Archive of planning

Why They Still Are “Willing to Relocate to San Francisco”

For techies who have lived in or moved from San Francisco, this recent meme struck a nerve.

William Blake’s most famous poem “The Tyger”

Why is it in 2016, we must be willing to relocate to San Francisco?

This meme results from the most repeated request by recruiters and tech startups, even startups that haven’t even located to the city itself. The comical reaction is, you can have a fantastic job, but only if you relocate. Of course it doesn’t actually mean relocate to San Francisco proper, rather to companies located in the SF Bay Area. Most of the tech companies are actually centered in the South Bay which for the typical American is like commuting to the far ends of suburbia.

You might live here in SOMA, but your startup or company is not very likely to be anywhere remotely near the City.

You might live here in SOMA, but your startup or company is not very likely to be anywhere remotely near the City.

Why is it in 2016, when the internet promised telecommuting and decentralized work that the tech industry is fervently concentrating America’s intellectual capital into a suburban peninsula on the Pacific prone to devastating earthquakes.

This live-work geographic disparity is not new to planning, but it represents much of the frustration Bay Area planners face. We have pioneered instant global communication for every human on Earth and yet the talent who create, maintain, and innovative this technology are required to be in a precise location, in a building, usually seated, from morning until early evening. We call this area Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Palo Alto.

Most planners expect people to decide where they live based on their work. This is a basic tenet of sector and concentric zone theories.

The talent don’t have much choice of where to live, they are confined to options a narrow shoreline on the east side of a peninsula land-locked by mountains on the west and a shallow bay on the east. They can venture south into endless cul-de-sacs shaped from former marshlands, called San Jose. East across the bay to the limited rugged terrain along Diablo Range. But most choose to live north along a high-capacity transportation line called Caltrain that connects to a regional transportation system called BART. Private transit (company shuttles) provide the rest.

They move north because the peninsula is capped by a sprawlingly dense urban habitat called San Francisco. Defying the steep geography left by former sea levels and tectonic activity, we have carved rectilinear blocks into the hillsides and reclaimed the beaches.

We know the peninsula head is most desirable to live in because it offers breathtaking views of the Marin headlands and the Pacific Ocean. But most importantly it has concentrated architecture, housing and commerce into a human-scaled environment that produces variety and vibrancy — favored by Jane Jacobs.

Google campus. It's a nice place... for suburbia.

Google campus. It’s a nice place… for suburbia.

We know the southern shoreline of the peninsula is desirable for tech companies because it historically birthed computing innovations in sprawling low-cost campuses. But most importantly it has concentrated intellectual institutions and venture capital into a self-propagating complex of physical and social networks, which David M. Levinson coined as “plexus.”

Planners contend with this desire and interchange between San Francisco and South Bay for the foreseeable future. Strangely, towns within an 1 hour of both fray at the edges, unable to capture this desire for many reasons such as demographics and transportation. Bay Area regional planning has come to an impasse over these issues.

And so they continue to ask if you are still willing to relocate to San Francisco. As a techie I have a laugh and then look on in contemplation.

Author’s Note: I would still move back to San Francisco.

Stop Making Developers Build Parking

As I think of New Year’s Eve complaints about Uber surge pricing I am reminded again of another supply and demand quandary, parking.  Just as Uber attempts to encourage more drivers with exorbitant surge fares, so should we be thinking about how parking is not priced to its true cost at the detriment of our urban landscape.

David Shoup’s eponymous “The High Cost of Free Parking” gave us the economic realities of parking. We planners created the very regulatory scheme that resulted in oversupply of parking.  The market responded, accommodated, and continues to follow and nudge against corrective measures such as minimum parking requirements and transit demand management.

On Demand Parking

As it is Uber’s goal is “to make sure you can always push a button and get a ride within minutes,” so has Shoup indicated parking meters need to be priced significant higher during high demand periods to encourage overturn.   While cities tinker with on-street parking availability, the fact that planning regulation continues to blight urban areas with parking is the core problem that should be addressed now.

Architect Seth Goodman has a wonderful blog called graphing parking that offers infographics on the inconsistent regulatory frameworks between local governments.  His data suggests cities have no rational basis in its approach to manage parking.  This regulation continues to punish developers and in turn society, by spending on average $59 per square foot to provide an asphalt platform for personal vehicles.

Let’s say a typical U.S. parking space is 8 feet (city average) by 19 feet (DOT recommended length).   Two spaces average about 300 square feet, the typical microunit apartment.  Shoup says cars are parked 95% of the time.  We are devoting hundreds of millions in square footage to idle “transportation” machines instead of providing minimum shelter to Americans.

