Walkable West Palm Beach


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Form Based Codes can lead to better outcomes for eastern WPB neighborhoods

How do form-based codes result in a better community outcome? This video from the Form Based Codes Institute (FBCI) is fantastic. It contrasts the likely outcomes of conventional Euclidean-based zoning with the outcomes that result from a strong community vision implemented using Form Based Codes.

 

 

Very relevant to our neighborhoods in West Palm Beach, especially our traditional, primarily residential neighborhoods just north and south of downtown. Redevelopment will happen, whether by consensus or coercion. I believe Form Based Codes are a way to foster more consensus by creating a more predictable framework in which development is to occur.

Form Based Codes provide a framework for development to happen in a way that breathes life into public spaces, reduces car trips and length, and creates healthier community. No discussion of transportation and the problems of congestion is complete without first looking at land use, which determines whether a community will be car dependent, or will have options to walk, bike, and make effective use of transit.

Read more about Form Based Codes here.

What are your thoughts on Form Based Coding? How satisfied are you with the current regime of zoning in the traditional neighborhoods of the city (east of I-95)?

 

This past week, I attended a Small Scale Developer bootcamp in Seaside, Florida and had the chance to visit this new urbanist town in the Florida panhandle for the first time. More on the bootcamp later. For now, I’m writing about Seaside, the town, and its impression on me.

We stayed in the Seaside Academic Village, part of the Seaside Institute. We were awoken to the sounds of kids playing in this lawn next to the Academic Village, and it was buzzing with activity almost all day. These kids are lucky enough to be enrolled in a very selective charter school that is setup in the center of Seaside. Hard to imagine a more idyllic childhood. Here they are taking a class photo our first morning in the town.

 

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I was impressed with the way this school used the neighborhood itself as a learning environment. Since the weather was great, teachers were leading children around the town throughout the day, including visits to the town square, which has another lawn and amphitheater. It’s refreshing to see a place where kids can be kids, and a school that is unmistakably a school, unlike a lot of the ‘big box’ drive-through schools we’re building these days.

 

 

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In case there were any lingering questions about what this building is for, the signage removes any doubt. “Seaside Neighborhood School”.

 

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Seaside Neighborhood School community garden

 

 

This is a Seaside avenue. Look at that skinny width! We measured it imprecisely at about 8′ in width. Notice the gravel to the side of the paved driving lane. This is how parking is done in much of Seaside. Instead of trying to fight nature and grow the perfect chem-lawn, nature is largely left to its own devices and the plants that makes sense in this environment are what thrive – those that don’t require lots of irrigation and upkeep. From my observations, Seaside is basically all native landscaping.

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The road below is a county road. Eat your heart out, Palm Beach County traffic engineering. I still don’t fully understand how Seaside managed to tame a county road to this degree; maybe that’s just because I live in a county that never saw a road widening project it didn’t like. Our guides mentioned something about Walton County being really tiny and not paying attention, not having been poisoned by the sprawl building lobby, blissfully ignorant… I’m not sure which factor played the biggest role, but in any case, the outcome is a county road passes through Seaside that manages not to cut the town completely in two. Skinny lanes, more on-street parking (gravel again!), and people coming and going across the street keep speeds low and very humane.

 

 

There is a definite center and edge to this town. Just beyond the church is wilderness. Nature is never far and everything is within a five minute walk. Suburban living tried to bring town and country together, but failed to deliver on its promise. Building a real town allows for a real communal life, while still providing access to nature within walking distance.

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Nature beyond the couch

Nature beyond the church

 

Ruskin Place:  Beautiful square and commercial district in town

 

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The gang

 

Civic pride abounds in Seaside. You know which buildings are important by where they are sited. Here is the iconic image of the Seaside post office with American flag. This is the heart of the town and it’s obvious.

 

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Across the street on the beachside of 30A. This might be my favorite part of the town, with the open air market, straight vistas to the ocean, and pavilions that mark beach boardwalk access points.

 

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Seaside possesses quite a few architectural styles, and not all of them are traditional. There is some modern architecture as well. As for the public realm, “variation within a narrow range” is how it was described to me. These properties both have white picket fences. But notice how they aren’t exactly the same. The patterns of the fences vary to keep things more interesting.

