Thursday, September 29, 2005

Utah a Hotbed of "New Suburbanism?"

It's been interesting being involved in the Wasatch Vision 2040 process now kind of coming to a culmination. It is, in reality, a taking off point -- taking off for the process of updating the metro area long-range transportation plan.

In the past, our region's MPOs (Metropolitan Planning Organizations - the Wasatch Front Regional Council and Mountainlands Association of Governments) have compiled all the various general plans from communities in the region, and used them as the starting point in the process, setting the future land use. Often, as many planners know, those community general plans conflicted with each other, and there was not a lot of coordination between them. So what did that mean for our long-range transportation plans, being based on such discrepencies?

This time around, the MPOs are taking a new approach, seeking to get a better region-wide vision of what future land-use may be regionwide, then using that as the basis for setting up a regionwide transportation system to get us there. Radical, eh?

The Wasatch Vision 2040 process has resulted in a number of interesting ideas and conclusions, one of which is the notion that we may be better served by a series of activity nodes or centers dispersed throughout the region, rather than concentrating everything in one (or a few) central core. Thus, homes are closer to jobs and shopping, reducing the need for long commutes and extensive travel.

I've since discovered the writings of Joel Kotkin, who has really developed this theme. In a July 4 column in Forbes magazine, Kotkin wrote about how today, many of the world's largest and most influential corporations have located their headquarters and facilities not so much in the old traditional central cities, but in the suburban locations of major metropolitan areas. He cites examples such as Microsoft (Redmond, Washington), Intel (Santa Clara, California), IBM (Westchester County, New York), and Amgen (Thousand Oaks, California).

In a June 2005 article called "The New Suburbanism," Kotkin writes, "Rejecting the urbanist notion that clings to the primacy of the city center, the successful suburban village con coexist happily with neighboring single-family residences. It allows suburbs to...become something approximating a self-contained town. This phenomenon is part of what Randall Jackson, president of The Planning Center...calls 'new suburbanism.'"

"Promoters seek not a return to the dense urban paradigm of Jane Jacobs but instead the creation of an archipelago of villages connected not only by roads (and sometimes trains) but also by new communications technology. ... (T)he suburban village embraces the reality of dispersion and encourages less dependence on long-range commuting, including to the urban core."

Kotkin has come in for some attacks on his ideas by New Urbanists and Smart Growthers, but what he has to say makes a lot of sense to me. Particularly since it seems we are going more in his direction in what is coming out of Wasatch Vision 2040. Kotkin has even seen (perhaps prophetically, since the WV2040 proposal is not done yet) that for our region, when he wrote, "Suburban villages are either being built or proposed throughout the country. Massive new developments, replete with housing, shopping, and transit connections, have already been created throughout large parts of suburban Southern California, around Chicago, in Washington, D.C., and outside Salt Lake City." I can only think that he is referring to the Kennecott Land plans (see story in today's DesNews on this.)

More to come on this topic soon.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Campaigning for Zoning

Whew, I've finally finished my budget stuff for work, that took pretty much all my time the last couple of days and I haven't been able to do any blogging! But it's done for now, so I'm back.

Interesting to find a story about the Sandy gravel pit referendum in the business section of the Trib yesterday. The story was really pretty much about the latest turn in that issue, where a new "citizens" group has made its presence known, pushing in favor of the proposed development.

But is it really a citizens group? "'It's absolutely not a residents' group, ' said Robyn Bagley, a member of SOC [Save Our Community]. 'It's Friends of Boyer.'"

However, Molly Darrow, an organizer of Friends of Quarry Bend, says, "'It's insulting that [SOC] can insinuate that because we have a different opinion, it's Wal-Mart's of Lowe's opinion.' Darrow said she got involved because she felt SOC wasn't being honest with voters."

Well, who is? How can you tell? How many voters will actually take the time and trouble to find out before they go cast a ballot?

Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Few Matters Inflame Civic Passions More Than Do Zoning Disputes"

So says the editorial in yesterday's DesNews, and I agree. Witness what most of the local elections for mayors and councilmembers seem to be about. And then, of course, the biggie out there this coming November -- the Sandy City gravel pit zoning referendum, which is what the editorial is about.

