Monthly Archives: January 2013

Density, Parking and a Charming Neighborhood

Continuing with the density theme, I recently read this post from New World Economics. The website is spartan and the post is very long, but it persuasively makes the point that higher density and good design produce better neighborhoods than low density places — which it refers to as “Suburban Hell.” Even if you don’t read the whole post, I’d recommend clicking over to see a whole bunch of pictures of what good density actually looks like.

One of the most important points the post makes is that adding density increases walkability, is environmentally friendly, and supportive to local business:

The high population density itself does a lot to solve the problem of automobiles, because, at that level, a lot of things are now in walking distance. Although a family will still want a car to interact with the rest of Suburban Hell America, nevertheless, within their neighborhood, it should be possible to walk to the school, bank, grocery, hardware store, restaurant, bar, dentist, friend’s house, and so forth, which cuts down the amount of trips necessary by car (and consequently automobile traffic within the neighborhood) considerably. As we noted earlier, when there are 30,000+ people within an easy walk, a business also doesn’t need to have twenty or a hundred parking spaces to be viable.

In other words, the more people in a given space the more vibrant that space becomes. And again, click over to the post to see what “adding density” actually looks like.

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“The city of the future will have bicycle accessible places”

Via BikeProvo.org I recently discovered the video below. In it, Bill Nye talks about what he thinks we’ll have in the city of the future. The things he mentions are pretty fantastic: covered bike lanes with constant tail winds, shower and laundry facilities for bike commuters, etc. But near the end he makes a good point, even something wild like a bicycle wind tunnel is vastly cheaper to build than a typical automobile road. The point: we could have these incredible things if we just want them enough.

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Density Is Needed Everywhere In Provo

Last week I was saddened to hear that at a city meeting a proposed apartment building was criticized because, among many other reasons, it ostensibly added density to the south Joaquin neighborhood.

The development was rejected — an outcome I favored because it had too much parking and therefore probably didn’t add much density after all — but in the aftermath I felt it’s probably time to revisit this topic. (I’m also speaking generally of anti-density rhetoric I heard about second hand, not of any specific person or comment. My impression was that many people said great things at this meeting as well and I mostly don’t know where specific people fall on this issue anyway.)

So here’s the thing: density is good.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to argue that adding density would preserve and enhance the character of pioneer neighborhoods — not destroy it — and that it could be done without tearing down actual pioneer homes. Here are some posts I’ve written in the past as I’ve researched that thesis:

One of the few communal gardens in Provo… and it also happens to be next to a pocket of higher density housing. That's not a coincidence, it's a necessity.

One of the few communal gardens in Provo… and it also happens to be next to a pocket of high-ish (or more accurately medium) density housing. That’s not a coincidence, it’s a necessity.

Jane Jacobs and Density 101

Density Without Destruction

Decoding Density

Community Gardens Require Density

More People Means Less Traffic

Building Cities for Trick-or-Treating

Mo’ People Mo’ Money

Why Density Matters

The Way To Get More Retail Downtown

Dense Cities Will Save America

What Houses Close Together Look Like

Let me be clear: I support much higher density everywhere in Provo. I think adding density to the Joaquin neighborhood above 500 North — which I’ve been told is the plan — is great for example, but relatively inconsequential due to the demographics and size of that area.

Instead, I’m in favor of adding density in Joaquin below 500 North, in other Pioneer neighborhoods, and elsewhere. These areas are proximate to downtown, already somewhat denser than other neighborhoods, and have thousands of acres of wasted space that could be developed into higher density housing.

This is one way to increase density: putting awesome homes really close together. This doesn't really exist in Provo, so if we wanted it we'd need to aggressively pursue it.

This is one way to increase density: putting awesome homes with shallow setbacks really close together.

It’s also worth mentioning that “density” is not synonymous with Manhattan or Chicago; we don’t have to demolish everything and put up glass towers — though a few wouldn’t hurt so people who prefer that option could actually live in Provo. Density can be increased with low-rise multi-unit buildings (generally my preferred option), single family infill, alley homes, accessory apartments, etc. Pocket neighborhoods are explicitly a density-increasing strategy; if you like them, you like increasing density.

It has been my assumption that most people who oppose density are really opposing bad design. Most examples of medium or high “density” in Provo are horrible apartment complexes surrounded by terrible parking lots. In many cases these examples aren’t really dense; a student fourplex surrounded by eight or more parking spots might seem dense, but a few row houses with less parking may actually be denser, while also being more attractive and livable for families.

This site includes several apartment complexes. But it's also poorly designed. The apartments are also so spread out by parking that this isn't actually high density; rather it's pretty low density.

This site includes several apartment complexes. But it’s also poorly designed. The apartments are also so spread out by parking that this isn’t actually high density; rather it’s pretty low density. Low density and bad design are both problems that need solving in Provo right now.

In any case, I join with critics of bad design; we should demand livable spaces for our cities and not tolerate crap. There was a fair amount of crap in the recent proposal for the Joaquin neighborhood — mostly in the form of the parking lot — and so it was rightly rejected.

