Why Building a City on Rock ‘n’ Roll isn’t a Good Idea

Posted by on Feb 24, 2015 in Blog Article, Project Showcase | One Comment

I have two kids under the age of 4, so with the recent bout of super cold weather, I have been watching more than my fair share of “family movies”. These include the usual Disney hits as well as several films featuring the Muppets that I have now seen dozens of times. This past Sunday, as I sat cutting up hotdogs into bite size portions, The Muppets rendition of We Built This City came on. As an urban planner, I have always found this song amusing, but never given the concept much thought. For some reason, as I watched Beaker chirp in fear as he ran from a vacuum in tune with the music, I realized that building a city on rock ‘n’ roll would probably be a horrible idea.

Knee Deep in Something

The song is from the Starship album Knee Deep in the Hoopla (No I am not a total ‘80s nerd, I googled this), but it is more likely that the band’s Rock ‘n’ Roll City would be knee deep in something else. If hanging out with some of my musically-inclined friends has taught me anything, “rockers” are not the most reliable at anticipating needs of others beyond the next round of beer (at best). Building a city on rock ‘n’ roll would undoubtedly result in a reactive (not proactive) approach to infrastructure development with roads, water, and sewer going in wherever the next band decides to drop its gear. As Rock ‘n’ Roll City grows, insufficient capital improvement funding and capacity issues would likely result in frequent boil water alerts and a not-so-attractive riverfront where an overburdened combined sewer system found its course (“One pipe should do it right? Yeah, let’s go jam”).

Diversity is an Asset

And, if we can build a city on rock ‘n’ roll, surely there must be others building cities on country, or R&B, or punk, or jazz, or classical… The point is you can’t have a reliable tax base if its built on a single industry. As soon as a couple big bands leave or retire (please don’t do it yet Rolling Stones), your tax base is in peril and you’ve got out of work musicians considering workforce development programs to target band openings in other communities. Sure, Dubstep City is booming now, but if it doesn’t diversify, it becomes tomorrow’s Hair Metal Town.

Buying Local

Then there is the Guitar Center vs. local music guy debate. Yes, despite the anti-commercialism bent in Starship’s hit song, big boxes would still probably exist in Rock ‘n’ Roll City. There is a growing fear that “the man” will squeeze out small shops without proper planning. But what should be done? A specialized district with incentives for small businesses? An outright ban on any new big boxes? Is a white elephant ordinance needed for when Guitar Center decides to expand and move down the street? The solution that is right for Jazz Town or Country Village may not be the right fit for Rock ‘n’ Roll City and targeted community outreach, complemented by market research, will be needed. The smoke hazed debate at the coffee house/city hall continues.

What are cities really built on?

The point of all of this is not to shame those who truly love Starship’s ‘80s pop classic (you know who you are). It is to underscore that cities are complicated organisms. As planners we must balance the desires of a diverse group of stakeholders (not just rockers) with the resources available and our knowledge of best practices and what has worked in other communities. The next time you hear We Built This City, or another smash hit from Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship, hopefully it reminds you that a lot goes into creating and maintaining the quality places in which we live and work. And hopefully you can hit skip.

 

If you haven’t already seen this music video, you’re welcome!

 

What if Hot gets too Hot?

Posted by on Jan 9, 2015 in Blog Article, Project Showcase | No Comments

German Brewery Workers & Restaurant Roulette in Cincinnati

I spent part of the holidays in the Cincinnati region and visited some of the most rapidly redeveloping urban neighborhoods in the nation, generally north of the city’s traditional Central Business District (CBD), although there are a number of places Downtown experiencing a lot of reinvestment as well. Over the Rhine (commonly written as OTR) is a national treasure, containing the largest amount of Italianate architecture in the United States and with nearly 1,000 contributing structures, it is believed to be the largest, most intact urban historic district in the country. This neighborhood, originally settled by primarily German immigrants and home to a major pre-prohibition brewery district, covers dozens of city blocks and is one of the U.S.’s most well preserved historic areas, often cited as possessing a similar character to New Orleans’s French Quarter or historic Charleston, South Carolina, although distinctly early-American in style.