The News applauds the Supreme Court move to rewrite the ballot language for the referendum, saying it is now more objective than what either side would have liked. I don't dispute that. But I also don't think the language is very descriptive, nor does it get at what all the issues are -- how can it in a way that keeps it brief enough to be placed on a ballot? And that's my beef with this process.

The DesNews continues, "both sides owe it to Sandy residents to conduct factual and intellectually honest debate on the referendum. Sandy residents need to go straight to the respective parties...to hear their respective points of view. We encourage voters to keep up on the issue by reading this newspaper, as well."

Hmmm. Besides this little bit of self-promotion, what the DesNews says, we all know, is just what voters do on every issue and candidate before them in an election, right?

Friday, September 23, 2005

Follow-Up on Legacy

Lots of follow-up stories and editorials on the Legacy Parkway deal reached yesterday -- DesNews opinion piece, Trib news story and Trib editorial, and Standard story.

They all go to show what a cross-section of opinion exists, not so much about going forward with the highway itself, but with the idea of a negotiated deal and what it bodes for the future. Bob Bernick in his piece in the DesNews takes the state to task for charging ahead on the project when there were clear signs that the whole thing would likely wind up in court, but nobody's going to blame those who pushed ahead because of how unpopular the complainers were (and are). Bob has some good points. For me, it was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I could see where things were going, but was powerless to stop them -- and I just couldn't take my eyes away from watching, either. Did we learn anything? Maybe. But hopefully, the plaintiffs learned something too, about pushing forward with a largely unsupported position that essentially forces the majority into doing something they don't want to do. That's a lesson some writers have warned about from places like Oregon, where Measure 37 seems to be the result of pushing unpopular positions and not listening.

I'm OK with the agreement, in large measure because it really isn't that much different from what we were hoping for in the first place. There sure seems to be a lot being made of the fact that the agreement calls for pushing forward with transit at the same time. The Trib editorial says, "The biggest surprise in the proposed agreement may be the jump start it would give to TRAX in southern Davis County. If the $2.5 million that UDOT would kick in toward environmental studies leads to light rail being constructed, the area would be served not only by a new road but by both commuter rail and light rail or rapid-transit buses."

Surprise for whom? Certainly not for us in Davis County. We've been working on this for several years now -- there is currently a study underway for establishment of a corridor for that very purpose. The agreement may help us to move that program forward a little sooner than we had anticipated, but its no surprise to us.

The Trib story talks about how some legislators are not in favor of the proposed agreement because they feel like it is making a deal with the devil, and there will be "eternal" consequences for future transportation projects. This morning as I was getting ready for work, my wife accidentally turned on a radio station that was what sounded like a conservative local talk show, and the host was talking about the Legacy deal. He used the very words I just wrote above, and urged listeners to call their legislators and demand they vote against the agreement.

You know, as I wrote yesterday, I too have some problem with a process that gives minority opinions such a prominent place at the table to force through their ideas. But that is the system we have (because of how the federal law is written). My feeling is, we can spend our time fighting that battle and lose what we're trying to do, or accept what we can get now, then go to work and try to change the system. I tend toward the practical, and I vote for doing that.

Interesting, when you see things from the inside, and then what the outside world thinks they see.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

I Break My Silence on Legacy Highway - Finally

Those of you who know me, know that I have long been involved in the battle over Legacy Highway. More accurately, I would say that my involvement has been in seeing through the plan for a "shared solution" for transportation in Davis County and northern Utah.

I'm sure it's been something of a mystery to kind readers of this blog why I have not sounded off on the Legacy topic before (I haven't been shy to express my opinions on transportation in general). The truth is, I've stayed away from the topic because of the concern that it would just start another extreme flame-war.

