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Thread: Why developers laugh (AIB Planning Magazine)

  1. #1
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Why developers laugh (AIB Planning Magazine)

    November's issue of Planning Magazine contained an article, Fixing the Mess We Made (http://www.planning.org/planning/201...ingthemess.htm), accompanied by a before/after image. The original site might very well be a fast food restaurant, given its size, configuration, parking, and drive-thru window. In the "after" image, four new two-story buildings line the street frontage. The design suggests that these are intended to be mixed-use buildings. It all looks very pretty, but is it at all practical? Let's do some math.

    Eleven parking stalls line one frontage (#1). Most communities require a width between 8 and 9 feet, and a depth of perhaps 18 feet. We can be generous and say 10 feet by 20 feet. Additionally, there is a terrace that extends perhaps 10 feet to the sidewalk. The other frontage (#2) is all terrace and appears to be 30 feet wide by 160 feet long. In the "after" image, one building encroaches into a landscaping island at a parking lot entrance on frontage #1, and the building site encroaches into the former driving lane, which has presumably been reduced to one lane. So what do we have for a building site? Frontage #1 is 120 feet long and maybe 40 feet deep. Frontage #2 is 160 feet long and 30 feet deep.

    All four buildings have at least a 5-foot separation from the drive-thru lane. The buildings on frontage #1 also have a 5-foot setback on the street side. This means that the buildings on frontage #1 have a footprint of perhaps 30 feet deep by 50 feet long, and the buildings on frontage #2 measure 25 feet deep by 70 feet long, or 1500 square feet and 1750 square feet respectively.

    Perhaps this might allow for one ground floor office or retail use per building, and two apartments on the upper level. The trouble is, what uses will locate in such small footprints? The McDonald's lot on which all of this is supposed to fit, by comparison, is 3500 square feet. At best we might hope for a Subway and Supercuts - if they can afford the rent on buildings that would be very expensive to construct. But that's not all…

    - What about McDonald's? Who thinks they would want to give up the parking, or would want to have four tall buildings screening them from view of traffic on the bordering roads? Who is going to want to live in the apartments five feet from the drive-thru lane and directly over McDonald's trash bins and kitchen vents?

    - What about parking? An average of 1.5 cars per apartment creates the need for 12 stalls, while each of the four businesses will also bring in customers and employees who need to park. At lunch time, McDonald's likely needs all of the parking it can get, so where do you put an extra 30 vehicles? Ah, I see, the eleven stalls that have been lost were replaced with 7 on-street parking spaces.

    - By the looks of it, this redevelopment concept eliminates between a half and a third of the green space on the site, replacing it with rooftops and concrete. I hope this location never gets any rain, because there is no place for storm water to go. By building out into the landscape areas of the site, it also appears that visibility has been dramatically reduced at the entrances.

    In short, what we have here is a pretty picture that works just great, except for the fact that it is difficult to build economically, difficult to lease, highly objectionable to the owner of the lot, causes traffic and parking problems, is likely to cause flooding, and just generally ignores it surroundings. But it looks good rendered in soft colors.

    Does that mean that we should not (in some cases) encourage redevelopment at higher densities and with a more urban form? No. But the most likely scenario is to level the site and start from scratch. Images like this excite some folks, but mislead them. Developers and others know this, and when they see these images in a plan they tend to dismiss the entire plan. Planners should know better, yet I see this sort of thing far too many times.
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  2. #2
    moderator in moderation Suburb Repairman's avatar
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    That article is a shining example of the need for college professors to educate themselves in the practical aspects of urban planning. I when I got my copy of the magazine and saw those site plans, I could not help but shake my head and laugh. The only way it might work is if a new transit station was built nearby, prompting the entire area to focus more on pedestrian customers. And even then, don't expect a fast-food restaurant to be quick to change a formula that is working at that location and will likely continue to work even if the urban fabric around it changes. As her design appears, you've got a NU redevelopment dropped from the sky into the middle of an auto-centric neighborhood that ignores the economic realities of such developments. It is a noble effort to discuss theoretical aspects of "retrofitting suburbia," but it needs a healthy dose of context & reality. We all know these are good ideas, but how in the hell are we supposed to implement something like that without any consideration of the financial issues. As planners, we have to be able to convince folks to play along not based on just a shiny picture, but moreso on hard financial numbers.

