Monthly Archives: March 2013

Why No New Posts?

You may or may not have noticed that there have been no new posts for the last few days. That’s not because I’ve given up on the blog, it’s because I’m working on and figuring out how to redesign it (or relaunch it) with a scope that includes most of Wasatch Front.

I’m not sure when that process will be finished, but I’m think of late next week. (It’d be early next week, but I’m going out of town for a few days).

So sit tight and come back in a few days. Thanks!

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Wayfinding And Preservation In A Small Town

Over the weekend I visited Price for work. While I was there saw some interesting examples of urban development in a small town.

Perhaps most notably, Price has some wayfinding in its downtown:

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

A map of downtown Price, in downtown Price.

This map isn’t fancy or professionally sourced, but it’s better than what many cities have — including currently Provo, for some reason.

This isn’t to say Price is a walkability or tourist paradise. In reality, I saw almost no one walking around while I was there. But it’s nice to see the city make the effort, and this map really was all I needed to orient myself. In the end something is always better than nothing.

Another thing that stood out from Price was this ornate building:

A building in downtown Price.

A building in downtown Price.

This building is fancier and more interesting than most, maybe even all, of Provo’s comparable historic structures. It needs some new paint in a few places (ironically) but the faces in particular are quite impressive.

From this I glean two lessons: first, that small towns sometimes have the most impressive old buildings and, second, that growing towns experiencing relative prosperity (e.g. Provo) are often the ones that lose their historic buildings.

As I’ve written many times before, European tourist towns are a good example of this phenomenon; the old medieval villages we all love to visit today stayed the same for centuries because they experienced hundreds of years of decline, even poverty. During that time there was low demand for land and new development, so the old buildings remained untouched. On the other hand, a place like Manhattan — which was filled with smaller but still substantial historic structures before Provo even existed — prospered and eventually replaced most of it’s little buildings from 18th and early 19th century.

Comparing Price and Provo offers a similar, if accelerated and smaller example. In terms of infrastructure and architecture, Price’s downtown is very similar to Provo’s but more complete and unified. Despite it’s considerably small size, it has nearly as many old buildings and fewer appear to have been torn down. There are no big, ugly newer buildings in the mix, as there are in Provo.

But Price is smaller and not experiencing the kind of growth Provo gets. Hence, the better preserved downtown.

There are ways make sure historic preservation and growth don’t become mutually exclusive, but in the end greater prosperity almost always means changes to the built environment.

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Filed under Downtown, economics, travel, utah

How To Buy A Home That Grows in Value

Continuing the transit theme from the past few days, here’s one way to ensure your house increases in value: make sure it’s located near a transit station.

That’s according to a study commissioned by the American Public Transportation Association. The study argues that people are willing to pay more for housing located near public transit:

Moving beyond the traditional arguments that good schools and neighborhood amenities impact hous- ing prices, emerging research has indicated that urban form and transportation options have played a key role in the ability of residential properties to maintain their value since the onset of the recession.

Studies have shown that consumers are willing to pay more for housing located in areas that exemplify new urbanist principles or are “traditional neighborhood developments.” These neighborhoods are walkable, higher density, and have a mix of uses as well as access to jobs and amenities such as transit.

I’m an example of this.

People, including me, are willing to pay more for housing located near transit.

People, including me, are willing to pay more for housing located near transit.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I just moved to Salt Lake to be closer to my job. I chose the location of my new home based on proximity to my office, but equally important was proximity to Frontrunner. We pay considerably more per square foot for housing in Salt Lake than we did in Provo and we’re willing to do that because it’s located three blocks from the Frontrunner station and one block from a TRAX stop.

The study goes on to mention that housing near transit was more resilient during the recession. (I haven’t finished reading the study yet but if I didn’t blog it now, I’d never get around to it. I’ll finish it Friday after work.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Grist reported earlier this year that there are 40 million McMansions that no one wants because they’re not located in walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods:

Only 43 percent of Americans prefer big suburban homes, says Chris Nelson, head of the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah. That mean demand for “large-lot” homes is currently 40 million short of the available stock — and not only that, but the U.S. is short 10 million attached homes and 30 million small homes, which are what people really want.

