10 Rules for Smarter Smart Growth

PraVada-Transit-Rear

The Pravada project in La Mesa CA has been touted as smart growth and transit oriented development due to its proximity to light rail. However, its sits on top of a 2 story above ground parking garage that creates a hostile pedestrian environment and offsets transit proximity with auto convenience.

These days, a lot of projects are crashing through the gates of community plans and dashing existing neighborhood character under the banners of smart growth or transit oriented development. Typically, such projects are simply high density or near transit corridors, or sometimes they include gratuitous green space and walking paths.  However, they fail in many of the finer points of smart growth, new urbanism, or transit oriented development.

According to Wikipedia, smart growth “advocates compact, transit-oriented, walkable, bicycle-friendly land use, including neighborhood schools, complete streets, and mixed-use development with a range of housing choices.”  The  ”rules” postulated here are meant to supplement rather than reiterate or replace existing Smart Growth or New Urbanism principles.  However, there is some overlap both with existing principles and with each other, as smart growth planning is an imperfect “science.”  (see also Charter of the New Urbanism and New Urbanism Principles) These rules are intended primarily for existing communities, although many of the principles apply as well to greenfield or large greyfield development.  They attempt to look at the finer points, beyond the density of a project or its proximity to transit corridors, so that in 50 years hindsight, smart growth will have a better record than so much of the planned development of the early post war years (including failed redevelopment projects, affordable housing projects, and suburban residential and commercial projects).  Of course, the following rules have no imprimatur of officialdom.  They are just one man’s opinion and attempt to hone the intent of more official smart growth principles.

1) Purge the term NIMBY from your language and your thinking. It stultifies any further understanding of community concerns, or how to reach a compromise.  Every criticism or opposition to a high density project is now labeled as NIMBYism, with little further discussion of community concerns.  Community stakeholders typically have great knowledge of their neighborhoods though they may not use formal planning terms.

2) Respect community planning.   Recognize that many community development regulations are the result of lengthy and thoughtful public planning processes.   Community stakeholders often have years of volunteered time and effort invested into the local planning process.  Modern smart growth occurs best through this planning process, not through ad hoc project variances.  Large variances rarely create good results.  Increased density via the community planning process allows the community to “buy in.”  Developments that require spot zoning under the smart growth or TOD banner are usually wolves in sheeps clothing.   See Smart Growth Principles #9 & #10

3) Integrate with the surrounding community.  A project which becomes an island or erects barriers to the existing neighborhood may cause nearby businesses to close or nearby residents to move away, which causes blight and loss of density.   A successful smart growth project recognizes the existing desirable and undesirable neighborhood patterns, and works to fit in with the former and tweak the latter.  In this way, it is most likely to be part of a walkable and sustainable community. See Smart Growth Principles #4 & #5

4)  In transit oriented developments (TODs), transit orientation should exceed auto orientation.   Projects are passing as TOD simply because they are near retail establishments and transit routes.  However, they are usually just as close to major thoroughfares, imbued with ample off-street parking facilities (usually required by the municipality), and pedestrian deterring exteriors.  These project rarely enhance walkability, and the convenience of public transit is offset by equal or greater auto amenities and convenience.  Recent studies have found mixed evidence of public transit relieving traffic congestion.  One contributor to this mixed result may be that TODs have yet to significantly coax people from their cars.  Several cities are taking the next step to shift the transportation paradigm by eliminating or reducing minimum off-street parking requirements for new construction. This step also helps to lower construction costs and make housing more affordable.  However, most cities remain daunted by anticipated opposition from businesses and residents (as can be seen in Portland, a leader in reducing off-site parking requirements, from adjacent residential areas fearing increased load on street parking) or long held perceptions of the need for off-site parking. Creating  communities that encourage a walking and transit lifestyle requires a holistic and integrated approach, as well as bold vision and courage from municipal leaders.

PraVada-Parking-Pedestal

More of “TOD” Pravada’s pedestrian intimidating parking pedestal

5) Respect neighborhood character & identity.  A positive neighborhood identity helps to sustain densification.  Lack of identity or a negative identity makes increasing neighborhood density difficult.  A development that challenges or changes a community’s identity architecturally or in terms of land use can undermine the very thing that attracts residents to the neighborhood. Diversity of land uses is good but incompatibility is not. Preserve historic resources and urban fabric. See Smart Growth Principle #7

6) Increase density incrementally.    A lot of increased density can be achieved incrementally.  Reduce setback requirements.  Allow “granny flat” construction.  Small lot infill should be given preference over block-clearing projects.   These incremental methods are  especially important in communities that are not blighted or depressed.  The height and mass of buildings in the community are usually closely related to its character and identity.   On the other hand, a small lot project can rise higher without negatively impacting the community than a full block project.  Large scale developments tend to trigger large scale transitions.  Large scale transitions usually have uncertain outcomes, which can as easily result in blight and lost density as  increased density and walkability.  Even if the end results are increased density, such transitions can result in interim abandonment of existing uses, demolition, empty lots, and surface parking, as property owners clear or “bank”  their land in anticipation of new development, leading to interim lost density.  Don’t let maximizing density become the enemy of increasing density.

