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Playoff Fever: The Downtown Stadium Debate.

11 Jan

If you’re like me you’ll be glued to the TV this weekend to celebrate the NFL playoffs. With a dog in the fight this year, I’m more excited than ever. Paying close attention to the hype my home city is getting leading up to the big home game (first since 2008), I can’t help but think about that unending urban design debate: should stadiums be downtown?

The argument is a simple one: don’t build such a huge structure in the middle of the city that only hosts 8 games a year. At first thought, this seems to be a pretty reasonable argument. NFL stadiums are huge and when it’s not a game day they’re pretty quiet. You could call them Sleeping Giants.

After years of neglect, downtowns are attracting residents and visitors. Employment, entertainment, and tourism have become stronger in cities, and while the number of residents is increasing, 24/7 mixed-use downtowns are still something of the future. I’m a strong believer that any activity is better than no activity. For many people, their NFL team is what connects them to their city more than anything else – why send the team to the suburbs instead of using it as a tool to strengthen the downtown?

The Physical

Downtown stadiums are usually very well planned and in locations least likely to compete against potential development. In Charlotte, Bank of America stadium is nestled at the intersection of the interstate and active freight train line. Even after two decades, there are still numerous redevelopment opportunities downtown that are more attractive than the stadium’s location. The edges of an interstate and train track are dead with no potential to influence human activity. Now a beautiful stadium buffers those edges. While it’s only in full swing 8 times a year for NFL games (in addition to hosting a few other sporting events), it provides a wide sidewalk shaded by mature canopy trees that is sometimes used as a route for pedestrians and cyclists. A space that was once vacant, now hosts a landmark upon arrival to Charlotte’s downtown.

Bank of American Stadium, Charlotte, NC

Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC

Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver is similar. Located at the intersection of two interstates it buffers the surrounding urban fabric. M&T Stadium in Baltimore sits next to the interstate and a waste treatment plant, once again buffering a downtown entertainment district.

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Stadiums in Denver and Baltimore

Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte is especially sensitive to its context. Instead of taking land to build large surface parking lots, it uses existing lots and garages not used on Sundays to meet the parking requirement. It also takes advantage of its location close to light rail and premium transit.

The Financial

When people go to a game, the spend money. At hotels, restaurants, bars, gas stations – everywhere. Undoubtedly it’s better for that money to be spent downtown instead in the suburbs. On particularly big games, like playoff games this weekend or college bowl games it brings immeasurable publicity. It makes the city relevant to the rest of the country and puts it on the map.

In Green Bay, Charlotte, and Baltimore there’s buzz in the press.

The Emotional

There is nothing that pulls at my heartstrings more than sitting in the upper level and seeing my city in such a unique perspective. And I’m not alone. Being able to see your city while your team runs 73 yards for a touchdown undoubtedly can reinforce city pride and emotional connection to place.

Charlotte skyline from Bank of America stadium

Charlotte skyline from Bank of America stadium

View of Seattle skyline from Century Link Field

View of Seattle skyline from Century Link Field

Most importantly, having an NFL stadium downtown gets people in the habit of actually going downtown. Unless they work there, some people choose never to go downtown, instead creating emotional ties with their suburban environment. Hopping on the light rail or spending the day downtown builds relevance for the city with those it might not otherwise reach.

So where will the best parties be this weekend? Fans will leave stadiums in downtown Charlotte, Seattle, and Denver and boost the local economy with some post game celebration. Patriots fans – enjoy leaving this parking lot:

Gillette Stadium Parking Lot

And then sitting here for another hour.

Stadium Traffic

Stadium Traffic

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Sports. Food. Cities.

4 Nov

It’s that time of year: the World Series just wrapped up, NFL and college football are in full swing, and the NBA and college basketball are kicking off. If you’re a sports fan you’re in ESPN heaven. As I was watching my Cardinals fight for glory and my Panthers pound towards the playoffs this past week, I began to think of the importance of sports and food to our cities.