Flickr OverTheRhine

Once the location of some of the most persistent blight in the metropolitan region, OTR has now transitioned into an area experiencing rapid reinvestment, creative adaptive reuses and renovations, and even major infill development, including a recently announced $75 million multi-phase project. OTR has helped link existing regional assets, like the University of Cincinnati, Findlay Market, and Cincinnati Music Hall, to the CBD, traveling along Vine Street and feeding other areas of recent redevelopment, like Fountain Square in the heart of Downtown as well as to the Banks project on the riverfront, situated between the Reds and Bengals stadiums. Recent investments include adding a bicycle sharing program called Red Bike, a streetcar line slated to open soon, and a $48 million renovation of Washington Park in OTR, which reopened in 2012. By all accounts OTR is one of Cincinnati’s recent success stories and garnered the city deserved national attention.

Flickr 5chw4r7z

But while I was there, a local newspaper article documented an experience I’ve navigated a handful of times before – the article dubbed it “restaurant roulette.” Simply, OTR’s success has become so widely known throughout the Cincinnati region, even to the point of drawing out-of-towners like me whenever I’m visiting, many of the quaint restaurants that line Vine Street post 2 to 3 hour waits for a table; further, many do not take reservations. The idea of “restaurant roulette” is to then split up your dinner party and place your name on multiple restaurants’ wait lists simultaneously, and then take the first one that opens up – even then, the waits can be long and the strategy has created complications and frustrations to both diners and proprietors alike.
This phenomenon made me think about OTR’s unique (and rapid) success story and the interesting dynamic that just about the same amount of startups and small businesses actually fail at their first significant period of rapid growth and expansion as they do in their early, fledgling stages. Simply, growth often smothers a rapidly growing small business, not the lack of customers.

I see similarities with a new startup venture and a neighborhood revitalization effort like OTR. The earliest examples of reinvestment started small, carried the highest degree of risk, and in the short-term, were a bit of a grind with low rewards. Then seemingly one day everybody knew about OTR and everybody – whether a business owner, or real estate developer, or consumer – wanted to be a part of that success. OTR now faces growth management as one of its central challenges.

So what role does urban planning play in ensuring continued success in this situation?

Planners do often work with the consequences of fast, uncoordinated growth and how the short-term benefits may not outweigh their long-term negative impacts (i.e. an unbalanced land use mix and its tax burden impact on homeowners). But we typically address this dynamic in rapidly developing suburban or exurban areas that are churning through greenfields and farmland.

But these challenges carry a lot of similarities – how can OTR continue to develop, but do so strategically in a way that preserves its recent successes and builds on those accomplishments? How does it handle unique challenges, such as a nationally-precious but finite supply of historic structures, and ensure that each project is professionally completed with a focus that maintains past quality? How can the community balance the demand for more restaurants and more projects more quickly, against ensuring that future projects are not done so focused on the short-term, they ultimately undercut the long-term viability of the neighborhood?

Plans that went nowhere… Thank God!

Posted by on Dec 19, 2014 in Blog Article, Project Showcase | No Comments

Throughout History plans and planning maps have shined a light on what different people thought was important, inevitable, likely, desired, or essential. From interesting, to funny, to frightening, many of these plans and maps provide insight into a world that could have been, but never came to be.

Like many planning professionals, as an urban planner I am fascinated by exploring the world that might have been had certain plans been implemented. Plans and maps are powerful, and looking back at what others have considered undertaking is an eye opening exercise that reveals the potential impact of our planning actions.

My stepson, who lives in NYC sent me a link to an article written by Matthew Tglesias of Vox. The article, 20 maps that never happened is great. An enjoyable and fascinating read…I loved it! In the article, Tglesias highlights 20 maps (plans) that were never implemented. Some more realistic and viable than others, they highlighted maps covering everything from war strategy to infrastructure in the Big Apple.

Read, enjoy, and think about the impact our maps have…even if never implemented. Who knows, 50 years from now someone may look at one of your maps and say “What the hell were they thinking? Thank God they never did that!”