    "Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country."

    - Herman Göring at the Nuremburg trials (thoughts on democracy)

  3. #3
    Cyburbian btrage's avatar
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    I think you're being a little harsh (and I'm generally a cynic), especially since this image is in a vacuum. We have no idea what surrounds it.

    It really depends on how conceptual the plan is. I take it as a concept that a potential developer can use as a template to create their vision. Does it have to look exactly like an image in the plan? No. Does it have to be something that aligns with the vision of the image? Yes.

    As long as the municipality allows the developer to get creative, I see no problem with images such as these being used.
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  4. #4
    Cyburbian stroskey's avatar
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    The point of this particular drawing is not that specif site, but rather with some creativity we can in-fill, make uses more dense, and still keep what is there. Instead of attacking an idea from the start we should be looking at what strengths it has and work from there. You mention McDonald's needs all the parking it can get? When is the last time you saw a full McDonald's lot, full Walmart lot, full strip mall lot, etc.? Developers build parking for the one busiest time of year and 360 days per year half of it sits empty - to me that's what this article is describing. Not this one issue but the fact that in providing for separation of uses planners probably didn't mean uproot trees and pave the land because the day after thanksgiving has a lot of shoppers at one time.

    What are some things that might happen, using this specific case? A reduction in parking and an increase of residents and neighborhood businesses may equate to a higher need to mass transit. Even if people are anti-transit you can still walk when it is this dense.

    Let's look at some others examples of this nature - in the southwest it's pretty dense (may be even more dense than some old New England towns, but those New England towns are walkable, with human-scaled architecture and lots. If we start to fill in some very wide streets with what this article shows and perhaps some landscaped medians we may get to a point where people want to walk around. Sure this article maybe doesn't provide the best examples, but we can't immediately start knocking new ideas because one example is presently poorly.
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  5. #5
    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    I thought a lot of those same things when I saw the article.

    Mickey D's obviously paid a premium to be on a corner. Would they want to be hidden? NO!

    I live in an 800 sq ft home and would have a hard time making the space of any of those units work. It seems odd that you would build a small square footage multi-story in post ADA days. It just would not be economicly feasible.

    So we cut back Mickey D's parking and add density. Will there be that many more trips generated from that tiny building to the Mickey D's to make it cost effective to give up those parking spaces? NO!

    Quite frankly you would be better off bulldozing the site, put the Mickey D's on the first floor corner and build parking and office or housing above it. If you are trying to make the area more dense the last thing you need is to save a drive thru.
    We hope for better things; it will arise from the ashes - Fr Gabriel Richard 1805

  6. #6
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    I absolutely know what you're talking about. But here is the contest from which the images were taken - Reburbia: A Suburban Design Competition

    It's very interesting, but your points about economic feasiblity are vaild and true.

    But I think you are also a bit hyperbolic when you talk about "would the property/business owner want views obstructed, etc".

    The economy of scale is not this this particular hypothetical case's favor, but it doesn't negate the academic/theoretical power of the concept. The Planning article certainly needed to talk more about feasibility, though.

    The think a better example would be doing the same on one of the many "streetcar suburban" areas of many cities/regions (think South Arlington Heights Road in central Arlington Heights, IL) where auto-oriented uses/development form could easily be changed more pedestrian oriented use/development form. This stretch of road is just south of the active pedestrian downtown with a fair amount of suburban density in the surrounding neighborhoods. This type of development form is proper in the right context.