Redevelopment of Minneapolis' Stadium Village along the new Green Line. Many buildings were given parking exemptions or reductions.

Redevelopment of Minneapolis’ Stadium Village along the new Green Line. Many buildings were given parking exemptions or reductions.

Unbuild

Fortunately, cities are paving the way to undoing this nightmare.  In 2012, Seattle created complete parking minimum exemption zones for downtown and retail districts.  Last summer, Minneapolis approved relaxing parking requirements on new development.  San Francisco’s Planning Commission recently approved a 60 unit apartment building with no parking.  ReinventingParking has a list of international cities abolishing parking minimums.

In Minneapolis’ case, the Star Tribune reported it, “allows buildings with 50 or fewer units to be built without parking outside of downtown — where there are already no parking minimums — if they are a quarter-mile away from transit with 15-minute frequencies.”

The Federal Highway Administration’s analysis of Transit Demand Management even admits that. “Plentiful and free parking encourages driving.”  With so many oversight levels in agreeance, it’s time for local jurisdictions to give up the parking racket.

How About Free Sunday Transit

sf-downtown-montgomery

Montgomery St in San Francisco, the quintessential modern dense downtown street with archaic street parking from a bygone era.

“Why is public parking free on Sundays but public transit is not?” said @ptraughber on Twitter the other day. I couldn’t help but fume about this very question as it seems a strange injustice to give away (subsidize) public space to vehicles. There are many societal implications here, such as that people who drive deserve a “break”, that we value the leisure time of drivers, and that we’d prefer weekend activities to occur by car.

Free Sunday… Parking

We know in general people do less on weekends as a result of our modern work week.  Free Sunday parking still exists in cities like Chicago, Seattle, and mostly in San Francisco.  I’ve always known it to be a fact in the Twin Cities growing up, and overhearing the same in most major cities.

I was unable to find the origins of it, but it seems common sense, even if not fiscal sense.   Quora offers that it’s merely a byproduct of the fact that parking enforcement don’t typically work on weekends and most businesses are closed. This may be perhaps true in the earlier car era when Sunday was more religiously observed. I always thought it was meant to encourage retail visitors on Sundays, especially for downtowns competing with suburban malls.

Cities are slowly recognizing that free weekend parking doesn’t make sense.  Though this cause has more to do with finding untapped revenue sources than good planning.   New York dumped it in 2005, then Los Angeles in 2008.   Portland later followed charging for parking during weekend prime times it identified as 1pm to 7pm.  San Francisco tried to charge in 2013 but Mayor Lee abandoned it after a year supposedly pushed by churches.   In many cases cities will charge meters near special events and venues since its likely running police enforcement for those activities.

In this technology era, personal cars are being de-emphasized in dense urban areas.  There’s hardly frontage left for street parking with transit-oriented development rules that limit such frontage and require on-site parking facilities.  Demand for meters may be less on Sundays, but it’s still significant funding for strapped local governments.  Local businesses are cool on the topic, any business obviously wants easy access for patrons but is increasingly understanding that dense, pedestrian-friendly and transit-rich areas deliver far more visitors than a few single-driver spots on the street.  Plus, we want parking overturn.

But No Freebies!

It seems strange that it’s difficult to say we’re “giving away” something to the public, when we do so with parking.  The streets are owned by us too, right?  Though I can see where given the soaring capital costs of transit improvements, having no farebox recovery seems financial wizardry.

The concept of specifically Free Sunday Transit doesn’t seem to exist… yet.  Athens, Georgia piloted a month of free Sunday transit this year to promote the new weekend service but it didn’t quite catch on.  Free Christmas, New Year’s or Thanksgiving service is indeed something, but the advocacy for that stems more from getting drunk people home than a public tusen takk.

Ironically most transit systems offer plenty examples of no or limited Sunday/weekend service on certain routes.  There exist a small contingent of free transit agencies mostly offered in small towns and cities under 100,000 in population.  Nearly all university shuttle systems are free for students (TCRP Synthesis 78).

While free metropolitan transit doesn’t seem likely to become mainstream, TCRP concludes it’s a ridership booster:

People may argue about the pros and cons of fare-free transit, but none of the literature reviewed for this project questions the fact that ridership will increase when fare-free policies are implemented. No matter what types of experiments, demonstrations, or permanent programs have been implemented, public transit systems have experienced significant increases in ridership when implementing fare-free policies. (TCRP Synthesis 101 Page 13)

Soft Planning or Lipstick on a Pig

I often think of city planning as composed of “hard” and “soft” approaches which shape and define land use and design.  Hard planning consists of real shit like height limits, density, setbacks, and parking.  These physical, sharp, and poignant zoning rules shape the final form of building and land.   The visual effect and experience on users and on history is lasting and profound.