Here are a some of my favorites…

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Drain the East River (1924)

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A Russian professor’s vision of US breakup

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Late-1960s map depicts Robert Moses’ plan for the LOMEX (Lower Manhattan Expressway)

Planning in Other Disciplines – Planning in Film

Posted by on Dec 12, 2014 in Blog Article, Uncategorized | No Comments

Meg Ryan and the Big Box

This is the first blog that is part of the ongoing series Planning in Other Disciplines posted a few weeks back.

[Spoiler Alert]-this article includes detailed discussion of crucial plot points in the films discussed.

In 1998 Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks starred in the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, their third and to this date final film as co-stars (though they are set to appear together in the 2015 film Ithaca). Despite only having appeared in three films together, also including 1990’s Joe and the Volcano and 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, the pair is cemented as a staple of 1990s romantic comedies, often panned as lacking substance in favor of simplistic plots and romantic clichés. From a planner’s perspective; however, the film provides an all-too-real application of a topical planning issue.

Adapted from the 1940 film Shop around the Corner, which was in turn adapted from Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie, the film follows the struggles of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who owns a small book store which faces closure due to the opening of a Fox Books megastore, a big box book retailer owned by Joe Fox (Tom Hanks).

The film parallels the professional struggles of Kathleen Kelly with her developing romantic relationship with Joe Fox. In their private lives, Kathleen and Joe have become romantically entangled as anonymous pen-pals who met through the internet. Even as Fox Books puts her out of business, Kathleen finds herself learning to love Joe Fox, and by proxy his company, both as the man she met online as well as the man who ruined her career.

From a planner’s outlook, the film offers an individual perspective on the big box debate. Modern day planners are readily familiar with the plight of the big box stores. With the popularity and success of big box retailers, how do planners deal with the expansion of these companies? How will a big box affect a specific municipality & do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?

Within You’ve Got Mail Kathleen Kelly’s struggle clearly mimics one effect of mega-retailers, stealing small business consumers while providing low wages and limited benefits to employees. To Kathleen, Fox Books is a threat with no easy solution. Giving in means giving up.

Yet In an uncanny way, Kathleen Kelly’s struggles embody that of modern American cities. On one hand, big box retailers are a threat to local economies and small business while requiring massive parcels and huge parking lots. However, Kathleen falls in love with Joe Fox, just as cities fall in love with big box retailers. At the end of the day, very rarely are cities able or willing to regulate big box developments. These new stores provide affordable options for lower class residents, provide new jobs for the region, and act as catalyst for further redevelopment.

As planners, it is important to understand the love/hate relationship cities have with big box retailers. To say they are necessarily bad or good is rarely easy, but this is the dispute planners must direct. Despite rarely having the final say in the development of a big box chain, planners must learn to navigate this issues, providing solutions to help mitigate these new investments. Making decisions based on all the facts and how they may affect future conditions, a planner can alleviate tensions surrounding the big box retailer. Just as Kathleen Kelly learns to move beyond, and even love, Fox Books and the man behind it, cities must learn to work with and even strive off of big box developments and the benefits they can bring.

While big box developments may be a difficult reality, some communities have found ways to deter large department stores and chain retailers. Houseal Lavigne is currently working with a city that used strict regulations in their downtown to block big box developments and preserve locally owned businesses, in particular, a small local bookstore. Utilizing design regulations and zoning designations cities can control the type of development allowed in certain areas, helping to protect and grow small businesses. Through community wide support, cities are able to directly shape their identity.

The Ikea Master Plan

Posted by on Nov 26, 2014 in Blog Article, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

I built a play table for my two daughters a few years ago with some shelves and a play rug from IKEA. Over time my girls began constructing a Lego city on top of the mat, so to make the surface a little more “Lego Friendly” I had a large piece of plexi-glass cut, and one afternoon I took their Lego off and put the plexi-glass on top. Then, I started to rebuild their city for them….using the rug as a guide, as my “Master Plan.”

My kids were devastated…I had ruined their city…I had ruined their life…

Where did I go wrong? I mean I know how to build a city, right?