I and a few others were involved several months ago with another blog written in support of the Legacy Highway, which we saw as a way to counter-balance the extreme one-sided views being put out by opponents of the roadway. That blog attracted some way over-the-top writers that made any reasonable discussion virtually impossible. While I hold strong views, I generally try not to become contentious. I must admit, I was even goaded into bits of incivility myself in response to some of the things that were written. I was afraid that if I opened the door on this topic again in this blog, so soon after that effort, it would drown out discussion on all the other topics I was interested in blogging about.

Now, an agreement in principle on the highway has been reached between the state and environmental groups who sued over the project. You can read about this in the Trib, DesNews, and Standard. So now I guess I'll risk commenting on it a bit.

I'm very happy to see the agreement come about. I was involved in talking to both sides while the negotiations were under way, at one point even helping (along with several others) to open a sort of informal back channel when negotiations seemed to get stuck and teetered on coming apart. Overall, I can say I am pleased that the agreement was reached that will now allow Davis County and UDOT to move ahead with this key component in our overall transportation strategy.

And let me emphasize, it is one component. There are others, most notably expansion of transit. I've blogged on the topic of transit several times, so those of you who have read them know that I support transit, though I do not believe (as some do) that it is a cure-all. But it is an important part of the overall plan, and is sorely needed. Transit was identified as one of the needed parts of our transportation system for Davis County some 15 years ago, and support for it has steadily increased. I am mightily miffed by the quote in the Trib by Mark Heileson saying, "TRAX to Davis County was not even on the radar screen before the negotiations." Bull. There is currently a study underway for a transit corridor into south Davis County, in which TRAX (and bus rapid transit) are options being looked at.

Davis County officials were the primary movers in getting the quarter-cent sales tax increase for UTA on the ballot in November 2000, because we recognized it was needed to meet our needs. We brought the other two counties (Weber and Salt Lake) along so UTA could move ahead on a region-wide system (and let me tell you, getting the then-Salt Lake County commissioners to agree to put the issue on the ballot was like trying to pull teeth out of a chicken!) But we did it, and it is moving forward.

But we also recognized the dire need for another roadway, and planned as carefully for it as we could. But that's a story I've told numerous times in speeches and editorials, and I won't go over them again here. Suffice it to say, we are glad that everybody is happy enough (or worn out enough!) to agree and move forward. Most everyone is not happy with at least some aspect of the agreement, but then isn't that what compromise is? I don't get everything I want, but neither do you?

I just worry a little bit about the federal process that allows, or even dictates, that this is how we have to deal with major decisions in our metro growth and development. It is still astounding to me that groups that represent a very small fraction of the overall population in our area can get themselves into a position to have such an impact on what is done, and how it is done, in the planning and development of our metro transportation system. By all accounts, a vast majority of residents supported moving ahead with the Legacy as it was proposed, but that was all stopped by a relatively small group. What does this mean for the way we plan and grow in the future?

Enough said. Please, those of you who oppose this position, don't flame out in comments. Express them, by all means, but let's keep it civil, and then move on to other topics.

Thanks.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Utah Supreme Court Rewrites Sandy Referendum

Both the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News report this morning that the Utah Supreme Court has rewritten the language for the Sandy gravel pit zoning referendum.

Reading the language, its pretty plain. It simply says, in part, "...the ordinance will amend the zoning category applicable to the 'Gravel Pit' (approximately 1000 East and 9400 South), to allow a number of new uses that are prohibited under the current zone. A yes vote will approve those changes."

No description of what those changes are, why they were considered, what the ramifications might be. Its now up to the voters, and of course, the two sides, to find out what and why. How many people that step into that voting both on November 8 will really have taken the time to find out what's up? How many will have heard the campaign ads from one side or the other, and which ones more often? At least when these issues are run by the Planning Commission and City Council, they know they are there to hear all the sides (including a staff report), discuss, ask questions, get answers, and make a decision.

Robyn Bagley of Save Our Communities, said, "We would have loved it if [the court] had put 'big boxes' in there. But, we're not disappointed."

Kelly Casaday of the Boyer Company summed it up, really, when he said, "Now, we're going to have a good time telling voters why they should vote yes."

Let the games begin!

Monday, September 19, 2005

"...Get Other People Out of Their Cars So That Mine Can Take Me Where I Want to Go -- Fast!"

