Archive for the ‘City planning’ Category

Death knell, part 2

I left before the FNSB Assembly had voted — in fact, at least an hour before public testimony had finished — but word has it that Ordinance 2011-32, a soft-pedaled version of a zoning ordinance defeated 4-4 a few months ago, was defeated by a vote of 6 to 3.  Voting against were Natalie Howard, Michael Dukes, Matt Want, Tim Beck, Joe Blanchard, and Diane Hutchison.  Voting for were Nadine Winters, Karl Kassel, and Mike Musick.  I give my thanks to those last three.

I do not feel civil this morning.  I fear that Fairbanks is a damned town, again and again making itself a less fit place for a civilized person to live.


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I am angry and heartbroken tonight.

By a 4-4 vote, the Borough Assembly just failed to pass Ordinance 2010-09, which would have created two new zoning types: a “retail hot spot” and a “supporting commercial district”.  These new zones — which would have been merely codified, not even applied — were one of the key governmental tools for encouraging businesses to invest in quality retail building downtown.  And now it’s fucked, thanks to Michael Dukes, Matt Want, Natalie Howard, and Joe Blanchard — none of whom owns a god-damned square foot in downtown Fairbanks.  (According to the FNSB Assessing property database.)

I can’t get into the particular arguments the detractors used — I’m too heartbroken right now — but I do want to thank Assembly members Nadine Winters, Diane Hutchison, Karl Kassel, and Mike Musick, for their “yes” votes, as well as Mayor Luke Hopkins for putting the ordinance forward, David van den Berg of the Downtown Association for his ongoing work with downtown business owners and the revitalization effort, and everyone who testified in favor of the proposed ordinance, including the near-unanimity of downtown business owners who supported it.

No doubt the detractors are comforted by their free market and anti-government ideology.  My curse on them is that all their cars break down, and then they can see how much they like their WalMart shopping and their living out on Chena Fucking Hot Springs Road.

It’s enough to make me want to ditch this Borough, this un-community, for a place civic-minded enough to say, “We will take these restrictions on ourselves and impose them on others who may sometimes be unwilling, because public will is sometimes more important than some individual jackass who might want to stand in the way of 100% consensus” — and then to torch this fucking place on my way out.  (Please understand, I do not mean the “torch this place” thing literally.  It is an expression of my disappointment and my feeling of hopelessness for Fairbanks’s future.)

Vivat communitas!  Stadtluft macht frei!

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A quick news flash, because I’m tired: Jerry Cleworth’s resolution, which I think would have kneecapped the downtown revitalization effort,  failed — though only through a tie-breaking vote by the mayor.  The final vote: For, Cleworth, Roberts, and Stiver; Against, Bratcher, Gatewood, Eberhart, and Mayor Strle.  (News-Miner story here.)

As I posted Saturday, City Councilman Jerry Cleworth proposed a resolution (no. 4353) that would have halted the use of city funds for the conversion of Cushman Street from one-way to two-way.  This conversion, however, was the linchpin of Vision Fairbanks, according to the city planners hired to draft downtown’s revitalization plan (Crandall-Arambula of Portland, Oregon).

From the start of Citizens’ Comments on Monday evening to the final vote, four and a half hours passed.  At least three of those were spent on public testimony, including a little testimony on another other resolution before the Council.  The testimony was largely in opposition to Cleworth’s resolution — though not so overwhelmingly as it was in favor of Vision Fairbanks’s passage at previous meetings.

Despite the good case that existed in favor of the resolution — and Mr. Cleworth seemed to make that case beautifully — it seemed plain to me that most of the citizens testifying in favor had not attended any of the original visioning meetings, had not read the final plan approved by the Borough Assembly, or had heard only spotty details through the newspaper or word of mouth.  Of course, you could also say that most of the supporters had merely drunk the Vision Fairbanks Kool-Aid and that their testimony didn’t address the meat of Cleworth’s concerns either.  Frankly, I was tired enough when he finally spoke that I couldn’t keep all the pieces together.

There was a relatively brief grilling of Fairbanks Public Works director Mike Schmetzer, City Engineer Bob Pristash, and Donna Gardino of FMATS (the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System).  They covered the history of certain appropriations and projects, and discussed the sources and allocation of various monies.  It’s probably not over my head in principle, but it felt like it at 10:45 at night.

Councilwoman Vivian Stiver had what I thought was the most sensible suggestion of the evening: postpone the vote on the resolution until Wednesday’s work session and later public meeting with Crandall Arambula.  If we can present our concerns to them, she reasoned, they may have a good explanation of how various projects will work, or at least convince us of the utter necessity of this current project.  Cleworth was the only other person to support her, so it failed.

