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Thread: Zoning: the city's foe.

  1. #1
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Zoning: the city's foe.

    Posted on the Boston Forum:

    The New Urban Village

    By David Dixon | May 6, 2005

    AMERICA'S urban neighborhoods are poised for an unprecedented renaissance. Housing demand has shifted to a pattern that favors urban neighborhoods to an extent not witnessed in 60 years. Following decades during which baby boomer families dominated the US housing market and headed for the suburbs, America has become, in the words of the Urban Land Institute, ''a nation of niches." Many of these niche markets favor urban neighborhoods.

    A recent study for a planned new urban neighborhood in Baltimore illustrates the power and potential of this historic market shift: Demand is far stronger than it has been in six decades; the market includes people who are young and old, single and married, gay and straight, white and black, with and without children; and these people seek everything from large single-family houses to midrise lofts and apartments. Most important, these diverse households want to share the same neighborhood -- a 21st-century urban village.

    Baltimore, Boston, and almost every other major American city have the opportunity to tap these emerging markets to create a new generation of urban living with lively main streets, higher densities that mix many different types of housing, greater economic and social diversity, new parks, reinvigorated schools, and other qualities that will make cities like Boston more livable.

    If we build it, they will come. But the answer is not to keep rebuilding the neighborhoods of the past. Along with most of urban America, Boston's traditional neighborhoods were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for largely homogeneous households that shared not only the same economic standing, but similar ages, household sizes, and even ethnic backgrounds. That era is over; but is Boston ready to build the kinds of higher-density, amenity-rich housing necessary to create a diverse new urban model?

    In a city of tightly knit, often historic neighborhoods, where can we fit this new development? The answer sits right in front of us in places like Boylston Street in the Fenway, where midrise housing with street-level retail is replacing fast food restaurants. We may also benefit from looking at changing neighborhoods in cities like Seattle, Vancouver, and Chicago. While more than 50 percent of Seattle's housing still consists of single-family homes, more than 90 percent of building permits in recent years have been for five- to 10-story midrise lofts and apartment buildings with shops, restaurants, and art galleries on the first floor that have replaced parking lots, strip shopping centers, and other suburban forms that had crept into urban neighborhoods. Early opposition dissipated as residents saw that the new housing didn't diminish the character of traditional blocks but brought new vitality to commercial districts, schools, and parks.

    Boston is riddled with the same kinds of underused suburban-style sites left over from the city's period of economic decline. These sites constitute a frontier upon which to build a 21st-century city that complements historic Boston. A walk along Talbot Avenue in Dorchester tells wonderful stories about the Boston of the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- of ambitious immigrants who came to Boston, found jobs, educated children, and contributed to building the proud city that we love today.

    Yet a few blocks away, the Fields Corner shopping center tells a very different story: a vast expanse of surface parking surrounding single-story retail. One block further away is a vacant field. Miles of Dorchester Avenue are lined with single story strip retail fronted by asphalt parking lots. In Jamaica Plain, elegant Victorian houses sit within view of a large MBTA site that will soon become vacant. The historic rowhouses of the South End and Back Bay contrast with the empty gash created by the Massachusetts Turnpike air rights. All of these sites are served by public transit. This same story can be told in virtually every urban neighborhood in this region.


    On the same forum, a response from a developer:

    ZONING. Why does nobody mention this? Dixon advocates for a dense urban village, but under current zoning such a village is impossible to build. I have thoroughly researched and tried to acquire the Fields Corner shopping center that Dixon refers to. It has an FAR of less than 1. Density requires smaller lot zoning and higher Floor Area Ratio codes. This problem exists throughout the Boston area. Earlier this week I was looking for smaller development parcels in East Cambridge. It's a wonderful neighborhood on the threshold of a renaissance.

    But under the current zoning code one cannot build the type of small lot, rowhouses that predominate in the area. In that neighborhood the requirements are especially ridiculous- FAR of less than one and the lot size must be greater than 5,000 square feet- or 50 by 100 feet. A typical townhouse is between fifteen and twenty feet wide and sixty feet deep. In essence, the zoning code is about 1/3 as dense as it ought to be.

    The solution is pretty simple. We will get more housing, more vital neighborhoods and lower housing costs if we reform the zoning code to allow for density. And we need to steamroll over the bloody neighborhood groups to get it done. PROCESS is killing development. Look at the Boston State Hospital site- twenty years of process and planning and the moronic neighborhood groups and task forces devise a plan fit for any sunbelt subdivision. A healthy dose of authoritarianism would go a long way these days.


    I don’t know why on this forum there’s such hot denial of this plain fact every time I allude to it. Do planners live in la-la land, oblivious to the harm that emanates from most zoning codes?