Pretty good little commentary in the Los Angeles Times last week by Tim Rutten, that appeals to the imp in me. He writes about public transit and traffic gridlock, and why most people say they support transit -- because they hope others will take it so they themselves can keep driving.

One problem, though, "Public transit could cure all this, if only people would use it."

Ruttan says, "people once again have started nodding their heads when one or another dough-faced urban planner from the Institute for a Joyless Future...starts talking up another public transit project. Well, I've been to that dance before and this time count me out."

It's not that I'm against transit, I'm not. I think it is an important part of our overall transportation system in growing metropolitan areas. I just agree with the tenor of Ruttan's piece, that sometimes we planners (and enviros -- especially!) seem to think that transit will solve all our problems. The issues are much deeper and more complex than simply providing a system other than roads.

Anthony Downs writes about this kind of stuff all day, and I agree with him, we need to get used to congestions, because it will now always be with us (unless we have some kind of complete collapse of our economic system). Transit simply provides an alternative that we need, not a cure.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Stay Consistent With Your General Plan (Else Why Have One?)

Interesting editorial in the Standard-Examiner yesterday, urging Layton City to stay consistent in a pending land use decision with its adopted general plan.

I'm not familiar with the particulars of this specific case, but its great to have one of Utah's major newspapers editorialize in favor of planning, essentially.

The editorial says, "If cities undertake to plan for future growth and/or redevelopment, and solicit citizen input, there should be some moral obligation to follow whatever comes as a result of that process. Just because a developer...owns land nearby and would rather do it there shouldn't persuade the city to abandon its long-established blueprint for development in the area."

Here, here, as a general principle for community planning!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

All Politics Are Local (Planning, That Is)

I think it was long-time former Speaker of the U.S. House Tip O'Neil who said all politics are local. I would add to that, "and most of local politics is about growth and planning."

Want proof?

The Deseret News has started its profiles of candidates running for mayor and city council, starting with West Valley City, South Jordan and Syracuse. Plus, there is a story on a couple of initiatives in Highland. Plus plus, I have been blogging for some time about the BIG issue in Sandy, the referendum on development of the gravel pit.

So what are the biggest issues in ALL these races? They're all related to growth and planning!

A couple of quotes:

Fred Panucci, mayor of Syracuse, says the future of Syracuse is dependent on careful planning. "We cannot afford to make mistakes. I believe it is essential for Syracuse to carefully manage our growth and I will continue to make this one of my highest priorities."

Mario Cisneros, running for council in West Valley City, said growth should be careful, planned and controlled or it runs the risk of leaving residents alienated. "I think (growth) should be slow and steady, and I think it should be well-thought-out."

Mike Szlachetka, running for council in South Jordan, said the city must find a balance between residential growth and commercial development, with an eye on maintaining open space. He also spoke of "sustainability -- providing required levels of services and infrastructure commensurate with growth while keeping taxes equitable and within acceptable limits."

Come on, planners, if planning and growth are such key political issues, why aren't we leveraging this attention in local politics?

Sunday, September 11, 2005

This, That, and the Other

Haven't blogged for a while, so there are several things to catch up on.

First, the citizens group Save Our Community gets underway with its campaign on the rezone of the Sandy gravel pit, reported in stories in the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News. Political campaigns are an interesting way to make these kinds of decisions. As one of the stories notes, "Like SOC, Boyer and the potential retailers will (also) be looking to tell voters what the real issue is. 'Our objective is to get what we believe the good information is, out there,' said Scott Verhaaren, a Boyer project manager.

Next, stories also appeared in the Trib and DesNews on Friday about the RDA debate currently underway in the legislative task force. The stories report on a Thursday morning intergovernmental roundtable where RDAs were the topic of discussion. Interestingly, the Salt Lake County Auditor put forward a new proposal, which would essentially do away with tax increment finance, and instead would have RDAs levy their own property tax to cover their projects. For existing RDAs, the tax rates for the corresponding taxing entities would be lowered to make up the difference. While this would work now for existing projects, what about new project areas? There are many questions about this proposal, but it may be worth a look. Bottom line, there seems to be support among some legislators for the League proposal, which will help provide the mechanism to finance infrastructure improvements by local government for economic development.