    I don't think you can do this on a typical new suburban property in the outer ring suburban areas.
    Last edited by mendelman; 30 Nov 2010 at 4:01 PM.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

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  7. #7
    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    This is a good topic of discussion, and I also had similar thoughts as most of you. The before/after images turns a auto-centric, single-tenant commercial corner into a pedestrian-inviting main street multi-tenant, retail/office complex. This may be feasible--if--the surrounding neighborhood is also going through densification; there is parking provided somewhere off-site, like a public parking lot; and the adjacent circulation pattern allows for it and supports it. I think this was indeed a poor example to use, especially for APA's magazine, where many practicing planners can pick it apart. I understand it's the idea that counts, but there could have been better examples. A big box store with an overabundance of parking could use a few more pads that front the street. It may not have as much of a voila! effect, but it's more feasible, and wouldn't be automatically dismissed by the development community.

  8. #8
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    I believe that aesthetics and reality bump heads quite often. We can make pretty pictures, but the reality is that most of the sites are not retrofittable. Most areas either need to be bulldozed or left alone. I am all for trying to make existing development more pedestrian friendly and aesthetically pleasing, but I get annoyed when this is thrown out as something that is actually feasible, when in reality it would not only be a political nightmare, but a financially unfeasible one as well.
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

  9. #9
    Cyburbian transguy's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by stroskey View post
    When is the last time you saw a full McDonald's lot, full Walmart lot, full strip mall lot, etc.?
    We have three McDonald's in town. At lunch, every day during the week, two of these stores are completely full and the line to get in backs up onto the public street causing huge safety concerns. These are not new stores, they've been around for 20+ years. I've also noticed that Wal-Marts around here are 80-85% full every Saturday. While I'm not advocating increasing our standards, I am open to particular uses not removing their parking to add more density.
    Much work remains to be done before we can announce our total failure to make any progress.

  10. #10
    maudit anglais
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    Cardinal, you should submit your post as a letter to the editor of Planning Magazine.

  11. #11
    Cyburbian Tide's avatar
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    I've sat through at least 3 presentations this year at conferences regarding "suburban retrofitting" or "fixing the suburbs". What this really amounts to is planner pron.

    DPZ has some decent ideas, I have seen the gas station example and I do believe the strip store could work in a more dense environment, but what they fail to talk about is the chicken and egg of when can you take the parking away? Only when there is dense residential nearby or transit installed, before those two things you will need parking and in almost every example 25-75% of the parking on these sites is removed.

    Now, what the link and article does not show is their suburban subdivision examples of retrofitting. What gets me really going are these examples: http://www.planetizen.com/node/46481 where subdivisions or in one case a regional mall are not what I would consider retrofitted but what I would often do in SimCity4 which is bulldoze and rethink. If this were marketed as sort of the next generation of land use and proposed that way then I think this works, but going into an established neighborhood and installing MF in between rows of SF won't work because the original fabric of the neighborhood isn't built that way, but we could bulldoze and restart right? The mall example is the most appalling to me because there is almost no resemblance between the original picture and the final except maybe the road layout.

    Until we start to see these types of designs and examples as new construction I don't think anyone will be hopping on the train to retrofit existing land uses.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian
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    Agreed for the most part. I'm going to take a moment here to rail against architects (for the record, I am trained as both a planner and an architect, so I feel entitled). Suburbs CAN be fixed for greater sustainability, and with minor infill tweaking.. especially for higher densities and mixed-uses - to great results. You can greatly improve performance and accessibility with minor adjustments many times, and in ways that won't scare stakeholders or break the bank.

    But, no, architects (especially NU architects like DPZ and Calthorpe) consistently want to throw out the baby with the bath water and do massive interventions that'll price everybody out of the market and would never withstand stakeholder engagement in existnig communities. As a result, nothing gets done once stakeholders see their overly bold and aggressive retrofit visions. I've seen this reaction at least half a dozen times. They won't settle for anything less and some of their leading lights have actually been known to throw public temper tantrums (as Duany did in NOLA and Gulfport) if you try to bring them back to reality. It's pretty (sadly) funny.

