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:

20130304-165856.jpg

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.

20130304-170116.jpg

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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What Should BYU Do Instead

In my last post, I argued that BYU’s Campus Unification Project isn’t a big improvement over what the school currently has. That doesn’t mean it’s without merit. I also realize that the project is designed to unify campus — not improve transit access or foster smart growth — but it’s still discouraging to see the school come so close to doing something great but still not quite get there.

Phase 1

In any case, here are a few things BYU could do if it really wanted to foster a “pedestrian” environment.

1. Stop offering free parking. When I started at BYU, on-campus parking permits cost money. A few years later, however, BYU started giving them away to any student who registered. It didn’t make sense at the time and it doesn’t make sense now.

As is widely accepted, parking —  especially free parking — creates more demand for parking. In other words, if you give away parking you effectively create more drivers. Everyone in Provo is eventually going to have to accept that to cut the number of cars we’ll have to reduce parking first. Hoping the cars will go away while we continue to provide free parking is just insanity.

And as I hinted earlier today, leaving all the parking lots around campus like an asphalt mote basically renders the redesign meaningless.

2. Subsidize transit passes. Also while I was a student BYU briefly experimented with giving students free transit passes. The school cancelled the program in order to give away free parking (yes, you read that correctly), but it’s not too late to fix the mistakes of the past.

If BYU really wants to make its campus better it should make it easier for students to use public transit.

If BYU really wants to make its campus better it should make it easier for students to use public transit.

Moreover, many other schools offer heavily subsidized transit passes. The University of Utah, for example, requires students to purchase a relatively cheap pass as part of their student fees. I’ve never met an alum of that school who begrudged the fee. It also proves that it can be done and that in this regard BYU chooses to behave irresponsibly.

3. Create a more robust bike infrastructure. BYU is bikeable in the sense that it has a lot of big open paved spaces combine with some bike racks. Apparently there is also a bike share program, though I hadn’t heard of it until two days ago.

But there is little to no dedicated bike infrastructure on campus beyond racks. BYU also hasn’t historically been deeply involved with Provo’s efforts to become more bikeable (though that may be changing, I’m not sure).

4. Loosen the grip on student housing. BYU creates an artificial housing market that hurts everyone in the city by tightly controlling where students may live. In theory, the rules protect students though in reality they simply drive rents up or down — depending on location — and create an effective student quarter that is the source of great conflict in the Joaquin neighborhood.

"BYU approved housing" south of campus. BYU's weird housing rules have a toxic effect on the housing market.

“BYU approved housing” south of campus. BYU’s weird housing rules have a toxic effect on the housing market.

Adopting a market-oriented approach to student housing — where BYU lets supply and demand determine rents, student distribution, etc. — would disperse students more evenly in the city, not to mention give them more choice. That would positively impact downtown Provo, create more competitive rents, and take the edge off the student-townie conflicts (i.e. “students should live in north Joaquin, families in south Joaquin” etc.) that frankly have almost exhausted my hope that Provo is moving toward greatness.

In any case, the collateral benefit of having more even student distribution is that there would be more even use of infrastructure across the city. Sprinkling a few thousand 20-somethings across south Maeser and/or Franklin, for example, would help justify more sidewalks, bike lanes, and bus routes in those areas. As it is, however, the people most likely to take transit, bike, and patronize local cultural offerings are clustered in a ghetto where those things either don’t exist or are unnecessary.

Ultimately in my ideal world BYU would have only handicapped parking (maybe a few dozen total stalls), it wouldn’t have a housing office at all (free the market!), and Provo residents would stop thinking of astonishingly well-behaved students as “them” or the enemy.

Those goals are perhaps unrealistic, but the upcoming redesign does little to nothing to actually improve transit and walkability on campus or in Provo. Indeed it seems like the people behind the redesign went to a nice place, looked at the trappings of that place, and tried to copy it without ever considering supply and demand or how one space interacts with another. BYU’s campus may be improved by it but if the school really wants to create better spaces it needs to look critically at the underlying issues that shape those spaces.

A street on the south end of BYU campus. This isn't the street slated for closure. However, I'd be against closing either of the streets to cars until Provo is less car centric. Right now, shutting these relatively small, slow streets forces more cars onto arterials and turns BYU into a huge black hole that drivers must navigate around. In other words, as a result of the redesign people driving north-south have to go around BYU campus, meaning there is actually going to me more total driving.

A street on the south end of BYU campus. This isn’t the street slated for closure. However, I’d be against closing either of the streets to cars until Provo is significantly less car centric. Right now, shutting these relatively small, slow streets (notice the bikes and pedestrians in this picture) forces more cars onto arterials and turns BYU into a huge black hole that drivers must navigate around. In other words, as a result of the redesign people driving north-south have to go around BYU campus, meaning there is actually going to me more total driving in Provo.