And lastly, there is an interesting commentary in today's Deseret News on commuter rail by Michael R. Ransom, a professor of economics at BYU. Prof. Ransom raises a lot of questions about the cost effectiveness of commuter rail, and rail transit in general, saying it does not help ease congestion, and is less effective than building new roads, HOV lanes, and enhancing existing express busses.

All that Prof. Ransom says is true, from my experience. However, I think he asks the wrong question to begin with. If the measure is what will most effectively ease congestion, there is nothing that will do so. Whatever road capacity we build, whatever measures we take to increase the ability of traffic to flow faster, it will all be drown out in the end by increased demand. In short, there is NOTHING we can do (nothing within the realm of reason, that is) that will reduce congestion. The question must be, what other alternatives can we offer commuters. Commuter rail and light rail are, in my mind, alternatives to driving your own vehicle. Large metropolitan areas, to stay competitive and livable, must offer alternatives to driving alone. Rail transit does that. Yes, it is expensive for the number of people it carries. And there are other things we can do to help (and these things should be done, also). But there must be alternatives. That's the question.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Burning the Candle at Both Ends?

Just a little nagging thought that keeps popping around in my head as I contemplate the agenda for the upcoming Rail-Volution conference in Salt Lake starting tomorrow. So much of the push for transportation on the Wasatch Front (and in many places around the country) is for rail transit. By the same token, much of what we talk about in "smart growth" is a better jobs-housing balance. That essentially means putting more jobs near where people are choosing to live.

Don't these two things run counter to each other? Rail transit is very much focused on bringing commuters to a primary activity center (downtown Salt Lake, in our case) and maybe one or two other important centers (University of Utah, airport). This would argue for increasing the number of jobs in these centers so that transit will be seen as a more attractive option rather than driving alone.

But pushing for jobs-housing balance, which means dispersing jobs to the residential areas, is just the opposite. Jobs would be nearly as dispersed as housing, something which transit has a difficult time serving effectively.

Some of this could be overcome by focusing on more job center creation along the transit line. This would seems to point to a TOD strategy of sort of dispersing jobs. Hmmm. Urban villages, anyone?

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Referendum-itis Spreads

The south end of the Salt Lake Valley seems to be the hotbed for planning-related referenda. Now Bluffdale is getting into the act. A weekend story in the Trib says a group of residents are beginning a petition drive to overturn the Bluffdale City Council's adoption of a new zoning category called the Special Development Plan Zone.

The fear appears to be the potential for relaxed zoning rules in the development of a couple of very large projects.

This petition is for a so-called "legitimate" reason -- a legislative act by the council in adopting the new ordinance. But that is not always a perfect criterion either -- it may simply be the implementation of the community's general plan. It's the plan itself that is probably the most legitimate item to be put up for referendum vote.

But then we have this crystal clear guidance from the Supreme Court on this ......

Friday, September 02, 2005

Utah Planners Ineffective?

Let me start this entry by saying I apologize -- maybe because with Labor Day weekend coming, its the end of summer, or because the New Orleans disaster makes me wonder what real effect planners have on making communities better and safer, or, or, or, just a bunch of different things. Maybe its just because of the parents that yelled at me yesterday at the soccer game I reffed. Whatever.

I recently read another essay by Richard Carson (former Executive Director of Portland METRO, current Community Development Director of Vancouver, Washington) about the politics of planning. Carson muses on the role of planners in Oregon and what they really do (or don't do), and so much of it sounds like Utah.

Carson says, "Planners have very little to say about the politics of planning in Oregon. The primary protagonists in Oregon's land use struggle are either developers or environmentalists. Planners have somehow evolved as neutral (neutered?) professionals who believe their job is to facilitate development within a predetermined set of community values which come in the form of regulations. These 'values' are determined at the city, county, regional and state levels by elected officials who are influenced by everyone -- except planners."

