant who understands and appreciates quality design. As I watched, I vowed that I would immediately leave the room the moment a city commissioner started uttering a word.

During the consultant presentation, it became brutally obvious to me what the commission would decide about designing the garage, despite there being no commission comments during the presentation, and despite my not having heard anything previously about commission views on this topic.

As is the case with nearly all elected officials faced with funding problems (which regularly includes screams from constituents that a project is “too expensive”), the Gainesville commission would surely be falling all over itself to cut all of the ornamentation and detailing out of the garage. To create, as is almost always done, a lifeless, embarrassing, sterile, dreary box building that would create a dead zone in a town center in desperate need of vibrancy. To continue the sad tradition of disregarding and dishonoring the public realm in yet another American community.

I made a mistake by somehow staying in the room when one of our “leaders” began his comments.

It was immediately obvious that the mad dash toward mediocrity was about to begin.

The commissioner started by insisting that all ornamentation and detailing be stripped from the impressive architectural design. Then, the clincher: His ideological buddy on the commission chimes in by requesting that a first-floor “wrap” of offices and retail around the deadening car storage building be eliminated.

This “wrap” was required by a town center ordinance I had written a few years earlier to try to enliven these deadening auto garages. The town center was suffering from decades of decline, in part created by the many car parking areas spreading like a cancer in this heart of the city. The office and retail “wrap” my regulations called for is used throughout the nation to enhance the walkability of a suffering town center in desperate need of more life.

To my horror, I suddenly realized what my task would be the next day at the office: Either find a way for the commission to evade this “wrap” regulation, or prepare a staff recommendation to dump the regulation. Commissioners have an important advantage over private developers: if commissioners don’t like a regulation for one of their development projects, they simply get rid of it.

“Do as we say, not as we do…”

As the commissioner made his case for dumping the “wrap,” I quickly exited the room. I walked out calmly, but inside I was shrieking in agony and on the verge of vomiting.

An epiphany struck me: Perhaps more so than with private developers, city development regulations are necessary to protect against public officials who are desperate to find any possible way to avoid making anyone unhappy, even if it means substantial design compromise that goes against staff recommendations.

The same holds true for a great many local government staff supervisors. For both commissioners and supervisors, much of life consists of compromising. An important difference, therefore, between leadership and mediocrity is that the leader is uncompromising when it comes to designing for quality of life.

This shameful parking garage debacle clarified, for me, how I would define leadership in the city government pursuit of an improved quality of life. There are four fundamental elements that create a town leader. A city government leader…

…Has courage to not cave in on a proposal that is clearly in the public interest. Courage when faced with bleeding heart or “black hat” pressure to stop the proposal or emasculate it.

…Has wisdom about quality, timeless design in the public realm. Is not susceptible to bogus design arguments.

…Is uncompromising in her or his pursuit of an improved quality of life. Corners are not cut on essentials. When it comes to a town center – the vital heart of a community — it is often not in the public interest to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. The thousands of lifeless public buildings built around the nation over the past 50 years are testaments to how few leaders are found in this country. The entirely forgettable, unlovable and embarrassing “modernist” public buildings we’ve built since WWII means that our sense of civic pride is nearly non-existent.

…Is decisive. The leader understands that putting off decisions, or referring decisions to “boards,” or “task forces,” or “committees” (that is, substantially increasing the number of decision makers) inevitably dumbs down the proposal, waters it down to meaningless pabulum, or kills it. The decision-maker knows that momentum to get it done quickly, while the vision is sharp in the minds of the decision-makers, is crucial in avoiding Death by Lowest Common Denominator (the non-decision that offends no one because it does nothing).

I’m sorry to say this, but in my 20 years in Gainesville city government, I did not see a single city commissioner possess these four elements.

Indeed, most Gainesville city commissioners over those 20 years embodied the opposite of these four, to the ultimate and long-lasting ruin of their community.

I’ve gotten glimpses of leadership elsewhere. It does exist on rare occasions, even in America: Nancy Graham in West Palm Beach. Joseph Riley in Charleston. John Norquist in Milwaukee.

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50 Years Memoir CoverMy memoir can be purchased here: Paperback = http://goo.gl/9S2Uab Hardcover =  http://goo.gl/S5ldyF

My book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here: http://www.lulu.com/product/paperback/the-car-is-the-enemy-of-the-city/10905607Car is the Enemy book cover

My book, Road to Ruin, can be purchased here:

http://www.amazon.com/Road-Ruin-Introduction-Sprawl-Cure/dp/0275981290

My Adventures blog

http://domnozziadventures.wordpress.com/

Run for Your Life! Dom’s Dangerous Opinions blog

https://domdangerous.wordpress.com/

My Town & Transportation Planning website

http://walkablestreets.wordpress.com/

My Plan B blog

http://domz60.wordpress.com/

My Facebook profile

http://www.facebook.com/dom.nozzi

My YouTube video library

http://www.youtube.com/user/dnozzi

My Picasa Photo library

https://picasaweb.google.com/105049746337657914534

My Author spotlight

http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/domatwalkablestreetsdotcom

 

 

 

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