    I encounter every day in my work the reality that zoning laws
    require, mandate, insist upon, the maintenance of suburban patterns of development, whether they’re appropriate to the context or not, whether they promote growth or stagnation. Particularly prone to the harmful ministrations of suburban zoning are damaged, formerly urban areas on the fringe of inner cities (like Fields Corner): the very places for which we hear endless calls for New Urbanist redevelopment (“...instead of all that Greenfield stuff; how’s that really better than more Suburbia?” Sound familiar?). Such calls fall hollow on the ear without accompanying demands for zoning reform.

    Sorry folks, the reason it isn’t being done is quite simply that it’s
    illegal under the existing zoning.

    But it's the developers... Nonsense! It’s disingenuous posturing to blame developers. Developers will build under any set of rules they’re given. If you give them good rules, they’ll build better projects; if you continue to give them the same ****ty rules, you can’t blame them for building crap.

    Fortunately, the worm has turned, and it did so just this year; I’m involved in no fewer than five (count ‘em) largish urban design projects in each of which the authorities have thrown in the towel at the highest level on trying to keep conventional zoning as the determinant of what's built. Yesterday I was told point blank by a city’s top planning official: “Never mind what the zoning is; show us something that we like and we’ll approve it.” Music to my ears.

    That’s how it should have been all along. What a liberation that the fresh wind of change is blowing! There’s hope for cities again. The wonder is that any one could ever have believed in the voodoo of zoning: making general and specific rules for places unseen, regardless of their specific circumstances. And what abysmal rules!

    The four other projects I’m also doing without any regard for the existing zoning that has kept these areas down –in four different states-- lo these many years. I expect them all to be approved.

    Planning Departments are finally beginning to wake up and do what they should have done all along: use their judgment.

    I’d a thousand times rather be subject to a planner’s personal convictions than to the mindless formulas enshrined in the zoning that he or she might have last year felt duty-bound to uphold.

    There’s a new order in the land. Halleluiah. May it enjoy long life or better still, immortality.
    Last edited by ablarc; 06 May 2005 at 5:35 PM.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian PlanBoston's avatar
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    [QUOTE=ablarc]Posted on the Boston Forum:

    ablarc - where is this forum?

    I couldn't agree more with this article. Developers will build whatever they're allowed to do - path of least resistance. Only a limited number of developers will propose anything "outside the box" of conventional zoning. It's the planning professionals that have to change the mold, and developers will follow.

    Unfortunately neighborhood groups will always scream. Not many people understand the positives of a new urban neighborhood, and people tend to fight new ideas they don't understand.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by PlanBoston
    ablarc - where is this forum?
    http://architecturalboston.com/Forum...opic.php?t=155

  4. #4
    Cyburbian hilldweller's avatar
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    Sometimes zoning can be really restrictive and subvert the aims of infill development and revitalization, I'll agree with that. Though often the issue is overcomplication, which leads people to think codes are more restrictive than they really are. The zoning code will tell you one thing but then there's are the overlay districts and performance clauses that contradict the basic use and dimensional regulations. Figuring out what is allowed becomes a guessing game, even for the PB sometimes.

    Rather than change the zoning, municipalities would rather add new layers of rules and regulations to address short term needs and political objectives. But eventually it becomes one jumbled mess for the lawyers to sort out. The solution should be a committed effort on the part of municipalities to rewrite their original ordinances (and get rid of all the overlay crap), but most are too lazy or don't see the urgency IMO.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    This post stirred up some comments from developers on the Boston forum. We seem to have no developers at Cyburbia (are they perhaps disgusted by what they read?) It might be useful for planners to see how zoning impedes the regeneration of our cities. I could add examples from my own experience, and perhaps in time I will. Meantime:

    I agree with almost everything that you said Ablarc. Here is the problem: I'm a project manager for a development company and I am paid to find viable development opportunities. I pursued the Fields Corner opportunity, but I could not reccommend to my boss that we pursue a development parcel that MIGHT be approved by the city, if planners HAPPEN to agree that such a project is worthwhile.

    Furthermore, this notion presupposes that city officials have the unassailable right to permit a project. They do not have such a right.

    More and more they do-- in the places where I operate, anyway.

    Zoning code is part of legal statute. Variances, when contested in court, are almost impossible to defend. And even if you can defend the variances you might spend two years in court fighting some NIMBY neighbor. So despite the fact that a city may grant a permit, it may still be defeated in the court system. A developer will have risked millions of dollars for naught. I can either put my employer's money in grave danger or I can find an opportunity that is guaranteed.

    This is the principal reason you almot never find developers applying to do better projects; they disqualify themselves early in the process and knuckle under to the existing regulations.

