Fairfax Gets It, Why Can’t We?

9 12 2009

Fairfax recently released a new 10-year plan aimed at making transit travel more attractive the vehicle travel. The plan would increase service and frequency, create new routes, and use innovative techniques such as tying traffic lights to bus schedules, so that they never wait at lights. They also plan on utilizing dedicated bus lanes and fixed-route-style fare collection on some bus routes to speed the buses through stops. These new routes, including their already planned BRT routes, would work in unison with METRORail to make transit commutes faster than traditional, usually single-occupant, private car transportation.

My only question is why can Hampton Roads not come up with something this comprehensive. We did work on a plan for the future of transit but it seems to be viewed more as a dream and less of an actual this-is-what-we-need-to-work-for plan. Think about it. You see city after city create plans and actually follow them. Our area can do that too. Virginia Beach has been working on the Southeastern Parkway for 23 years now because it falls into their now-outdated plans to make the Corporate Landing office park successful. Why can’t we work this hard to make transit plans come through? If you ask any city, they will tell you that they want it to work, but nobody seems to be actually pushing for it.

In my opinion, the reason for the lack of drive for this issue is the lack of regional cooperation. Fairfax’s plan will work and has support because it only deals with one locality, Fairfax County. It ties into existing routes that go into other municipalities, but the plan itself, only expands service inside county lines. Here, however, our plan encompasses Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Suffolk, Newport News, Hampton, Williamsburg, James City County, and York County. In fact part of our Transit Vision Plan extends service toward Moyock, NC. How in the world do our leaders think that they can make something this expansive work if they can’t make simpler regional systems work. It is hard enough to get two cities to work on a bus route together let alone a system including both light rail and commuter rail. We need a functional regional government. If our localities could combine services and resources, we could actually overcome the problems that we face now. Look around. we are facing budget cuts all the time and money can no longer be guaranteed by the state. We have to help ourselves. Nobody else is coming to our rescue.

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Light Rail in Chesapeake?

3 12 2009

On November 24th, the City of Chesapeake officially and unanimously voted to push for a light rail study for their inclusion into regional light rail plans. This is a major and definitive move for Chesapeake, showing that they support a regional mass transportation system. A Greenbrier line connecting to Norfolk Naval Station would be a tremendous asset to a fledgling light rail system such as ours. A Chesapeake line would also set the stage for a line through Portsmouth and out to Suffolk. A system with a strong East-West corridor (Downtown Norfolk-Oceanfront) and a North-South corridor (Norfolk Naval Station-Greenbrier) would increase ridership and overall importance as well as add fuel to an extension to the Peninsula, thus giving us a truly regional system. Good job Chesapeake. If Virginia Beach does, for some unseen reason, back out yet again from progress, Chesapeake will be in a position to surpass Virginia Beach as the largest city in Virginia.





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





Restoring the Old – Herman Court Condominiums

4 11 2009
IMG_7020

Herman Court Condominiums

Here is yet another example of a developer renovating an old, dilapidated building and converting it into a modern space. Formerly an abandoned apartment building, the building, now Herman Court Condominiums, is made up of 16 condos ranging in price from $149,900 to $184,900. This method is much more effective than tearing the building down and hoping for new construction, as the city has done in the past. This project was started by Metro Housing Group with a partnership with the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority. While I do not like the idea of having a surface parking lot taking up the lot next door, I do understand that, for the time being, off-street parking is almost a must unless the site is in an established walkable community. I was also happy to see that the condos were not the only ‘new’ on the block. There were multiple houses on the block and dozens in the immediate area that have been renovated.

IMG_6978

When I was little, I was always confused when we played the game Monopoly. I always would ask, “why is Park Place the second most valuable property?” This confused me because the only Park Place I knew was definitely not going to get in the top group on any scale. Now, however, it is changing. A lot of new development and renovations have taken place there. If you have not been through lately, it is time you stopped by. I am not saying that it is at a peak yet, but it has certainly started the journey upwards. There are many homes left to go that need some fixing up. Not all of these I would call blighted or anything like that. These are just homes that, in some cases, have only had one owner for the past 50 years and just are in need of some updating.

Good job Norfolk. Good job NRHA.

If you are interested, please contact Linda McBurney at 757-289-5674. With financing by the Virginia Housing Development Authority, you could own one of these for little or no money down. It is within a walk to the park and the zoo. It is within a 5 minute bus ride to Downtown Norfolk. Not bad for under $1000/month.





Good Navy News

3 11 2009

Most media nowadays print negative news. It’s a sad truth but a truth none-the-less. Due to the large military presence in our area (and the amount of military subscribers), the Virginian-Pilot does try to keep negative news about the Military to a minimum and tries to balance it with some positive news. Despite this, if you want some true good news about the military, try picking up the Flagship newspaper, available for free all over the place. Because it is printed by the Navy, it is of course all good news. They do however, have stories that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else.

For example, if you were not in an agency participating in the program or had not read the flagship, would you have known the the Navy had a program it calls i-ENCON, or the Incentivized Energy Conservation program? Even if you had heard of it, would you have known that through this program, the Navy saved 1.36 million barrels of oil FY 2009? That is equivalent to taking over 53,000 cars off of the road.

Another story: The Navy’s new Macon Island amphibious assault ship was designed with fuel efficiency in mind as well. It is estimated that it will save $250 million in fuel cost over its lifetime.

Who knew the Navy was so committed to saving fuel? These savings will surely be good on the environment and fuel prices closer to home. Last thing I found out in the Flagship that was neglected in the Pilot: The Navy’s new ship, the New York was not only docked in Norfolk on Thursday but it will actually be home-ported here. for those who do not know, the New York was built with recycled steel from the World Trade Center after September 11th.