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

Just Say NO to Federal Courthouse Plan

29 10 2009

Once again, the Federal Courthouse is trying to expand into the ex-Granby Tower site. And, once again, we need to fight any plan that takes land off of the tax roles. The General Services Administration (GSA – they are in charge of federal construction projects) already has a plan that is acceptable. The plan that I am referring to would construct a 7-story addition in the middle of the current building:


Norfolk Federal Courthouse - Tower Alternative

In fact, not only does this option conserve land and fit in better with an urban environment, this alternative is actually less expensive than building on the Granby Tower site. Let’s back up for a second. If you had not heard of this project before or have forgotten, there were five alternatives considered. They are called the Southern, Western, Northern, Eastern, and Tower Alternatives, with the name referring to the location of the annex in relation to the current building. Here are diagrams of the first four, showing where they would be located what method would be used to connect them:


Off-Site Alternatives for the Norfolk Federal Courthouse Annex

As you can see (or if you can’t, click the picture for a larger version), the Southern and Eastern Alternatives each close a road. In fact, the Eastern Alternative called for closing an entire block of Monticello Avenue. That left two other off-site options. The Northern Alternative would demolish the Greyhound Station and have to find a way to cross Brambleton Blvd. The easiest of these four is obviously the Western Alternative, which is to put the annex on the Granby Tower site. While this seems like a good idea, lets look at the final option that was researched by the GSA: an on-site addition. This on-site addition would be in the form of a tower on top of the current building. This final alternative is actually more cost effective than the next most plausible (Western Alt.). Here is the cost breakdown:


Source: Draft Environmental Assessment for the Walter E. Hoffman United States Courthouse Proposed Courthouse Annex Norfolk, Virginia - GSA 2006

The GSA must work together in order to build consistently with local goals. This is not my opinion, this is fact. According to the GSA’s Urban Development/Good Neighbor Program,

“The core mission of the Urban Development/Good Neighbor Program is to provide GSA regional offices and their stakeholders with the technical, training, and outreach resources they need to implement good neighbor principles in the business practices of the Public Buildings Service. Those principles are:

  • Locate new owned and leased federal facilities in places that support local plans;
  • Design new facilities to create outstanding federal workplaces and support neighborhood urban design goals;
  • Renovate existing federal properties to improve their public spaces, create positive First Impressions, and encourage stakeholders to improve neighborhood conditions;
  • Manage federal properties to encourage public use and openness; and
  • Participate in neighborhood physical and management improvement efforts around federal properties.”

Take note on two of those in particular. “Design new facilities to create outstanding federal workplaces and support neighborhood urban design goals” and “Renovate existing federal properties to improve their public spaces, create positive First Impressions, and encourage stakeholders to improve neighborhood conditions.” Building a mediocre 5-story building across from the current building does not support our urban design goals and taking property off of the tax roles absolutely does not improve neighborhood conditions. Despite the failure of Granby Tower, the site still holds the potential for success. Currently, it is still being taxed. The GSA is the reason why Granby Tower failed. The GT would have been under construction but instead the GSA said that they might want the site. If they had gone with the tower in the first place, we would have both. Please contact the GSA (Region 3) at (215) 446-5100 and let them know that you deserve a quality project. Tell them that the City deserves the Tower Alternative for the Walter E. Hoffman United States Courthouse Proposed Annex.