Cities Without Suburbs – A Book Review

14 01 2010

Cities Without Suburbs - By: David Rusk

I recently finished reading a book by David Rusk called “Cities without Suburbs.” I highly recommend this book to everyone. The book argues in support of regional cooperation and/or consolidation of suburbs with their historically central cities. Going beyond your typical benefits of regional cooperation, this book explains, with evidence, that there are many benefits for regional consolidation of services. He thoroughly identifies the problems facing inner cities today including, increasing poverty rates, decreasing tax revenues, and the inherent problems with solving complicated social, transportation, housing, economic, and budgetary problems when cooperating with a number of municipalities. Using census data, he explains why cities that have expanded their boundaries to encompass their own suburbs have historically done much better than cities that are unable to expand their boundaries.These locked-in cities lose revenue, resources, and opportunities in the long run to their independent suburbs. This same reason is also why suburbanites fight consolidation/annexation. They believe that their suburbs are doing well and that they don’t want to take on the inner city’s problems. There are a couple of problems with this philosophy, however. First, history and statistics have shown that suburbs that are independent from their central city do not grow as fast as suburbs that are connected to their city. In fact, the average income for the entire region is lower for regions that are segmented versus those that are not. Second, when connected to their suburbs, central cities have fewer problems and the region as a whole has a lower crime rate and a better quality of life.

While I have always felt that a regional Hampton Roads would be a good thing, this book got me thinking that it should go further than that. It is certainly a step in a positive direction to have regional organizations. Certainly don’t get me wrong. Our current institutions such as HRT, SPSA, HRPDC, HRTPO etc all have their problems but when it comes down to it, they make certain things simpler for our area. Imagine if each city had to run its own bus service. You would have to transfer to another bus every time you crossed a city boundary. What if each city had to compete individually for transportation money from the state and federal government? You think we get shorted our share now? Despite current and planned or possible future regional entities, we still need to go further.

Let’s look at one thing that our region does. It may seem minor but think about it. Tourism. Our region has many great tourist attractions. From the Virginia Beach Oceanfront and Ocean Breeze to Colonial Williamsburg and Busch Gardens/Water Country and everything in between such as Nauticus and the Wisconsin, Hampton Roads has a lot to offer. Each city spends millions a year in tourism advertising money to attempt to attract visitors to patronize their respective city. While places like Virginia Beach and Williamsburg spend money to directly advertise their attractions, other places such as Chesapeake advertise to attract visitors to stay in their hotels, hoping to capture tourists’ shopping dollars at Greenbrier, etc. The reason this has to be done is because otherwise, Chesapeake makes no money off of Virginia Beach’s tourists. If our cities were one jurisdiction, however, things would be much different. We could combine our money to advertise for our regional attractions and the whole area would benefit. The area of Chesapeake would benefit just as much from tourists that came to Greenbrier as from those that never shopped west of Lynnhaven.

The same goes for transportation. Think of our major projects. The HRBT is a good example. As it stands, Hampton and Newport News want an expanded HRBT. Norfolk, however, is against it because the outcome on our side of the water would be destroyed properties. If we were one city, though, we would be much more likely to support it. An expanded HRBT would almost certainly be a catalyst for a better business climate on the Peninsula. Norfolk doesn’t really care about that. Hampton voters can’t vote for Norfolk’s City Council. As one city, the Peninsula’s economic climate would be Norfolk’s economic climate meaning that the expanded HRBT would benefit the city. Same goes for the Dominion Blvd. project. Peninsula, Norfolk and VB leaders can see how it is important to Chesapeake and the region overall. Secretly, though, they also know that Chesapeake residents are not their constituency. They can support Chesapeake’s project but at the same time they are obligated to do what is best for their constituency.

We can look at social issues. Public housing for example. First, current housing projects were built in Norfolk, Portsmouth, Newport News, and Hampton simply because the cities were there. Chesapeake, Virginia Beach, Suffolk and the counties of Hampton Roads did not have the capacity to support large scale housing projects at the time. Current housing policy no longer supports concentrated ‘projects.’ Studies have shown that everyone does better when the poor are dispersed throughout the middle class housing areas. This dispersion keeps the poor from feeling hopeless about their situation. Their income rates increase as does the pass rate for their school children. College attendance and graduation rates increase. Despite the objections by some middle class areas, the property values do not decrease and crime does not increase. In cities that are serious about this policy, overall crime rates tend to decrease and overall income averages go up. In our area, however, due to our segmented cities and therefore our segmented housing authorities, the residents of the current projects cannot be transferred to other cities using funds from their home city to pay the rent. This condition severely limits the ability of our housing authorities to successfully assist the poor residents of the housing projects. As one city, the authority could move residents freely around the region to make sure that they have the best opportunity to advance their situations.