    This in turn allows planners to incorrectly claim that developers would naturally do as much harm (or more) without regulation. That may have once been true, but it sure isn’t in these more enlightened times. Now it’s the zoning that promotes wrongdoing.


    Despite the fact that a project in Fields Corner, East Cambridge, East Boston, et al. may make more sense from an urban planning perspective, such opportunities are rife with permitting risk and require zealous perserverance.

    Lastly, I totally agree that 'the worm has turned'- people are gradually realizing what needs to change. But until the zoning code is RADICALLY reformed, until the permitting process is RADICALLY streamlined, we will see an inadequate
    supply of housing production.

    Planners, understand the problem but they have no power.

    Or so they say.

    The mayor will only act when it is politically safe to do so- ie when there is a consensus among his constituency that the code must be radically changed. Initiating zoning reform BEFORE the electorate is ready for such change might require real political leadership- a risky endeavor indeed.

    The city council is even more beholden to community groups. Political activists and anti-development NIMBYs are often one and the same. Since these rah-rah protestors make a lot of noise, the local pols prefer to stay far afield from such controversy.

    The real villains in this situation are the community and the media. The media perpetuates the David and Goliath storyline. Articles about bad developers and resolute pensioners make for good copy.

    This is actually truer in Boston than elsewhere.

    The community buys into the basic premise of this story, and is naturally opposed to any real change by its very nature. We seem to be approaching the tipping point, however. There seems to be a growing consensus that our housing costs are out of control and something substantive must be done to improve the situation. It will likely be a decade or more before change occurs, but I am cautiously optimistic that things may improve.

    Another developer identifies a big urban design distortion that grows directly fromplanning “wisdom” and grotesquely distorts the city’s delicate scale, so highly valued by visitors and residents alike:

    …current zoning clearly forces developers to lower heights and increased widths of buildings. The FAR is the biggest problem that I see. The only way to circumvent zoning is to become a PDA Project that falls under the BRA. My objection with these is not the bypass of zoning, but the requirement that a PDA Project needs to be a minimum of an acre. This forces any significant development to take up more land and other buildings in order to get built.

    Why is an acre used in a formula for urban redevelopment anyway?

  6. #6
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ablarc
    The only way to circumvent zoning is to become a PDA Project that falls under the BRA. My objection with these is not the bypass of zoning, but the [b]requirement that a PDA Project needs to be a minimum of an acre. This forces any significant development to take up more land and other buildings in order to get built.
    Or just count the surrounding sidewalks and streets as part of the acre, as the BRA authorized for the Kensington Place development in Chinatown (much to the chagrin of area residents).

    Just as a reference point, this is the strip mall in Fields Corner that is mentioned in the article:


  7. #7
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by jmello
    Or just count the surrounding sidewalks and streets as part of the acre, as the BRA authorized for the Kensington Place development in Chinatown (much to the chagrin of area residents).
    That can work here and there as a subterfuge if your property approaches an acre (which an urban development lot should rarely do). But the fact remains that the policy to be subverted is comically flawed, and should be sunk without a trace. In fact to promote healthy urban scale and small-increment density, the exact opposite policy should be implemented: FAR bonuses for small-lot development.

    Quote Originally posted by jmello
    Just as a reference point, this is the strip mall in Fields Corner that is mentioned in the article...
    Thanks, jmello; it looks like holy hell. If cities were properly zoned, this kind of abomination would be impossible. Instead, I'm quite certain this development is not just permitted but actually mandated by the zoning. It's a perfect illustration of the depth of the problem.

    I'm not against zoning in general, but I am against stupid zoning; and that's the kind of zoning that prevails most places in our cities today; and almost universally in the kind of fringe districts that Fields Corner's an example of. The zoning in those places was installed when they had aspirations to suburb-hood; now that it's clear they need to go urban, they can't because of the zoning. (Of course it's true that many of their residents still dream nimbifically of Suburbia.)

    There are plenty of developers who would do better by Dorchester if the benighted, god-forsaken zoning allowed it; two of them are quoted above in this thread.

    * * *

    Btw, jmello, I enjoyed your thread on Fields Corner.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    This seems very strange - I don't quite see what all the hullaballoo is about. If one wants to build dense, urban neighbourhoods, then one must zone for it. Even so, planners do not directly control zoning - it is most often under control of city council. Are you advocating a complete departure from zoning, or an updated approach to it? As it is I don't understand a jurisdiction that desires density and mixed-use but then does not amend zoning codes to reflect that.

  9. #9
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    If one wants to build dense, urban neighbourhoods, then one must zone for it.
    That's right.