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A Redesign Rooted in Old Ideas

Over the last several days I’ve been asked a few times what I think of BYU’s new “Campus Unification Plan.” According to my former colleague Genelle Pugmire the plan is a “three-phase redesign of the north and east sides of campus that will eventually include closing Campus Drive and turning the area into a walking plaza for students.” An article on KSL and a post on the mayor’s blog further explain the project.

This is what the completed project will look like:

BYUUnificationProjectEnd

I’m going to criticize this project below, but before that I think it’s worth mentioning the positive things. And there are a bunch of them:

1. BYU evidently met with neighborhood and city leaders about this plan. I’ve accused BYU of being a bad neighbor in the past, but it’s apparently starting to integrate into the community. That’s a significant positive development for which BYU deserves to be praised.

2. BYU is apparently doing both bike and car sharing programs. I don’t know much about them, but if true that’s commendable.

3. This project “will also help UTA with infrastructure for the future Bus Rapid Transit system.”

4. It’s also worth mentioning that any time car infrastructure is replaced with pedestrian space we’re probably moving in the right direction. Though I have some complaints about the project and BYU’s priorities, they are trying, which is good. In the end, while this project isn’t perfect, it’s also not a crap alert either.

Now on to the criticism.

First, let’s talk about “green space,” which BYU has stated it hopes to increase with this project. Green space is an easy sell in most cases because it sounds nice, but what is it exactly? It’s not a park, or a yard. It’s not a building. It’s not really anything at all, actually; it’s just filler.

A recent post on the fantastic blog Stroad to Boulevard goes further, quoting several experts in the field who say it’s actually destructive:

Green space is a new invention. What’s it for? Green Space was invented to make our other Non-Places less horrible. It basically doesn’t exist in the Traditional City.

The point is that “green space” is a useless area where there is no human interaction.

People do use the green spaces at BYU. They walk through them, lay on them when the weather is nice, play frisbee, etc. But as I’ve studied the renderings of this project I struggle to see any significant additions designed to foster human interaction. What I see instead are a few parking lots that are lined with a little bit more grass and a few more trees. In other words, slightly less horrible spaces.

The area around the Law Library (to the left of the large parking lot on the right) is perhaps the best example. According to the picture, several new lawns spaces have been created near the building. However, in many cases they’re still wedged between parking lots. And in the end, who wants to hang out on a strip of grass next to a parking lot?

It’s also worth considering these changes in terms of supply and demand. In the past, for example, was “green space” undersupplied on BYU campus? Was every square inch covered by modest sunbathers? Did the medieval club really have no where to put their tents?

I’d argue that open space is actually oversupplied on BYU campus. After all, when was the last time the grass between the library and the administration building was completely full? How about the grass near the Maeser Building? Or the lawn on the south hills?

Ultimately then, this redesign adds to BYU’s already flawed design; with its highly partitioned spaces — areas for living, learning, working, etc. are all separated by vast expanses — BYU operates under a similar philosophy as a suburban office park. It’s not unique in that sense — many people have criticized “Radiant City”-style college campuses — but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem. (Oxford offers just one possible alternative type of campus.) I also wonder who will be using the new pedestrian spaces on the east side of campus, as no major housing centers or classrooms are located directly to the east.

At the same time, this new project reduces the supply of streets in the face of constant demand. That doesn’t really make sense.

Anyone who has read this blog knows that I generally hate car-oriented development, but I’m not sure that’s what Campus Drive really is. After all, buses also use the street but in the future they’ll be pushed further from the center of campus. The street wasn’t great for bikes before, but neither is a pedestrian space where riding is illegal between classes. Safety for cyclists may increase, but convenience — which is also vital for getting people to actually bike — may decrease.

I’ve also argued that we need frequent, small streets instead of big arterials. The pedestrian benefits of that concept aren’t really an issue here, but if surrounding streets become stroads and car sewers we’ve created more problems than we’ve solved.

Finally, the most disappointing part of this entire thing is that it leaves in place a whole bunch of big parking lots. As I’ve said previously on this blog, parking lots are underperforming, hostile environments that waste money and harm their surroundings. And as the picture above shows, the center of BYU campus will continue to be surrounded by them after this redesign.

I could go on, but the point of this whole thing is that while this project seems great, the actual changes have questionable value. Check back later today for ideas on what BYU could have done if it really wanted to create a better, safer pedestrian environment.

This image shows current conditions on BYU campus. The biggest change from the redesign is that a section of street will be closed.

This image shows current conditions on BYU campus. The biggest change from the redesign is that a section of street will be closed.

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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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