I think that this can be accomplished with the right amount of public support. This will not be easy, however, and will take careful consideration to make a thorough proposal to the General Assembly (required for consolidation in Virginia). This will require public education and public input to make sure that all issues are addressed. I know that not everyone will support this but that is typical of any major proposal. I also know that if we could consolidate our area so that the central cities encompasses 60-75 % of our regional population that we would be a force to be reckoned with at the state, federal, and economic levels.

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Form-Based Zoning

11 11 2009

Recently, I brought up the form-based zoning included in the Virginia Beach Comprehensive Plan and it occurred to me that, while it has been around for a little while, most people have never heard of it and know relatively little about it. Before we talk about form-based zoning though, lets talk about conventional zoning.

Most people have heard about conventional zoning. In conventional zoning, each area of the city is defined as either Residential, Commercial, Industrial, Institutional, or Government. These categories or broken down further based usually on building size and use. For example, a simplified definition of each zoning district in Norfolk is shown below:

Residence Districts.   (du=Dwelling Unit)

  • R-1 One-Family District: 25,000 sq. ft./du* (1.74 du/acre)
  • R-2 One-Family District: 20,000 sq. ft./du (2.18 du/acre)
  • R-3 One-Family District: 15,000 sq. ft./du (2.90 du/acre)
  • R-4 One-Family District: 12,000 sq. ft./du (3.63 du/acre)
  • R-5 One-Family District: 10,000 sq. ft./du (4.36 du/acre)
  • R-6 One-Family District: 7,500 sq. ft./du (5.81 du/acre)
  • R-7 One-Family District: 6,000 sq. ft./du (7.26 du/acre)
  • R-8 One-Family District: 5,000 sq. ft./du (8.71 du/acre)
  • R-9 One-Family District: 4,000 sq. ft./du (10.89 du/acre)
  • R-10 Townhouse District: 2,000 sq. ft./du (21.78 du/acre)
  • R-11 Moderate Density Multiple-Family District: 2,900 sq. ft./du (15.02 du/acre)
  • R-12 Medium Density Multiple-Family District: 2,200 sq. ft./du (19.80 du/acre)
  • R-13 Moderately High Density Multiple-Family District: 1,800 sq. ft./du (24.20 du/acre)
  • R-14 High Density Multiple-Family District: 1,333 sq. ft./du (32.67 du/acre)
  • R-15 High Density Multiple-Family District: 1,000 sq. ft./du (43.56 du/acre)

Office and Business/Commerce Districts.

  • O-1 Office District
  • BC-1 Business and Commerce Park District
  • BC-2 Business and Commerce Park District

Commercial Districts.

  • C-1 Limited Commercial District
  • C-2 Corridor Commercial District
  • C-3 Retail Center District
  • C-4 Large Scale Commercial District

Industrial Districts.

  • I-1 Limited Industrial District
  • I-2 Light Industrial District
  • I-3 General Industrial District
  • I-4 Waterfront Industrial District
  • I-5 Deep Waterfront Industrial District

Downtown Districts.

  • D-1 Downtown Waterfront District
  • D-2 Downtown Regional Center District
  • D-3 Freemason/Granby Conservation and Mixed Use District
  • D-4 Downtown Cultural and Convention Center District

Historic and Cultural Conservation Districts.

  • Ghent Historic and Cultural Conservation Districts (HC-G1 and HC-G2)
  • West Freemason Historic and Cultural Conservation Districts (HC-WF1 and HC-WF2)
  • Hodges House Historic and Cultural Conservation District (HC-HH)
  • East Freemason Historic and Cultural Conservation District (HC-EF)

Special purpose districts.

  • Institutional Districts (IN)
  • Manufactured Home Park District (MHP)
  • General Airport District (GA)
  • Open Space Preservation District (OSP)
  • Military Installation District (MI)
  • University Village District (UV)

Overlay Districts.