    The reality is that NU was developed with greenfield development in mind. It is about new product. It is not yet a proven retrofit/infill tool regardless of how many nice transect renderings Duany draws. And as such, it can be pretty scary. I'm not a radical interventionist myself. I don't want to to drastically change existing street grids or tear stuff down. Small is beautiful.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Rygor's avatar
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    Before clicking on the link, I knew EXACTLY which article you were talking about. It was actually written by a former professor of mine, and I'm not surprised. While she was clearly aways on the "Anti-sprawl" and NU bandwagon, she always seemed to ignore market realities, which I now know all too well after having worked in economic development in the real world for nearly a decade (and away from academia). Pretty pictures are great, but I have strong feelings about including them in articles like this geared toward people who make land use decisions (or at least recommendations) or public plans where they often bring about unrealistic expectation amongst a general public that doesn't know better. I feel that if more developers and business people were engaged in the planning process then this would happen far less often. There needs to be classes on the development process, real estate finance and investment, and retail market realities as part of every respectable planning curriculum.
    "When life gives you lemons, just say 'No thanks'." - Henry Rollins

  14. #14
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    I rarely even open the magazine any more, unless I am looking for something contentless to read with the same 5 topics repeated over and over and over again.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian ursus's avatar
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    The point is not that anyone among our ilk thinks these illustrations are anything but illustrations. The problem is with the public presentation. We know as planners that there is much more to retro-fitting the suburban sprawl than how much better it will look as rendered from an aerial 3/4 view. Holy cow, you get over that after your first month on the job in the real world. The problem is communicating that complicated fact to the people (citizens who are angry about this or that, council members who read this stuff, etc.) we serve.

    Articles and renderings like this don't do us any favors when they're done without thinking through the salient points that Cardinal very aptly identified starting the thread. They can be useful as stimulants, but like any drug you want to be careful.
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  16. #16
    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by DetroitPlanner View post
    Quite frankly you would be better off bulldozing the site, put the Mickey D's on the first floor corner and build parking and office or housing above it. If you are trying to make the area more dense the last thing you need is to save a drive thru.
    +1 on both the 2-story McDs and drive-thrus. I won't beat the topic's dead horse anymore.

    I still have nightmares about a client wanting a 4-lane bank drive-thru that took up half the ground level of a site IMMEDIATELY ADJACENT TO A NEW LIGHT RAIL STATION. "We've got a prospective tenant, bank regional HQ, but they need an onsite drive-thru. People will be able to walk across the drive-thru lanes". Argh!

  17. #17
    Cyburbian Plus Whose Yur Planner's avatar
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    Darn it Cardinal, you made me look at the stupid article and tend to blow off the magazine except for the parts that describe the legal cases across the country and the letters to the editors.

    The plan has pretty pictures, but is more than a bit unrealistic. No developer in their right mind would consider the project as presented. Further, Mickey D's would throw an absolute fit. The best approach would be redevelopment by bulldozer and start again. If you wanted higher density, then it would be easier with a clean slate and look at the whole site. Further, depending on the acreage, it would be a tight fit.

    As for the NU stuff, one of my major knocks against it is that it's primarily for greenfield sites. The only way it works for redevelopment, is to take out whole blocks (redevelopment by bulldozer) and start that way. NU has never been what it was originally sold as-high density, mixed use, mixed income.
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  18. #18
    Cyburbian
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    While the scale of the buildings shown might be economically and physically unrealistic there are examples of new buildings being built in front of existing buildings. Below is an example of two new buildngs at the corner of Sheppard Avenue and Parkway Forest Drive (immediately west of Highway 404) in Toronto. The two new street-related mixed-use condominium buildings have recently been completed. They are effectively in the front yard of the two larger apartment buildings from the 1970’s. This development is the type of thing the images in the article are trying to show, but here they are at an economically viable scale. These buildings are very close to the last station on the Sheppard Subway line.