But I’m not going to mince words here: if you truly oppose density you’re wrong. As I’ve argued over and over and over again on this blog, density leads to increased safety, more downtown retail, better restaurants, more diversity, more walkability, and even more green space. It reduces the strain on government and increases efficiency. When density and good design converge — think Paris, Rome or even Rio de Janeiro — the experience is viscerally, almost ineffably, pleasurable. The reason we don’t have these kinds of spaces in Provo isn’t because they can’t exist, it’s because we continue to make well-intentioned but very poor decisions — often about density — about our city.

As I wrote above, I favor adding density all over Provo. I oppose plans to unilaterally prevent density increases in south Joaquin or anywhere else for that matter. And I fundamentally believe that more people should have the opportunity to enjoy the city’s big trees, old architecture, walkable infrastructure and burgeoning cultural scene.

In the end, if Provo resists adding density it’ll lose a lot of interesting people who currently see in it more potential than perfection.

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Tabernacle Temple Update

My former colleague Genelle Pugmire reported over the weekend that the LDS Church has filed “800 pages  of descriptions, elevations, floor plans and landscaping” about the under-construction Provo Tabernacle Temple/City Center Temple. When I first began reading I was skeptical — I’ve written repeatedly that we shouldn’t be so sure the project will revitalize downtown — but by the end of the article I was genuinely excited.

DSCN5270

The Provo Tabernacle in mid 2012

For starters, Josh Yost with the city — who is brilliant — is quoted as saying the church is going to great lengths to preserve the structure. I trust Josh, so I trust that this project is actually being done right.

Among the more exciting features is a “17-foot bronze four-tiered Victorian fountain with ornamental nozzles,” fence posts topped with Beehives, extensive landscaping with less surface parking, and a two story pavilion for taking pictures and waiting around.

In addition, some of the grounds will remain open all the time:

“The entire temple grounds will be beautifully landscaped and will be open to the public following the temple’s operations schedule, consistent with all LDS temples. The grounds closest to the temple will have a taller fence and gates, whereas the grounds both north and south of the temple fence will have lower perimeter fencing and are not gated,” Hall added.

Public gardens with benches, shrubs, trees and grass will be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week on the north end of the property, similar to the old tabernacle park. There also will be gardens on the west side of the temple where the current Nu Skin parking terrace is located.

Keeping some of the grounds open all the time — in addition to lower fences, etc.  — will help the temple avoid becoming a spatial black hole as other temples are in other cities.

The article states that the project was originally going to be done in 2015, though that deadline is apparently not fixed due to the complexity of dealing with the building’s historic character.

The Provo Tabernacle on Dec. 17, 2010, as it was burning down.

The Provo Tabernacle on Dec. 17, 2010, as it was burning down.

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Houses of Worship, Not Cookie Cutter Churches

One of my favorite things to do while traveling is visit magnificent churches. I like it so much in fact, that I’m reluctant to travel to places that don’t have great religious buildings.

Good religious architecture is one of life's great pleasures.

Good religious architecture is one of life’s great pleasures. This baroque church is located in Seville.

More than other utilitarian structures, houses of worship are overtly supposed to embody the values and faith of their creators; a great church shows that a community of people came together to glorify something they felt was important.

I was recently reminded of how diverse great religious structures can be while reading this Atlantic Cities article on “13 Eye-Catching Houses of Worship.” Though I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to religious architecture, the slide show demonstrates that new buildings can be as unique and inspiring in their own way as historic structures.

Utah consistently ranks as one of the most religious states in the U.S. Salt Lake is one of the most religious big cities, and Provo is presumably even more so. And there are interesting examples of religious architecture, with the LDS Church’s Provo Temple and Provo Tabernacle standing out.

But a lot of the religious architecture in Provo is, frankly, awful. The new stake center on 900 East immediately comes to mind as a bland, cheaply built structure on a woefully designed piece of asphalt (in a place where congregants could and should walk to church).

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example, are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so darn ugly?

This sprawling structure was recently completed on 9th East and has numerous problems. Why, for example are there so few windows and therefore so little natural light? Why is it surrounded by a massive parking lot when it serves mostly young, able-bodied people who live within walking distance. Why is it just so ugly? Is this how we want treat our faith?

Bear in mind that the building in the picture above is a multi-stake center, not a little local church. If it was a Catholic building, it would look like a cathedral or an abbey, not like a prison. And this isn’t an isolated incident, as the area around the Towne Center mall demonstrates:

South Provo.

South Provo and several churches.

Four churchs are visible in the picture above, though they nearly blend in with the mall on the lower right. Significantly they’re all built with a cookie cutter design and are surrounded by enormous parking lots — again in a place where many people could theoretically walk to church.

No one expects any organization to build only magnificent buildings; sometimes it’s just about whatever works.

But while every building doesn’t have to be grand, some should be. And yet I cannot immediately think of an LDS building  that was built in the last 20 years in Utah County that was was not an architectural disappointment. (The point isn’t to single out the LDS Church, which I happen to be a member of. Rather, the LDS Church is simply the largest religious property owner in the area and happens to have a lot of spiritually bankrupt architecture.)

