Category Archives: construction

Gradual Redevelopment Trumps Mega-Projects

The Atlantic Cities recently reported on a new study that shows having housing of different ages promotes social ties. The article proclaims that “Jane Jacobs was right” notes that “the results should get planners to stop and wonder whether newer is always better.” It continues,

Empirical results show significant links between housing age diversity (historical development pace) and four measures of neighbourly social relations, even when controlling for other neighbourhood housing features, social composition and individual sociodemographics. It may be that gradual redevelopment preserves community ties, which may take decades to form and which new residents may ‘inherit’ from previous neighbours.

There are a few lessons for the Wasatch Front that we can extrapolate from this study:

Neighborhoods with a diverse mix of building ages foster the most social ties.

Neighborhoods with a diverse mix of building ages foster the most social ties.

1. We shouldn’t be building sprawl, which by definition lacks buildings of diverse ages. This finding seems to support my view that gussied up suburbs like Daybreak aren’t going to be really great for a 100 years or so — after they experience redevelopment. And in any case, it’s tragic that we’re building sprawling, car centric places that aren’t going to be worth anything until long after we’re all dead.

2. Flipping the article’s thesis on it’s head, we should be adding new structures to historic neighborhoods. Just as contemporary neighborhoods like Daybreak don’t work because they’re entirely new, old neighborhoods need diversity as well. This supports the idea that we need infill in historic neighborhoods. I don’t know why this isn’t happening in Provo’s residential neighborhoods; the benefits far outweigh the challenges.

Historic buildings are great, but it's also important to continually add new structures to the mix as well. This fun new building is located in Salt Lake.

Historic buildings are great, but it’s also important to continually add new structures to the mix as well. This fun new building is located in downtown Salt Lake.

3. “Social ties” should be a goal when deciding how to plan our cities. Provo is more or less doing this right now with the Center Street redesign, but few other projects seem to begin with the primary goal of fostering more, better social interaction. However, if we do take that as our objective many disagreements — and pointless NIMBY complaints — will be easier to solve.

4. And, finally, Jane Jacobs’ style observational analysis is a valuable way to understand the built environment. That may seem obvious, but our most expensive projects along the Wasatch Front — the I15 Core project, the proposed super street, the interchange catastrophe — are operating under an entirely different set of assumptions.

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Central Bank Update

Last week I wrote about the need for aesthetic diversity in a city and gave an example of old and new architecture mixing in a Salt Lake neighborhood. One curious example of this phenomenon that’s playing out right now in Provo is the Central Bank remodel on the corner of University Ave and 100 North.

As of about a week ago, this is what it looked like:

Central Bank is renovating the facades of it's buildings in Provo.

Central Bank is renovating the facades of it’s buildings in Provo.

Eventually, this group of buildings will have a historically-influenced look.

Eventually, this group of buildings will have a historically-influenced look.

One of the most interesting things about this project is the historic brick that has been uncovered on this building.

One of the most interesting things about this project is the historic brick that has been uncovered on this building.

This post shows the project at an earlier stage, and this post includes a sketch of the final product.

The interesting thing about this project is that it’s taking a hodgepodge of older buildings and uniting them with one single facade. My impression is that reaction in the community to this project is positive, though I know a number of people who lament the fact that the modern building on the corner will become something less firmly rooted in any particular architectural style.

I’m grateful that Central Bank is investing in the community, though I also wonder at the faux-historical final product. The great thing about downtown Provo, or most genuinely interesting places, is that they’re not knockoffs or replicas of something else, historical or otherwise. That’s why downtown Provo is better than, say, “lifestyle” suburbs like Daybreak that merely imitate an organic city. It’s why visiting Paris or New Orleans is vastly more rewarding, to say the least, than going to Las Vegas or Disneyland, respectively.

All of this is to say that perhaps we should more critically consider the wisdom of mixing pseudo-historical buildings into  actually-old architecture that embodies our heritage. The Central Bank project — which is not terrible by any means and may be quite nice in the end — offers an occasion to reflect on whether or not we want our city to be a living, evolving record of each generation’s greatest works, or a generic version of the past that could have been built anywhere.