  • Airport Safety Overlay District (ASO)
  • Chesapeake Bay Preservation Area Overlay District (CBPAO)
  • Flood Plain/Coastal Hazard District (FPCHO)
  • Historic Overlay District (HO)
  • Downtown Historic Overlay District (HO-D)
  • Pedestrian Commercial Overlay District (PCO)
  • Residential Compatibility Overlay District (RCO)
  • Institutional Residential Impact Overlay District (IRIO)
  • Bay Front Residential Parking Overlay District (BFRPO)
  • Localized Alternative Sign Overlay District (LASO)
  • Norfolk International Airport Localized Alternative Sign Overlay District (NIA-LASO)
  • Alternative Siting Residential Overlay District (ASRO)
  • Janaf Shopping Center Localized Alternative Sign Overlay District (JANAF-LASO)
  • Bayfront Residential Siting Overlay District
  • Pedestrian Commercial Overlay District–Colley Avenue (PCO-COLLEY)
  • Pedestrian Commercial Overlay District–21st Street (PCO-21st ST)
  • Palace Shops Localized Alternative Sign Overlay District
  • Military Circle Localized Alternative Sign Overlay District
  • Pedestrian Commercial Overlay District–Riverview (PCO-Riverview)
  • Military Crossing Localized Sign Overlay District
  • Nauticus Localized Sign Overlay District
  • Park Place Residential Overlay District
  • MacArthur Center Localized Alternative Sign Overlay District
  • Localized Alternative Sign Overlay District for the Waterside
  • Roosevelt Gardens Localized Sign Overlay District
  • Pedestrian Commercial Overlay District–35th Street (PCO-35th)
  • Medical Center Sign Overlay District
  • Pedestrian Commercial Overlay District–Five Points (PCO 5 PTS)
  • Super K-Mart Localized Alternative Sign Overlay District (Super K-mart LASO)
  • Kimnach Ford Localized Sign Overlay District (Ford-LASO)
  • West Church Street Overlay District
  • Picadilly Mews Siting Overlay District
  • Ocean View Residential Siting Overlay District
  • Best Square Sign Overlay District
  • Lafayette Boulevard Pedestrian Commercial and Residential Overlay District (PCRO-Lafayette Boulevard)
  • Green Gifford Localized Sign Overlay District (Green Gifford-LASO)

Look overly complicated and confusing? Try building something and following the rules of each district. Better yet, try building something that spans lots of different zones, which would require council approval for rezoning. I live in a house zoned R-8. According to this zone, my lot should be a certain size and their are requirements to keep me from building to the edge of the lot. It also prohibits me from opening, say, a convenience store on the lot next door to me. This, by its very nature, is designed to keep uses separate. How can you walk to your destinations when they are required to be separate? These zoning codes a designed to increase the ability of the city to predict and manage automobile traffic patterns. Think about that. These codes are designed to prevent effective non-motorized travel. These codes are intended to benefit automobile drivers and promote a suburban, car-centric lifestyle.

Think about what you would call a ‘vibrant’ city or area. Downtown Norfolk? Town Center? The Oceanfront? New York City? San Francisco? Chances are, that no matter what area you picked, there is a lot of foot traffic. That said, it would also be fair to say that foot traffic equals vibrancy. It can also be said that most people agree that vibrancy is a good common goal. Nobody, not even the staunchest suburbanite, likes to be in an area with zero human interaction. Now think about the area that you picked. Why is there heavy foot traffic? Even if you picked MacArthur Center or Lynnhaven Mall, the reason there are people walking around is because everything is close together and because there are other people. Now, think about this. If Lynnhaven Mall required each store to be a minimum of 100 feet apart, would you still go? Or would it no longer be comfortable and convenient? That is what conventional zoning does. It forces you apart.

Form-Based Zoning on the other hand, is designed to keep you together. It is thoughtfully structured to allow only structures that are slightly denser than what is currently there, thereby creating an environment of steadily increasing density. It also allows for mixed use. The higher density a mixed use development is, the more likely that it will succeed of its own accord. Form-Based Zoning actually encourages mixed use. If you could walk everywhere you need to shop at and all you neighbors did the same, wouldn’t you?

