6 Common Mistakes Made By Cities and Towns in Urban Renewal.

Gaslamp Quarter, San DiegoFor the last half century, cities have attempted to repair the damage to their urban cores from migration to suburbs and exurbs. Redevelopment has evolved into smart growth, transit oriented development, and complete streets. In the last 15 years or so, the urban renewal efforts have had a receptive audience as people, tired of the car oriented lifestyle of the suburbs, are returning to urban cores and older urban neighborhoods. However, while cities get the big picture, too often in my 25 years as a land use attorney, I have seen the same mistakes repeated.

La Mesa Stairs East-Lower1) Failing to Understand How to Provide for Pedestrian and Other Active Transit: Too often, cities and towns seem to think that all pedestrians need are sidewalks to walk on and greenery to look at. The same goes for bikes and bikelanes. It goes without saying that pedestrians and bikes work differently than cars, each with their own advantages and disadvantages. For example, a newish residential development near my home provides ample sidewalks along its curving streets. Much of the development is only a stones throw from a park and three public schools comprising K – 12. Cars can drive there in a few minutes, but pedestrians must take the same circuitous route as cars, which of course takes much longer. A simple narrow walkway or stairs down the slope, to steep for cars but easily traversed by pedestrians , could have been a boon to walkers in the area. What makes this oversight particularly tragic is that in the adjacent older neighborhood where I reside, there are three sets of stairs that do exactly that, and which should have served as a model for the new development. Another example is in the downtown area in which my office is located. The city has 200′ x 300′ blocks, which many planners, influenced more by conventional urban planning wisdom than practical walking experience, believe make the city particularly pedestrian oriented. However, my experience, corroborated by european visitors, is that walkers are forced to stop for cars and traffic lights every 200 or 300 feet. There are no pedestrian corridors in the downtown in which walkers need not stop so often. Each of these circumstances indicates a situation where thought was given to providing pedestrians safe walking space without much thought being given to the many pedestrians with destinations at which they would like to arrive in the shortest amount of time and with the least amount of effort.

The lesson: Pedestrians and active transit users need routes designed specifically for them, not simply as an add-on to routes designed for cars.  Route planning should seek shortcuts and other opportunities that give walking or biking advantages over the automobile.

bland trees2) Safe and Exotic Trees: While trees have long been appreciated for their beauty in urban streetscapes, more recently they are being recognized for their many environmental benefits, including scrubbing the air of pollution (including climate changing carbon), producing oxygen, reducing the heat island effect, and providing food and habitat for local fauna. When cities select trees for their streetscapes, they must consider a number of factors, including root damage to sidewalks, overhead utility constraints, drought resistance, and maintenance of branches and droppings. Too often, these considerations become inflexible constraints without consideration of alternate means of preventing the identified risks, such as better site preparation by such measures as installation of root barriers and excavating larger planting areas to allow and “train” root growth; or using a cost benefit analysis perspective in weighing tree selection and maintenance considerations. As a result of these considerations being misunderstood as inflexible criteria rather than flexible considerations, the tree selection pool is often limited to a short list of small trees. Additionally, the huge supply of exotics biases the selection away from the native trees which tend be most suitable for the local climate and soil conditions and most friendly to the native fauna. As a result, we end up with streetsscapes with trees that look more like house plants than trees, certainly not shade trees or trees that create green canopies. Additionally, the trees lack environmental and historical context and create a bland blended sameness in the region. This is particularly true in Southern California where most of the landscapes look to be straight out of the Home Depot garden section.

The lesson: Tree root and dropping maintenance should never constitute an inflexible criteria in tree selection.  Rather, these considerations should be balanced against the ability to address problems with better site preparation and increased tree maintenance, as well as the benefits of shade trees and native species.  Among the variety of trees available, preference should generally be given to native trees and canopy forming trees.

Bulb out in San Diego to preserve parking and street width while feigning road diet.3) No Net Parking Loss: Many of the mistakes in urban renewal come from a fear of alienating the car driving public. It’s difficult to change to more pedestrian and transit oriented cityscapes when automobiles are guaranteed at least equal (and more often preferential) treatment. One of the most common arenas for this type of behavior relates to street parking. While many cities seek to make their urban commercial corridors more pedestrian and bike friendly with streetscape makeovers, too often these projects are undertaken with the artificial constraint of “no net parking loss.” Additionally, much emphasis is placed on securing funding to build parking garages or surrounding the targeted renewal area with parking lots. The logic has often been that in order to “compete” with suburban shopping centers, urban shopping corridors must have equal parking convenience. However, the erroneous assumption in this logic is that these corridors are competing with suburban shopping centers. They can never compete with the auto-convenience of such suburban retail. Rather, successful urban shopping areas are so precisely because they offer a different environment than suburban shopping centers. Much of this difference has to do with the greater pedestrian orientation. Thus, visitors typically have a higher tolerance for auto-inconvenience.  These visitors are much more likely to avail themselves of remote parking via shuttle, or to arrive by transit. Essentially, visitors to these areas come for the urban ambience, and thus are a form of local tourism. Cities that over-emphasize parking convenience, especially when transit and parking compete for the same dollars, are emulating the very thing that their visitors are seeking to escape, and undermining the environment to which they are attracted. Real urban revitalization means weaning from parking, maybe in small steps, but steps nevertheless.

