Category Archives: Land Use Planning

Three Elements of Portland’s Success

Portland's Pearl District is one of the truly unique neighborhoods on the West Coast

I recently returned from a few days up in Portland, a city well-known as being decades ahead of its peers when it comes to urban planning.  While I wont go into as much detail as my examination of innovative urban policies in Colorado, I took away three primary elements of Portland’s planning paradigm which have helped it to earn the title of most sustainable city year after year.

Element #1: The Urban Growth Boundary

Portland's UGB is the single most important policy in understanding the region's successes.

In Portland, land is a limited resource.  For the past 30 years, Portland has protected farmland and open space by limiting the development of sprawling suburbs and exurbs through strict controls over the location of growth.  When done right, an urban growth boundary can be the single most effective policy to create a livable and sustainable city and region.  By containing sprawl, Portland makes the most of its built environment, which mostly resembles a less-congested Berkeley density-wise.  What really blew me away was the sheer number of vibrant neighborhood commercial streets that were often within only blocks of one another–NW 21st and NW 23rd, Hawthorne and Belmont, not to mention the entire Pearl District–something which could not occur in a more heavily suburbanized region with a greater presence of strip malls.

There are a number of misconceptions that result from Portland’s UGB.  Contrary to the claims of libertarian critics, the UGB has not stopped all growth and led to an unaffordable region; Portland is actually one of the most pro-growth cities in the nation and has made it easy (through progressive zoning codes and parking requirements–see below) for developers to construct high-quality yet affordable housing to meet the demand of the market.  As a result, Portland experienced much less of a boom and bust than cities in California, and currently has a median housing price is 40% that of San Francisco, 60% that of LA, and 80% that of Seattle, making it one of the most affordable cities on the West Coast.

Element #2: Smart Parking Management

A village of food carts lining a surface parking lot in Downtown Portland.

In the Bay Area, parking can turn conservatives into progressives and liberals into Teabaggers.  Because land is a limited resource and Portland must make the most of existing space, Portland has pioneered a number of interesting and innovative parking management practices.  The two most noticeable of these practices are the adaptive reuse of surface parking lots with food carts and the parking management policies around transit.

Unbeknownst to me before my visit, Portland is famous for its food carts, second to only New York City (which has about 14 times the population).  The 400+ carts range from Indian to Cambodian to Mexican to Brazilian and boast some of the best food in the entire city for a price of $5-$7 dollars.  What do food carts have to do with parking management? Whereas surface parking lots are traditionally one of the single biggest causes of blight in cities, Portland’s food carts play a vital role in fostering a vibrant street life where there otherwise would be none.  Food carts make surface parking lots work.

Portland is also a leader in smart parking policies around transit.  While many local governments maintain high parking requirements even in transit-rich areas, new developments in Portland near frequent transit (buses, light rail, and streetcars) have no parking requirements whatsoever.  Keep in mind this does not mean developers have stopped building parking altogether; it simply gives the power of determining parking ratios to developers and the housing market rather than local governments.  Since an average parking space adds $40,000 to the cost of a housing unit, allowing for unbundled parking with lower ratios has a huge effect on housing affordability near transit.  Even in booming areas such as the Pearl District, condos and live-work units currently start under $200,000–try and find that in San Francisco.

Element #3: Cost-Effective Transportation Choices

The Portland Streetcar is the epitome of development-oriented transit.

Portland’s transit system is geared toward providing the greatest amount of economic growth and mobility for the lowest price.  Over the past 15 years, Portland has had an extraordinary streak of New Starts-funded projects, having built five major MAX light rail extensions totaling nearly 38 miles (not to mention the 15 mile regionally-funded WES commuter rail and the 4 mile locally funded Portland Streetcar).  Yet, Portland’s still not finished, with the 3.3 mile Small Starts-funded Eastside Loop for the streetcar, and the 7.3 mile Milwaukie light rail extension, set to be completed by 2012 and 2015, respectively, as well as a 5 mile rapid streetcar extension to Lake Oswego (essentially a cheaper alternative to light rail) currently in planning and aiming to open in 2014.  The total cost of the 68 miles of rail that Portland will add between 1995 and 2015 is about 25% less than the cost of the 32.5 miles of BART extensions that the Bay Area will have had in the same time period (keep in mind these are just rough estimates adjusted for inflation).  Portland has also achieved better returns on its investment, with around three times the ridership as BART’s extensions (once again, semi-rough estimates).  Even with the fuzzy math, twice the mileage and three times the ridership for 3/4 the price is outstanding for TriMet and embarrassing for BART. As I’ve written too many times before, this enviable cost effectiveness is nothing new for other metro regions, but back to transit in Portland…

The most interesting aspect of Portland transit is its use of streetcars.  Portland’s streetcar system has a very specific function not as an urban circulator or glorified bus, but as a tool of placemaking.  When coupled with a progressive form-based zoning code and market-based parking requirements, the results of the streetcar have been staggering.  Since opening in 2001, 10,000 housing units and $4 billion in economic development have occurred within three blocks of the four mile streetcar line, and new districts have emerged such as the Pearl District, which I found to be one of the best urban neighborhoods I’ve ever been to.  For anyone who believes that streetcars are just glorified buses, I urge you to travel to Portland and see the clear difference for yourself.

