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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HRT Mismanagement – A Day Late, A Dollar Short

26 12 2009

I didn’t actually think that I would be writing an article such as this. While I assumed that HRT was just as mismanaged as every other government-run organization in the region, state, or country, I also assumed that HRT would at least step up their game for this project. The HRT President and CEO, Michael Townes is a nice guy with good ideas. Unfortunately, whether his direct fault or not, he is the President and CEO, therefore making him ultimately responsible for the inner workings of HRT. This problem is deeper than Mr. Townes. If we ever want to have a strong, regional transit company, we need to get to the root of the problem. In my opinion, the root of this particular issue stems from poor project management. That is not Mr. Townes’s direct responsibility. The Tide has a project manager and a third-party consultant whose stated job is project management. All of this management should be held immediately accountable. First off, the consulting company is over budget. How in the world can we allow a company tasked with keeping costs under control  to go over budget? I consider that a failure. According to a story by WVEC, “Factors cited by HRT include unexpected conditions in the field, requests for design changes, underground utility relocation, consultant issues, and management problems.” I will go with the first three. Sh*t happens. but the final two are unacceptable. If HRT themselves can point out that consultant issues and management problems are the cause for part of our problems, why are these people still employed. It is my personal belief that when a person is hired for a job, they are to do that job. If they fail to do that job, they should be terminated. This applies to head executives as well as 7-Eleven employees. You are paid to do a job. Your employment agreement is a contract between you and your employer. A breach of contract should result in termination unless some rare circumstance exists. Fire the consultants and sue for the money back. As far as I am concerned, if your job is to keep an eye on the money and you instead rob us blind, you should be held accountable. Additionally, there are others that should be docked pay at a minimum. Take the Senior Vice President for Development, Jayne Whitney. Her HRT bio states that she is “currently responsible for the planning, engineering, design and construction and funding of major capital projects in the organization, including New Starts projects such as the Norfolk Light Rail project.” (By the way, Ms. Whitney, if you ever read this, could you please remind your webmaster that stating that you “began [your] professional career with VDOT and performed highway planning and public transportation planning,” just screams inept to this part of the state?)  Or look at Jim Price, Vice President of Rail Operations. What does he do right now? There are no “rail operations.” This means that either he sits on his hind parts all day (and we should lay him off) or he is actively involved in the management of this project (and should be held accountable).

Hampton Roads needs this to succeed. We cannot continue to allow waste and incompetence to drive our regional organizations. Bone fide mistakes do happen. I understand that.Especially when you work Downtown, you never know what is lurking underground. When you work in an office, however, and are tasked to not drop the ball, you should either do it or get out. SPSA, HRT, VDOT, each individual city council, the CTB, the General Assembly, etc. all seem to just maintain the status quo. In Hampton Roads this appears to be, “screw the taxpayers.” Light rail can and will work here. So will HRT. As citizens, however, we need to strongly voice our opinion that we want competent staff members before we want expensive ones with lofty resumes.





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.





VDOT’s Budget Cut Again

6 12 2009

Once again, the state is once again cutting money off of VDOT’s budget. This time, however, there is nothing left but bones. In fact, as early as 2011, Hampton Roads will get zero (you read that right) dollars for road construction. Statewide that same year, Northern Virginia would receive $225 million (93.2%) from VDOT. Even sooner, in 2010, the overall budget will grow 3% despite Hampton Roads’ funding getting cut another 13% for that same year! In 2010, Northern Virginia’s budget actually increases by 5%. Our luck would not change until 2015, when we get a whopping $100 million. Of course, seeing as 2015 is six years from now in the six year budget, our actual chances of seeing anything are very slim. When are we, as Hampton Roads residents going to stand up for ourselves? When will we decide that allowing Northern Virginia rob us blind is no longer acceptable? You know when? When we decide that we are a single, unified voice. Northern Virginia can say that, as suburbs of DC, they all need the same general projects to get by. Hampton Roads, on the other hand, can do nothing of the sort. Norfolk wants money for the Midtown Tunnel. Virginia Beach wants money for the Southeastern ‘Parked’way (which is what it really will be when it is full of traffic). Chesapeake wants a new Dominion Blvd. Portsmouth wants the MLK extended. Hampton wants the HRBT redone. Newport News wants I-64 expanded north. None of the cities here realize that we all need the same things to function. Without one of our major connectors, the whole place is gridlocked. Look at any interstate when one gets all lanes blocked during rush hour. The whole area shuts down. We can’t court new business if we don’t have a reliable road system. We need to work together as one region to secure our road money. We need to tell our legislature that Northern Virginia has robbed us enough and we demand our fair share. People here complain when a city spends tax money on something light Town Center, light rail, Downtown, etc., but they seem to have no problem paying taxes to a state that is ripping us off. Its not VDOTs fault. It is completely the legislature’s fault. We cannot allow current elected state representatives to serve another term. They have not fixed our problem yet and they will never fix it. Short of seceding from the Commonwealth of Virginia, regionalism and voting out our incumbents is our only option.





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.





How do Sex Offenders Vote?

3 11 2009

How can sex offenders vote in Chesapeake? Many voting precincts are located inside of school buildings while school is in session. Don’t get me wrong, most sex offenders are what they are for a reason: they were found guilty of a crime. They still, however, have the right to vote. Chesapeake Public Schools prohibits sex offenders from being on school property. The interior of the school is not always secured from those that are voting. Norfolk, Virginia Beach, Suffolk, Portsmouth, and Hampton all close their schools for Election Day. Why not Chesapeake? For a security standpoint, this is a very risky move. Is security not the top priority?