 

 

Here are more photos of Seaside streets. Seaside contains passageways known as “Krier walks”. The original design for the town had easements across property lines for utility services, etc. Leon Krier, noted urban designer, suggested these become functional passageways between properties.

The streets do not have curbs. They function more like shared spaces and people have no trouble walking on them. This minimalist approach keeps street widths even narrower because a swale and sidewalk aren’t needed, keeping dimensions on the streets cozier than otherwise might have been. It also cuts down on infrastructure costs and reduces stormwater runoff. The stormwater that is generated runs into the amphitheater, which serves double duty as amphitheater and retention pond in times of heavy rainfall.

 

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Also another playground for the school kids

 

 

Property for sale: “Paradise ain’t cheap”

 

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If there’s a knock on Seaside, it’s that it is so expensive that it has ceased to function as a ‘normal’ town. Only 18 permanent residents live in the town, rendering it a resort destination rather than a place where people live permanently. That’s really not the fault of the founders, though. It illustrates the incredible demand for town living that Seaside embodies in form, if not entirely in function. The town did seem to roll up at about 10 pm each night, but I was told January is a very slow time of year here, to my surprise.

Even with the high priced real estate in Seaside, it still retains locally owned businesses and a row of Airstream food trucks. I didn’t count a single chain store in the town, which was refreshing. The roots of Seaside go back to the town founder, Robert Davis, selling boiled shrimp on the side of 30A, trying to gin up interest in the sleepy no man’s land.

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Inside Modica market. The Truman show is a source of town pride and humor

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“Seaside Transit Authority” – bike rental shop

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Our developer group bumped into none other than town founder Robert Davis on our walk. Totally spontaneous.

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You can’t visit Seaside without thinking about how badly we’ve screwed up the design of our towns and neighborhoods in the United States with our sprawl experiment. Instead of building communities where different activities, people, and building types are all part of a greater whole, our sprawl development pattern enforces separation and a sense of “placelessness” in which it doesn’t matter where you are, because everywhere is just the same as what came before and what is to come. This Leon Krier drawing illustrates town vs. sprawl well – a neighborhood or town is the pizza on the right.

 

Something that struck me was the reverence shown to the American flag. Flags are placed in prominent places and on important civic buildings. They are meaningful and their placement reflects this respect. Contrast this with “flag as advertisement” that is so common for used car lots and fast food restaurants in suburban sprawl. I suspect the over the top display of the flag is more about attracting eyes to the business while people are whizzing by at 50 mph in their car, than it is about pride and respect for a treasured American symbol. Meaning is lost when the flag is demoted to the same level as car dealer signage.

Seaside’s success has generated a pattern of similar neighborhoods and towns built along this stretch of 30A. The market demand has driven up prices in Seaside. Because so little town building has taken place over the past 50 or so years, there’s a lack of traditional towns along the Florida coast and prices are high. So much of our coastline takes the form of an endless parade of tacky strip malls and parking lots, fortresses of condominiums walling off the water, and the overly wide roads that make it all possible. What is needed are more towns and cities built on similar traditional principles like Seaside.

There is a better way.


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Message to Palm Beach MPO: Avoiding “Browardization”

The Palm Beach MPO took a field trip last week, riding Palm Beach County transit. Kudos to the board members for experiencing the transit system firsthand, even if the trip itself wasn’t really indicative of the day to day experiences of your average rider. I applaud County Commissioner Steven Abrams, as it is my understanding he rides Tri-Rail to work everyday, giving him a real perspective on transit.

Two ideas worth pursuing

The MPO discussed a technology that might allow buses to get signal prioritization at traffic lights, significantly speeding up headways. This sounds like a first step toward bus rapid transit and could have a big impact on convenience and, by extension, ridership on Palm Tran. From the Post:

Along with more bus shelters, Palm Tran wants to develop “smart card” technology — the same that allows drivers with a card on their windshield to zip through toll booths. Adding WiFi and technology to let bus drivers and county traffic engineers communicate to extend green lights at intersections when a bus is approaching is also being considered, said Palm Tran Executive Director Clinton Forbes.