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One Reason To Oppose Aesthetic Regulation

Yesterday I wrote that Provo could use more row houses, but I made a point to say that I’m not advocating aesthetic regulations. My feeling is that while a lack of aesthetic regulations can produce a lot of ugly buildings, it also allows for the creativity and diversity that are essential for a vibrant city. And in the end, a strong market should get rid of undesirable buildings over the long term.

Here’s an example of why I don’t want aesthetic regulation:

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This home is located in Salt Lake City. It’s clearly a historic structure and even bears more than a passing resemblance to the Reed Smoot House and the Hines Mansion.

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This contemporary building, which I think is quite charming in its own way, sits just down the street from the historic home in the first picture.

The pictures above show that old and new architecture can coexist. In fact, really great neighborhoods are usually filled with this sort of thing. Provo doesn’t have a lot of cool modern buildings, but even “historic” homes in the city cover a surprisingly wide time span; at least at one point we were trying to build an architecturally diverse city.

Another good example of this is Barcelona, which mandates how structures use space but not the exact look of the facades.

But if we start rolling out aesthetic rules this can’t happen. Instead, we’ll end up with a bunch of pointlessly nostalgic, lesser buildings.

I didn’t always have this opinion of aesthetic regulation. In the not too distant past I wished we had some way of preventing the kind of buildings that proliferated in Provo in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

But as I started to critically consider the idea of forcing buildings to look quaint I began to change my mind. In the end there’s a lot to lose by only allowing a knockoff version of the past.

The solution, as I indicated yesterday, is spatial regulation. This is a concept that broadly falls under the umbrella of “form-based code.” The idea is that builders have to work with certain setbacks or heights or sidwalk sizes or whatever, for example, but can work creatively within those confines.

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A Mall-To-Neighborhood Case Study

Last month, I argued that struggling malls could be converted to mixed-use housing developments. The idea is that adapting malls accomplishes several goals simultaneously and economically; it diversifies a city’s housing stock, capitalizes on a huge but (in Utah County) floundering asset, cuts down on the need for massive parking lots, and potentially produces a cooler kind of living space in more monotonous cities.

The Orem mall is a prime candidate for adaptive reuse — or in other words being converted to housing.

The Orem mall is a prime candidate for adaptive reuse — or in other words being converted to housing.

I used Provo’s Towne Centre [sic] mall as my case study, but that’s not even the best candidate.

Orem’s University Mall is already two thirds empty, so there’s really no reason not to give this idea a try there.  Orem also lacks a central downtown, which problem could be remedied by turning the current mall into a diverse neighborhood. The area around University Parkway and 2230 North — near Movies 8 and Shopko — is also a prime candidate for redevelopment; there’s a lot of space there, but the current configuration hasn’t produced anything really successful.

But the real question is, would any of this actually work?

A recent article in The Atlantic Cities seems to suggest it would. The article describes a historic mall in Providence, Rhode Island, that is about to reopen as a housing development:

[…] this spring a shuttered shopping center in downtown Providence will be reborn in micro form, with two stories of micro-apartments above ground-floor micro-retail.

The end product, at least according to the pictures, looks kind of like a much cooler version of City Creek.

There are a few caveats: the Providence mall is historic, micro apartments aren’t for everyone, Providence isn’t Provo, etc. etc.

If relatively stable Providence can sustain a mall-to-neighborhood conversion, fast-growing Provo should easily be able to do the same.

If relatively stable Providence can sustain a mall-to-neighborhood conversion, fast-growing Provo should easily be able to do the same.

But the specifics aren’t what cities like Provo should copy. Instead, the broader idea of taking something old and adapting it is the point. The end product can be historic, industrial, or just plain vanilla and can be designed to appeal to any demographic. In the end, however, it simply makes sense to take big empty-ish buildings and turn them into some sort of living space — especially in Utah County, where the population is expected to double in the coming decades.

One more thing also deserves mentioning: implementing this idea could have an array of benefits on the community, but it won’t work if we make the areas surrounding our adaptation cites more hostile. I’m specifically speaking of the area around Movies 8 that I mentioned above. That spot may get a super street, which would produce more, faster traffic. It would be hostile to pedestrians and bikes.

That spot already produces many failed business, which I’ve argued is a result of its design, but if we make it more hostile to people it’ll be that much harder to adapt it into a livable neighborhood. And as this recent example from Providence shows, adaptation really is something that can work.