And then there’s soft planning, or as I think of it, lipstick on a pig.

Soft planning are requirements which are aesthetic and reflect subjective tastes.   They’re superficial, brushed on, and act to muddle the physical design.   People are to be delightfully distracted by these frivolities.   These requirements exist in a legal gray area and are often tacked on at the end of a conditional use permit.   Yet many of these will not stand the test of time, and will ultimately change.

Here is my critique of 5 soft planning requirements:

Landscaping

Greenleaf Apartments in Minneapolis, that solitary tree won't last very long. Focus on the boulevard instead.

Greenleaf Apartments in Minneapolis, that solitary tree won’t last very long. Focus on the boulevard instead.

We want our cities to be beautiful lush livable places but tiny islands of trees and bushes adds questionable value.  “Nature” can’t be defined by a minimum number of tree species or flowering plants. It takes a collective city-wide approach that is consistent to establish a true green city.  Pine hedges of the late-20th century sit sad and dilapidated in concrete parks. I’ve seen poor cedar trees in modern plazas where the intense reflection of architectural glass has blistered them. Landscaping becomes an architectural contrivance and a bandaid.  Boutique parks like Portland’s Tanner Springs Park and Patrick Blanc’s vertical gardens might be the better future approach to increasing urban ecology.  Also, cities need to stop forcing solitary trees to be planted when it should be maintaining a true urban oasis of street trees like the fat Public Works of yesteryear.

Colors

The developers of Le Parisien touted high-class materials but all we have is mindless white stucco with a ground-level painted wood facade that didn't last MN's brutal winters.

The developers of Le Parisien touted high-class materials but all we have is mindless white stucco with a ground-level painted wood facade that didn’t last MN’s brutal winters.

Make it a lighter shade of beige, no not too beige, okay let’s go back to brown, but more like sandy tan than wood.   Construction paint suppliers must laugh at the number of white-tan-brown shades they must produce to appease architects who are constrained by planning departments and developers who fear backlash at anything too splashy.  The original builders of American cities used real stone and brick which created the expectation of appropriate color choices today.  Then brutalist concrete architecture created today’s backlash against letting materials show their “natural” color.  Material manufacturers don’t even bother to develop different hues of products because they ultimately know it will be painted over.   Painted aluminum panels, why not.  As a result many downtown developers are opting for beautiful but characterless glass curtains.

Signage

Bob's Java Hut has a fun collection of all sorts of signs, protruding, murals, posters, and side-mounted.

Bob’s Java Hut has a fun collection of all sorts of signs, protruding, murals, posters, and side-mounted.

Granted signage was horrid in the early automobile era and that are left with their vestiges today, the concept of signage and in turn, advertisement, is inherent to a viable city.  People will avoid areas that don’t offer assurances of “something there.”  If we want to promote pedestrian use, we have to speak to pedestrians and that requires perhaps more urban information than is often allowed in square inch limitations.   Cities have to be proactive about the signage environment that will exist, not simply layout punitive rules to doom retail aspirations.    Enabling commercial districts to form collective signage, street banners, and other forms of visual street information is a great way to augment and assuage this typically case-by-case zoning model.

Fenestration

Need more windows? Be careful what you wish for.

Need more windows? Be careful what you wish for.

Fenestration is a fancy word for describing how many windows you have.  The idea in New Urbanism and Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street” is that you need a minimum amount of transparency from the building to the street.   The irony is humans like privacy and developing on small urban lots gives you less ability to have windows in which you can see out without worry that people can see in.  Even after you have a plethora of bay windows facing the street, if you’re covering one with blinds around the clock, you can actually get fined if it violates this condition.   Architects have smartly bridged the gap by doing glass curtain walls with treatments that “smoke” out the opacity.  With just the right setback and angle, you have a foreboding facade of glass that meets transparency requirements.

Maintenance (Mow Your Lawn)

Terraced plants or "grass"? Photo by Maggie Foucault.

Terraced plants or “grass”? Photo by Maggie Foucault.

Tall grass and weeds are a public nuisance, that will kill you. Ok maybe kill your eyes at the sight of an ugly yard! In today’s landscape movement toward native and drought-tolerant species, there is no reason cities should be punitive in old ideas of green lawns and one-inch grass.   Ordinances like these are still prevalent in urban cities and suburbs alike.  There are some valid reasons, for example dry areas have fire concerns with brush, and insane overgrown landscapes make buildings impassable. Cities need to instead steer residents towards sustainable lawns if they’re not willing to put up with maintenance.  And in general this American ideal of green lawns needs to seriously die.