I only spent 4 years in St. Louis. I can make a long list of why I appreciate the city, but only a few of those really pull at my heart-strings and make me LOVE the city. At the top of that list right above the St. Louis Cardinals is Provel cheese, toasted ravioli, and frozen custard. I can assure you that most St. Louisans share that same love list.

st louis food

I don’t often think about these food staples of St. Louis and if you’ve never been, you probably haven’t ever heard of them. But as I was watching the Cardinals on television last week I felt myself yearn for night on the Hill followed by dessert at Ted Drewes. Concurrently, I have never loved St. Louis more.

It turns out I’m not the only one who associates baseball with food. The Missouri governor bet a four-pack of Cardinal Cream Soda from Fitz’s Bottling Company, a box of Bissinger’s Chocolates, and baked goods from the Missouri Baking Company in St. Louis and the Massachusetts governor bet New England Clam Chowder, drinks from Polar Beverages, and baked good from Dancing Deer Bakery and Co. in Boston. Luckily for him, Governor Patrick is enjoying the best cream soda he’ll ever have.

And hey – how many of us love peanuts in the grand stand? There’s just something about sports, food, and the love for our cities.

The characteristics that make us love our cities are ones that touch the core of our humanity: those things that we don’t just enjoy, but need to survive. Peter Kageyama wrote a book called, For the Love of Cities: The Love Affair Between People and Our Places. The main premise of this book is view people and their built environment as a relationship of humanity. Kageyama defines four simple elements that makes a place lovable: play, fun, traditions, and social capital. These elements are at the heart of sports and often revolve around food.

The unplanned moments of our lives are the emotional bedrock of our personal relationships with cities. These often result in playful and fun moments. The unknown of who will knock if out of the park, who will pitch a no-hitter (and if a game will end in an obstruction call!)  makes watching how it all plays out fun!  Also, there is nothing more traditional than playing 7 games of great baseball to determine the glory of being World Champions. And when you’re in play off-season, how many times have you  high-fived someone in the street or talked to a stranger about last night’s game in the line at the grocery store? Sports and food build camaraderie (or social capital) on the streets of every city in this country.

It’s a wonderful feeling when we can connect with the most consumable things that make us love our city. In all the stress of life there is perhaps nothing more centering than cracking open a Bud in Busch Stadium. After all, there’s nothing better than being in love.

 

 

The Tale of Two Targets: Design Principles in Achieving TOD.

18 Feb

Density. For planners and urban designers helping to create transit-oriented developments (TODs), density is the crucial factor in achieving a critical mass for ridership and a mixed-use walkable environment that will entice people out of their cars. In many cases if planners can’t reach that threshold of density than transit is the baby that gets thrown out with the bath water.

Density continues to be extremely important to the success of transit, and in looking at the largest cities in the U.S., residential and employment density correlate strongly with the percentage of transit modal share. But increasingly, physical access and the walkable environment of a TOD are getting face time in the transit debate. Reconnecting America, arguably the organization taking the lead in TOD, highlights street design, public space design, and connectivity to transit as must-dos. Even if the density threshold is met, in many cases if these urban design principles aren’t used in land use planning, premium transit won’t acquire its maximum ridership.

In working on a corridor plan in southeast Florida, I, along with my project team, are thinking extensively how to retrofit the land use design along a large arterial, that for the majority of its length traverses a low density suburban context. Through our short-term and long-term land use recommendations, we hope that it will be retrofitted to provide better access to the public transportation it currently has, as well as be able to easily become a transit-oriented corridor (TOC) in the near future. In preparing this corridor for its birth as a TOC, we are employing four design principles that I would argue are most effective in creating an environment supportive of transit-oriented development: connectivity, enhancements to the public realm, site orientation, and ground floor design and use.

Connectivity

Connectivity is the degree of which streets, roads, and pedestrian routes are joined together. The more connected the street network through a site, the more access and circulation options are provided. If an urban fabric has a high degree of connectivity, it provides many ways for users to navigate their environment and, in the process, reduces the extent to which all travelers must rely on one route.

Increasing the number of multimodal routes that connect with transit-oriented corridors will have many benefits, most notably:

  • alleviate automobile congestion by providing more navigational choices to users to reach destinations more efficiently,
  • allow the corridors to maintain their current width or be narrowed through a road diet to accommodate multimodal forms of transportation , and
  • create a physical environment that is conducive to mixed-use development and increase transit ridership.