Ikea-02

A Poor Plan

The plan was flawed. I reconstructed their city following the IKEA mat religiously, without questioning its design. That was where I went wrong. I now recognize the design is terrible and my daughters had every right to be upset, here is why:

Ikea Mat

  1. This road goes out into the water for absolutely no reason. How did the environmentalist and fiscal conservatives even allow this to get into the plan?
  2. I like the crosswalk to the beach, but maybe it should be on the east side of that busy arterial street…you know, to where the larger beach area is…where you’ve shown the umbrellas?
  3. The traffic circle serves absolutely no purpose. It should be moved a little more to the west to align with the intersection. And while you’re at it, take another look at the road striping…something just isn’t right.
  4. I like the urban agriculture here, but I think you could have taken it further. Based on how strong the wind is blowing, as evidenced by the flags throughout, maybe some turbines? While you’re at it, how about some solar panels in the desert, and tapping into that molten lava for some geo-thermal heat.
  5. A tunnel through a mountain, next to a volcano that is spewing ash? What for? Economic development? It’s literally going through a desert. Delete.
  6. I know it’s nice to have some local commercial throughout the city, but a store in this location is just unrealistic.
  7. A lot of cities have brought their stadiums into their downtowns to spark revitalization and activity. The stadium here makes absolutely no sense. Was the impact of the city’s only neighborhood even considered? While it reminds me of Orchard Park (Go Bills!), I think it’s a bad idea. Relocate.
  8. This is a prime opportunity site in the middle of the city and we are leaving it empty? Don’t tell me its “too rocky” – you’ve already demonstrated that money is no object. Why don’t we level this site and put something special here? A town square or central park?
  9. Not sure what this is – a permanent circus? A bazaar? A gypsy town? This recommendation needs a little more info.
  10. Some large lot zoning might be okay here, you know, to preserve some of the cities natural resources, but is this just promoting sprawl? Must be nice to be king…private road, private lake, private forest…I think this is a lot of infrastructure for one house. Redesign with more density…with clustering

 

Their Approach

My girls as it turns out, wanted a “Main Street”, not some sprawling spaghetti bowl asphalt mess. So they ignored the plan and built the city they wanted over top. And good for them. Stay tuned, I’ll be following up with my review of their city.

CarmenRosieLego

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Planning in Other Disciplines

Posted by on Nov 13, 2014 in Blog Article | No Comments

Planning is often considered a discipline of disciplines. Any professional planner has had that struggle when someone asks “So what do you do?” To say you “plan cities” just doesn’t seem enough, yet how do you begin to explain land use, comprehensive planning, design regulations, or NIMBYs? Do you talk about working for a city and convincing elected officials of the necessary planning actions, lest they think you’re a politician? Do you mention capital improvement plans and public works budgeting, lest they think you’re an accountant? As planners, we face this struggle because the profession is so vast. Planning a city involves handling all the elements that make up a physical location, including a broad range of professions and disciplines.
With planning so extensive; however, the sources for new ideas, new concepts, and new ways of thinking about the city or the profession are endless. The professions with nothing to say about urban & regional planning are few and far between, while the possibilities for new inspiration in planning efforts seem endless.

In this series of blogs, we will explore the unusual, unexpected, and underutilized connections between planning and various professions and hobbies. Considering how bizarre connections can be made to interesting topics can help planners identify new ways of thinking about the city and create new ideas to tackle planning issues in the future. More importantly though, planning should be fun. Through this blog, we will explore some of the fun, interesting applications of planning to the world around us.

 

Slow down…with all the speed bumps!

Posted by on Sep 9, 2014 in Blog Article | No Comments

Speed bumps, speed humps, speed pillows, speed tables…whatever name they go by, they’re popping up all over Chicago! As a resident of a healthy Chicago neighborhood, it’s easy to see how their use has become, to say the least, rampant.
Before I discuss my observations on this topic, I want to offer a few notes regarding this blog posting:

  • The point of this article is NOT to dispute the applicability of whether or not speed bumps/humps/pillows/tables is justified from a technical standpoint. Rather, it is simply to present one resident’s experiences now that they are becoming commonplace throughout Chicago.
  • Technically, speed bumps, humps, pillows, and tables are all slightly different and have varying applications. For the purposes of this article, I’m lumping them all together as techniques used to slow on-street traffic through changes in pavement elevation.
  • Speed bumps have their inherent pros (ability to slow traffic, low installation cost, etc.) and cons (potential vehicular damage, difficulty for plowing and street cleaning, impact on emergency responsiveness, etc.). Again, the point of this article is NOT to dispute rather or not they should be used, but rather to point out curiosities about how they’ve been applied from the perspective of a resident.