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Not So Super Streets

One of the most popular posts ever on this blog discusses the “interchange boondoggle,” or the many failings of Provo’s new I15 on-off ramp on Center Street (click here for a second post on this topic).

The post is popular, I think, not because it’s particularly great but because the onramp is so obviously horrible and everyone hates it. It’s like a nightmare, except that it’s real and cost more money than most of us will make in a lifetime.

And yet despite the absurdity of this piece of built environment, Provo may get another highly questionable, computer-generated intersection that promises to be a disaster for pedestrians, cyclists and humans generally.

The new intersection is called — ironically I hope — a “super street” and is being considered for an intersection in north Provo:

Utah Department of Transportation officials told legislators Wednesday they are considering using that new design — sometimes called a J-turn, or a restricted crossing U-turn — in Provo at the intersection of University Parkway and 2230 North.

The idea is to increase traffic flow and cut down on driving time for most people. Fair enough.

But it’s also so complicated that I had a hard time figuring out what was going on — other than more driving:

The Super Street design would force all traffic on 2230 North to turn right. Motorists who wanted to go straight or left could make a U-turn a few blocks down on University in a provided spot. Those who wanted to go straight could return to the intersection and turn right onto 2230 North.

Luckily, The Atlantic Cities also recently reported on “crazy intersections” that are designed to make us safer. That article included this illustrative video:

That intersection seems needlessly complex just at first glance, but the real problem is that like all of these other exotic projects UDOT likes to put in — things like diverging diamonds — this makes the street far more hostile to people. As The Atlantic Cities puts it:

In theory – i.e., in conflict-point diagrams – these intersections should be safer than more traditional ones. But there are two caveats to that promise: Sangster is really talking about safer intersections for cars. Pedestrians and bikers aren’t figured into any of these models, and Sangster has yet to encounter designs that do a good job of incorporating them (or transit). There also isn’t much hard data on the safety of these designs because so few of them have been built (and even accurately modeling them on a computer can be tricky and expensive).

The article goes on to note that these ideas are best for times “when a local road outside of town has grown so congested that it needs to be converted into a highway.”

That point about hard data is also worth emphasizing. The Center Street I15 interchange almost certainly looked good in a diagram, but there was so many accidents that they had to alter it with a stop sign. I still see accidents almost every time I use it and, again, it’s widely hated. So diagrams aren’t necessarily a good indicator of how people will actually behave.

UDOT is considering a confusing new kind of intersection for this already bad spot. Instead, this space needs to be more pedestrian-friendly.

UDOT is considering a confusing new kind of intersection for this already bad spot. Instead, this space needs to be more pedestrian-friendly.

The intersection in question is certainly bad as it currently stands, but it’s is not a highway outside of town. It’s also a prime candidate for the kind of parking lot infill that I advocated in this post — though a bigger, ugler and more dangerous intersection wouldn’t promote infill. And in any case, it’s the type of place that we need to make more pedestrian friendly and more bikeable. It needs to be more human.

But this “super street” doesn’t look promising. Instead, it looks like more car-oriented infrastructure that is increasingly out of tune with a city striving for a high standard of living. And ultimately, Provo doesn’t need another disastrous boondoggle.

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More on Campus Drive

In a pair of recent posts, I argued that BYU’s planned campus redesign is flawed at best. Though I don’t doubt that it’ll be pretty in the vague, office-park way that most of BYU is pretty, I seriously question its positive impacts on Provo generally. The best case scenario, I think, is that we don’t notice much of a difference.

But a redesign that makes Campus Drive — currently slated for closure — more pedestrian friendly could be a fantistic and successful project. To get there, however, it would need to be based not on a suburban grass-plus-parking lots model, but on a multi-modal one. I’m thinking of streets in Paris or Rome; they generally allow cars but under conditions that make walking safe and appealing.

But BYU doesn’t have to look to Europe for an example; west Campus Drive is already what I’m talking about.

This part of Campus Drive is slated for closure.

This part of Campus Drive is slated for closure.

However, this part of Campus Drive is not part of the upcoming redesign.

However, this part of Campus Drive is not part of the upcoming redesign.