BRT has proved transformational in a number of cities. BRT, if done right, can provide reliable and frequent county transit at a fraction of the price of rail. The cost of right of way acquisition for new rail is enormous and so better ways to use existing capacity and road networks should be the focus.

Secondly, it was good to hear about city and county success in putting in the humble bus shelter. No one likes to wait for a bus in the sweltering Florida heat (well, most of the year). Improved bus shelters help bus riders significantly and also advertise where bus routes exist.

Opportunities for improvement

Unfortunately, disconnects large and small remain in our county transportation policy. Here’s what my wish list would consist of.

  • A Houston-style reimagining of Palm Tran to create a useful bus system. Increase frequency, decrease headways, and make the time to travel between major points reasonable. A half hour car ride can take 2 hours on Palm Tran. This is unacceptable and no one will choose to ride the bus in this circumstance, even those trips where the two endpoints are in walkable neighborhoods.
  • Get the small stuff right. I tweeted this last week, the day before the MPO trip. It was the result of me trying to figure out how to get from FLL to downtown WPB. The Fort Lauderdale trolley doesn’t have a Google Feed, and the result is an inaccurate estimate of the time it takes to get home. Over an hour of time is added to my estimated trip because the trolley isn’t feeding into Google. This affects not only Google, but those apps that rely on Google data such as Transit App. I realize this is a Broward county example, but the same problems exist in Palm Beach County.

  • County transportation impact fees are required to fund new road capacity. This policy subsidizes the car trip and harms older downtowns like West Palm Beach, where what is needed is not new roads but more multimodal options. Downtown WPB has generated a tremendous amount of new urban infill over the past decade, but the impact fee money is not benefiting downtown; in fact, it is being used to fund road widenings in car dependent areas of the county. This is a really stupid policy that needs to change. As Urban3’s analysis demonstrates, the downtowns and traditional neighborhoods are the breadbasket of the county tax base, because they are far and away the most potent land areas in the county. Undermining their tax productivity is harms the cities and also the county at large, which relies on these downtown areas for a disproportionate part of the tax base. See Urban3 analysis video, below.
  • Last but certainly not least, better land use policy, countywide. Regardless of how much money we sink into our transit systems, if they don’t connect to walkable neighborhoods, the results will be underwhelming. As recent studies have shown, in transit oriented development, the most important part of the equation is not the transit, but the compact, walkable development. Building transit in sprawl surrounded by huge parking lots doesn’t reduce car trips and doesn’t provide the many benefits of walkable urbanism. Only building walkable urbanism does that. Transit is secondary to building neighborhoods with centers and with a reasonable pedestrian walking time from center to edge.

The MPO has done a good job elevating awareness of tools like Transit App as well as supporting complete streets and Tri-Rail Coastal Link efforts. A large chasm exists between best practices in land use and transportation at the county level, however. The inevitable outcome of the sprawling pattern of land use pursued at the county level is more congestion, more road spending, more unsafe stroads, more pollution, less community, more time spent commuting, and less fiscal productivity (see video below). Some of these issues must be addressed not by the MPO, but by Palm Beach County.

Avoiding the the “Browardization” moniker requires a more nuanced understanding of the interdepencies between land use and transportation than the “build, build, build” more roads approach. The preservation of Palm Beach County’s high quality of life depends on it.

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[edit, 9:30 am: This is a good opportunity to mention the Strong Towns #NoNewRoads campaign which is happening this week. Here is the description of the campaign:

This week at Strong Towns we are going to focus our attention on the embarrassing mess that is the American system system of transportation finance. Our premise here at Strong Towns has been, for some time now, #NoNewRoads, a rejection of any proposal to spend more money on this system until we undertake dramatic reform…

Here’s a common sense approach that a consensus of Americans seem willing to support:

  1. Let’s prioritize fixing what we have. We should not build anything new until we’ve figured out how to pay to maintain what we’ve already built.
  2. Anything new that is built must not be the result of paybacks in a system of pork-barrel politics but the result of a rigorous, independent financial analysis.
  3. The users of the system should pay for the system. That includes those hauling freight as well as those hauling kids to soccer practice.
  4. We can’t just keep building highways. Our approach to transportation has to acknowledge the limits of more road building and the benefits of alternative approaches.
  5. We cannot ignore the complex relationships — positive and negative — between the way we approach transportation and the impact that has on our cities, towns and neighborhoods. Allowing these to continue as separate undertakings — transportation and land use in different silos — is self-defeating and economically suicidal.