Conclusion

Portland is still by no means perfect–there are still numerous aspects of the city’s urban fabric that could be improved.  Portland still has it’s fair share of surface parking lots, at times comically surrounding a streetcar line or light rail stops, and transit mode share is still rather low (13% within the city) considering the city’s reputation (non-commute trips seems to be a big source of ridership as well).  I would have liked to see some nicer buses–Portland was one of the first cities to invest in low-floor buses in the 1990s, but now they look pretty outdated compared to AC Transit’s Van Hools.  Portland could also use a greater investment in Rapid Bus/BRT for some of its major corridors.

Above: Portland’s Lloyd District–Surface parking lot heaven, in spite of ample transit access (three light rail lines and a soon-to-be streetcar line)

Nevertheless, Portland has accomplished a feat which few other cities can attest to: creating a compact, affordable region with the right mix of densities and transit modes.  Unlike the Bay Area, Portland doesn’t have “www.trimetrage.com,” “www.trimetsucks.com,” or “www.rescuetrimet.com”–transit just works.  I was not able to spend too much time exploring Portland’s bicycle network, though it’s platinum rating, 8% mode share and ambitious plan for 25% of all trips by 2030 could fill up a number of posts themselves.  Overall, Portland is well on its way to becoming “the best European City in America,” leading other regions (such as the Bay Area) to seek to emulate its success.

More photos on the 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr.

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

[Part of a series on urban design in Colorado]

Now that this series is beginning to come to a close (one more post left), it’s time to take a step back at look at the big picture in Colorado.  Over the past five posts I’ve discussed some of Colorado’s sensible and innovative policies to create more vibrant cities that deemphasize the automobile and encourage a healthy, active lifestyle.  One thing that I haven’t really mentioned up to this point is the massive amounts of sprawl occurring in Colorado today.

Sprawl has been a major problem in Colorado since the early Postwar era, and Denver, Boulder, and Fort Collins are no exception.  In spite of the cutting-edge policies toward pedestrian/transit malls, bicycling, and other urban design feats, these cities continue to rely on bland tract-style automobile-oriented suburban development.

Whereas sprawl in Fort Collins in the 1960s-1980s still generated a degree of urban form with open neighborhoods and an interconnected street grid, sprawl in the 1990s-present has been mostly walled in, cut off subdivisions which rely on a few major arterial streets.  Old sprawl managed to still foster a strong bicycling culture, due to the wide, slow streets which were built across the city parallel to the fast arterial streets.  However, new sprawl has eliminated these slow side streets, creating mega-blocks of subdivisions and strip malls in which major arterial streets are the only way to get around.  So, while Fort Collins’ transportation policy is working toward becoming more bicycle-friendly, it’s development policy is heading in the opposite direction toward more automobile-oriented suburbs.

Above: Old sprawl in Fort Collins.  The street network remains interconnected and slower, non-arterial streets still connect between neighborhoods

Below: New sprawl in Fort Collins.  Not even Google Maps can keep up with the subdivisions and strip malls sprouting up on what used to be farmland.  Notice the lack of connectivity in the street grid and the reliance on a few major arterial streets.

Boulder has met a similar fate, and recently instituted growth limits to reign in sprawl.  However, the city has not been able to keep up with housing demand through infill development, leading housing prices to increase and more people commuting from neighboring cities.

Fort Collins, on the other hand, has continued to allow sprawl and consequently has remained affordable.  It is important to note that sprawl in Fort Collins is still not nearly as bad compared to sprawl in the Bay Area’s outer rim (Antioch, Livermore, Fairfield, etc.) from an energy and environmental perspective–it’s almost impossible to make a trip in Fort Collins that’s greater than 5 miles, so the overall vehicle miles traveled is very low for the majority of its residents.  Yet, while Fort Collins has not installed growth limits, concerns over traffic, consumption of farmland and open space, and loss of city character has driven the city to alter its development policy with the creation of the Mason Street Corridor.