Some comments made by Stiver and Chad Roberts concerned me: they both seem to think Fairbanks’s chance of attracting major retail downtown is low to nil.  They seem to think that, since the explosion of big-box chain retail outlets at Steese and Johansen, the City of Fairbanks has missed the boat.  Of course, attracting a major anchor store on Cushman Street is supposedly critical to Vision Fairbanks’s success.  If they’re right, then the plan is largely screwed — I hope not irredemably.

(This makes me wonder: Why, when V.F. was before the Council earlier, did they cower in fear at its suggestion that one regulatory tool of encouraging downtown retail might be to restrict big-box retail development elsewhere for a time?  Why did their resolution’s otherwise tepid language condemn the inclusion of such a suggestion in the plan?)

I should mention that some of the City Council members seemed genuinely torn about what to do, most notably Bernard Gatewood and John Eberhart.  And, when I talk about Jerry Cleworth “kneecapping” or “deep-sixing” Vision Fairbanks, that’s not really being fair to him.  I think he’s a responsible public servant with a clear understanding of the budget, and he has responsible stewardship at heart.

My only real distrust — and this just as far as a vision for vibrant civic and commercial space — is for Chad Roberts.  He seems genuinely to believe that downtown is just fine as it is.  Also, during the Council meeting ten months ago, he expressed an admiration for the free market that seemed to preclude a community’s having any power to say what it wanted in a city center.  Whatever his other virtues, he seems to disagree with me that communities have a right of collective self-determination that, where city planning is concerned, should usually supersede the right of the individual to build whatever civic monstrosity he likes.

I’m happy for now that Vision Fairbanks lives to fight another day.

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Anybody reading today’s (Saturday’s) News Miner knows that Jerry Cleworth of the Fairbanks City Council has proposed a resolution that would halt Cushman’s conversion into a two-way street.  While his goal of saving money is admirable, the proposal is short-sighted and would deal a major blow to the revitalization of downtown.

You can help downtown — and, by extension, all of Fairbanks — by attending the City Council meeting this Monday (February 9) and testifying against this resolution.  Citizens’ testimony begins at 7:00.

Cleworth is quoted as asking: “Would it not be wiser to try and get some infrastructure upgrades such as sidewalks and streets rather than spending it redirecting traffic?”

By his question, Councilman Cleworth trivializes the value of turning Cushman into a two-way street. He tries to make it sound as if all the money will do is redirect traffic, and thus shows a shallow understanding of the effect of vehicular traffic on a business district.

I can think easily of three reasons for turning Cushman — supposedly our “Main Street” — from one-way to two:

  1. When a network of one-way streets requires lots of turns and out-of-direction travel, individual businesses suffer. Despite the alleged convenience of cars, people have only so much patience, and they’re less likely to visit a business if it requires turning several times.
  2. When a downtown is plagued by a network of confusing one-way streets, people are likely to avoid downtown altogether, and all businesses suffer. People like to have multiple ways in and out of a business district, and they like to know it will be easy to navigate.
  3. When converted to two-way, traffic speeds on Cushman (and Barnette, don’t forget) will be reduced, since drivers (as a whole) are more cautious on a two-way street than on a one-way. This will make Cushman a more appealing place for pedestrians, which is at the crux of Vision Fairbanks. Places that invite pedestrians also invite business, since people, at their slower pace, are more likely to stop at establishments unexpectedly.

The conversion of Cushman to two-way traffic is not trivial; it is a catalyst project that is meant to attract new businesses, and perhaps the linchpin of the whole Vision Fairbanks plan.  If you were an entrepreneur, wouldn’t you rather locate your store where people could reach it more easily, on their way into and out of your neighborhood?

I appreciate that Councilman Cleworth is concerned for the wise allocation of limited City money. But I’m afraid that his resolution, if passed, will pound a nail in downtown’s coffin and only fulfill the prophecies of those nay-sayers who have decried Vision Fairbanks from the start.

Please encourage the City Council to reject this resolution. Encourage them to follow through on this crucial part of a project that has received overwhelming community support and that will make downtown again a very worthwhile place to be.  Come to the City Council meeting this Monday evening; wear blue to show your support for Vision Fairbanks; and tell the Council members that Cushman Street must be made two-way!

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This post continues “San Francisco reflections (part one)“.

San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, 26 Dec. 2008

San Francisco from Telegraph Hill, 26 Dec. 2008

I’d like to show a few of my photos of San Francisco, and to discuss some relevant points about city planning and public spaces.

Perhaps the first thing is a peculiar attitude among many Fairbanksans: that living in close proximity to others is somehow undignified.  I say: Oh, nonsense.  It is only undignified if your neighbors are brutish and rude, or if your self-image includes a large portion of misanthropy.

The population density of San Francisco (city only) is about 17,000 per square mile — about 17 times the density in the city of Fairbanks and 1,400 times the density of the Fairbanks North Star Borough.  You can tell me that San Francisco has a tremendous homelessness problem, or that the cost of living is prohibitive for the middle class, or that its public schools stink.  But you can’t tell me that the people who can live there are are suffering some indignity by simple virtue of having a lot of neighbors — not when they enjoy so much culture and civic beauty.

