Monthly Archives: September 2014

Downtown Parking: Is It Killing Your Town?

By Dom Nozzi

Everyone seems to know exactly how to make their downtown better: MORE PARKING!!!

A few years ago, I read a research article written by a couple of internationally famous transportation and livable cities experts. Part of their work was to survey 32 cities worldwide for the amount of parking and lane mileage provided downtown, and then look for correlations between these factors and both gasoline consumption and the livability of the city.

11781090Based on this analysis, they came up with a rule of thumb for a CBD (Central Business District) parking-to-CBD employment ratio. Their conclusion was that beyond 200 parking spaces per 1,000 jobs, the city becomes noticeably ugly, congested, polluted, auto dependent, energy intensive, and deteriorated.DSC_0675-copy-771x438

When I did an analysis for Gainesville FL (where I was working as a town planner), I was astounded to learn that despite all the rhetoric about insufficient downtown parking, the city has over FOUR TIMES more spaces than this rule-of-thumb ratio.

Ouch.

Here are some spaces-per-1,000-jobs numbers for perspective:

Phoenix = 1,033

Houston = 370

Detroit = 473

LA = 524

DC = 264

Chicago = 96

NY = 75

Gainesville = 840

It seems to me that if we decide it is “unreasonable” to expect people to walk a couple of blocks from their parking space, or DowntownMinneapolisLot640_0unreasonable to build multi-story parking garages (with first floor office and retail), the city is in trouble of fouling its own nest.

A couple of provisos:

  1. No more downtown parking? Nothing mentioned above should be taken to mean that we should not add ANY form of parking downtown. I’m tired of hearing that canard. I generally support multi-story parking garages, in part because their “verticality” helps define the public realm. And they are especially nice when they include a first floor “wrap” of retail and office (since without such a wrap, the structure has a severe deadening effect). Another enormous benefit of such parking is that it substantially reduces the amount of real estate consumed by car parking. A car parking space consumes an ENORMOUS amount of space (about 350 square feet). Since a healthy town center requires walkable compactness and “agglomeration economies” to thrive, the extreme dispersal of the town center with acres and acres of parking asphalt is a recipe for town center decline.

Many town centers around the nation provide insufficient amounts of on-street parking. I support adding as much on-street parking as possible.

On-street parking buffers pedestrians from the noise and danger of cars, and helps slow cars to a more pleasant and safe speed. In addition, on-street parking is extremely helpful for retail, since retail does better when pedestrians find a more pleasant place to walk (or enjoy an outdoor cafe), and because the parking provides a handy place to park near the front doors of businesses.

In my opinion, it is OFF-STREET parking (asphalt parking lots) that we need to be careful about downtown. Such parking creates “gap tooth” dead zones that harm the downtown ambiance and unique character, create ugliness, and increase crime and safety problems. The space used for off-street parking is usually better used for residences, retail, offices, or cultural buildings — all of which help enhance the quality of the public realm and build vibrancy (and “agglomeration economies”). We need to strike the proper balance in our efforts to revive the downtown, instead of putting all of our eggs into the off-street parking basket.

  1. Quality of transit. Occasionally, people respond to the information I present above about parking ratios by saying that the other cities have higher quality transit, and can therefore get away with less parking.

While it is certainly true that the bigger cities have higher quality transit, I believe we need to realize that this is a “chicken and egg” issue. Which comes first? Quality transit, or the conditions that demand the installation of quality transit? While it is possible that we can get quality transit first, it is not probable. After all, we live in a democracy. Our elected officials are not dictators who will take actions that do not have political support. In nearly every city with quality transit, conditions emerged which lead the citizens to choose to support whatever it took to install quality transit. Conditions such as a high cost and inconvenience to drive a car, park a car, or both.

In summary, we need to strike a balance between the need to provide parking and the need to create a livable, vibrant, transit-supportive, attractive downtown.

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Opposition to the Installation of Greenway Trails for Bicycling and Walking

By Dom Nozzi

An enormous number of Americans are fiercely opposed to the installation of bicycle and pedestrian greenway trails near their homes. As a greenway planner for Gainesville FL in the 1990s, I was shocked and disappointed by the level of hysterical Boulder Greenway Canopyopposition to something that one would think is a welcome addition to any residential area.