 

 

Cover photo: Bill DiPaolo, Palm Beach Post

http://www.mypalmbeachpost.com/news/news/local/county-urges-more-riders-to-try-trains-bicycles-an/np9H7/


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Asheville, North Carolina: An urbanist’s pilgrimage

I just returned from a short vacation to Asheville. Asheville is a special place for many reasons, but of most interest to the reader of this blog is its incredibly vibrant downtown – a downtown that sustains independent bookstores, some 20 sushi restaurants, multiple live music venues, and possibly the highest amount of breweries per capita in the United States. It’s been awarded “Beer City USA” 2009-2012 and one of the happiest places to live in the United States, among its many accolades. It punches far above its weight considering it’s a small city of only about 83,000 people.

Asheville wasn’t always this way. In fact, a friend told me that she lived in Asheville for several years around 1999-2000, and the downtown was a fraction of what it is today. It’s hard to believe that in 13 years such a transformation could take place, but that’s the Asheville story. It’s a place that gets the small things right, such as the wayfinding and information signage throughout downtown’s primary streets – notice the details like leaves that spell out the name “Asheville”. Parklets downtown effectively extend the square footage of this cocktail lounge and enliven the street. The Asheville blend consists of music, arts, lots of good beer, and small businesses recirculating money in the local economy. This town takes pride in its unique geography and history, embracing it and creating a valuable place in the process.

Asheville’s success is absolutely astounding. Its downtown comprises a disproportionately high amount of retail sales and property taxes to the City and County government, on a relatively small amount of land in the central business district.  In other words, it’s a heavy hitter in terms of its financial productivity.

Asheville has more in common with West Palm Beach than you might think. Both are small cities with histories tied to Gilded Age railroad tycoons (the Vanderbilts in Asheville and Henry Flagler in West Palm Beach); both are the seat of county government; both were shaped in part by John Nolen, famed urban planner; and both cities have experienced a rebirth within the past twenty years and have embraced the principles of the New Urbanism. Both cities were also changed for the better through the work of the same individual, Joe Minicozzi, who served as principal urban planner in West Palm Beach from 1998-2003 and subsequently moved to Asheville, continuing to do good works. Joe and I had the opportunity to connect while I was in town, and we had a wide-ranging conversation about West Palm Beach, Asheville, and all things in between. Joe is one of my biggest influences in thinking about the built environment, and meeting him in person was incredibly satisfying.

There is much to learn from Asheville. What lessons can we apply in West Palm Beach? Strategically,  protecting and enhancing our downtown should be a top priority. As Asheville’s downtown redevelops, other neighborhoods thrive such as The River Arts District, West Asheville, and Biltmore Village. Tactically,  we should embrace our unique strengths and build on them. Parklets are a concept that have been kicked around at the DDA office and would work very well in West Palm Beach. Informational signage and wayfinding would be a low-cost solution to help with the perception of parking shortages downtown. Here’s a video with a cool idea for sidewalk retail incubator space, featuring Joe and Chuck Marohn from Strong Towns on the streets of Asheville.

I look forward to another visit to this amazing little city filled with music, arts, good beer, and good people. Make a point to see Asheville for yourself.

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In an attempt to give back a little bit, I’ll mention one small Asheville critique: Lighting downtown.  It didn’t feel unsafe, but it was surprising how dim the streets were in certain blocks. Maybe it’s just not what we’re used to here.  This stretch was particularly dim at night. No doubt the brutalist architecture doesn’t help the appeal on this block, but we noticed it in other parts of the city.

Asheville wayfinding signs and information

Asheville wayfinding signs and information

Parklet. The establishment is called "The Vault".

Parklet. The establishment is called “The Vault”.

If not for this parklet, the parking garage in background would have really hurt the appeal of this block

If not for this parklet, the parking garage in background would have really hurt the appeal of this block

Permeable parking lots and community gardens abound

Permeable parking lots and community gardens abound

The grounds at the Biltmore estate. Incredible.

The grounds at the Biltmore estate. Incredible.