Planning for the People

John Cleese, who played the inept hotel manager in the English television show Fawlty Towers, once described his character as someone who “could run this hotel just fine, if it weren’t for the guests.”

It raises a chuckle in the context of sitcoms but when it comes to urban planning, this sentiment can be all too common. I was taken aback recently by someone who pointed out that his organization could create a good downtown plan–provided they did not have to answer to downtown property owners, business owners, or residents. As if a few well-drawn maps collected in a binder could be considered a plan.

This attitude is more common that one would think–a single individual contacting my office, hoping to bypass the messy process of dealing with the public, asking me to simply “make something happen.” They’re forgetting that if the public isn’t on board–and I mean ready to act and invest–there is no plan. What you have is a collection of maps in a binder.

Planning is about much more than ideas–it’s about implementation. And implementation requires you actually work with property owners, business owners, and residents. Planning is about encouraging property owners to take a leap of faith on a development project. It’s about helping promote someone else’s great idea for a business. And it’s about pushing obstacles out of the way of someone who’s moving in the right direction.

Like Cleese’s hapless hotel manager, a “downtown planner” may find it much simpler to get his work done without the public getting in his way. But, like Fawlty Towers, will anyone want to visit in the end?

Restoring the Downtown Street Grid

Sometime in the next year, Austin will be adding nine new streets to their downtown, restoring the street grid and fixing what is called a “transportation dead zone.” According to the Austin American Statesman:

(Director of the Downtown Austin Alliance Charlie) Betts noted that adding streets reverses what has been a sporadic trend of the downtown grid losing pieces of streets over the past several decades, including Colorado Street in front of the Governor’s Mansion, East Ninth Street between Trinity Street and San Jacinto Boulevard at a federal office complex, and San Antonio Street at the Travis County Courthouse and just east of what will be the new federal courthouse. 

“The expansion of the grid has high value to the community,” Betts said. “It gives some additional options for people to come into and exit from the central business district.”

We have a similar problem here in Columbia where the traditional downtown street grid has been slowly deconstructed, usually for development projects that seem worthy at the time. Or, put differently, for projects that make sense only within the confines of the property line.

This is especially true on the northern side of downtown. A rail line running into downtown effectively shuts off the northeast quadrant from the surrounding neighborhoods. A large-scale federal housing project shut down more streets to the north under the mistaken belief that the residential neighborhood would be better off without people passing through to reach the city’s central core. A later development project closed an entire city block to create a public square. The few streets that are still open dead end at a college. Now, people exiting downtown to the north must travel down a narrow, one-way road through a residential block.

A narrow, one-way residential street serves as one of the few
northern exits from downtown.

And this is not the only example. People exiting to the east–many of them students from the university–must also take a narrow, one-way road out, this time one that passes by a busy elementary school.

Even with this logistical nightmare, two other plans to close off streets connecting to the north side of downtown were proposed by government officials–one to create another public square and another to build a large parking garage. Thankfully, plans for the first were abandoned and city officials were persuaded to build a parking garage that spanned the street in the case of the second.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to identify problems with the street grid than to fix them. Austin is building the new streets through land occupied by a newly decommissioned power plant and water treatment facility, solving the sticky problem of land acquisition. Still, the construction itself will hit nearly $25 million.

That said, I’m still fairly convinced that restoring our street grid starts with major downtown institutions gaining a larger understanding of the fabric of downtown, and an understanding of how people actually travel into and across our central city. All too often, large institutions–government, university and even private property owners–create plans that end at the property line, failing to understand that a single piece of property is a merely link in a much larger chain.

Urban Archaeology and Ghost Hotels

If you’ve ever remodeled your kitchen, you may have an inkling what it’s like to renovate an historic building. Rehabs often take longer than planned because you simply don’t know what you’re going to find once you remove the drywall.

But what if the thing you find is a historic hotel?