Public Realm Enhancements

The “public realm” refers to space that is publicly owned, accessible, and maintained. Design enhancements to the public realm along major corridors provide more appropriate facilities for transit, transit-users, and the mixed-uses supportive of transit. Alterations to the public realm along transit-oriented corridors can include improvements to buffers such as landscaping and lighting, enhancement of pedestrian-dedicated space such as sidewalks, and allowance of space for outdoor commercial activities.

Enhancing the public realm along transit-oriented corridors will have many benefits, most notably:

  • encouraging uses to access transit through direct and efficient routes to station facilities,
  • providing space for station facilities and supporting public space required of premium transit,
  • creating a comfortable environment along the corridor for transit users in between transfers, and
  • creating the active public space required for a healthy mixed-use environment

Site Orientation

Site orientation is how buildings are located on a site in relationship to the public realm. In the past few decades, especially along commercial corridors that are designed-oriented for the automobile, parking lots have taken precedence over the building’s relationship to the street. In more urban environments that were developed before mainstream use of the automobile, buildings are located adjacent to the street and parking is accommodated on the street or by more modest lots the rear of the building.

Traditional site orientation along transit-oriented corridors has many benefits, most notably:

  • creating a sense of enclosure along the street that helps contributes to a comfortable environment for pedestrians,
  • achieving a building height-to-street ratio of at least 6:1 to achieve an urban character along the corridor,
  • allowing the overlooking of public space, which is instrumental in creating safe environments for people, and
  • creating an efficiency in travel for transit users and pedestrians between destinations

Ground Floor Design and Use

Instrumental in creating an urban environment that is conducive to transit-oriented development is an active public realm. Regulating the design and use of the ground floor of buildings adjacent to pedestrian space and transit facilities can have an enormous effect or the safety, comfort ability, and commercial success of the corridor.

Active ground floor spaces can have many benefits, most notably:

  • an overlooked a safe environment for pedestrians and transit users
  • creating an appealing space with a strong identity that attracts people and business, ie: “placemaking”

A co-worker  made the observation that many of the sites that host the low density retail product that we were charged with retrofitting along this corridor often shared the same context, plot size, and density. In our research of the design alternatives for traditional big box sites locally we stumbled across two Targets, one in Tampa and one in Orlando, that illustrate the importance of design principles in development along future transit-oriented corridors.

Target - Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL and Target - Orange Avenue, Orlando, FL

Target – Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa, FL and Target – Orange Avenue, Orlando, FL

The Target located on Dale Mabry Highway and I-275 in Tampa was welcomed by many when it was built in 2005. By building stores adjacent to a multi-story parking deck, the design included three times the amount of parking and stores located on the same site. A higher density of development was certainly achieved. It was a different alternative to the typical suburban development that had been seen for the past 4 decades. In this case, I believe “different” might have been substituted with “good,” and for lack of a better example, even considered “urban.”

Target - Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL

Target – Dale Maybry Highway, Tampa, FL

  1. Connectivity: The site design does not include any streets through the site and therefore the one access road to the north of the shopping center is congested, contributing to traffic along the corridor
  2. Public Realm Enhancements: There is no public realm dedicated to pedestrians or cyclists at all in the development, which encourages car usage
  3. Site Orientation: Instead of orienting the buildings on the site so that the liner building in front of the parking garage fronted the corridor, a surface parking lot and out parcel buildings were placed along the road. The result is a poor quality pedestrian environment with no clear connections to transit
  4. Ground Floor Design and Use: Solid walls bordering circulation space and inactive uses like a parking garage contribute no activity to the public realm and creates an inhospitable walking environment

The Target located on Orange Avenue in Orlando however, achieved the same program and density (even more actually) while addressing its urban context and properly employing the four design principles. The difference in the quality of place and access to the urban corridor is absolutely staggering.

Target - Orange Avenue, Tampa, FL

Target – Orange Avenue, Tampa, FL

  1. Connectivity: The site design includes two north-south and one east-west through-roads that disperse circulation throughout the site and alleviates congestion on the corridor. This also makes the mixed-uses included in the development more accessible to bordering neighborhoods
  2. Public Realm Enhancements: Sidewalks in the development and adjacent to neighborhoods are comfortable for pedestrians. Proper buffering is provided by vegetation and on-street parking
  3. Site Orientation: Instead of placing suburban outparcels along the corridor, buildings are placed directly fronting the sidewalk. While they do not achieve a density desired on a TOD corridor they do create a more urban and walkable character.
  4. Ground Floor Design and Use: Solid walls are avoided where possible. Facades that face the public realm are majority fenestration and provide active uses adjacent to open space.