In seeking to reduce the opposition, we tried to be sensitive to neighborhood concerns by placing the trail as far from homes as possible.

But what we learned in Gainesville was that placing the trail in “uplands” would cause a firestorm of opposition and renewed cries that the City was not listening to citizens. Let’s not forget that for many NIMBYs (Not In My Backyard), the concern about the trail being close to homes is cloaked in a more acceptable (and less selfish) “concern for the environment” (i.e., the environment is a smokescreen for underlying NIMBY opposition).

But even if we moved the trail to the “uplands” (and away from the more sensitive creek ecosystem that vocal “environmental” opponents are allegedly up in arms about), would this protect the “pristine” creek environment?

Hardly.

parking lotThe creek ecosystem would still suffer from noise, cats and dogs, nearby houses, erosion and sedimentation, sewage leaks, stormwater runoff, herbicides and pesticides, vegetative removal, ad nauseam. Gainesville’s creeks have been suffering major environmental insults for decades due to these nearby homes and businesses and roads.

The greenway path we proposed, in other words, does not create the first negative impact on a “pristine” creek environment. Instead, it is an important tool to reverse these decades of mostly hidden abuse.

Much as we would like it to be true, I do not believe that the goal of making an urban creek a pristine environment (by preventing the installation of a greenway path) is a matter of political will or citizen education or laws and regulations.

It does not matter how much will or environmental sensitivity or concern we dedicate to urban creeks. Why? Because it is simply not possible to insulate an urban creek from nearby urbanism. Oh, sure, we could dream about removing all the homes and apartments and retail and office and parking lots and roads within five miles of the creek, but is that realistic? Or how about creating a “Gainesville Biosphere” in which we encase the creek floodplain with glass walls? The truth of the matter is that there is no financially or politically feasible way to create a pristine environment in the middle of the city — for all the reasons I listed above (and others I did not mention).

And I say this as a well-known wild-eyed environmentalist.

I have very little patience for “bleeding heart ecologists” who are behaving hypocritically. For example, when they so loudly and frequently express concern that a simple bike and foot path will cause major negative impacts to amphibians and reptiles, I think about relative impacts. Those two or three angry, concerned ecologists in Gainesville have probably killed more creek amphibians and reptiles as they drove in their cars over the past few years than will hundreds of bicyclists on a creek trail in 50 years.

And this is direct road kills caused by the cars the ecologists drive. How much damage is caused by a road as it slashes through creek floodplains? Did these ecologists (who lobby for a charter amendment that would forever prohibit the City of Gainesville from constructing a greenway path in the creek floodplain) support a charter amendment that would forever forbid the city, the county or the state from building a road through a floodplain unless it was bridged?

I suspect not.

And I have not even mentioned car impacts such as underground storage tank leaks, stormwater runoff from roads and parking lots, erosion, light pollution, fuel and oil droppings from cars that leach into the creeks, the removal of floodplain vegetation for parking lots and roads, air pollution, and noise.

Can we please put things in perspective here?Dom condemned for planning Greenway94

I begin to wonder if the huge fight against a greenway path and the ear-shattering silence we hear when it comes to, say, road widening, is more due to the fact that the opponents of the path have given up the fight against the major forms of urban wildlife and ecosystem impacts and put up a tremendous fight against a path because it seems like a “winnable” fight.

I also begin to wonder if these ecologists know much about how much the creeks have suffered from abuse over the past several decades, and how much it continues to suffer. How much more can the creek ecosystem take before it collapses?

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Taking My Views to More Appreciative Audiences and Communities

By Dom Nozzi

In 2005 or thereabouts, the City of Gainesville FL – my employer at the time – started expressing serious concerns about the speeches I was giving about transportation and urban design (a “lessons learned” presentation about what I had learned in my many years as a town planner). It was becoming screamingly obvious that my views were too high-octane (read: controversial) for spineless Gainesville. My response was that I decided to rarely make a presentation in Gainesville anymore. At the time, I was on a crusade to let folks know what I had learned about urban design and transportation, since I believe I’ve come to realize some crucial things about what works and what does not regarding quality of life.