In Orange, California, just west of the Plaza, stands an unassuming stucco storefront with a sign announcing the offices of “Ex-Mormans for Jesus.” It’s definitely not a historic storefront. In fact, much of the block lacks the historic character of the others radiating out from the Circle. What makes this section of the block different, however, is that a 125-year-old hotel lies hidden, like a Russian nesting doll, within the more modern building.

Passersby don’t notice the hotel–I grew up in Orange and as many times as I walked through the Plaza, I certainly never did.  The folks at Haunted Orange, though, show that the rooftop is just visible from across the street.

Why has this hidden gem come to light now?  Wahoo’s Fish Tacos has purchased the space–and the hidden Vineland Hotel–and plans a full renovation. They’ll eventually use the building for corporate offices.
According to a report from their architect, Martin Eli Weil, the Vineland was originally built in 1886 as a private residence and was converted to a boarding house in 1888. It underwent numerous additions including, in 1917, the addition of the commercial storefronts in the original front lawn. (Okay, so it appears that these stucco storefronts have, at minimum, met the age requirements for a historic building. That said, it’s still not enough to save them from the wrecking ball.)
The new owners certainly have their work cut out for them (check out Haunted Orange’s website for some truly scary before photos.) No matter what they expect, those of us who’ve done remodels of our own know that there might be much more than a hotel hidden under all that siding and drywall. Regardless of what they may find, we wish them the best of luck with their project.


Tea Party v. Smart Growth

I just read an absolutely fascinating article by Anthony Flint in The Atlantic Cities about how Tea Party Activists, in the name of aggressively smaller government, are working to undermine long held smart growth principles.

Flint describes the scene:

Across the country, Tea Party activists have been storming planning meetings of all kinds, opposing various plans by local and regional government having anything to do with density, smart growth, sustainability or urbanism.

In California,Tea Partiers collected enough signatures to place a repeal of the state’s baseline environmental regulations on the ballot. Activists in Florida successfully upended the state’s growth management legislation. In Virginia, they’re are working against a much needed, 5-year comprehensive plan.

He continues:

What’s prompting the ire is anything from a proposed master plan to a new water treatment plant, rules governing septic tanks, or a bike-sharing program. What’s driving the rebellion is a view that government should have no role in planning or shaping the built environment that in any way interferes with private property rights.

According to the Gainesville Tea Party:

 Radical environmentalists, local business groups, and the ever-present Not in My Backyard crowd have been trying for decades to reshape American communities to conform to their preferred “smart growth” policies. These advocates work to impose land use regulations that would force Americans into denser living arrangements, curtail freedom of choice in housing, discriminate against lower-income Americans, and compel people to pay more for their houses and give up their cars in favor of subways, trolleys, buses, and bicycles.

I find it fascinating that the things I think are pre-requisites for strong downtowns–high density housing, public transportation, and even bike lanes–are viewed, not just with derision, but as some sort of communist plot against suburbia.

How Public Spaces Succeed

Last week, I talked about the ways a public space can fail. The obvious question, then, is, “what can bring this space back to life?”

Here are a couple of suggestions, many of which are already being acted upon in regards to the public square here in my home town:

  1. Keep up with maintenance and repairs. A touch of urban decay shows that an area is actually being used but obvious neglect can create a downward spiral. I once lived in a neighborhood with a crumbling, inoperative fountain at its entrance and regardless of how well the houses were maintained, it sent a certain message to passersby. If no one is taking care of the space, why should individual members of the public work to do so? In the case of this square, crews are working on repairs the pavement and that should help the overall look of the area. At the very least, it should demonstrate that people still take pride in this space.
  2. Repurpose the space. Our community is justifiably proud of our private adaptive reuse projects. An old roofing company becomes art studios. An abandoned railway station is now a restaurant. Buildings gain new life with new uses. Reworking one of the fountains in this square to create a series of community gardens is a clever way to change the use and the feel of the area, but what else can be done? Can the amphitheater be used for outdoor movies? Can the open space be turned into an outdoor patio with tables and chairs? What about adapting the landscape into a botanical garden?
  3. Encourage informal gatherings. As I mentioned before, relying on programming to bring life to a space is not enough–a great public space needs activity even when nothing official is happening. All these adaptive reuse ideas are ways to bring people into the space on their own. For instance, both our city hall and our library have coffee bars in their lobby. Combine this with cafe tables, potted flowers, and a kiosk for public announcements and you have an instant, people-friendly space. These simple moves mean that more people are hanging out there–and in this case, “hanging out” is just what’s needed. 
  4. Listen to the people. I’ve often found that consultants become so enamored with the the structure of a space, they forget about the public. I’ve been to numerous meetings where a consultant says, “this is the perfect space for a festival or a farmer’s market” while neglecting the fact that these activities may already be established elsewhere. Spaces should be designed to be successful right out of the box. We need to ask–what makes other spaces in our city successful? What do people in our city like to do? How can we make that activity more pleasant for them? After all, isn’t that the ultimate goal of all public spaces?

How Public Spaces Fail

About 15 or so years ago, a massive community effort was launched in our city to close a section of a street running by the historic County Courthouse. The goal? A traditional public square. The idea was to have a gathering place in the downtown area, one that could be used for festivals, concerts and other community events.

Walking through the square on a mild September afternoon, I could see that the reality wasn’t quite matching the dream. The two fountains were non-operational, the sidewalk was cracking along the decorative pavers and worst of all, it was completely empty.

It’s about 5:30 on a weekday and this public space is empty.

The sidewalk is cracking and the fountain itself is not operational.
A second fountain is inoperative as well and filled with leaves and moss.
There are many reasons why a public space fails–here’s just a few:
  1. Relying on programming to add activity to a space. The worst thing a city can do is rely on a city employee or non-profit group to create a never-ending stream of events designed to draw people to the area. We’ve got streets in our downtown that are always full of activity–but naturally occurring activities like shopping, people-watching and just generally hanging out.
  2. Failing to create a maintenance fund. Fountains are notoriously touchy and often need maintenance. And in climates known for weather involving frosts, thaws and refreezing, pavers and other decorative sidewalk elements don’t always make it. (To their credit, they’ve got someone out there fixing the cracks in the sidewalk.)
  3. Ignoring the micro climate of the space. This is an open space designed for activities but the design makes it problematic in another way. There are trees off to the side but the bulk of the space is open concrete that’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It needs to be a perfect day for someone to truly enjoy sitting out on one of those benches. 
  4. Closing off the street to cars. One of the great downtown debates involves pedestrian malls. They work in some areas but in my home state of California, turning downtowns into pedestrian-only malls only served to kill some great downtowns. Cars add activity and driving past a business helps remind people it’s there. Turning a street into a pedestrian mall has to work with the community; you can’t force one on a community.
  5. Forgetting that people need something to do. It’s your lunch break, is this the place you choose to go? Of course not. Nothing is happening here. No sidewalk vendors, no pedestrians, and nothing to look at.

The good news here? There’s still some active programming so the space isn’t lost–festival and concerts still occur here. And this just in–the long fountain running the length of the walkway may be turned into a community garden. What a great, out-of-the-box idea and a good way to make over a downtown space that’s currently underutilized. I can’t wait for tomato season.

Economic Development and National Parks

NPR had a fascinating story this morning that really highlights what “economic development” has come to mean.

Roxanne Quimby, founder of Burt’s Bees, has been slowly buying up property around Millinocket, Maine that has been abandoned by paper mills. Her ultimate goal is to donate 70,000 acres and an endowment to the National Park Service for the creation of a new national park.

For national park fans like me, that’s great news. The eastern half of the United States just doesn’t have room for sizable national parks–most the large parks in the western half were created before the population boom–and another park in Maine would be a wonderful addition to the system. The fact that a private citizen has done all the work acquiring the land makes this a no-brainer proposition.