Neighborhood Context

The typical residential block in Chicago is 600’ long by 300’ wide, with an alley that runs parallel to the long dimension. Generally, neighborhoods utilize alleys for garage access and have on-street parking lining the block. While some streets remain two-way (especially those on ¼-mile spacing), several local streets are one-way. As a result, the general condition is to have a residential street with a curb-to-curb dimension of about 30’ with one traffic land and two on-street parking lanes. This combination (no on-street curb cuts, one-way traffic, and relatively wide traffic lanes (usually about 14’) has led to instances of motorists travelling faster than appropriate for the residential density and level of pedestrian activity in most neighborhoods. In 2012, the City of Chicago unveiled its Pedestrian Plan that identifies a number of potential solutions for traffic calming. The traffic-calming toolbox is comprehensive, with speed bumps, humps, and tables included, but also identifying neighborhood traffic circles, alignment offsets, bumpouts, and other techniques for calming traffic and enhancing pedestrian safety. Since the adoption of the Pedestrian Plan, speed bumps, humps and tables have popped up all over the city, likely due to their low cost related to other types of improvements. In most cases, speed bumps are installed in response to a petition submitted by residents to the local Alderman.

Curiosity #1: Must they be so frequent?

In many cases, such as the instance shown on the illustration below, speed bumps are located so close together that they reduce the vehicle to idle speed. As a test, I tried to see how fast I could go after crossing the first speed bump before having to rapidly slow down for the second one. (The speed bumps are located approximately 150’ apart.) The result…15 MPH! Keep in mind, that’s gunning it with the intent of going faster than most cars would. While the intent is certainly to force vehicles to travel at a safe speed, the spacing of the speed bumps seems excessively close together.

HLABlog-Speed Bumps

 

Curiosity #2: Why are they located so close to signed intersections?

Most of Chicago’s residential street intersections are controlled by 4-way stop signs. Despite the spacing of stop signs every 600’ or 300’, some speed bumps are located extremely close to intersections. In the illustration below, the speed bump is approximately 100’ – that’s length of 5 parking spaces – away from an intersection controlled by a stop sign. The dimension of the block and the stop sign preclude drivers from travelling too fast, yet there is a speed bump located where motorists would be slowing down anyway.

HLABlog-Speed Bumps

 

Curiosity #3: Must they be designed to do damage to a vehicle?

Speed bumps get people to slow down because motorists don’t want to damage their vehicles. But they shouldn’t be designed to cause damage when the motorist behaves properly. There are several speed bumps – especially in Chicago’s alleys – that are so drastic that they cause jarring movements even when crossed at idle speed. This application demonstrates the fact that, in many cases, their application is not in-line with the intent.

To reiterate, I’m not suggesting that the City of Chicago and other communities abandon the use of speed bumps. I am a firm believer that pedestrian safety should be the priority, especially in urban areas that support transit ridership, local commercial districts, and neighborhood schools and amenities. Rather, I’m suggesting that it is important for planners, engineers, elected officials, and others to assess a problem and develop appropriate solutions that actually address the issue at hand. In my opinion, the use of speed bumps in Chicago has become a low-cost solution to a problem that a) may or may not exist, and 2) may call for a different solution.

Planning Myths Debunked

Posted by on Jul 17, 2014 in Blog Article | No Comments

There are many myths that surround urban planning. Some are about the profession in general: planning is slow, costly, and unnecessary. Others are in regard to specific projects and planning areas: density, transportation, parks, parking, etc.