    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    Even so, planners do not directly control zoning - it is most often under control of city council.
    Depends where.

    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    Are you advocating a complete departure from zoning, or an updated approach to it?
    Either would be better than what we have. Give me Number One if it's accompanied by savvy urban designers in the city agency, and then give me Number Two after everyone knows what they're doing.

    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    As it is I don't understand a jurisdiction that desires density and mixed-use but then does not amend zoning codes to reflect that.
    Neither do I. Here's a theory: fear of NIMBYs, lack of political courage. Weak leadership.

    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    This seems very strange - I don't quite see what all the hullaballoo is about.
    The hullaballoo is about this: Some savvy developers want to do right by decrepit and economically stagnant places in the city. They want to do this by building densely, which is the right thing to do in these places, as they're well served by rail transit, they're run down, and there's a huge, pent-up need for housing reflected in astronomical rents. The zoning prevents them from doing this, and assures continuing stagnation. Nobody wins, everybody loses.

    .
    Last edited by ablarc; 09 May 2005 at 12:25 AM.

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    Cyburbian abrowne's avatar
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    What I meant by calling it a strange situation is that its a problem that should not exist. It's nonsensical to say one thing and do another (the talk being mixed use and so forth, the reality being antiquated zoning codes).

    I don't advocate a complete departure from zoning, but I do agree wholeheartedly that our zoning codes must match our ambitions. Similar problems can be found with out of date building codes not featuring modern materials and techniques (in particular, new timber products or energy efficient design elements).

  11. #11
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    What I meant by calling it a strange situation is that its a problem that should not exist. It's nonsensical to say one thing and do another (the talk being mixed use and so forth, the reality being antiquated zoning codes).

    I don't advocate a complete departure from zoning, but I do agree wholeheartedly that our zoning codes must match our ambitions.
    What puzzles me is that a place like Cyburbia, populated by folks who are aware (or should be) isn't more of a hotbed for reform. Sometimes in fact it seems to harbor apologists for the status quo. I hear predictions of dire consequences if codes are loosened or simplified, and I hear disingenuous cries of professional powerlessness faced with politicians, the demands of the pulic, greedy and powerful developers, and of course the Market. If Henry Ford had done a market survey he would have found folks well-satisfied with horses. And dire consequences: we have those now.

    Quote Originally posted by abrowne
    Similar problems can be found with out of date building codes not featuring modern materials and techniques (in particular, new timber products or energy efficient design elements).
    True enough, abrowne; that pinpoints the fact that when you make a large enough number of too-specific statements in any code, you eventually reach the point where everything is illegal except what is specifically permitted. That's the pass we've come to; it's time to clean house.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    How did I miss this the first go-around? Ablarc, you and I share a similar perspective on this topic. It comes down to the culture of planning. Are we people who regulate and enforce the codes, or are we people who who work with developers and the community to create a better environment, urban or otherwise?

    I was fortunate to work in a couple small towns which took an enlightened approach. If the project was good but was not allowed by the code, then it was time to change the code. No, do not grant a variance, but make it possible outright, and don't take six months to do it. I was also unfortunate enough to work in a "planning mecca" that did not take that approach. Instead, there was a conceit that the planners knew what was best and that any developer who walked through the door was somebody who needed to be regulated to an extreme. I was told, the day before I left, that waiting two years to amend the sign ordinance was just fine, in their opinion. At least that inspired me o present a session at APA next year on "101 Great Ideas You Won't Allow."
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ablarc
    What puzzles me is that a place like Cyburbia, populated by folks who are aware (or should be) isn't more of a hotbed for reform. Sometimes in fact it seems to harbor apologists for the status quo.
    I know people who would argue that such attitudes grow out of the public school system, which teaches kids to do as their told, punch a clock, etc. I am not one of them...yet. Regardless of where the attitude originates, what is needed is a cure for it, an antidote. The culture of Cyburbia has the potential to become such an antidote. But your tendency to harshly criticize people and toss out zingers in conversation does not really promote your cause here. It is a "convert or die" approach which has a known track record for alienating people. Your sarcasm and biting criticism of failed policies and zoning codes is well received -- so well received that I and others have encouraged you to turn your beautiful photo essays into a book. However, your biting criticism of people here is not well received and sets back your cause.