Why, then, is there so much opposition in the state to this idea?

The town of Millinocket and the Maine State Legislature have both opposed the park, as have most of the state’s Congressional delegation. Protests have arisen over the National Park System’s regulations prohibiting certain activities in parks, including timber milling.

But according to NPR:

It’s been three years since work stopped at the mill in Millinocket, Maine, and there are signs everywhere of the toll that’s taking: vacant storefronts; 50-percent-off signs; and on the block in front of the mill, several homes for sale, one with a handmade sign saying, “$25,000 as-is — make an offer”… Residents are crossing their fingers about going back to work, but the local unemployment rate stands at 21 percent.

The town certainly seems hard hit and is likely having trouble adjusting to this new reality. Industries of the past may never return to Maine–or to the nation at large–but that doesn’t mean Millinocket is destined to become a ghost town. Tourism and travel–particularly in areas of our nation with beautiful natural resources–is an economic model that’s often overlooked in favor of older, out-dated ones.

A map pinpointing the location of the proposed new national park in Maine.

Source: James W. Sewall Co.
Credit: Nelson Hsu/NPR

Acadia National Park, also located in Maine, has one of the highest visitation levels of any national park and provides 14 times the economic value in comparison to its budget. In fact, it has one of the highest benefit to cost returns in the park system. The U.S. National Park System: An Economic Asset at Risk describes, in detail, the economic impact of Acadia and other national parks.

Highlights of the Acadia’s economic importance include:

• $100 million in annual recreational benefits, providing a park benefit to cost ratio of more than 14 to 1.
• $137 million in annual visitor spending, supporting more than 3,500 local jobs (not including park staff).
• Amenity values contributing to annual population, employment,and personal income growth rates 0.5% to 1% higher than the state average.

And the proposed park in nearly twice the size of Acadia.

Paper mills, factories, and other industries may simply never come back to some of these towns. It’s time to start embracing a new model of economic development, one that takes full advantage of an area’s natural resources but looks at it in a new light–that of tourism.

Population and Growth, Part 2

In Caught in the Middle, Richard C. Longworth paints a grim picture of the future of the Midwest, what with declining populations, ever-shrinking job markets, and small towns dying on the vine.

As Longworth puts it, the “rural Midwest, in truth, existed for one era, and that era has passed. It responded to the economic demands of a single century, from 1850 to 1950, and has been withering ever since. Globalization only finishes the work of earlier decades. There is no place in a globalized world for the small town and the family farm.” He finds fault with  Midwesterners, in particular their nostalgia for the bygone era of the small prairie town.

How true is this here in Missouri? Are we, too, holding onto a past that’s no longer viable?

Out of the 972 towns and cities in Missouri, fully 62% or 607 of them have populations less than 1,000. In fact, 103 or 11% have populations below 100. Only 9 cities have populations that top 50,000. That’s a mere .9% . Now, these are 2000 census numbers and some cities have grown considerably over the last decade, but this is an argument of proportion. With well over half the towns in the state easily classified as “small,” how is this not tipping the political balance in favor of policies directed at saving areas that Longworth and others would consider unsaveable.

To exacerbate this problem, Missouri has 34 state senators and a dizzying number of state representatives—63.  In fact, each representative has only about 31,000 constituents. (In contrast, California has 80 assembly members, representing about 420,000 people each, one of the largest ratios.)

Past initiatives have focused on small communities, often to the detriment of emerging metro areas or established cities such as St. Louis or Kansas City. MODOT’s unrealistic promise to build four-lane highways into small, rural towns. The Missouri Main Street Program’s goal of helping small towns rebuild without asking the difficult question of whether or not they should be rebuilt. An incomprehensible reluctance to fully support the state’s flagship university in Columbia.