Frustratingly, I was not only strongly discouraged from providing this knowledge locally through speeches. I was ALSO not allowed to submit written comments for publication by the Sun any longer (according to the censorship board that arose at my office at the time).  This troubled me a great deal, as I have always had  a strong desire to share with others the critical things I’ve learned about transportation and land use. Because I was gagged locally, I resigned myself to the second best alternative: Speaking in OTHER cities. And trying to get a book published regarding my views. That way, even if Gainesville did not appreciate or want my views to be heard, maybe I could help other communities.

Gainesville was so terrified of offending ANYONE that my idea of having the City sponsor a James Howard Kunstler talk here was nixed immediately a few years earlier (Kunstler is internationally known for his provocative, important views regarding transportation). So I considered it a badge of honor that I’d also been severely restricted (and ultimately prohibited) from speaking in Gainesville.

At this time, I had given a presentation to the local Kiwanis Club.

Wow.

You would think that I was Hitler or something. In all my speeches around the state, that speech elicited the most negative reaction from the audience.

By far.

I increasingly questioned whether Gainesville should be re-considered as a place with “progressive” views. Given the reception I got at the Kiwanis Club event, I’d say Gainesville is, if anything, quite reactionary.

My speeches outside of Gainesville were generally happening through word-of-mouth advertising (primarily because Gainesville so severely restricted my ability to give presentations). When I gave a speech somewhere, there was almost always someone in the audience that enjoyed what I had to say and decided to invite me to THEIR town for a future speech.

“Progressive Gainesville”? I don’t think so.

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Suboptimizing Trees: A Common Anti-City Tactic

By Dom Nozzi

“Suboptimization” occurs when efforts are made to achieve a lower-order goal to the detriment of a higher-order goal. A common instance of suboptimizing is when there is a single-minded effort to reduce fire truck response times, and doing so to the detriment of peace and quiet in a community (and to the detriment of traffic safety). A study has found, for example, that using excessive street geometries to speed fire truck response time results in a net increase in injuries and deaths, as the number of people saved from fires by faster fire trucks is overwhelmed by the big jump in car crashes due to excessive street dimensions.

When I was a town planner in Gainesville, Florida, I experienced what is surely a very common national occurrence: obsessively and emotionally suboptimizing on trees, to the substantial detriment of a walkable city.

During my time as a planner in Gainesville, I was forced to cram in several confusing, silly sentences in my “traditional neighborhood development” (TND) ordinance — designed to create a compact, walkable neighborhood — describing “engineered soil” (said by some to be needed for relatively large trees). Not only was the definition inherently confusing and complex. I was told by a number of local landscape architects that such soil would be quite expensive to install.

So the TND ordinance, which was already too onerous for a rational developer to use to build a subdivision, became even more difficult to use by developers because city-hating Gainesville citizens and elected officials wanted enormous trees above all else (including walkability).

This is yet another reason why we don’t see developers building walkable places. Huge trees are quite often incompatible with a modest, walkable, human-scaled building-street-sidewalk design. And a large number of Americans have strong emotional feelings toward protecting trees.

The tree suboptimizers also won another battle. I was directed to amend my walkable town center ordinance (somewhat similar to my TND ordinance) to make street trees a requirement in the Gainesville town center. Like most cities, Gainesville had properly exempted developers from needing to install tree landscaping in the town center, as the town center tends to require compact, human-scaled spaces to deliver the charming, quality urbanism we seek in a town center. The new suboptimizing rules ended up requiring that developers jam street trees into all developments and redevelopments in the town center. This added additional complexity, burden, and confusion to the ordinance, and added another disincentive to build or infill in a town center that has long been sorely in need of development and redevelopment (as so much development was being strongly pulled to sprawl locations).

At the same time, I learned that the new county courthouse parking garage planned for the Gainesville town center would NOT be getting desperately needed on-street parking (one of the most crucial amenities for pedestrians) along the garage. Why? Surprisingly, it was not for the goofy fears that kept on-street parking away from the courhouse itself. In that case, the embarrassing reason was that there was a childish worry of truck-bombing terrorists (which, coincidentally, also just happened to be in the interest of motorists who dislike being slowed by on-street parking, by the way).