Following a general trend across Colorado of improving transportation infrastructure, Fort Collins is set to turn its abandoned rail corridor into a new BRT line and multi-use trail.  The $80 million dollar project will tie together Downtown, Colorado State University, and the southern commercial and business districts while at the same time serving as a guide for future growth (to see a corny video, click here).  While this idea has been around for 30 years now, Fort Collins’ committment to opening the corridor by 2011 puts it way ahead of many similar BRT projects across the country.

While Fort Collins’ project might seem small, Denver’s ambitious $6.2 billion FasTracks program will fundamentally transform the region.  In 11 seperate projects, Denver will add 140 miles of new light rail, commuter rail, and BRT in the next 7 years in an aggressive program that will give Denver the largest light rail system in the U.S. and one of the first DMU/EMU commuter rail systems.

Denvers 6.2 billion dollar FasTracks program will add a whopping 140 miles of light rail, commuter rail, and BRT over the next 7 years.

Denver's 6.2 billion dollar FasTracks program will add a whopping 140 miles of light rail, commuter rail, and BRT over the next 7 years. See current map here. Map courtesy of Steve Boland at SFCityscape

FasTracks will also bring a rail connection to Denver’s new Stapleton development.  A Calthorpe project, the redevelopment of the former airport is the largest redevelopment project in the U.S., expected to add 13,000 new housing units (which is equivalent to probably 30,000 people).  I unfortuneatly didn’t get the chance to visit Stapleton, but you can learn more about it here.

In true New Urbanist fashion, Stapleton offers a mix of single family housing, condos, commercial space, and office space,

In true New Urbanist fashion, Stapleton offers a mix of housing, shops, and offices.

The last major project that will transform Colorado is intercity rail.  Currently, the Rocky Mountain Rail Authority is studying the potential of a rail network spanning across the Front Range Urban Corridor and along the I-70 corridor to connect with major recreational destinations in the Rockies.  The Fort Collins-Boulder-Denver-Colorado Springs corridor could potentially be high-speed (meaning at least 110mph+).  Either way, a good intercity rail network in Colorado is badly needed, and would further aid Colorado in better managing its growth in the coming decades and developing more sustainable and livable cities in the future.

Areas under study for an intercity rail network in Colorado.

Areas under study for an intercity rail network in Colorado.

In spite of its continuing struggle against sprawl, Colorado is well on its way to becoming a leader in Smart Growth and transportation planning.  In the next post, which will be the last of this series, we’ll look at what lessons the Bay Area and California as a whole can take away from Colorado.

Also See:

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

And more pictures at the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

The Central Platte Valley District is nothing short of an urban design masterpiece

Denver's new Central Platte Valley District is nothing short of an urban design masterpiece

[Part of a series on urban design in Colorado]

So far in this series I have examined three elements of Colorado’s cities–pedestrian malls, an active populace, and nature.  Really, these elements are not separate at all and tie into one-another: great pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure with plenty of trees and streams will make people want to get outside and take advantage of such a pleasant setting.  Therefore, it’s no coincidence that Colorado has such a strong culture of activity and such a low obesity rate.  But up until now I’ve mostly looked at Downtowns and suburban areas, rather than urban neighborhoods.  Why?  Because I had to save the best for last.

10 years ago, Denver’s Central Platte Valley district was nothing more than a blighted wasteland that served as an eyesore to the rest of the Downtown area.  While the area boasted a great location immediately adjacent to the trendy LoDo and Highland districts, Coors Field, the Pepsi Center, and Downtown, any redevelopment faced the enormous challenge of dealing with four barriers which fragmented the district and isolated it from adjacent neighborhoods: two rail lines, a river, and a freeway.

In spite of these challenges, Denver set the ambitious goal of adding 3,000 new housing units, four parks, a new light rail transit center, and more than 3 million square feet of commercial and office space in this area of less than one square mile.  How has Denver accomplished this goal without creating a traffic disaster?  By making the area almost entirely pedestrian and bicycle oriented.

The fragmented pieces of land in Central Platte Valley are joined together by three brand-new pedestrian bridges which connect the district to the LoDo and Highland districts and line up with the 16th Street Transit Mall.  Not only are the bridges beautifully designed and conducive of walking by themselves, they serves as the fastest and most-direct link to downtown and between neighborhoods.  Development is centered along the pedestrian mall created by the trio of bridges, making walking and bicycling truly the modes of choice in the area.

Commons Park, with the Mellenium Bridge in the background.

Commons Park, with the Mellenium Bridge in the background.

The Platte River Bridge, with the Highland Bridge in the background.