    When my oldest child was 8 months old, I heard a blurb on the radio that "80% of what most kids hear is NO or some version thereof ("stop that", "don't do that", "quit it")". Right then and there, I swore to myself that at least 50% of what my kids heard would be what they COULD do rather than what they could NOT do. Telling people everything that is wrong or that they should stop is one of the most inefficient methods of getting to a better answer. If a child is bouncing a ball on a wood floor in the living room and mom says "Stop that", it doesn't tell the child how to fix the problem. Maybe the child starts bouncing it on the wall. Or maybe the child starts bouncing it on the tile floor in the foyer. Etc. And keeps getting told "Stop that" with increasing irritation. It is much more effective to tell the child something like "Mom has a headache, please find something less noisy to do" or "I am concerned that you will break the glass decorative items in this room -- please go someplace else with your ball" or "that particular ball is not safe to play with in the house, go outside or find a different ball". I have always been told that my kids are remarkably well behaved. And I do not have to punish them, threaten them, etc. to "make them behave". They were taught how to get their needs met without getting into trouble so it would simply be illogical and a hassle to make trouble for themselves.

    Honestly, because I support your cause, I wish you would a) assume that most people are INNOCENT and would happily do something better IF they knew HOW and b) set out to provide them with examples of what is wrong and WHY and what works and WHY and a few crumbs about How To Get There From Here. If you set such a goal and poured all your frustration and angst and such into achieving it, you could be a real mover and shaker instead of just a thorn in people's side. Your photo essays enrich this forum a great deal. And I am glad you are not a planner. Your "outsider" status puts you in the position to approach this from this particular angle. With the right tool (like instructions on how to get there from here) and the right leverage (like maybe a book to spread the word) you could significantly influence planning in the future.

    If I can find it, I would like to add a link to a thread where someone came here for help with asking for a variance and later came back to report how successfully it had gone. EDIT: Found it: Linky

  14. #14
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Michele, thanks for your thoughtful response.

    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    Regardless of where the attitude originates, what is needed is a cure for it, an antidote. The culture of Cyburbia has the potential to become such an antidote.
    For sure.

    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    But your tendency to harshly criticize people and toss out zingers in conversation does not really promote your cause here. It is a "convert or die" approach which has a known track record for alienating people.
    Thanks, Michele, I’ll watch out for that; I wasn’t really aware I criticized people personally. Ideas are another matter; I just got through disagreeing with Lee Nellis in another thread (Making Place and Planning Chaos), I hope with at least a measure of goodwill.

    Nobody really likes the sensation of having their thoughts disputed, but debate is the foundation of discourse, which in turn leads to understanding and wisdom. If we survive the fray we can emerge strengthened and enlightened; there’s no point in going through life with anything but the best ideas available. That, I’m sure, is what motivated your post.

    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    Your sarcasm and biting criticism of failed policies and zoning codes is well received
    Glad to hear that.

    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    -- so well received that I and others have encouraged you to turn your beautiful photo essays into a book. However, your biting criticism of people here is not well received and sets back your cause.
    If I don’t reform, I think I can rely on your future reproof; I hope none’ll be necessary.

    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    I have always been told that my kids are remarkably well behaved.
    Time for me to live up to your kids.

    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    Honestly, because I support your cause, I wish you would a) assume that most people are INNOCENT and would happily do something better IF they knew HOW and b) set out to provide them with examples of what is wrong and WHY and what works and WHY and a few crumbs about How To Get There From Here.
    That I think I do, maybe more than you give me credit for. Many of my posts are prescriptive and intended to share what I’ve found out that doesn’t appear to be generally perceived. Both “Making Place or Planning Chaos” and “A Heretofore Little-Known Part of Manhattan” are intended to belong in that category, as was “England’s Green and Pleasant Land” and the present thread. I hope there’s plenty in those posts to suggest antidotes or useful alternatives to prevailing wisdom that’s gone astray.

    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    I am glad you are not a planner. Your "outsider" status puts you in the position to approach this from this particular angle.
    No tunnel vision. Though in a sense I am a planner; I plan things and they get built. (Doesn’t qualify me officially.)

    Quote Originally posted by Michele Zone
    With the right tool (like instructions on how to get there from here) and the right leverage (like maybe a book to spread the word) you could significantly influence planning in the future.
    Those are kind words. Honestly, I do think I’ve at least tried to provide the tool—maybe too much for some.

    Thanks.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Michele Zone's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ablarc
    Time for me to live up to your kids.
    That wasn't the point of my parable. The main point was: Telling people everything that is wrong or that they should stop is one of the most inefficient methods of getting to a better answer. I have very difficult children and they behave well because they were taught how to do so very effectively. If you wish for people to implement the visions in your mind's eye, you must provide enough detailed guidance for them to make the journey, not merely see the picture of what the final destination should look like. A map will get far more people there than simply giving them a picture of the place and letting people wander around randomly looking for it. In that vein, here is a little bit about how I learned to communicate (in hopes that it will clarify a few things):

    When I returned from Germany with a 4 ½ year old and an almost 2 year old, I went to my mom’s house. It was November and she sat down on the living room floor with my young sons to see if it was too cold for them. She turned to me and said “Adults sit on the couch and think the room is warm enough and when the kids cry they think the kids are just being difficult. You’ve got to sit down on the floor with the kids to know if they are cold or not.” My mom’s wise words became a guidepost in a very long struggle to reach and teach a child who “should” have been institutionalized: Real understanding of another person comes from trying to grasp their point of view and subjective experience rather than imposing your third person view on an interpretation of their actions. Real communication to another person comes from trying to let them stand in your shoes for a minute and see what you see from the angle you see it.