As planners, we try to educate the public through a robust public outreach and participation process. However, sometimes all the technical and educational expertise, cited studies, and years of experience do little to sway many planning myths. The basic human instinct to follow patterns makes for passionate advocates when it may come to potential changes to those everyday patterns. Given this, I call for another approach: Mythbusters. Yes, the loveable duo on the Discovery Channel who debunk common myths through hand-on experiments. If they can settle the great debate of roundabout vs. 4-way stop, why should they stop there?! Adam and Jamie and their explosive, pyrotechnic team should tackle every planning myth out there!

Click here to see the full segment.

Boom! Planning myths debunked.

What is Economic Development?

Posted by on Aug 5, 2013 in Blog Article | No Comments

Go to any Village Board or City Council meeting and pose the simple question – “What are the top three things this community needs?”  Along with “more parking in the downtown” chances are one of the top answers will be “economic development”. Simple enough – but what is it exactly? More stores and restaurants? Sounds good. More jobs?  That would be nice. How about infrastructure repairs and improved storm-water management? No? The reality is that economic development is a culmination of many different things including issues that are seemingly unrelated. An area that is prone to flooding and sewer backups every time it rains probably will not see the same level of investment as other areas.  A business may leave town if the street and sidewalk outside of their building is in constant disrepair. Even the personalities and demeanor of officials and staff has an impact on economic development.  A surly planner and a micromanaging plan commission can be a deterrent to anyone looking to develop or invest in a community.

The reality is that nobody “does economic development”. Economic development isn’t a verb or activity. It isn’t just in the job description of an Economic Development Director who goes to ICSC or tries to extol the virtues of their town to the site selection people for Applebee’s.  It needs to be on the minds of every department head, staff person, and elected and appointed officials. That international firm with five thousand employees may have just chosen your town because the street-sweeper happened to come down the block just before their visit. That’s economic development.

 

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Really?! – Sidewalk Rage III

Posted by on Jul 11, 2013 in Blog Article | One Comment

I saw a few more “Ped-Peeves” that I wanted to write about.

 

Ped-Peeve #07 – The oblivious.

I feel that sidewalks are primarily designed for walking; it seems like a basic concept. That said, if you’re in a group and you need to make a decision like review a map or where to eat next, stand off to the side of the sidewalk or “pull over” just like you would if you were driving a car. I feel silly even saying this but so often I see groups just stop in the middle of a sidewalk blocking pedestrian flow only to have a lengthy debate on which café to go to, Rain Forest of Hard Rock. I acknowledge that this is one of my more whiny complaints but it such an inconsiderate act. Most sidewalks aren’t that wide, so try to be a little more courteous and move!

 

Ped-Peeve #08 – Walking tunnel vision.

This is one of the most annoying situations I encounter on the sidewalk. Texting or playing a game on your phone is no excuse to be a complete zombie. It’s amazing how many pedestrians, bicyclists, and cars have had to maneuver around someone because they couldn’t be bothered to lift their head and take in their surroundings. People even cross intersections with their face buried in their phone! It’s basic walking 101, when did we stop looking both ways?

All that said, as annoying as the head-down scenario is, walking tunnel vision is one of the more entertaining situations to battle. I encourage you to try the “Stop, Plant and Crash” method. It is a little childish/petty I know, but it is also a scenario that shouldn’t happen to begin with. The expressions I have seen on people’s faces as they either crash into me or snap out of their zombie-like state at the last second is priceless. I would say more than half the time people are completely surprised there even is a person in front of them, as if they were the only one on the sidewalk and like a commuting ninja I appeared out of nowhere. Keep your head up people, we’re all walkin’ here!

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Ped-Peeve #09 – Crowd bowling.

Just like vehicles are required to “stack up” before an intersection, before the crosswalk line, pedestrians should “stack up” before the sidewalk intersection. Pedestrians try to get as close to the intersection corner as possible, even though they will just be waiting for their walk signal to change. This creates impenetrable crowds that block the through traffic for the pedestrians that actually have the walk signal.

I am not saying we should paint “stop lines” on sidewalks but pedestrians should be able to anticipate how everyone is moving through an intersection and wait further back from the intersection corner until it is their walk signal. Or maybe it would be easier to paint some “stop lines”.<!–

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