The Platte River Bridge, with the Highland Bridge in the background.

The Highland Bridge, one of three pedestrian bridges along 16th St. in the Central Platte Valley District

The Highland Bridge

Central Platte Valley is also oriented around the natural assets of the South Platte River and Cherry Creek.  Apart from the great riverfront bike trails which I already discussed, Central Platte Valley has an absolute gem in Confluence Park, a new beach right in the middle of Central Platte Valley at the site of Denver’s founding 151 years ago:

Nothing beats a trip to the "beach" on a hot summer day in Denver.

Nothing beats a trip to the "beach" on a hot summer day in Denver.

The last piece in the transformation of Central Platte Valley is the redevelopment of Union Station, which will become its own district in itself.  Just behind the actual train station is a giant piece of land that will soon house the new transit center, another pedestrian bridge, and the remaining 1,000 new housing units along with lots of commercial space and a new hotel.  Once complete, the are will have much-improved transit facilities seamless connection to LoDo and Downtown.

The giant chunk of land behind Union Station will be the final piece in redevelopment.

This giant chunk of land behind Union Station will be the final piece in redevelopment...

...Which will be transformed into a pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhood

...Which will become a new pedestrian and transit-oriented neighborhood

UPDATE: Construction on the new Union Station area just began September 7th.  Check out the project’s new website here.

While the planning process for redevelopment began back in the 1980s, the magnitude of what Denver has accomplished in the last 10 years is simply amazing.  Central Platte Valley had a sense of cohesiveness and vibrancy to it that few other large-scale redevelopment projects have, and it is one of the best examples in the country of how to create a lively new neighborhood from scratch.

If you’re interested in Denver’s redevelopment, I strongly recommend you check out www.denverinfill.com, which provides an excellent summary of every major redevelopment project happening in Denver.

Also See:

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

And more pictures at the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr

Urbanism in Colorado: An Introduction

The 16th St. Transit Mall in Denver is just one example of the outstanding urban design which I encountered in Colorado

The 16th St. Transit Mall in Denver is just one example of the outstanding urban design which I encountered in Colorado

Colorado is not always a state that comes to mind when you think of progressive urban policies, but having spent the past week exploring the cities of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Denver, Colorado has become one of the most cutting edge states when it comes to urbanism.  Granted, I am by no means saying that Colorado cities are even near perfect; in fact, cities on the Front Range have experienced a tremendous amount of sprawling growth over the past few decades which now threatens to consume a significant portion of the farmland and open space along the I-25 corridor.  But while urbanist projects in the Bay Area have been caught up in political battles and bureaucratic red tape, cities across Colorado have managed to accomplish numerous recent projects which have put them at the forefront of livability and sustainability.

Most of Colorado’s population lies along the Front Range urban corridor, with 3.1 million of the state’s 4.9 million people living along the 75 mile stretch of I-25 between the Denver Metro area and Fort Collins, and an additional 1.1 million in the adjacent 100 miles (including Colorado Springs and Cheyenne, Wyoming).

Three overarching aspects of Fort Collins, Boulder, and Denver put these cities years ahead of the Bay Area: pedestrian malls and public spaces, bicycle friendliness, and smart redevelopment.  I plan on discussing each of these topics in the following days, as well as their implications for Colorado’s future and what the Bay Area can learn from them.

Also, I would like to draw your attention to the new 21st Century Urban Solutions Flickr, in which you can view pictures from my trip to Colorado along with other photos as they come.  Enjoy!

Boulder, along with Fort Collins and Denver, has an extensive network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure which helps foster an active and green populace

Boulder, along with Fort Collins and Denver, has an extensive network of bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure which helps foster an active and green populace

Also See:

Pedestrian Malls as a Vital Element of Colorado’s Cities

Colorado’s Culture of Activity

Incorperating Nature into Colorado’s Cities

Denver’s Urban Design Masterpiece

Colorado’s Urbanist Future

Last Lessons from the Centennial State

The Relationship Between the Housing Bubble, the Subprime Mortgage Crisis, and Land Use Regulation: What Houston Can Tell Us

Downtown Houston

Houston is often looked down upon by urban planners for the reason that it essentially lacks land use and planning regulations altogether.  Many will (justifiably) argue that Houston is the epitome of unsustainable urban sprawl, with its endless suburbs and expansive freeway system that makes the region almost completely dependent on driving.  Yet, Houston has a lot that it can teach us as well; in fact, over the past few decades it has enjoyed one of the most dynamic and affordable housing markets even with massive demand and growth, earning the city the title of the “Capital of the Middle Class.”  I examined this dichotomy last December in a paper entitled Houston and Deregulation: Can a Truly Free Market City Suceed?