In tough economic times, we’re forced to think in terms of what is possible and what can realistically be funded. But we should also be thinking about what we want our future here in the Midwest to look like. There is a lovely nostalgia surrounding the notion of the small town and the family farm. However, there’s an equally appealing narrative surrounding emerging cities in this new century. Why not replace the family farm with the community garden? The general store with the local coffee shop? The Wells Fargo wagon with the Metrolink? The horse-drawn buggy with the commuter bike?

It’s time we stopped striving for a past that may never have existed and instead fully embrace the exciting future our cities face.

Downtown Devotion

When I first moved to Columbia, there was no question in my mind where I wanted to live — downtown. I found a small apartment on Fifth Street and immediately felt at home here in our central city. A few years have passed, and now I’m back living downtown again, this time in the North Village Arts District, and I’m remembering why I loved it so much.

I never have to look for something to do; it usually finds me. I stop and chat with people I know on my walk into work. The diversity of people, businesses and ideas here is unmatched. Best of all, people are very vocal about why they love the area, and they’ll devote endless amounts of time and energy to making it a better place.

I see that in my neighborhood, and I see that throughout the entire downtown. In fact, I think that’s why downtown has remained successful throughout the years — people all across Columbia care what happens here.

We’ve been hearing a lot lately from people who are interested in downtown and who have ideas on how to make it even better. Not surprisingly, there isn’t always agreement. With so many different voices here in The District, it’s nearly impossible to find 100 percent consensus.

But then, isn’t that what we want? We value diversity in opinions the same way we value diversity in our visitors. It might sound like a cacophony at times, but that mix of ideas is the only way to encourage a true dialogue.

We want people to participate in this dialogue — our members, our customers and everyone who cares about The District — because that’s what helps lead to the best decisions.

What I’ve seen happening lately in The District proves to me that the myriad voices and ideas eventually lead to a stronger, more vital downtown. Here are just a few examples:

  • The northern section of The District is being transformed from an industrial area to a burgeoning arts district due to the hard work and vision of property owners, business owners and artists.
  • We’re tripling the downtown population over the next year, with new residential construction projects as well as some great historic renovation of upper floor spaces.
  • We have a dedicated downtown community that has come together to address key issues like business recruitment, economic development and beautification in a way that benefits The District as a whole.
  • Thousands of people are coming to The District to enjoy one-of-a-kind events like the Roots ’N Blues ’N BBQ Festival, the True/False Film Festival, Summerfest, the Farmers and Artisans Market, and Artrageous Fridays.

Even better, we’re seeing these same people come downtown on a regular Friday night to do some window-shopping, grab a drink with friends, or meet their family for dinner. We’ve even extended retail shopping hours to make it easier for everyone.

Some of these events occurred only after significant debate and effort. It hasn’t been easy, and the work is not done. Certainly, The District can and must continue to improve in all ways possible. By debating and vetting each new idea, we increase the chances that downtown will be better tomorrow.

The people who love The District are looking for something special in our central city; I certainly was when I moved the first box into my new downtown apartment.

We might be a little messy at times, but I can guarantee you this: We’ll always be interesting — and you will always be welcome.

Population Gowth in Columbia

The 2010 Census numbers are out and much is being made of the results, particularly here in Missouri where we’re losing a Congressional seat due to declining population. Out of the state’s 115 counties, only 41 are growing.The other 74–many in northeast Missouri–are shrinking.

Boone County is doing fairly well though when it comes to population. Not only is the county growing, Columbia is now the 5th most populated city in the state and the one out of those five with the highest growth rate–28.4%. Much of that increase is due to inward migration from surrounding counties, both to the north and the south of Boone. The city also attributes the growth to increased college enrollment and more retirees locating to Columbia.

The big question is how will this inward migration pattern affect the character of Columbia? For a city long dominated by not one but three colleges, we’ve become accustomed to a highly educated, highly involved population that leans towards the progressive.Will newcomers to the city adapt to this particular world view or will Columbia itself begin to change?