    My oldest child would likely have qualified for a diagnosis of Autism when he was little. Among other things, he talked late and didn't really start using sentences until a full year after the normal age. I put him in preschool at age 3 to force him to speak more, knowing what an attention monger he could be and that he had no motivation to learn to speak to me since I understood his gestures, miming, made-up words, and so forth. Yet, it turns out his IQ is extremely high and one of the reasons he talked late was because he was frustrated at his inability to convey the complex ideas stuck in his head. He also happens to think in pictures, so words that he hears have to be "translated" into pictures to have any meaning for him and ideas in his head have to be translated to words to be conveyed to others. As with any form of translation, some things get "lost in translation". Raising and homeschooling him has been a fascinating adventure in learning about communicating effectively -- learning a tad about the many things that can go wrong in the convoluted process of trying to bridge the distance between two minds which work fundamentally differently from each other.

    Having taken a journey into understanding the alien mind of my adored child, I sometimes dole out advice in homeschooling forums to help guide other parents who are trying to deal with kids who are far more difficult than average. Other people often make the same types of suggestions I make but do not explain why and how well enough for the person to effectively implement such suggestions. It requires a lot more details, explanations of the whys and wherefores, etc. than most people give. The fact that I explain it so well is why I have a homeschooling website -- not something I planned to do but which exists "by popular demand". The demand is there because my explanations provide effective tools, not merely general suggestions that you can't implement without knowing a great deal of what I know about how the minds of twice exceptional kids work.

    I asked a homeschooling friend once why my posts were so “shocking” to others and so inspiring to some. She said it was because I did not merely share details of my life but I let people step into my shoes and “be” me for a moment and it was shocking like cold water in your face, waking you up. People often feel that I reveal myself extremely intimately in public forums and I often feel they overestimate how much I have revealed of myself. But I learned to communicate by letting people “step into my shoes” because it was a means to communicate with my oldest child, whose mind and life is so different from the norm and so different from mine. I routinely use image-rich language because he thinks in pictures and that approach makes it much easier and more effective to communicate with him -- and it works well with others, much as your photo essays do. I take people on a small journey, visiting a slice of my past, because it is the quickest and most effective means to bring them to a place from which they can see my point of view. It seems to me that others feel that I have revealed myself starkly, not because I tell more about myself than average but because I convey it more effectively than most – sort of like “mainlining a drug”, I suppose.

    Quote Originally posted by ablarc
    That I think I do, maybe more than you give me credit for. Many of my posts are prescriptive and intended to share what I’ve found out that doesn’t appear to be generally perceived. Both “Making Place or Planning Chaos” and “A Heretofore Little-Known Part of Manhattan” are intended to belong in that category, as was “England’s Green and Pleasant Land” and the present thread. I hope there’s plenty in those posts to suggest antidotes or useful alternatives to prevailing wisdom that’s gone astray.


    Those are kind words. Honestly, I do think I’ve at least tried to provide the tool—maybe too much for some.
    Per my comments above:
    While you paint lovely visions of what could be and your photo essays have more depth than normal posts, I do not think you have provided a sufficient map that others can follow in order to arrive at this place in your mind and then turn it into an actual place somewhere on planet earth. If you really want your visions to become a part of reality, you must find the methods which can get people there from here and describe them effectively enough that planners can follow it and apply it to their situations. They need specific instructions (or rubrics and paradigms) and tools that are readily available and implementable by actual planners facing painful real world conditions. The link I gave you -- to a thread in Cyburbia -- provides an example where I did that for someone: I analyzed what the person was trying to do and the mostly negative feedback other planners were giving them and described the exact process they needed to follow to make their vision a reality while taking into account the honest and reasonable concerns of other planners with experience in the trenches. The person apparently took my advice and got the variance passed. And that is what you need to figure out how to do if you want planners to jump onto your bandwagon and join the chorus: detailed how-to manuals, not merely lovely visions of what could be.