Now, keeping in mind the conventional zoning, such as Norfolk’s, here is the basics for the Form-Based Zoning code that was recently adopted for Miami, Florida:

Notice how much simpler it is. The actual written code would include things such as height requirements/restrictions and building placement but it would be much more flexible. We should encourage Norfolk and even Chesapeake to adopt a form-based code. In addition to fostering higher density, mixed use developments, the form-based code make mass transit possible and gets people to walk/bike instead of drive, therefore lessening the amount of traffic on the roads without building more of them. Looking at it from a business point of view, localities that stick to form based codes tend not waste developers’ money. The developer can plan a building and already know what the city wants without having to go through lengthy meetings with a planning department. Finally, from a municipal standpoint, the city spends less time and money regulating and more time enjoying what it really wanted the whole time: strong developments that don’t take a toll on city resources. Please encourage your councilmen/women to look at and approve a form-based code.

If you would like to learn more about form-based codes, please visit http://www.formbasedcodes.org/

If you would like to see the specifics of a community that has already started the switch to a Form-Based Code, visit http://www.miami21.org, which is the main page for Miami’s Comprehensive Plan update process.





Virginia Beach Comprehensive Plan

10 11 2009

While reviewing the Final Draft of the City of Virginia Beach’s Comprehensive Plan, my initial reaction was a positive one. A number of their so-called “Strategic Growth Areas” (SGA) were planned to have increased density with a focus on mixed use and mass transit. They even discussed a switch to the use of Form-Based Zoning in the SGAs. Unfortunately, they failed to follow through on their own recommendations. They start out with comments such as, “Instead of relying on the remaining inventory of underdeveloped land to absorb growth, the City carefully defined areas planned to accommodate and absorb urban growth called ‘Strategic Growth Areas.’” Then they define characteristics of the ‘Urban Area’ in the SGAs. Among these characteristics are “higher density residential uses” and “absence of single-family detached units.” This is interesting, mainly because in the first SGA defined in the plan, Burton Station, has the Planning Department making this very contradictory recommendation: “Respect and retain the existing houses in the neighborhood along Burton Station Road and maintain the low density character of this neighborhood.” (Emphasis added) Now, I understand the need to respect the people that live there, but the majority of this SGA is industrial. The small amount of land that has potential to be redeveloped is made up of a trailer park, woods, fields, and mud holes. In fact, aside from the trailer park, there is no technical ‘neighborhood’ in existence here. It is no more than a rural road with fewer than 20 homes and approximately 30 residents.

Does this mean the city wants to maintain the trailer park? Yeah, right. According to the actual Burton Station plan from the Planning Department, even the options that keep it low density force the residents to move. In fact, according to the Burton Station plan, the City of Virginia Beach would work to reconfigure the Lake Wright golf course (City of Norfolk property) into the Burton Station area and then create a golf course community around it. How is a golf course community fit in with their Urban vision?

Overall, I applaud their effort and most of their plan. The new form-based zoning code will certainly curb sprawl as long as the city sticks to it. Sticking to it is going to require increasing density as density increases. In fact, if Virginia Beach can stick to this way of zoning, they will be catering less to suburbanism than Norfolk. Norfolk still has the older, suburban zoning, which is completely contrary to urban density. Good job Virginia Beach and keep up the good work.





Green Metropolis – A Book Review

9 11 2009

Green Metropolis - By: David Owen

Last Thursday, I purchased the book Green Metropolis, written by David Owen. This book was an incredibly well thought out, well researched book. Contrary to the popular held opinion that ‘being green’ involves CFLs and recycling, Owen argues that the greenest city in America is not in Maine or Oregon, but rather New York. In fact, he argues that New York City is the greenest city in America. I was confused too, at first, because the image that I (and most people) have of NYC is a dirty, concrete jungle full of traffic jams and smog. According to Owen’s research, despite the dirty nature of NYC, the city uses less energy per person than any other city in the USA. He uses gasoline as an example and compares NYC to Vermont. Most would agree that wehn you think ‘green,’ you are thinking about something that looks like Vermont: trees, clean air, clean water, etc. According to Owen’s statistics, Vermont residents, on average use 545 gallons of gasoline per person per year, whereas Manhattan residents use only 90 gallons of gasoline per person per year.