EIR Notice of Preparation Park Station Figure 5

The Park Station proposal in La Mesa CA has won a smart growth award from a local smart growth organization despite failing several of the principles enunciated in this article. This image is from the EIR Notice of Preparation necessitated by the massive zoning variances needed by the project.

La Mesa mixed use infill

An example of incremental densification. The site could easily tolerate 2-3 additional stories, as seen in the background development.

7) Conform to existing “smart” retail corridors and centers. Don’t set up competition for such corridors or centers, or confuse a community’s existing smart growth layout.  Most traditional retail districts were established before auto-convenience dominated development in the 60s & 70s.  Examples of large scale mixed use projects which negatively impacted resurging nearby traditional retail districts include the following: CityPlace in West Palm Beach FL caused a regression in the revitalizing Clematis St.  Horton Plaza in San Diego CA set back the resurgence of historic Gaslamp Quarter and helped relegate it to restaurant and bar uses. Park Station, a proposed project for La Mesa, CA threatens its traditional main street commercial district.  A successful smart growth project doesn’t add a large amount of retail space on the periphery of an existing successful or resurging commercial district. This principle is especially important in this era of shrinking or plateaued “brick and mortar” retail.  See Smart Growth Principle #7

8) Look for opportunities to narrow (verb) streets and vanquish parking lots.  The antithesis of smart growth and the trademark of sprawl are wide streets, dispersed development, and parking lots.  Revitalizing older commercial districts too often feel compelled to try to compete with suburban shopping centers by providing equally ample parking.  However, such districts attract customers by providing the walkability, human scale, diverse architecture, narrow streets, and historic attractions absent from master planned commercial districts.  They’ll never be able to compete on convenience.  Parking lots and wide streets directly undermine the attraction.  Conversely, people come to successful traditional commercial districts despite the auto inconveniences.  Auto inconvenience means pedestrian orientation.  Look for opportunities to do more with less parking through better parking management, e.g., negotiating arrangements with private parking facilities to make them available to the public at certain times.  Never base the supply of permanent parking on capacity for special events.

La Mesa Stairs East-Lower

The La Mesa Stairs are popular with both residents and exercise buffs. A pedestrian can descend the hill as quickly as an automobile.

9) Prioritize non-auto transportation by creating unique or exclusive pedestrian and bicycle amenities.  The health and quality of life detriment of auto-oriented living is well documented.  However, too often cities strive to simply add pedestrian and bike amenities alongside its auto amenities.  In these circumstances, placement and route selection is for the benefit of the car with pedestrians and bikes an afterthought.  However, communities built before auto orientation often have amenities for pedestrians (and sometimes available to bicyclists) that give the latter an advantage or shortcut unavailable to autos.  A perfect contrast exists in the author’s own community. One of its better known features are three sets of stairs that vertically ascend/descend a hill supporting a residential neighborhood.  In contrast, cars must follow streets which zig zag up the same hill due its steepness.  The three sides of the hill with stairs were developed in the first half of the 20th century.   (Incidentally, this neighborhood also has narrow streets and minimal setbacks, resulting in a both densely developed yet quaintly scaled neighborhood).  However, the fourth side was developed from the 1960s through 2007.  This newer side of the hill contains wider streets with sidewalks on both sides (on the older sides of the hill, sidewalks are less extensive and contiguous) but no hillside stairs.  As a result, pedestrians must take long and circuitous routes on the sidewalks to get to destinations at the base of the hill, such as the neighborhood park.   It is  frustrating to see the missed opportunities of direct and short pedestrian shortcuts to the park that could have been built on the newly developed side of the hill, as they were on the older sides.  Even though the new neighborhood has more sidewalks, they are less useful, making the neighborhood less walkable.  Real smart growth means building pedestrian and bicycle amenities as a priority, not simply as an adjunct to road building.