The lesson: Cities should take small steps toward reducing parking to benefit and promote a true pedestrian and active transit streetscape, betting that the end result will be more of an attraction than reduced parking is a deterrent.

Wide Suburban Street4)  Wide Streets: Wide streets, made all the wider by front parking and setbacks, are another legacy of the auto-orientation that is now the primary cause of the return migration from suburbs. Engineered for smoother traffic flow, greater visibility, and improved emergency vehicle access, ironically, wide streets are more dangerous due to increased car speeds. Additionally, they create particularly inhospitable environments for pedestrians, by changing the balance between the built environment for people, i.e., homes, store fronts, and greenery, and the built environment for cars, i.e. asphalt. They are also more expensive to maintain, add to the urban heat island effect, increase polluted rain run-off into the ocean, and deprive natural streams, lakes, and aquifers of part of their water supply. Nevertheless, precious few municipalities undertake true street narrowing projects (sometimes referred to as “road diets”). Intersection “bulb-outs,” which narrow the street at intersections by expanding the sidewalk there, often coupled with diagonal parking, have become common in commercial districts as a way to create the feeling of a reduced auto domain while preserving parking. However, bulb-outs and road diets are rarely implemented in side or residential streets, where street width is often least needed and road diets would be the most helpful. In an earlier post, I proposed a way to bring street narrowing to residential streets with minimal expense to municipal government. True street narrowing is rarely viewed as a revitalization tool. Rather it is viewed as a safety and active transit measure. However, by enhancing one of the key features people seek in escaping the suburbs to urban centers, it can be a key revitalization tool.

The lesson: Narrowing streets citywide is an overlooked opportunity that should be given more attention.

Park Station La Mesa

Park Station from Civic Center

5) Large Lot Development: Infill development is the phrase most often used to describe building projects in existing urban areas. However, there is a significant distinction between large lot and small lot infill. Large lot development, which typically involves developing several contiguous lots with a multi-use project, tend to be favored by municipalities, because these projects “redevelop” a large area in one fell swoop. However, these projects also produce the least certain redevelopment impact. First, due to their size, they generally take longer to implement. Funding, environmental impact, and design review processes all take much longer than small lot projects. In the meantime, the proposed project site remains in limbo, with existing uses either being removed or withering. If built, the projects often are reminiscent of the master planned residential or shopping center commercial projects typical in suburban areas. In fact, the perceived need by design review bodies or architects to mask the size of such projects by breaking up the uniformity of the exterior surfaces, itself distinguishes between large lot and small lot infill. Rather than fitting in with and catalyzing rehabilitation of existing adjacent structures, these projects are often incompatible with their neighboring structures via disproportionate scaling, placement of unattractive aspects (e.g., parking and blank walls) towards existing  adjacent buildings, redefining neighborhood character rather than complimenting and enhancing it, and signaling to property owners that they should focus on redevelopment of their properties rather than rehabilitation of their existing structures. As a result, large lot redevelopment is often characterized by decreased maintenance of adjacent structures, demolition, and surface parking as owners of surrounding properties wait for an opportune time to redevelop, or more likely, to sell to redevelopers. In contrast, small lot infill and rehabilitation of existing structures, almost always has an immediate positive effect on surrounding properties. Additionally, smaller projects are usually more quickly funded, approved, and built. While the impact of individual small lot infill projects is smaller and incremental, the aggregate positive impact is generally quicker and more positive.  Renewal efforts that emphasize large lot infill miss an opportunity for true revitalization and risk the efforts backfiring.

The lesson: Favor small lot infill projects in plans and land use regulations, and where such bias already exists, put more teeth in it.

Historic building being demolished for pa741 F St. DemoDemolition Parking Lot 7th & J6) Failing to Protect Existing Building Stock and Property Uses:  A corollary to the foregoing “mistake” is the failure of municipalities to protect their existing structural assets while expending resources to encourage redevelopment and revitalization. Redevelopment efforts are often characterized more by demolition than construction. Tragically, historic resources are often lost in these efforts. However, existing structures need not have a historic designation to contribute to the fabric and character of an urban environment. When such structures are lost to facilitate a large lot development, or worse, an “interim use” such as parking, the redevelopment / revitalization effort takes a step backward. Sometimes the “loss” of such buildings isn’t through demolition. Sometimes the ownership and use repositioning that accompanies an urban renewal effort results in the loss of the existing uses of buildings without necessarily resulting in the loss of the structure (except via “demolition by neglect”). The larger redevelopment areas are commonly characterized with several sites in which formerly occupied and used structures, which, albeit dilapidated, added to the vitality of the street but now sit vacant as the result of new ownership (sometimes municipal agency ownership). Of course, not all existing uses are a benefit to the area but many uses  are – especially when compared to vacancy as the alternative.  Sometimes demolition and neglect in redeveloping areas takes on a parasitic character, as some property owners (often disconnected from the community, e.g., absentee owners and trusts), fail to maintain or demolish the structures on the property, choosing to benefit from the increasing value of their property from the public and private investment in nearby properties, rather than investing in their properties to secure a return on current use. In esssence, this strategy rides on the coat tails, and undermines, the urban renewal public investments.