Grocery stores don't have to be in imposing boxes

Grocery stores don't have to be in imposing boxes

Do you see the grocery store in this picture?  No?  There is a Safeway on the far corner (center of the photograph), surrounded by arcades and topped by apartments.  It’s hard to see from a distance or when passing in a car, since it’s built on a human scale, for pedestrians to notice.

A grocery store — even a large, national chain — need not be an ugly, industrial box.  I suspect that San Franciscans wouldn’t stand for such a structure in their city.  It doesn’t even have to provide a parking lot, as long as it’s located within walking distance of enough residences to support it.

I have to admit, the arcades are not as nice as I wanted to imagine them: everything in there looks dark and hidden.  This troubles me, since arcades are part of the Vision Fairbanks plan.

San Francisco alley near the Embarcadero

Alleys can be beautiful...

I saw a number of surprisingly attractive alleys in the city.  They weren’t wide enough to park a car in, nor did they house dumpsters or garbage cans.  But they were made functional and beautiful by a people for whom space was at a premium.

...and functional

...and functional

(This is not to say that every place I saw in San Francisco was either functional or beautiful.  Not surprisingly, the only empty lots I saw — all ugly — were in an economically depressed area of town, as we approached the Tenderloin.  What was the chain of cause and effect?  Is it that the less privileged care less about the blight of ugly empty lots and parking lots?  Surely that’s part of it: if you can barely pay the rent, you may not have the leisure to keep up with the affairs of your local planning board.  Property owners and land speculators know this, which is why they won’t try to fob something ugly off on a well-to-do neighborhood.  At the same time, putting too many empty lots or parking lots on a block is the pedestrian kiss of death: with no attractions at street level, people stop their meanders and turn around.  Businesses have a hard time thriving with reduced pedestrian traffic, so they fail or downgrade.  Any extra safety that was gained by having many eyes on the street is lost.  As the area becomes less attractive, property values go down, and the only people who can afford to live there are the poor.)

Colorful houses on Telegraph Hill

Colorful houses on Telegraph Hill

One aspect of beautiful cities is their frequent use of vibrant color.  While we enjoyed more daylight hours than we’d have seen in Alaska, San Francisco still has a reputation for foggy, gray weather.  In that kind of environment, why in heaven’s name would you want your buildings to blend right in?

Fairbanks spends a great deal of the year in twilight or in darkness.  To make our buildings gray — as dignified or as re-sellably neutral as owners may consider it — only makes our built environment bleaker.  I remember being excited when the old Mary Lee Davis house (at 5th and Cowles) was being restored — then being heartbroken when the owners decided to cover up the former lively green with a burgundy-tinted gray.

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco City Hall

San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco Public Library

San Francisco did sport too much gray in one important place: the civic center.  As majestic and beautiful as City Hall is, it’s another gray building in a sea of gray buildings — the Supreme Court building, the Civic Auditorium, the Asian Art Museum, and others too dignified to rise above their native fog.

Fire station on Stockton at Greenwich

Fire station on Stockton at Greenwich

A couple of things are noteworthy about the fire truck and fire station shown here (SFPD Engine Co. 28).  The first is the size and placement of the station.  The building is not large, and it fits in pretty nicely with its surroundings.  I take from this that fire stations do not have to be large, free-standing buildings.  They do not need their own parking lots.  They can be integrated parts of their neighborhoods.  Contrast this with the new fire station in downtown Fairbanks (which, admittedly, is the headquarters).

The other thing I notice is the size of the truck.  That thing is small.  One of the arguments you’ll sometimes hear against narrow streets (which are advocated for both safety and aesthetics) is that fire trucks need room to turn around.  Well, if the trucks are made shorter, that argument vaporizes.

One explanation I’ve heard for long fire trucks is that they need to be long to accommodate their crews — and that the crew size is dictated by the fire fighters’ union.  There are probably less-sinister considerations I’m not aware of that inform our local fire truck length.  If you know what they are, please tell.

Union Square

Union Square

Last, here is Union Square, one of San Francisco’s many public gathering spaces.  By Fairbanks standards, this place is crowded — and it’s lively.  I think this is what we want to shoot for in the new park square designated in Vision Fairbanks.

One catch may be the weather.  It was about 50 degrees outside that day.  Fairbanks enjoys an average high temperature of at least 50 from about April 20 to September 20 — five months.  However, our low temperature is at freezing for a little less than that: May 10 to September 20.  Those are absolutely mild temperatures for us — but what to do with the space the other seven months?  I’m confident that it could be seasonally re-purposed — you may notice people ice skating in the background — but we’d have to have something like a hot dog stand or a hot chocolate vendor to keep people happy in the colder months.