10) Design for human nature, honed over millions of years, rather than efficiencies and logic, decided upon during the course of design.  Such design is often counter-intuitive.  This concept is exemplified in the attraction of people to small spaces, crowded rooms, and long lines.  William H. Whyte’s City: Rediscovering the Center (1988), is a masterpiece of counter-intuitive conclusions about such things as appropriate sidewalk width and use of urban plazas.   New “shared space” street design,  often involving removal of “safety features” such as traffic lights, are also having a counter-intuitive traffic calming, hence safer, effect.  In contrast, much of the inhospitable, dangerous, and unhealthy design of post-war communities came about in an era with the most planning, in which travel efficiencies, privacy, and safety concerns were given the highest consideration.

Smart growth, new urbanism, densification, transit oriented development, and related concepts are in danger of triggering a backlash from heavy handed application.  One can already see localized backlashes across the country.  These backlashes may develop into a more coalesced national backlash if local opposition to projects is routinely dismissed as NIMBYISM and densification is achieved with a sledgehammer rather than a scalpel.   Ironically, the “rules” postulated above are not really new.  Rather they expound on existing smart growth principles that often seem forgotten.    Smart growth and new urbanism have always emphasized the importance of respecting neighborhood planning, character, and scale.  Hopefully this article will help to refocus attention on these principles and serve as a reminder that smart growth involves much more than simply higher density and proximity to transit.

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Addendum (bonus rule!):

11) Preserve and enhance existing density and urban fabric.  Avoid demolition for lower density uses (e.g. parking), or as “interim” or anticipatory demolition, (e.g. before project funding). Pursue adaptive reuse, including partial preservation when full preservation or adaptive reuse is not feasible.  Allow or encourage adaptive reuse which modifies non-historic structures (or non-historic components of historic structures) to achieve increased density.

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Credits and Notes:

All photos taken by author.  The Park Station image is from the City of La Mesa website concerning the Notice of Preparation of the Draft EIR for the project.

Apologies to the City of La Mesa for picking on a few of its developments.  The choice of photo subject matter had as much to do with convenience  to the author as  it did with their exemplification of the author’s point of view.  La Mesa is actually a very walkable community overall, which is the reason for the author’s residence there.  It recently received the County’s highest Walkscore ranking and its long time Mayor, Art Madrid, is a committed leader in implementing smart growth principles.  In many ways, it seemed the ideal lab for this article.  The City was founded in 1912.  The basic pattern and scale of its “downtown” (locals refer to the area as “the village”) was laid out prior to auto-oriented planning and thus is characterized by traditional walkable features.  Moreover, as an originally rural community with undulating topography, its streets follow a more organic pattern rather than the grid patterns that dominate larger cities of that time period.  Its a satellite community to the City of San Diego and the downtowns of the two cities are approximately 15 miles distant. As with many traditional towns, it was connected to the bigger regional city’s downtown by a rail line, which has since been converted to light rail (although occasional freight trains still use the tracks).  Since it’s founding, La Mesa has become surrounded by the auto-oriented sprawl of the greater San Diego metropolitan area but La Mesa Village still retains much of the traditional and independent town feeling.   It currently is somewhat of a hybrid between sprawl and smart growth, with many walkable features remaining from its traditional form, and many unfortunate auto-oriented retrofits such as large expanses of surface parking surrounding its Village commercial main street.  More recent auto-oriented development, with setback storefronts facing parking lots, have intruded even on to its traditional mainstreet.  Thus, it seemed the perfect lab for the tough decisions confronted by satellite communities concerning infill and smart growth and deciding which existing characteristics enhance smart growth principles and which detract therefrom.

Special thanks for input provided by Howard Blackson, Placemakers, especially re narrower streets, pedestrian and bike prioritization, and healthier communities (however apologies for not getting this article completed in time to use his baseball opening day metaphor).

Avatar of Bill Adams About Bill Adams

Bill Adams is the founder and chief editor of UrbDeZine. He is also a partner in the San Diego law firm of Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP. He has been involved with land use and urban renewal for nearly 25 years, both as a professional and as a personal passion. He currently sits on the Boards of San Diego Historic Streetcars, The San Diego Architectural Foundation, The Food and Beverage Association of San Diego County, and The Gaslamp Quarter Association Land Use Planning Committee.

Norton, Moore, & Adams, LLP is a boutique land use firm which handles a wide range of land and building related matters, from permitting to litigation, including:

- Discretionary use applications and appeals, including alcoholic beverage sales, entertainment, industrial, social services, educational, hospitality, etc.
- Zoning variances
- Municipal code and regulatory amendments
- Litigation, including eminent domain, access and easements, CEQA, environmental, and preservation
Professional website: www.nmalawfirm.com

Comments

  1. Excellent article, Bill. Simply putting high density next to transit doesn’t make it smart growth. Your ten points add a lot to making smart growth actually smart.

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