The west half of Campus Drive winds slowly around the south and west sides of campus. It includes only two lanes — one in each direction — and is shaded by old buildings with shallow set backs and big trees. Cars typically drive slowly and pedestrians cross at will.* It’s not perfect, but it’s much closer to being perfect than either the eastern section of the same street, or the proposed redesign.

Somewhat surprisingly, Google Street View is available in the area:

A section of Campus Drive on the west side of BYU.

A section of Campus Drive on the west side of BYU.

This image is from the south side of campus and coincidentally shows how angled parking can be used on a non-commerial street.

This image is from the south side of campus and coincidentally shows how angled parking can be used on a non-commerial street. I’m not sure why there are neither cars nor people in these pictures. My guess is they were taken when school was out.

The point is that it’s not necessarily encouraging or inviting to drivers, but it’s not impenetrable either.

East Campus Drive, however, is going from one extreme to another. It’s currently a big, fast street but will soon cease to be a route at all for cars.

As I’ve said before, BYU’s campus redesign is not terrible. (This is an example of terrible news.) It’s just disappointing to see what are clearly good intentions being squandered on something that could easily be better. And as one of BYU’s own streets demonstrates, there are ways to make streets safe and useable for everyone no matter what their mode of transportation.

*The last time I tried to drive on west Campus Drive it was closed for construction. The closure didn’t look permanent, but if it is I would be disappointed. And in any case, the point I’m making is based on the historical state of west Campus Drive, not any future state.

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This is Not Density, Or, Lying About Parking Ratios

Some recent news about Provo is bad, and on a whole bunch of levels.

Basically, an article describes how developers want to build two “high rise” apartment buildings — at six and seven stories each they’re really only mid-rise buildings — in the Joaquin neighborhood.

I have nothing against big apartment buildings, and indeed I often like them.

But the problems here are legion. The biggest among them is that the developers want to add a massive amount of parking while residents are — in what seems like a bizarro act of post modern performance art — arguing that even more parking is needed:

Two proposed high-rise apartment complexes have some Joaquin neighborhood residents and property owners concerned that too many cars and not enough parking places will cause more parking and safety issues in an already beleaguered area.

There’s a lot I could potentially say about this project, but I’ll focus on density and parking because the situation shows how some people are basically lying about parking ratios.

Provo's Joaquin Neighborhood.

Provo’s Joaquin Neighborhood.

The article mentions that there will be “seven parking spots for every 10 beds.” That sounds great because it comes across as less than a 1:1 parking to unit ratio — one spot for each unit — which would be fairly progressive; though some cities have worked to limit their parking Provo has historically been mired in parking minimums (also, click herehere and here for more info on parking minimums).

In other words, those of us who want fewer parking lots in our neighborhoods hear “seven to ten” and think, “great, we’re moving in the right direction.”

But that’s not actually what is going on here. In a strange rhetorical maneuver, parking in Provo is usually discussed in terms of beds, not units. So, if each unit in these developments includes four beds — as is fairly typical for BYU student housing — 10 units will actually have 28 parking spots. That’s a nearly 3:1 parking-to-unit ratio and practically it means big seas of asphalt.

This is a perplexing way to discuss parking. I read about this topic daily and I’ve never come across any other place that matches parking spots to beds. To me, it doesn’t really makes sense  — why not base parking on couches, showers or the number of forks in an apartment — but ultimately that doesn’t even matter.

What matters is that it’s non-standard; it’s like posting a speed limit and then after someone gets pulled over having the cop say, “Oh, sorry, it was actually 120 kilometers per hour. You didn’t know that? Too bad.”

The point is that it obfuscates the issue and makes it seem as though Provo is on par with other cities when in fact it’s doing much, much worse with this issue. And while a 3:1 parking ratio is really bad anywhere, it especially doesn’t make sense in a walkable, growing, landlocked city that has Bus Rapid Transit on the horizon.

Ironically, this type of development also means very little change in overall density. After all, if developers cram a bunch of people into a small space but then surround that space with empty land for cars, the average density doesn’t really go up much. Calling it density gives real density a bad name.

And more fundamentally it’s just a lie. This isn’t 1:1 parking or less. It’s 2.8:1 and that is utterly inexcusable today.

So in sum, these developments are not dense. They have nearly three spots for each unit. And worst of all, no one is apparently talking about that. Instead, a boneheaded conversation based on misleading figures and  incorrect terminology is what has emerged.

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