The lesson: A successful redevelopment or renewal project protects existing assets as much as it creates new assets.

Most urban cores and inner city neighborhoods were built before the arrival of the automobile, when pedestrian orientation had been refined over centuries, and public transit was the only option for most people. Therefore, it is hard for modern developers who, at best, compromise between auto use and a new found appreciation for pedestrians and active transit, to improve on the pedestrian orientation of existing structures.  Accordingly, protecting existing structures and uses, especially until a replacement structure is shovel ready and funded, is as important as encouraging new ones.  However, this principle is often overlooked or under implemented in urban renewal efforts.

In sum, for more than any other reason, successful urban renewal depends on creating or restoring an environment that diminishes the primacy of the automobile and prioritizes walking, active transit, public transit, the natural environment, and existing structures.    Incorporating these principles into urban renewal efforts (even small streetscape projects) is the key to the accomplishment of real urban renewal gains.


Profile photo 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


  1. Great article, but I do think you are misguided in your criticism of smallish downtown blocks (like San Diego’s). The pedestrian benefits are not just more direct walking routes (zig-zagging through), but more potential for street fronting uses (admittedly, while you can lead a city to water, your #5 shows it is still hard to make it drink). It is certainly a pain to have my walk disrupted every couple hundred feet, but you identify the true cause of that disruption, “walkers are forced to stop for cars and traffic lights”! Small blocks are great, but San Diego’s wide roads and traffic obsession undermine their benefits.

  2. Thanks Mike. With respect to walking downtown, I agree with you that interrupted walking could be solved by giving pedestrians greater priority. Since downtown San Diego, by virtue of its small blocks has more streets than most cities, it could afford to flip the car vs. walk & bike priority on some of those streets. For example, the City could convert a few of the less car-traveled streets into north-south and east-west active transit only corridors, or shared space roads, with no or few stops at intersections and all automobile cross traffic having to stop (stop signs instead of green lights). A few of the lesser used cross-streets could even dead-end at these active transit corridors.

  3. Bill, you have written before about your problem with being stopped for traffic and traffic lights when walking downtown and MikeP seems to agree with you. I’d like to submit that this is a totally bogus objection.
    First, if you want a power walk with no interruptions you are simply in the wrong place; your expectations are unrealistic. Any downtown area is meant to be a place where people and vehicles coexist with other environmental factors (structures, etc). I was reared in NYC and walking the avenue blocks uninterrupted by lights or streets is NOT better than San Diego’s small blocks.
    Second, when you’re stopped by a ‘don’t walk’ sign, that’s your cue to look around, appreciate your surroundings, and perhaps say ‘good morning’ to the person next to you.
    Finally, if you are really in a hurry, walk the contingencies: If you’re walking west, cross the street at right angle when your forward progress is stopped. Then, when you’re on the other side of the street, the light will change and you can continue westward. If your destination is west and north (for example) continue north until you hit another red light and cross to the west, continuing that direction. In other words, rather than stopping, continue walking letting the lights dictate your route. This way, you get to go a different route than what you might have planned.
    This all makes more sense to me than railing against a situation that is not going to be changed.
    Best to you both.

  4. Thank you for your comment Michael-Leonard. It’s always gratifying when one’s written work is read, nevermind when it sparks some discussion. You and other small-block defenders make some compelling arguments in their favor. It’s not really my intent to condemn small blocks as anti-active transit, especially in this article in which my reference to the many-intersection / much asphalt (another way of saying small block) condition downtown was intended more as an example of how the city has missed opportunities to take some of that asphalt and flip the car / pedestrian right-of-way prioritization. Mathematically, small blocks = more open space, and I gather that’s at the heart of what people like about them. Unfortunately, in downtown San Diego, most of that open space is dedicated to automobile traffic in essentially the same way for all streets. If NYC has larger city blocks and in turn less space dedicated to streets, given the much greater population density in NYC, it stands to reason that downtown San Diego can spare some of its asphalt to walkers and bikers. I acknowledge that there has been some recent activity related to creating some more pedestrian oriented streets downtown. However, most of the early input I saw in that effort related to intra-block pedestrian and bike improvements, with little thought given to giving pedestrians and bikes priority at the many intersections (I have not closely followed these workshops so I may be out of date). Other cities do have more pedestrian oriented corridors and passageways than downtown San Diego. We can do it too.

  5. Well considered an clear article on how to deal with the ” business as usual” approach to planning any urban management.

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