It is an interesting theory that the more compact a city is, the more energy efficient it is. There are many examples in this book that I think are important lessons for area, especially since the light rail will be opening next year and we want to expand it and we want it to succeed. Owen talks about light rail. He references it in multiple places. First, in order to be successful, he reinforces the fact that the area served by light rail (or any transit system) needs to be dense.  He references a specific density of seven people per acre. This gives us something to think about if we want to have a regional mass transit system. Hampton Road’s overall density is .625 people per acre. Of course that includes rural counties such as Surry and Isle of Wight. Norfolk’s density is 6.82; much closer to the 7/acre number referenced by Owen as essential for successful transit.  When you consider that there are many places in Norfolk that are not ever going to be ‘dense’ (such as the 1300 acre Norfolk International Airport), we really do have a good start. Virginia Beach has a little bit to go. Their density is only 2.67 people per acre. Granted, half of the city is rural, we will give them the benefit of the doubt and give them 5.4 people per acre. That takes into consideration that most of their people live above the self-imposed ‘green-line.’ In the past few years, they have made great strides increasing density. Town Center is a good example. The recently proposed redevelopment of the Newtown Road ‘Strategic Growth Area’ is another good start (also an attempt to capitalize off of light rail without officially supporting it). We must continue to make the corridors around the light rail lines and proposed light rail lines more dense. I specifically emphasize proposed because if we can make these corridors dense now, it will be easier to get funding and ridership once they are built.

Another thing that Owen’s emphasizes in his book is that, in order to make density and transit more effective, we have to stop catering to cars. If we keep building new roads and highways, we are only reinforcing the automobile’s ease of use. If it is cheaper and easier to drive to work than use transit, why would you bother? Instead, we should use a combination of tolls, gas taxes, congestion pricing, etc. to make driving more costly and less inviting. The proceeds from these revenue streams could be used to expand the transit system. We have to remember, though, that while we want to make driving more uninviting, we do not want to make transporting goods more costly, which would only raise prices of everything and hurt the economy. Truck traffic could face free tolls, lower diesel taxes, or designated lanes (these lanes would be removed from regular lanes, increasing congestion and making car travel even more uninviting). I am not saying to do this overnight, but it is certainly worth it. With a denser area that focused on efficient transit rather than wasteful suburbanism, Hampton Roads would be more likely to compete with other areas.

These are just some of the ideas that would be useful in creating a more efficient, more environmentally friendly metropolitan area. I strongly suggest that everyone reads this book. Especially those who identify themselves as environmentalists. Current ‘environmentalism’ is destroying the planet. Hybrid cars are terrible ideas and only firm up and strengthen our dependence on oil. Read this book. No matter who you are, you will gain something. No matter who you are, your opinions on environmentalism will change.

…in the long run, a car’s fuel gauge is far less significant, environmentally speaking, than its odometer. In the same way that life in Manhattan is inherently energy-efficient, whether or not residents consciously try to conserve, life in the suburbs and beyond is inherently wasteful, no matter what kind of cars the residents park in their garage, or how assidously they swap incandescent lightbulbs for compact fluorescents. It’s miles traveled, not miles per gallon, that make the difference. A sprawling suburb is a fuel-burning, carbon-belching, waste-producing, water-guzzling, pollution-spewing, toxic-leaking machine, and, unlike a Hummer, it can’t be easily abandoned for something smaller and less destructive. We’ve spent a century erecting our way of life. Now we must reconfigure it.

-Excerpt: Green Metropolis – By: David Owen





“Parkway’s Prospects Dim”

26 10 2009

That was the headline in Sunday’s ‘Hampton Roads’ section of the Virginian-Pilot. It is also a headline that I have hoped to see for a long time. I think that even the leaders of Virginia Beach are starting to admit that the project is not exactly a viable option now or in the future. The road would destroy hundreds of acres of wetlands in multiple fragile watersheds so that area residents have the possibility of shaving 7 minutes off of their commute. That’s $385 million per minute saved. Is it really worth it? If the residents are that concerned about the need for a highway, they would have purchased a home closer to an existing highway. There was a resident quoted in the article as saying, “I don’t think it will ever get built.” Thank you EPA. Thank you for sparing the taxpayers the cost of this incredibly overpriced parking lot.