These two development examples illustrate how important required design standards are in achieving a land use and pattern required of transit-oriented design. While many design principles could be put in place along designated transit-oriented corridors, requiring connectivity, a well-designed public realm, active ground floor uses, and site orientation will achieve a high-quality level of development. The below picture shows from a site planning perspective how easily the higher quality development in Orlando could be achieved on the same site in Tampa.

Dale Maybry, Tampa, FL

Dale Mabry, Tampa, FL

In fact, we realized that this is the case among many Targets, including the one on our corridor in Hollywood, FL.

Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL

Hollywood Blvd, Hollywood, FL

And the Target in my home town of Charlotte.

Charlottetowne Avenue, Charlotte, NC

Charlottetowne Avenue, Charlotte, NC

We need to remember that “different” doesn’t always mean better. And while we are making progress in achieving a higher density and more program on a site, we could make even a bigger difference on many of our future transit-oriented corridors if we are just aware of how cities as close as an hour away are integrating the same big box products. While density certainly lays the foundation for a rich TOD, its optimal success is dependent on the quality of place achieved by traditional urban design.

Holy HOA.

30 Mar

My husband and I recently moved into a great townhouse that is part of a Home Owners Association. It is the first time I’ve ever lived where one of these was present and didn’t really think twice about what it would be like. Of course I’ve always known the purpose of them: to manage communal property and open space while maintaining a pleasant environment. And of course I’ve heard the horror stories of power crazed individuals making people’s lives hell. I’ve never really had a reason to have an opinion, until now. After almost a month in our new home I thought I’d give a quick review.

On Wednesday morning after the first HOA meeting since we’ve lived here, I walked outside to find our small garden flag moved to another position in our small 2 ft. x 5 ft. green space in front of our home. It had been turned 45 degrees so the homeowners across from us wouldn’t have to look at it when they walked out their door. Now instead of using this post as a personal rant (which is tempting, trust me), I thought I would explore HOAs in the context of some urban design principles. That, I think, would be a lot more productive :)

In my opinion, the number one purpose of urban design is to empower people. Building a pleasant and connected environment gives people the greatest amount of choice in accessing their built environment. Making choices in our lives, is by far, the thing that empowers us the most. Deciding whether to take the bus or take the train, instead of having to sit in traffic, should be a choice. Deciding to walk or ride a bike to get a gallon of milk, should be a choice. Being able to afford to live in a neighborhood close to your work and school, should be a choice. Urban designers work everyday to make these real choices for people.

According to Responsive Environments, one of the founding books on urban design, personalization is one of the seven qualities that empower people in their urban context. The ability for people to personalize their own space, can cause them to not only be more committed to maintaining their property, but feel more emotionally connected to their neighborhood and neighbors. It can also enliven the public realm, and be one of the most influential factors in contributing to a neighborhood’s character. When we’re in Chinatown we know it, when we’re in New Orleans’ French Quarter, we know it. When we’re in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side we know it. Residents here have a personality, and they show it. Personalization at its best? Christmas lights.

So, HOAs…

Yes, they have many wonderful qualities I am sure. They probably have a huge role in maintaining higher property values and thwarting those with less than great taste from turning their front yard into “gnomes gone wild“. But in some cases, like mine, they strip people of power. Power to use the 2’x5′ patch in front of their front door to make their house feel like home. When I walked out the door and saw my personal property had been altered, I honestly felt dis-empowered. While I only live in a development of 10 units, my HOA will not have a huge impact on my neighborhood. But when HOAs strictly dictate the house colors, height of fences, and mailbox designs in a development of 4oo houses, that development will suffer for it. Multiply that by thousands, and you have the bland vanilla that is suburbia.

In great defiance and at risk of being equally passive aggressive, I moved my small garden flag back to its 45 degree position – because I refuse to let myself be dis-empowered by my built environment.

The personalization of private property at its best!

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