San Francisco has plenty of imperfections, a few of which I’ve hinted at here.  But it shows me — I hope it shows you — that cities don’t have to be ugly or undignified.  They can be beautiful, rich, fulfilling places.  Those of us who who earn our living from the city shouldn’t flee it, but embrace it.  San Francisco points the way.

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View down a hill near downtown San Francisco, December 26, 2008

View down a hill near downtown San Francisco, December 26, 2008

I just wrapped up a vacation to San Francisco, where a friend from high school joined me to attend another friend’s wedding. We arranged to have an extra day on either side, so we could do a little vacationing in the city.  Our approach to sightseeing highlights two contrasting approaches to tourism — and to city planning.

One approach might be called “destination based”.  It assumes that, within a city, there are certain, distinct sites you want to see, or particular activities you want to do.  For example, you might want to:

  • See the San Francisco Opera’s production of La Bohème;
  • Visit the Exploratorium (a hands-on science museum);
  • Climb the twisting Lombard Street;
  • Take a boat over for a tour of Alcatraz; or
  • Look at the Asian Art Museum.

In the extreme form of this approach, all that matters is that the particular destinations get visited and the planned activities get done.  The in-between things — the trips from one activity to the next, and the spaces one must pass through to reach them — are incidental and irrelevant.

My friend and I took a contrasting approach, which we might call “place based”.  This approach assumes not only that the spaces between activities are relevant, but that they are actually the whole point of going to a place.  If you take a place-based approach, you are more interested in how the neighborhoods look, how the locals live, and what the “feel” is of a place.

Now, we did have a short list of things to do — eat some Italian food in North Beach, eat some dim sum in Chinatown, and look at the public library — but, with three full days in the Bay area, that left a lot of time in between.  And that was just perfect, because all we really wanted to do was walk around San Francisco: to see how people were dressed, to enjoy the architecture and public art, and to admire the almost obscenely rich variety of goods and services available.  (After Sunday’s dim sum breakfast, we passed a bookstore — sadly, closed — devoted to nothing but architecture.  I peered in the window, and it was huge.)

It wasn’t just our choice in goals that made this possible.  The places we visited — downtown, Chinatown, North Beach, the Tenderloin, and Nob Hill — were all worth visiting, independently of our particular goals.  They had their own distinct character, and they were all destination rich: that is, while they weren’t equally attractive, they offered plenty of reasons for people to be there.

In my mind, this is characteristic of good cities.  People want to be there — not just at their destinations, but in the spaces themselves.  This can only happen if the spaces are both useful and interesting.

Useful spaces are those that meet a variety of human needs: eating, shopping, meeting, socializing, playing, and residing.  They are robust: they don’t lose their utility after one need is met, but continue offering opportunities.

In a way, it’s their utility that lets them be interesting.  For a place to develop its own character, it needs a measure of insularity, just as a person needs a measure of solitude to develop his or her own character.  But this can only happen where a variety of life’s needs are met.  Otherwise, people flee their own communities and don’t pay them enough attention.  (My guess is that this is why Fairbanks is so much more interesting a place to live than Eagle River: when you’re a suburb of Anchorage, you don’t have to develop as many of your own industries, house your own jobs, or sustain your own culture.)

San Francisco got this way partly through historical accident: most of the city was built before private car ownership was the norm (the Presidio was founded about the time of the American Revolution), so people took it for granted that they’d rather live near their jobs, grocers, and other life business.

Fairbanks, founded early in the 20th century, did not have that advantage.  Most of the infrastructure of modern-day Fairbanks (and the Borough) was built after the advent of private automobiles.  We’ve managed to build it as though we were happy to drive everywhere we needed to go and the spaces in between meant nothing.  (Witness the Johansen Expressway.)  We have built a “destination based” town, with only a few pockets of places really worth spending time.

It doesn’t have to be this way.  Of our Assembly and our city planners, we can demand a change from places only worth fleeing to places worth being.  But we must first share the value that not only are particular destinations worthwhile, but places themselves have value and should be nurtured.

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Just a week ago, I got my first radio interview: I talked for 20 minutes with Marielle Smith, the producer of Energy-Wise.  The short segment played Monday morning on Newsradio 970 KFBX (and perhaps the other local Clear Channel stations).  We covered:

  • Our denied pedestrian right;
  • The social aspects of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and cities;
  • The need for and convenience of destination-rich, mixed-use neighborhoods;
  • The benefits and challenges of bus ridership in Fairbanks;
  • Problems with, and suggestions for, Fairbanks’s city planning; and
  • Reasons to prefer light rail to buses.

The interview is broken up into Part 1 and Part 2.  If those links don’t work, go to KFBX’s podcasts page and scroll down to Energy-Wise, episode 13.

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