  19. #19
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Tide View post
    ...What gets me really going are these examples: http://www.planetizen.com/node/46481 where subdivisions or in one case a regional mall are not what I would consider retrofitted but what I would often do in SimCity4 which is bulldoze and rethink. If this were marketed as sort of the next generation of land use and proposed that way then I think this works, but going into an established neighborhood and installing MF in between rows of SF won't work because the original fabric of the neighborhood isn't built that way, but we could bulldoze and restart right? The mall example is the most appalling to me because there is almost no resemblance between the original picture and the final except maybe the road layout.
    Actually, much of the mall is still there. It is simply covered by green roofs. They make the picture prettier because people think there is more open space. Never mind that the buildings were not constructed to support the weight of a green roof (hardly a sustainable device in its own right).
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  20. #20
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Howl - that is a great picture, but not really an analogous example to the one Cardinal is talking about.

    I would amazed to hear about an apt. owner/REIT not want the ability to build more density on land they already own and is developed.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    Let's not be didactic in this profession, because that is a path to disillusion and irrelevancy.

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  21. #21
    Cyburbian JimPlans's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Rygor View post
    There needs to be classes on the development process, real estate finance and investment, and retail market realities as part of every respectable planning curriculum.
    Yes * 1000

    Quote Originally posted by ColoGI View post
    I rarely even open the magazine any more, unless I am looking for something contentless to read with the same 5 topics repeated over and over and over again.
    Again, yes.

  22. #22
    Cyburbian
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    I don't have access to the article, but I think I know the illustration in question that depicts a gray-field development, which tightens the on-site parking while, presumably, adding on-street parking, shared parking off-site, and high-quality public transportation, in addition to: a greater density and diversity of surrounding land uses; bicycle and N.E.V. facilities; and, taxis or car sharing. I imagine that the New Urbanists would also recommend that the surrounding throroughfares be calmed in order to be sensitive to the context of this more urban environment.

    While some may advocate simply demolishing whatever is sitting on the restaurant pad because the building is probably cheap construction, retrofitting the existing built environment is necessary because so much of the world now looks like the McDonald's in the "Before" picture and because so many of these buildings have not reached the end of their useful lives. Instantaneously razing whole swaths of the planet is neither feasible nor ecologically-sustainable.

    As to the viability of the McDonald's, if I am not traveling down a highway at 50 miles per hour, I do not necessarily need to see a building that is in the shape of giant golden arches. Simple signs with the Golden Arches are probably sufficient, especially considering that the chain mostly relies on these devices nowadays, anyway, instead of on programmatic architecture. If you'll notice in the gas station example, the signage still fronts the street.

    Moreover, this McDonald's restaurant might be counted among the chain's numerous urban locations that serve pedestrians and cyclists more than motorists. Shifting paradigms, after all, means shifting paradigms.

    Los Angeles, in particular, is full of similar, seemingly-awkward examples where suburban-sprawl development was retrofitted because increasing land values demanded densification. It is messy, but it works.

  23. #23
    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Pragmatic Idealist View post
    Los Angeles, in particular, is full of similar, seemingly-awkward examples where suburban-sprawl development was retrofitted because increasing land values demanded densification. It is messy, but it works.
    Yes, I am seeing the same thing. I also see a lot of industrial-to-multi-residential land use changes... although, I believe there are talks now to better preserve industrial properties as a means to retain jobs.

  24. #24
    Cyburbian ofos's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Rygor View post
    There needs to be classes on the development process, real estate finance and investment, and retail market realities as part of every respectable planning curriculum.
    I don't disagree but I think there would be more value in planning students doing internships with developers so they really understand what's happening on the other side of the counter when they start planning.
    “Death comes when memories of the past exceed the vision for the future.”

  25. #25
    Cyburbian cng's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by ofos View post
    I don't disagree but I think there would be more value in planning students doing internships with developers so they really understand what's happening on the other side of the counter when they start planning.
    Plannning academia needs to encourage more of this. I did take a real estate feasibility class as part of the MCRP program, but it was an elective class. Learned how to prepare pro forma, etc... but the case studies were hypothetical. This is where an internship with a developer would help in applying what's learned in school, as well as permit processing, as seen from the other side.

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