While the subprime mortgage crisis and the housing crash have wreaked havoc on the national economy, Houston’s housing market has remained stable and it’s economy relatively strong.  In spite of it’s GDP growing as much as 40% faster than the Bay Area, coupled with an influx of 150,000 Katrina refugees in 2005, Houston’s housing prices have remained stable and low over the past decade because housing supply had consistently met demand.  At the time of my research (going by October 2007-2008 housing prices), Houston’s median housing price had declined from $146,000 to $142,000, a mere 2.7%.  Prices have dropped since then as credit markets have frozen up, yet still, Houston’s median home price for March 2009 is $138,000, or about 2.25 times the median family income, making housing still very affordable even in hard times.

In contrast, the Bay Area housing market has completely plummeted in the past year and a half.  The Bay Area saw prices skyrocket over the past decade as demand for housing outpaced supply (in Arizona, Nevada, and Florida, the opposite occurred– housing supply outpaced economic growth).  In late 2007, the bubble finally burst, and median housing prices dropped from $631,000 in October 2007 to 375,000 in October 2008 to 299,000 in March 2009, a total of 53%.  Yet, compared to Houston’s housing market, Bay Area homes remain much less affordable, at around 3.25 times the median family income (not too bad considering in 2007 a family would have to spend 7 times their income to buy a house).  With these overinflated prices, it’s no coincidence that government-subsidized housing and subprime mortages (essentially affordable housing loans) were much more popular in the Bay Area than Houston.

Yet, Houston is by no means free of problems.  It leads the nation in highest daily vehicle passenger mileage (1st), highest individual transportation cost (1st), lowest public transportation ridership (1st), worst traffic (7th), worst ozone pollution (4th), worst smog (2nd), most traffic fatalities (1st), and most pedestrian fatalities (5th: keep in mind nobody walks!).  Thus, Houston is among the most unlivable, unsustainable, and unhealthy cities to live in.

Can you have a city that is both affordable and sustainable?  Believe it or not, the solution for Houston might not lie in more land use regulation, but less.  Houston’s biggest public works expenses come from massive investments in automobile infrastructure.  This sprawling transportation model manifests itself in the city’s parking, street and lot size regulations, which effectively prevent high density development and limit Houston from becoming a truly urban environment (even bars must provide 10 parking space from every 1000 square feet!).  By liberalizing these requirements and shifting investments to transit (which is slowly but steadily occurring), Houston’s adaptive housing market could very well be one of America’s most transit oriented cities in 2030.

Of course, this last point is just speculation, but if there’s one thing I took away from this project, it is that when regulations are minimized and developers can quickly respond to shifts in the housing market, anything is possible.  If there’s one thing the Bay Area can learn from Houston, it is that no-growth policies will wreak havoc on the economies and citizens of a region.  We must make it easier for smart growth to occur, and speed up projects like Treasure Island, Alameda Point, and Hunter’s Point as long as they provide transit options and do not displace current residents.  Otherwise, our housing market will end up just how it was before: unaffordable and unstable.

Want to learn more? Read my paper here

The True Cost of Driving

How much does each one of these drivers spend per mile?

How much does each one of these drivers spend per mile?

When I was researching for my last project (see last post), I stumbled across this calculator for the true cost of driving created by Santa Cruz County’s “Commute Solutions” program.  This is the best attempt I’ve seen to fully quantify the multitude of costs associated with driving, since it factors in not only the cost of the car, fuel, insurance, maintenance, and fees, but also infrastructure, congestion, pollution, parking, accidents, land value, and other indirect costs.  According to this model, the average cost on an individual driving 10,000 miles per year is somewhere in the range of $12,000-13,000, and the average cost for 20,000 miles per year is $26,000 (AAA determines that about 8,300 of this is direct costs).

While actual costs vary from place to place and depending on fuel prices, after some analysis I’ve arrived at some staggering conclusions.    When multiplying the average cost per mile of $1.28 (by default assuming current prices of about $2.25/gal) by 240 trillion yearly vehicle miles traveled (VMT), which is a rough estimate of the current total, and America’s total yearly cost of driving is $3.7 trillion , or a whopping 25% of our GDP (the actual yearly figures are likely in the range of $3.25-4 trillion).  Just pause and think about that for a second: one out of every four dollars in America is spent on driving.  Should Americans have to spend that much on transportation?  What does this mean for lower income Americans?  Also, a 10% reduction in driving would save up to 400 billion per year, and a 25% reduction would save almost one trillion per year.

That’s a lot of money.