After my years of experience at both the local government level and particularly with the state legislature, Carson's comments seem like they could have been written right here. We certainly have developers exerting a great deal of influence over planning -- and that is to be expected, given their keen interest in land use policies and how it affects their very livelihood. But sometimes (most times?) it seems that influence is "oversized." We do not have the strong environmental influence as a counter balance that Oregon has -- though it is gaining strength (witness the Legacy Parkway affair). It seems in Utah, we are seeing a growing counter from groups of organized residents who are generally against anything other than single-family housing.

But planners seem to be missing in action in most of these "discussions" -- opinions and positions on hot topics are being expressed by developers, builders, architects, environmental groups, citizen groups, everyone except planners. Whenever we have a planning issue under consideration before the state legislature, the usual suspects are there to comment and lobby, but it's like pulling teeth to get planners to come out and do so.

Carson gives a clue. "The planner as advocate, for better urban design and land use planning, died out in the 1960s and 1970s. Planners became process people -- they simply shut their mouths and eyes and let the citizens make the decisions. This is not necessarily negative. It meant that the citizens started making their own decisions with our help and guidance.
"Unfortunately, planners were driven from the field of advocacy by developers and were replaced by environmental activists (in Utah, I'd say its citizen activists)."

I even see some state legislators advocating certain planning positions -- like changing sales tax formulas to address the "zoning for dollars" issue. Where are the planners commenting about this, and other topics?

Carson concludes his essay, "I believe that it is once again time for the planning advocate. I don't care what you advocate as long as you act on your faith. We are people who have strong beliefs. Let us articulate them -- through our Association, through our words, and in the end through our actions."

Amen.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Writing the Referendum Language

The Utah Supreme Court yesterday heard arguments from both sides in the Sandy gravel pit zoning referendum about the language proposed to go on the ballot. Sandy City attorney Wally Miller has put forward his proposed language, but Save Our Communities members don't like what it says.

Supreme Court justices listened and asked questions, taking under advisement a petition to have the Court write the ballot language. Comments from the justices included, "Is it gobbledygook for voters?" "Wouldn't it be necessary to describe the difference (between the two versions of the zone)?" "We're not here to determine the best language. Our job is to determine if it's true and impartial."

SOC wants it clearly stated in the petition that "big box stores" would be allowed under the new zoning language, but Miller disagrees, saying that term gives a negative connotation to the proposal.

Read more about it in today's DesNews and Trib.

The language proposed by SOC:

"In November 2004, the Sandy City Council voted in favor of Ordinance 04-45. If approved by voters, the Ordinance will amend the zoning category applicable to the 'Gravel Pit'... . Under the current zone, there are nine permitted uses at the Grave Pit, including:
* Single-family residential
* Schools
* Open space
* Business and financila services
Ordinance 04-45, if approved, will allow a number of uses at the Gravel Pit that are prohibited under the current zone, including:
* 'Big box' retailers
* Convenience stores
* Higher density residential (20 units/acre)
Shall Ordinance 04-45 be approved?"

While I thought Sandy City's proposed language was rather vague, this version seems to pull out the specific uses that will get people's dander up. Again, I raise the question, can such issues be well-handled by such a process?

Should New Orleans Be Rebuilt?

Had an interesting comment posted on my blog entry on pioneers embracing smart growth, not about that entry, but instead asking for comment about whether New Orleans ought to be rebuilt in the same location, now that so much of it is damaged because of Hurricane Katrina.

The commenter, Hippodamus, asks, "Why rebuild a City at the original location when the framework and decision matrices for that first location decision have now changed with the passage of time... ."

The same could be said of the many smaller communities along the Mississippi gulf coast that were virtually wiped out by the storm. Perhaps even more so, since they are small since they have to be completely rebuilt, do it somewhere else where they would be safer from such storms.

But how do you replace the infrastructure of a city the size of New Orleans, particularly when the city wasn't completely wiped out? There is some sense to trying to do so, but practically it just doesn't seem possible to me.

Hippodamus asks for comments. Feel free.