The LDS Church also has an illustrious architectural past that produced grand structures like the Salt Lake Tabernacle as well as charming country chapels like this one in Levan:

This chapel is notable for including the words "Holiness to the Lord" above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

This chapel is notable for including the words “Holiness to the Lord” above the door. The phrase is more common on LDS temples.

Or this one in Provo:

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

This building, which today is no longer a church, is located on 5th West in Provo.

Other religions have also built impressive religious structures in Utah. Salt Lake City has a handful of beautiful religious buildings, but other communities have noteworthy examples as well:

This Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo's best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

This modern Catholic Church is located in Park City. Unfortunately, Provo’s best example of Catholic architecture was pointlessly demolished several years ago.

Sadly, there’s good reason to fear the future; the LDS Church is currently transforming the Ogden Temple — which was similar to the one in Provo — from a modernist building to a cookie cutter structure. Hopefully a similar fate is not in store for Provo.

In Provo, the church also recently converted an interesting little modernist building in my neighborhood to a McMansion style office:

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

This building is located on the corner of 6th East and 1st North.

The transformation is detailed in Alan Peters’ blog — which has a lot of great Provo-related stuff. He writes,

This makes me sad. It was a unique-for-its-setting modern building; now its just another boring LDS-Church-plastic-style building. The building was actually built in 1964 as a seminary building for the now closed Farrer Junior High School. The seminary closed when Farrer became a middle school and that’s when the Family History people moved in. Farrer is completely gone now, replaced by the brand new Provo Peaks Elementary.

Is this really all our faith means to us? Cheap, generic structures surrounded by seas of asphalt? Shouldn’t at least a few buildings be designed to make us think of God?

English critic John Ruskin apparently thought so when he argued that buildings must be good on more levels than one:

We require from buildings two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it.”

Gaudi also pointed out that human creations, including buildings, are more than just containers meant to do a job:

The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.

Certain parts of select religious structures in Utah are designed to do just that. But spirituality isn’t a piecemeal thing and an utilitarian building with a pretty room isn’t the best we can do.

Gaudi's Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

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The Wasatch Front Leads In Transit Development

Though I wouldn’t have guessed it, the Wasatch Front has more transit projects than nearly all other regions in the U.S.

Reconnecting America recently produced an interactive map of transit projects in all major American metro areas. The map includes 30 projects in northern Utah. As far as I could tell, only L.A. and Washington D.C. had more projects in the pipeline. Chicago tied with the Wasatch Front.

Screen shot 2013-01-23 at 7.17.13 PMClearly this is significant because it means that Utah is investing in its future. It’s also fascinating that it is investing more heavily than places that would stereotypically have more interested in mass transit.

But it’s also good because, in light of the recent inversion and Beijing-like pollution, Utah cannot continue to rely on cars. It’s literally making us sick.

In any case, the map is worth checking out if for no other reason than because it lists the status of all of Utah’s transit projects. That means the Provo-Orem bus rapid transit project is there, as is the Frontrunner line south of Provo, the TRAX line to the airport and an array of other things.

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Streets Are Like Sentences, Or, Making Walking Less Annoying

Walkability is about more than safe, interesting streets lined with potential destinations — though those things are extremely important. It’s also about eliminating the little pressure points that annoy people and make them wish they weren’t walking in the first place. In other words, much like sentences, streets need to be “edited” not just for big things but for the little problems as well.

I’ll try to touch on various little pedestrian problems in the future, but for now note the cross walk buttons in the picture below. For some reason, one of them has been placed in an illogical and difficult-to-find spot.

A crosswalk in Salt Lake City.

A crosswalk in Salt Lake City, looking west.

In the picture above, the green arrow points to the East-West crosswalk.

But bafflingly, the button to trigger the signal for that crosswalk is located on the poll near the North-South crosswalk. It’s marked by the red arrow and is a good 20 feet from the crosswalk it serves.

The button may have been installed on that distant post to save money — though Provo has installed separate posts in some places that’s clearly more expensive — but that still doesn’t explain why it faces North, away from the correct crosswalk.

The same intersection, looking north.

The same intersection, looking north.

The picture above further illustrates the problem: one crosswalk button, marked by the red arrow, is easy to find. The other button, however, is on the other side of the pole (north) and almost as far from the crosswalk it serves — marked by a green arrow — as it can be. Just putting it on the side of the pole facing the photo (south) would have been a huge improvement.

These sorts of things are like typos; people don’t stop moving when they hit them but they do momentarily slow down. And the problem is particularly bad in Utah, where large streets create huge street corners; when I walked up to this intersection it took me at least three times as long to find the button as it would have at a better-designed spot. It was a brief pressure point that didn’t need to exist.

People won’t give up walking as a result of little errors like this. But they will be annoyed, if only subtly. And that’s unfortunate because the emotional memory they’ll have from walking will be negative.

The point is that a good street should be like most forms of good writing: it should blend into the background and let the user flow from one point to the next. Exceptional beauty can stand out, but both writing and city design fail when the mechanics become clunky and slow or when they call too much attention to themselves.

Finally, note how in these pictures there aren’t actually many people on the street; that’s the best evidence of all that the design of this street isn’t working. With better “editing,” streets like these should become more lively and pleasurable to use.

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