No, on-street parking next to the garage is not going to be stopped because of a fear of Timothy McVeigh. On-street parking was stopped because the City desperately wanted big trees.

For the record, on-street parking and trees could be deployed together, but trees such as palm trees are “unacceptable” by those who wish to suboptimize tree ecology for quality walkability.

The end result was predictable and nearly certain: Gainesville would soon amend its walkablility codes (in particular, the two ordinances I mention above, as well as walkable ordinances for student-oriented neighborhoods adjacent to the University of Florida) to push buildings back from the street — so that the human-scaled sense of enclosure is lost — or discourage desperately needed in-town, infill, walkable development.

Thereby creating less-walkable streets.

I’ve stated this over and over again in my work as a town planner: In the town center, the needs of pedestrians come first. NOT the needs of live oak trees.

But only if we care about having a walkable, healthy downtown.

Maybe we really do want sprawl, and aspire to be another Atlanta. If so, we are using tactics that are sure to get us to be another Atlanta. And I was probably working in the wrong community…

The lush landscaping looks wonderful from your car windshield as you whiz by in your car in Atlanta and Gainesville. But where are the pedestrians?

Why are they not out walking? Isn’t it enough that we provided a lot of shading live oaks???

I was left to wonder: Was there ever a time over the past 30-40 years when Gainesville had not suboptimized on big trees as the number one priority? Has suboptimizing live oak trees done anything to stop us from taking big steps toward becoming a sprawling auto slum? Has that done anything to promote walking on our sidewalks?7390694268_93120010d5_z

Is it any wonder that the anti-city, tree-suboptimizing attitude in America led to such a nearly universal development of cities throughout America that are utterly unwalkable, uncharming, and unlovable? A nation with cities that only an Oldsmobile could love?

 

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Being Gagged by Gainesville, Florida

As a town planner well aware of the detrimental impacts of a community that too systematically seeks to outlaw non-suburban (that is, more compact, walkable) development, I was quite frustrated working in the proudly suburban community of Gainesville, Florida. Indeed, my frustration often compelled me to have the local newspaper run columns and letters I’ve written about local issues pertaining to urban design and transportation. The result, too often, was that I enraged a number of citizens and most all of my supervisors. Because of what I had published in the newspaper, the City of Gainesville (my employer at the time) established a new policy that states that opinion pieces written by city staff cannot be submitted to the newspaper unless first approved and edited by the city manager or a supervisor.

About mid-way through my years as a town planner, I decided I wanted to share the lessons I had learned about quality of life, sustainability, and the threats to such objectives. I created a PowerPoint public presentation to describe sprawl and congestion, and started giving the presentation throughout the city. It was a strong indictment of conventional, car-oriented planning ideas.

But again, the presentation made citizens and supervisors uncomfortable. My supervisors soon began to strongly discourage my giving the presentation locally.

City planners are not allowed to have opinions in Gainesville, in other words.

A number of people who had heard the presentation, I am flattered to say, were very impressed by the presentation, and encouraged me to write a book based on the presentation. I eventually agreed to do so, and in 2004 had my first book published by Praeger Publishers – a leading academic publisher in the US.

The presentation became so popular (and I enjoyed giving it so thoroughly) that I ultimately made the presentation to well over 20 communities throughout the state of Florida.

Having the book published and giving the speeches outside of my city were the result of my concluding that I have an important message to convey.

If Gainesville was not interested in hearing my message or benefiting from it (but instead wanted to censor it), I felt compelled to nevertheless speak to other communities around the state and nation in the hopes that others could appreciate and benefit from my message.

Because of all of this, I came very close to running for city commission in Gainesville, largely because I wanted to share the wisdom I had acquired about town planning by being more strongly involved in the community decision-making process.  In the process of considering a run for local office, I assembled a long list of things that I thought the City needed to get done – things that I did not have the power to get done as a lowly city planner.

 

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