Taken together, then, it’s pretty clear what kinds of housing will retain and increase in value: transit oriented ones. That should be helpful for people with a home purchase somewhere in their future; they just need to check potential sites’ proximity to public transit.

Homes without access to public transit don't retain value well. In some cases no one even wants them.

Homes without access to public transit don’t retain value well. In some cases no one even wants them.

For those already in a home, being along the Wasatch Front, and particularly in Provo, happens to be a good place because we have an expanding transit system and a growing population. However, it’s important to keep in mind that supporting transit — as well as transit-promoting development like density, mixed uses, low or no parking, etc. — is also a reliable way to improve home values.

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Filed under commuting, Development, economics

Transit Pays For Itself

Yesterday, I wrote that subsidizing transit is a better idea that subsidizing parking for transit users.

As it turns out, it’s hard to understate that case.

The Atlantic Cities reported earlier this week that Germany’s transit subsidies more than paid for themselves when externalities are considered:

Germany recouped its public investment in rail through environmental and public health savings alone. That’s before considering farebox revenue, and without even factoring in the time and money saved from reduced congestion. Simply put, the research underscores the fact that there are many ways to justify the public value of a transit project.

When all things are considered — those revenues, time savings and other things that weren’t factored in — the investment in transit makes even more sense.

A study in Germany showed that transit subsidies paid for themselves.

A study in Germany showed that transit subsidies paid for themselves.

That’s great news for those of us along the Wasatch Front, which has a rapidly expanding rail system.

Anyway, the reason reason this works is because driving imposes a whole set of costs on society; it isn’t just the cost of gas and time for the individual, it’s also the environmental costs, the costs of accidents, the inefficiency of traffic on the overall system, etc. After Utah’s particularly polluted winter, this idea should be easy to understand.

In this light, it makes sense to pay for public transit projects.

I’d argue this also means it makes sense to strongly incentivize transit use. So, again, give away free rides, as I called for yesterday and several months ago. Make up revenue in parking fees (at least until demand for parking dries up). And generally, do whatever necessary to move from costly, or less efficient forms of travel like driving, to cheaper, more efficient forms of travel like rail.

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Filed under commuting

UTA to Start Charging for Parking at Draper Station

Parking at a transit station in Provo.

Parking at a transit station in Provo.

A few months ago, I argued that UTA had its parking and riding situation backward; rather than give away parking and charge for transit, they should give away train rides and charge for parking.

And now it looks like at least half of that plan is coming true. A Twitter friend alerted me earlier this week to this story, which reveals that UTA plans to begin charging $1 a day for parking at the Draper station:

“The charges help defray the costs of maintaining the facility,” he said. “We want to keep the service as accessible as possible for people, so we try to keep the price down as much as we can.”

The two-level Draper garage, which opened in December along with the Draper FrontRunner station, currently has capacity for 300 vehicles but will eventually expand to 600, Allnatt said.

UTA is charging far less than needed to cover the costs of the parking. And the cost of rides on transit aren’t going down, so this isn’t really what I had in mind.

But this new policy still demonstrates that “free” parking is not actually free. Right now transit riders and tax payers fund the parking. You and I literally are paying for people to park their cars at transit stations. This new fee, which is comically small, means that the people who actually use the parking will bear a small responsibility for funding it. I just wish the fee was higher and the cost of riding the train was going down.

Prepare to pay for parking at all transit stations, because that's certainly the future.

Prepare to pay for parking at all transit stations, because that’s certainly the future.

But in any case, this is the future: paid parking at transit stations. We should expect this type of policy at all Frontrunner stations, especially in the bigger cities along the Wasatch Front, in the future. And that’s a good thing because subsidizing parking for transit riders is vastly inferior to just subsidizing transit outright.

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Filed under commuting

An Update, Or, This Is Now The View Out My Window

DSCN9611

The picture above is a view out my current window. So, I have officially moved to Salt Lake City. (If you’re interested, read this earlier post where I explain my new job, which is what precipitated the move.)