    Communicating the critical things upon which success hangs is not easy and often requires a huge amount of background knowledge to convey effectively – which I often give in my posts and then I am teased for being so long-winded but when I don’t give it, people often misunderstand me completely (and then often get mad at me). If you can figure out what is in your head that others are just not seeing and find the means to convey it, you can impact planning. If you can figure out the path that leads from where we are now to this lovely alternate reality in your mind’s eye and tell people how to take that path, you can alter the future. If you cannot, you will be no different than all the other dreamers and frustrated suburbanites and such who wish life were different, better somehow, but only have some vague inkling of what would make it so. But, again, this first assumes that you figure out what it is that others do not know which you do know – not an easy task. Most of us breeze through life assuming a commonality of knowledge and experience that simply doesn’t exist between ourselves and the vast majority of humans on planet earth. That assumption fuels endless misunderstandings, arguments, wars, etc. and stalls many dreams which never get off the drawing board.

    Quote Originally posted by ablarc
    Thanks.
    My pleasure. And I hope my additional comments will also be taken kindly and not as "bludgeoning".

  16. #16
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal
    How did I miss this the first go-around? Ablarc, you and I share a similar perspective on this topic. It comes down to the culture of planning. Are we people who regulate and enforce the codes, or are we people who who work with developers and the community to create a better environment, urban or otherwise?

    I was fortunate to work in a couple small towns which took an enlightened approach. If the project was good but was not allowed by the code, then it was time to change the code. No, do not grant a variance, but make it possible outright, and don't take six months to do it. I was also unfortunate enough to work in a "planning mecca" that did not take that approach. Instead, there was a conceit that the planners knew what was best and that any developer who walked through the door was somebody who needed to be regulated to an extreme. I was told, the day before I left, that waiting two years to amend the sign ordinance was just fine, in their opinion. At least that inspired me o present a session at APA next year on "101 Great Ideas You Won't Allow."
    Cardinal, your observation's impressive, not least because it agrees with mine.

    If you represent the new generation of planners, the future looks good to me.

  17. #17
    Cyburbian plankton's avatar
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    a plug for the 'burbia

    Many great sentiments expressed in this thread.

    I especially agree with Cardinal's comment that instead of granting variances, change the code for desired developments. ablarc & MZ, your posts are right on the mark too. (btw MZ, I avoid saying 'no' to my children as well; I will say something like, "sure, we can play with that toy again tomorrow.....")

    Zoning amendments are particularly frustrating here in Oregon due to the successful "over-regulated, pro-property rights" citizen initiatives that have passed recently that require mass mailings for any zoning change that "may affect the allowable uses on your property". The state law even requires you to print "The City of _____ is considering an amendment to its zoning code that may devalue your property" on the face of the notice. It's great.

    I've been through the code amendment process several times in small, somewhat progressive (or wanting to be progressive) cities, and just dealing with the responses to these frightful mass mailings seems to take 40+ hours per week alone. I know (some) planners (councils) in Oregon avoid making these (desperately needed) changes to their codes due to "limited staff resources" and their (apparent) inability to keep up with the paperwork. I think that's total bull$hit and the work still must get done (somehow). It just pisses me off that the "pro-property rights" folks have hog-tied municipalities into oftentimes sticking with current (outmoded/lousy) zoning codes instead of making changes that many recognize would benefit their communities greatly. Add in Measure 37, and it's just a barrel of monkeys planning in Oregon these days.

    I'm truly thankful that when the workload gets too ridiculous, I can bail out to cyburbia for a or two.........

  18. #18
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by plankton
    Zoning amendments are particularly frustrating here in Oregon due to the successful "over-regulated, pro-property rights" citizen initiatives that have passed recently that require mass mailings for any zoning change that "may affect the allowable uses on your property". The state law even requires you to print "The City of _____ is considering an amendment to its zoning code that may devalue your property" on the face of the notice. It's great.

    I've been through the code amendment process several times in small, somewhat progressive (or wanting to be progressive) cities, and just dealing with the responses to these frightful mass mailings seems to take 40+ hours per week alone. I know (some) planners (councils) in Oregon avoid making these (desperately needed) changes to their codes due to "limited staff resources" and their (apparent) inability to keep up with the paperwork. I think that's total bull$hit and the work still must get done (somehow). It just pisses me off that the "pro-property rights" folks have hog-tied municipalities into oftentimes sticking with current (outmoded/lousy) zoning codes instead of making changes that many recognize would benefit their communities greatly. Add in Measure 37, and it's just a barrel of monkeys planning in Oregon these days.
    Funny how we’ve gotten the mindset in this country that the only solution to excessive government regulation is…more regulations.

    The impulse is libertarian, but the solutions are oppressive.