It is with difficulty that I write this because, as I’ve written before, I love Provo and consider it my semi-adopted hometown (I was born in Provo but grew up in LA). However, the commute was killing me and I can’t very well write about the evils of driving a lot without practicing what I preach. One of Laura’s and my goals is also to reduce our overall driving and moving allowed us to do that; I now commute on foot to work and only drive when going on assignments and Laura commutes via Frontrunner, bus and bike.

As I wrote earlier, Laura and I hope to come back to Provo to live. In the meantime we’ve been in Provo at least once a week because most of our friends and family are still there. In other words, you’re only slightly less likely to see us on the streets than you were before.

So, you might ask, what does all of this mean for this blog?

For starters, I’m planning to do some sort of relaunch in the near future in which this blog becomes a more pan-Wasatch Front urbanism site. I’ll still write about Provo because I like it, know more about it that other places, and because I think Provo is where most of the exiting developments in Utah are happening.

But I’ll also write about other cities along the Wasatch Front. In reality, I already do that so not much will change, except that maybe I won’t tie everything thought back into Provo’s Center Street, the Joaquin neighborhood, or whatever else. So in terms of content, much of the blog will stay the same.

I’m not totally sure when the relaunch will happen; I have a bunch of posts in the queue right now that I want to publish before doing it and I haven’t settled on exactly how the re-imagined blog will work. But it’s coming and I thought it was only fair to mention it.

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Grace, History and the Role of Buildings

I’m currently reading John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice and last night I came to several passages that bear on the discussion about the importance of building durable, beautiful buildings generally.

In Chapter 2 of Volume 1, Ruskin sets out to explain how to see which architecture is good and which is bad. He presents two criteria:

…we require from buildings, as from men, two kinds of goodness: first, the doing their practical duty well: then that they be graceful and pleasing in doing it; which last is itself another form of duty.

This is a simple even obvious set of criteria, and yet so many buildings fail it. I’m thinking of this idea in the context of a building like Provo’s city hall, which after a mere 40 years is completely falling apart. Clearly, it has failed in it’s “practical duty” if it can’t outlive a pair of Toyotas.

But entire cities of modern buildings also fail this test. My parents suburban tract home, for example, is sliding off a hill along with the rest of their city. I will almost certainly outlive their house. And how many suburbs of Las Vegas or Phoenix  are both poorly built and entirely graceless?

In any case, Ruskin goes on to argue that buildings also have another function:

…talking, as the duty of monuments or tombs, to record facts and express feelings; or of churches, temples, public edifices, treated as books of history, to tell such history clearly and forcibly.

In other words, buildings record the past and “speak” a story.

The Zion's Bank Building in Provo.

The Zion’s Bank Building in Provo.

This seems to be one of the things we have forgotten in many of our modern buildings. What story are we trying to tell with any of the buildings that have been built in Provo in the last generation? When I look at something like the Zion’s Bank Building, I can only assume we’re trying to tell the world that we’re cheap and tasteless.

Ruskin’s point is especially important because it offers a reason to build that isn’t rooted in the cold economics of post-recession America; in the end (and as a comment pointed out on yesterday’s post) buildings shouldn’t always have to make money.

If they did, or if that was what mattered most, we wouldn’t have inspiring places like St. Peter’s Square or the Berlin Wall art installation.

St. Peter's Square in the Vatican. This is designed to "speak"  well.

St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican. This is designed to “speak” well.

The Berlin Wall isn't a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it "speaks" than with economic concerns.

The Berlin Wall isn’t a building, but it is a piece of the built environment that is more concerned with what it “speaks” than with economic concerns.

These are spaces that tell stories rather than generate revenue. And that’s a much higher calling.

A few paragraphs later, Ruskin brings his various criteria into a convenient, three-point list:

1. That it act well, and do the things it was intended to do in the best way.
2. That it speak well, and say the things it was intended to say in the best words.
3. That it look well, and please us by its presence, whatever it has to do or say.

Ruskin offers these points as evaluation tools; he’s trying to establish a way to judge existing buildings.

But for growing cities in Utah and elsewhere, they also offer a kind of very basic checklist or starting point. As we consider which buildings are worth saving and how to begin new ones, these are some of the first issues we should be bringing up.

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Filed under building, Downtown