    Every Republican administration promises to shrink the government, and in every administration the government just grows. More regulations, more bureaucrats to enforce them…

  19. #19
    Quote Originally posted by Cardinal
    Are we people who regulate and enforce the codes, or are we people who who work with developers and the community to create a better environment, urban or otherwise?
    I would present to you that there are many of us out here that try to be both. We succeed a surprising amount of the time, but the effort is grueling and can quickly wear you down to the point of asking "Why bother?".

    The difficulty is compounded by the dynamic of our democratic system and the personalities it brings (or takes) with it. Just my $0.02.

    Aside to ablarc: Strongly agreed. Indeed the growth of the Federal government by Republican administrations -- especially Ronny Ray Gun-- is among the biggest betrayals of those of us who consider ourselves mainline or Rockefeller Republicans.
    On pitching to Stan Musial:
    "Once he timed your fastball, your infielders were in jeopardy."
    Warren Spahn

  20. #20
    [


    the Fields Corner shopping center tells a very different story: a vast expanse of surface parking surrounding single-story retail.


    At a recent BRA sponsored charette on Dorchester Avenue, everyone in the room had a complaint about the mall. Interestingly the word on the street is the owner, though approached by many interested parties has no intention of selling or changing. During the charette there was considerable discussion of what the new Dot Ave would look like, and lots of folks mentioned multi-story units with first floor retail and housing above, and many of us are members of those nasty neighborhood groups.

    Are you aware of the development at the Ashmont station (just down the street)designed by Trinity? I think neighborhood groups were instrumental in gaining support for the project (i believe it includes 500 units of new housing). As far as nimbyism, let's face it, this is Dorchester--what don't we have in our backyard? Because we want a voice in the future development of our neighborhoods and business districts does not make us intractable. But frustrated--sure. We spend hours discussing initiatives, gaining consensus through compromise, getting buy-in, and then everything gets changed for the politically connected, that small group of players that routinely benefit from 'constituent services'.

    And I must ask, would you have been interested in a Dorchester project a decade ago? The folks that volunteer their time for the community to improve issues like crime and education and transportation are now seeing developers like yourself tripping over themselves to get in now, but while you were absent urban blight happened, and getting rid of us ain't likely to fix it.

    My guess is if you had a good proposal, and were able to engage in an active dialogue with the community about your project, people would bend over backwards to see you succeed.

  21. #21
    Cyburbian PlanBoston's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by urban quandry
    [


    the Fields Corner shopping center tells a very different story: a vast expanse of surface parking surrounding single-story retail.


    At a recent BRA sponsored charette on Dorchester Avenue, everyone in the room had a complaint about the mall. Interestingly the word on the street is the owner, though approached by many interested parties has no intention of selling or changing. During the charette there was considerable discussion of what the new Dot Ave would look like, and lots of folks mentioned multi-story units with first floor retail and housing above, and many of us are members of those nasty neighborhood groups.
    In light of the recent Supreme Court decision, I would argue that this is an ideal candidate for redevelopment through eminent domain. A mixed use multi story development would generate substantially more tax revenue than the existing strip mall. I envision a large, pedestrian friendly project with first floor retail, residential and office uses above, and underground parking. This is what the neighborhood wants, as well.

    Massachusetts already has a mechanism for economic development through eminent domain (M.G.L. Chapter 40Q); and I believe its applicability is greatly expanded through the Court’s decision.

    Essentially, the court has said that it doesn’t matter if the owner doesn’t want to sell, provided the proposed project will bring “economic development”. I don’t agree with this decision, but since it’s out there, why not use it to eliminate blight and improve inner-city neighborhoods.

  22. #22
    I envision a large, pedestrian friendly project with first floor retail, residential and office uses above, and underground parking. This is what the neighborhood wants, as well.


    I think that is exactly the type of plan the neighborhood and business district would support. Putting some new commercial space on the street might force some of those absentee owners to stop relying on their properties to provide losses at tax time, and instead begin to attract the kinds of goods and services the community wants/needs. I don't like the Supreme Court decision, but find your proposal quite practical...

  23. #23
    Cyburbian LorenzoRoyal's avatar
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    Agreed. to keep a focus on the pedestrian, make it a point for the sidewalks to be wide--around 10 feet. I say that because I don't know how fast traffic moves. However, a wide sidewalk--then a slowing down of traffic--will make for a more walkable mixed use area.

  24. #24
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by LorenzoRoyal
    Agreed. to keep a focus on the pedestrian, make it a point for the sidewalks to be wide--around 10 feet. I say that because I don't know how fast traffic moves. However, a wide sidewalk--then a slowing down of traffic--will make for a more walkable mixed use area.
    It is already a very walkable, mixed use area with extremely slow vehicle speeds. The problem is the hideous, suburban enigma smack dab in the middle.

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